Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Pointing the finger - how media coverage of immigration led to Brexit vote and violence on the streets

“Lurid immigration front pages sell papers,” said a fellow journalist, who had just joined the Daily Express City desk. This was many years ago, when the journalist in question responded to my question as to how he could join such a newspaper at a time, when it seemed to be running as many front page asylum scare stories as it could get away with. The response was dispiriting, namely that every time an asylum front page was run, sales increased. The argument was difficult to refute in economic terms but when it comes to the other roles of the media such as to educate and inform, it represented a clear failure.
As a country that has just voted to leave the EU, perhaps primarily on the premise of the need to reduce immigration, it can be argued that Britain has reaped what it has sown. The consequences could be dire for a country that has skill shortages in vital areas and a rapidly ageing population, so needs a significant inflow of migrant labour every year to retain present standards of living. But this positive side of immigration has failed to register in the public consciousness as a result of the way in which the subject has been covered in the media.
Politicians should take some of the responsibility for failing to tell a positive story about the benefits. The government’s own figures show that net migration of 250,000 a year boosts annual GDP by 0.5%. This growth means more jobs, higher tax revenues, more funding for schools and hospitals and a lower deficit. Many of the jobs created over recent years have been done by migrants, with figures from the Office of National Statistics showing that three quarters of employment growth for the year to August 2015 being accounted for by non-UK citizens. So the economic boom, pre Brexit vote, was largely migrant driven.

Migrants tend to be younger, contributing more tax revenue than they consume in public services, and the majority leave before they get older when they would become more reliant.

According to the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, migrants contribute 64% more in taxes than they take out in benefits. A study by University College London found that EU migrants made a net contribution of £20 billion to UK finances between 2000 and 2011

A large part of the migrant population of recent years have been students coming to study. A study for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that since 2011, students had contributed more than £14 billion to the economy. 
Let’s not claim everything is positive. Successive governments allowed migrants from the EU accession countries to come into the UK in the early part of the century with little control. There were no minimum standards of pay, terms or conditions of work, so migrant labour could come in and undercut the indigenous workforce. The failure to set and enforce minimum standards meant that migration effectively became an incomes policy to keep wages down. This bred resentment in many areas of the country.  Revenues being generated from the migrant workforce should have been used for public services, including importantly housing provision.
Nevertheless, the overall effect has surely been positive, a view you won’t have much in our media, determined as it seems to be to present a totally negative view of migration.

So many tabloid papers will put the fact that a migrant has committed some crime up on the front page, sending a subliminal message that migrant equals criminal. There is little balancing good news about net tax revenues, diversity, contributions to our health, education and social services, As a result, many of the readers have a totally negative view of immigrants.

The disconnect was well illustrated during the EU referendum campaign, when BBC home affairs editor Mark Easton got together a group of old and young voters in Eastbourne.  The concern of many in the older group was migration, yet they live in a town where the care homes, hospitals and social services are propped up by migrant labour. 

We've also seen hostility to migrants in areas where few actually live. Clacton elected UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, on that parties anti-migrant ticket, yet levels of migrant workers in that town are low. Comparatively, in London, where many of the migrant workers who come to the UK to live and work, anti-migrant sentiment is lower.

The result of a public debate on immigration driven by a media trying to sell copies has been to poison the public well. The starting point for any public discussion has been the reduction of numbers. Success on migration is apparently to be judged on how many migrants can be stopped.

The Conservative government has not helped matters, setting unachievable targets of cutting migration to the 10,000s, then palpably failing to get anywhere near that target.

The only way migration will decline is if the economy plunges into recession because then there will not be the jobs available in the UK for migrants to come here to do. That is where another one of our media myths kicks in. The misrepresentation of the immigration question has led to a public perception that migrants come here to get benefits. The reality is that most come here to work.

If there is no work because the British economy has bombed then there will be fewer migrants –presumably to the satisfaction of the press .

Those of us who work in the media have to question our role in failing to represent a balanced and informative picture on migration. Newspapers, particularly at the tabloid end of the market, have helped build the anti-migrant atmosphere that exploded following the EU vote to leave. Broadcast media have also played their part, adopting the anti-migrant lexicon for its coverage also. The wobbling lid that has been kept on anti-migrant racism over recent years has blown off revealing a particularly ugly side of society.  Some responsibility for much of the violent racist incidents seen on our streets resides in the editor’s offices.
Now we must repel that anti-migrant racism. One way is to start telling a more positive story about migrants, not the simple lopsided hysterical view that may sell papers but also has pernicious consequences.. It is late to be making these moves, with the racist genie already out of the bottle, but a start has to be made, otherwise we will all be staring into a particularly unpleasant abyss.

*published in British Journalism Review - September 2016

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