There are few subjects that seem to consistently vex the British press like migration. Conversely, there are few subjects that seem to consistently vex migration scholars like the British press.

But the British press, like migration, is a messy and complicated subject. This short piece is designed to give an insight into the factors that make the British press so antipathetic to migration, and to help migration scholars to deal with the country’s pugnacious media more effectively.

Let’s start with a facile truism: a free press is a necessity for any real democracy. Voters must be informed about current events and developments; institutions must be scrutinised; public servants taken to task on their decisions and people’s rights protected and championed – and this must be undertaken without onerous interference from the institutions or the public servants who face criticism.

These noble ideals can seem a million miles away from the regular outpourings of celebrity scandal and ill-informed, ideologically-charged rants that often seem to dominate the British news media, particularly newspapers.The problem occurs because a free press comes at a price; that price is the abuse of the freedom of the press.

Anyone who reads newspapers in the UK will know that many of the headlines and images associated with immigration are designed to shock and anger. The Migration Observatory’s recent empirical media analysis showed that immigrants are generally framed by negative language – most commonly, as ‘illegal’ – and words associated with migration tend to highlight the costs, pressures and risks associated with immigration (Allen and Blinder, 2013).

The appetite of many sections of the British press for anti-immigration stories is seen by some migration scholars as disingenuous, even egregious. The subject was discussed by the Leveson Inquiry into media standards, and is the subject of considerable discussion on social media.

But the approach taken by the press to migration is a largely inescapable consequence of the business considerations of media organisations, so understanding the motives and approaches of these organisations in dealing with the subject is valuable.

Most news organisations (terrestrial broadcasters aside) don’t have any responsibility to be balanced in their coverage of any issue. They are businesses, not public servants, and their primary responsibility is to sell their content effectively enough to keep the business functioning, and to make a profit.

For a newspaper, this means understanding who buys your product and what they want, giving it to them, and building a relationship where they like and trust the content that you provide. This segmentation of the market means that if newspapers are selling their products to people who are likely to be broadly opposed to immigration they are not going to start challenging their readers’ views.

Instead, they will try to tell their readers what they want to hear, and to help those readers feel that their positions are justified and sensible. Of course, it’s never quite that simple – in order to be ‘trusted’ they will also have to make some (at least cursory) efforts to present counter arguments, and to present some of the shades of grey.

But there is a basic business case for anti-immigration news content. Repeated surveys, including that of the Migration Observatory, have shown that, for decades, a majority of British people have been concerned about levels of immigration (Blinder et al., 2011). So stories that dwell on the negative aspects of immigration are more likely to resonate with readers than stories that push the positive ones.

Of course there are also media outlets that champion liberal policies, but like the anti-immigration ones, they are presenting what will be appealing to their readers. The Financial Times takes a liberal line on immigration because business leaders tend to see immigration as a key tool in a global free market; The Guardian does so because its readers – such as teachers and university staff – are often concerned about human rights.

Reinforcing your relationship with your readers (or viewers/users) is key for media outlets. Bringing them together as a campaigning community allows news outlets to do this effectively. With a campaign to rally behind, this community can feel it is on the side of the angels, battling for righteous goals against a tide of villains and enemies – those who oppose the world view that you (encouraged by your newspaper of choice) espouse.

In one section of the press, these ‘villains’ are often immigrants, but they are also often the opposing media and political camps. For the right wing media this often means wooly-minded ‘Guardianistas’; or the polenta-eating Islington élites of the Labour Party who ‘opened the floodgates’; or the EU apologists of the Lib Dems.

But it cuts both ways: on the other side the ‘villains’ are painted just as cartoonishly. Migrants may be broadly seen as victims, but their place as villains is replaced by the small minded ‘little Englander’. ‘Mail readers’ take the place of ‘Guardianistas’ as a shorthand for people who read the wrong newspapers, and the Labour Party and Lib Dems are replaced as the political bad guys by boorish, fox-hunting old Etonian Conservatives and the middle-management radicals of UKIP.

Anti-immigration media outweighs the pro-(or at least ‘non-anti’) immigration media by a substantial margin because more British people are concerned about levels of migration than not, so it makes business sense for more of the press to capitalise on it.

Will this change? It’s pretty hard to see how, at least in the immediate future, but any migration scholars interested in participating in the media debate on immigration in the UK need to acknowledge the nature of the market and work with it rather than against it.

‘Working with it’ means thinking about the needs, concerns and lives of the people who buy and use different types of media, rather than trying to pander to what you think a journalist or newspaper might want. The uncomfortable truth is that the concerns may well differ greatly from your own, but if you can acknowledge and anticipate them, you may well find that parts of the media that you may otherwise have avoided can be, if not an ally, then at least less of an adversary.

References

Allen, W. and Blinder, S. (2013) ‘Migration in the News: Portrayals of Immigrants, Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees in National British Newspapers, 2010 to 2012’, Migration Observatory report, COMPAS, University of Oxford.

Blinder, S. et al. (2011) ‘Thinking Behind the Numbers: Understanding Public Opinion on Immigration in Britain’, Migration Observatory report, COMPAS, University of Oxford.

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