newstatesman.com commended at award ceremony

How newstatesman.com was runner up at a prestigious awards ceremony plus a far from quiet American i

A few weeks ago I may have modestly mentioned being nominated for the British Society of Magazine Editor's web editor of the year award.

Well this week my wife, self, magazine deputy editor Sue Matthias and our web developer Dan Coppock trooped along to the Park Lane Hilton to see the gongs doled out.

As it happens we were pipped at the post by the editor of Empire's website but were specially commended which I suppose means we were the runners up.

That's not bad when you think how much dosh all our rivals for the award have to run their websites. We saw the result as a recognition of all the work our small team has put in.

Now in a couple of week's time it will be the first anniversary of our website launch.

You will notice a few changes taking place in the coming months – proof we've no intention of standing still despite our successes.

In the meantime we will continue to publish the usual raft of online content. Next week look out for articles on Chavez, house prices and America's new breed of student radicals plus the usual mix of blogs and news.

Why the irritating burst of energy? Well perhaps because this time last week I'd just got back from a week in Umbria where the sun shone, the temperature hovered around 18 degrees celsius and the olive harvest was getting underway.

It's a beautiful part of the world with a liberal scattering of medieval hilltop towns, fantastic food and great wine.

The Italians can be incredibly hospitable and – clutching a small baby – we were lavished with attention and kindness almost everywhere we went.

Our only error was a day trip to Florence. Even in November it was overrun with the sort of tourist that has to be shepherded everywhere and is only really interested in Michelangelo's David to the extent of being photographed by a famous sculpture.

With that kind of tourist you always get the hustlers. We witnessed the same silly game of cat and mouse between the police and the hawkers of counterfeit goods that I'd seen on my last visit in 1989.

In a restaurant for lunch we met a woman from Virginia who believed Italy and France weren't separate countries, thought Nottingham was in London and whispered – on discovering we were British – 'oh you have those Muslims there'.

Curiously she was very preoccupied with the image Americans have abroad. She felt an injustice had been meted out when her fellow countrymen had been branded loud. "You should hear the Italians talking."

We couldn't, she was drowning them out.

What was intriguing about the conversation was the extent to which she projected her own ignorance on to others.

At one point she started telling us how artists in America struggle to get by. I made some remark about how the Federal government used to pay sculptors and painters under FDR's New Deal.

She replied: "Oh we don't have that anymore."

Well I never.

It was relief to get back to our tiny Umbrian hamlet and watch Midsomer Murders dubbed into Italian. Now do you understand my pain?

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.