Maybe we are a bunch of Little Britons

Have the tabloids made us less tolerant of immigration, or are they simply reflecting their readers’

The "'Transatlantic Trends" report appears to reveal that Brits are more worried about immigration than any other country surveyed – worse than five other nations with more immigrants in their population, says the BBC's Mark Easton.

What could be responsible? Is it because we're an island nation, fearful of "contamination" or "invasion" from overseas, without the free flow of people provided by a land border? There is no comparison in the figures with a similar island, so it's hard to be sure. According to the Financial Times (link requires registration), as reported by Primly Stable, "Immigration experts blame this on the hostility to foreign newcomers espoused by many British newspapers and the fact that the arrivals from eastern Europe rose so rapidly during the middle of the last decade."

It's tempting, as one of those bloggers who has written so much about the anti-immigration language and stories of the tabloid press down the years, to conclude that Brits are more worried about immigration than we should be because we're told to be more worried than we should be.

Certainly, headlines such as "Keep out, Britain is full up" (Daily Express, in an uncanny parallel of the BNP slogan "Britain is full up"), "Migrants take all new jobs in Britain" (Daily Express), "White men to face jobs ban" (Daily Express), "Asylum – you're right to worry" (Daily Mail), "They've stolen all our jobs" (Daily Star), "One in five Britons will be ethnics" (Daily Express), "Muslim schools ban our culture" (Daily Express), "Bombers are all spongeing asylum-seekers" (Daily Express) and "Strangers in our own country" (Daily Express) would appear to lead to that conclusion.

There are also somewhat misleading stories about race, ethnicity and immigration that pop up almost daily in the tabloid press. Just this week we have seen the Express's story about the ethnicity of doctors, shown by Full Fact to be not the whole picture by any means; and anti-war politicians labelled as "Muslims" rather than anti-war by the Daily Mail when they refused to give a standing ovation to a British soldier (but called him a "hero" nevertheless), as reported by Angry Mob.

It's tempting to see all of this going on and conclude that it's the angry, scaremongering language of the tabloids ramping up the fear factor when it comes to immigration – but that doesn't mean that the screamsheets are the only ones tainting the issue, or that they are the main agents responsible for what appears at first glance to be a rather intolerant, angry Britain depicted in the Transatlantic Trends survey.

For one thing, it's not just newspapers doing this: our politicians of all hues are more than capable of using dog-whistles such as "British jobs for British workers", linking "crime and immigration" in election manifestos and demanding impractical immigration caps as a red line during coalition negotiations, for example. It's not just the odious BNP, and their vile little cousin the EDL, who are doing the yapping about immigration.

For another, it may simply be the case that we are more anti-immigration in this country than liberals like me might like to think; and that politicians and tabloids alike, rather than driving the people, are being driven by them. I'd like to hope not, and I prefer to think of this country as a warm, welcoming, rich and diverse place to live – but it would be wrong to rule out the idea that we're Little Britons who want to pull up the drawbridge. Maybe a lot of us are.

Mark Easton's conclusion is a little more hopeful: he says that Brits are more confused than anything else and we think immigration is a lot more of a problem than it really is. If that's the case, then the language and tone of some newspapers when it comes to immigration can hardly help, particularly when they don't give the full picture. Even if they are reflecting the views of their readerships rather than defining them, and simply confirming the prejudices that already exist, newspapers aren't helping people see the full picture – which is surely what they should be there for.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA