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How has press coverage of immigration changed?

The way the UK media reported the immigration debate has shifted over time and is becoming increasingly “dehumanised”.

The British press has been accused of many things in recent years, most of them bad, but how can we measure performance in coverage of a particular subject such as immigration, and how is this changing over time? Surveys have identified significant gaps between perception and reality suggesting the UK public is not very well informed on the topic; content analysis of media coverage has also uncovered problems of accuracy, distortion and use of stereotypes in the language used.

There are concerns about how this will play out in the forthcoming general election. The thinktank British Future recently pleaded for a more “civilised” and “open” debate on immigration that incorporates a broader range of different views.

But to what extent can we establish whether the public debate is actually becoming more narrow or less “civilised”? The research presented here provides some answers to these questions by focusing on the changing quality of coverage on immigration in the UK press, comparing two years (2006 and 2013) when immigration rose to the top of the political agenda. The main issue during these periods was European free movement rules and whether to open up the labour market to citizens from Bulgaria and Romania.

The analysis demonstrates that the way the UK media reported the immigration debate has shifted over time and is becoming increasingly “dehumanised” – dominated by a narrow range of negative arguments with less coverage of any positive aspects. The findings raise fresh concerns over the quality and balance of the public debate over immigration in the UK – a topic expected to be at the forefront of the upcoming 2015 general election.

The study (published in Politics) was conducted by myself and my colleague Ekaterina Balabanova at the University of Liverpool. It included more than 500 articles from six newspapers – both tabloid and broadsheet – representing the political spectrum. The method was a “framing analysis” which sought to establish the range of arguments that were present in the press coverage.

These were divided into communitarian and cosmopolitan “frames”. The former featured arguments defending the maintaining or tightening of immigration controls including, for example, to safeguard public security or to maximise domestic social justice, including the preservation of public goods for citizens. Cosmopolitan “frames”, by contrast, were those where we identified arguments celebrating international mobility and the outcomes of greater levels of diversity, or criticising the ethical basis of contemporary immigration controls on the basis of human rights.

The findings show a dramatic increase in the number of articles and columns covering the topic and a significant shift in the nature of the coverage: the debate narrowed considerably and became much more negative across all of the newspapers in the latter period.


Graph 1: Reduction in cosmopolitan arguments in 2013 compared with 2006


In 2006 there were some “positive” or progressive arguments for less stringent immigration controls in press reports based on cosmopolitan ideas. These were often partially based on an economic case – but there were also some references to the importance of freedom of movement, justifying this on the basis of human rights (24% of total).

By 2013, the tone of coverage was unequivocally negative with the focus across different newspapers being on reasons for greater restriction of immigration. These were dominated by certain types of communitarian arguments, for example, about the threat immigrants posed to public order, the abuse of the welfare system or the pressure this placed on public services (92%). In the latter period there were far fewer articles that included arguments based on cosmopolitan ideas (down to 8% of the total).

The study found a reduction in the range and balance of ideas informing the debate by 2013. Interestingly the main change was due to the supposedly more ‘liberal’ publications converging towards the line normally associated with the right-wing press, namely a focus on domestic social justice and security.

The narrowing of the media coverage has meant narratives that focus on the potentially negative consequences of immigration dominate. As this graph shows – within the category of domestic social justice – the balance shifts away from economic nationalism (immigration controls aimed at benefiting the UK economy) towards welfare chauvinism (immigration controls aimed at protecting public goods).

Graph 2: Shift in balance of arguments within

While it is perhaps unsurprising to see an increase in welfare chauvinism during harder economic times the dehumanised tone of 2013 was quite marked. How did this happen?

Shifting debate

The results of the research confirm a significant shift in the quality of the public debate on the subject in the UK since 2006. Analysis of the findings suggests that seeds for the shift could be linked to earlier political strategies on immigration by the then Labour government.

At the time, decisions to pursue a more expansive labour migration policy were defended on the basis of expert evidence on economic benefits. While this elitist approach created a policy narrative that more closely fitted the reality of increased migration levels it failed to make the case at the human level. Not only were moral or rights-based justifications for free movement ignored, there was a patronising attitude towards public concerns, paving the way for populist parties to take advantage when the economy dipped.

The strategy of the current government to make a pledge over a target for net migration has certainly done little to neutralise negative press. Indeed it seems to have backfired spectacularly – and immigration is now a topic that appears to threaten electoral damage for all three major parties.

The only potential winner at this point seems to be UKIP which campaigns heavily on immigration – particularly free movement in the EU – as part of its aim to secure Britain’s exit from the EU. However, it remains to be seen if UKIP’s policies – and candidates – will stand closer scrutiny as the election nears.

The quality of the media’s coverage of immigration is something we should pay attention to. Ever since the Leveson inquiry, there have been more questions than answers over the performance of the UK press. These relate to deeper issues about integrity and corruption, the role of government regulation and the implications of concentrated patterns of ownership – but in the end we need a press which fulfils its presumed democratic functions: to inform, to scrutinise, to investigate and to hold power to account.

Close scrutiny of the performance of the UK press on immigration adds further to doubts about the role it is playing in providing a platform for an open and vibrant debate. Indeed, over the last 10 years it appears to have been complicit in the narrowing of a discussion that is now characterised by an increasingly negative tone.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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