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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.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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