New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Election 2024
10 May 2017

The 12 ways the media turned Brexit into an attack on immigration

Respectable Leave voters claim Brexit wasn’t just about immigration. The media coverage suggests it was.

By Katherine fidler

“Leave campaigners and partisan news outlets strongly protested against accusations that their focus on immigration was prejudiced or intolerant. Yet, based on most definitions, it is hard not to find their claims and coverage discriminatory.”

So reports a study by King’s College London into media coverage of the EU referendum released today, which confirms what many people have long suspected. Leave-supporting newspapers used the deathly spectre of unlimited immigration as their best ploy to ensure victory.

It worked, and here’s how.

1. Tell a big enough lie

“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” Adolf Hitler’s theory seemed confirmed by the negative media coverage of EU immigration during the ten week period running up to the 23 June 2016 referendum.

The 20 news outlets analysed in the study* published 14,779 articles relating to the referendum during those ten weeks, of which 4,383 covered the topic of immigration (during this time there were a further 1,117 articles covering immigration without specifically referring to the referendum). The concentration of coverage also increased dramatically as the vote neared, rising from 205 articles in week one to 948 in week 10.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

While the 4,383 figure covers both positive and negative coverage, further analysis shows coverage was overwhelmingly negative.

2. And put it on the front cover

During those ten weeks there were 99 front-page leads on the subject of immigration. Just four papers were responsible for 75 of those – the Daily Express (21), Daily Mail (20), Daily Telegraph (21) and the Sun (13).

3. It’s the economy, stupid you racist

Despite this plethora of anti-immigration front pages, the most common subject of a referendum-related story was the economy. These numbered 7,028. That sure is a lot of non-racist, unbiased, financially sound reporting.

But wait – of those 7,028 articles, four in ten also referred to immigration. Examples include the 234 articles claiming EU migration was responsible for financial pressures on public services. However, they didn’t always balance the cost of immigration with the benefits, such as this front page Express story in which it reported migrants cost the NHS £18.6bn, but failed to acknowledge the 127,000 EU nationals currently working within the health service.

4. Remainers didn’t remoan enough

Remain leaders and Remain-supporting publications didn’t do enough to dispel the stories bandied around by Leavers. The report notes that while the Remainer media did criticise such claims on immigration, it did so “without making a positive case for current immigration policy or its impact on the economy and public services”.

While Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were among those to put forward positive cases for immigration, they didn’t have the same reach as negative stories, and were also reported “with incredulity”.

For example, a story by the Daily Mail headlined “Corbyn insists immigration is a GOOD thing and claims it’s the Government’s fault…” ended with comments from Nigel Farage dismissing the argument. That would be deemed balanced journalism, if only the former Ukip leader always received the same treatment

5. A non-politician was the centre of attention

Almost a quarter of all articles referencing immigration also mentioned Brexit hero Nigel Farage (1,042), while 984 articles on the economy did the same. That’s Nigel Farage, then leader of a party with one MP (which had fallen to zero before Parliament was dissolved).

However, Farage’s repeated claims of the damage inflicted on Britain by immigration, coupled with a sustained attack on ‘the political establishment’ reinforced key elements of the Leave effort, which as mentioned above, were not always rebutted sufficiently.

6. For immigrants, put criminals

Numerous Leave-supporting papers, including the Daily Mail and Daily Express, initiated their own claims when it came to imminent immigration apocalypse, and many of these focused on the idea that THEY’RE ALL CRIMINALS. Each and every one. Even the children – and not in a cute, acceptable, British way like one of Fagin’s gang. No, they’re out to ruin our own children’s live by stealing their school places.

Newspaper headlines included: “Free to walk our streets, 1,000 European criminals including rapists and drugs dealers we should have deported when they were released from prison”, “More than 30,000 Europeans a year are arrested in London: 80 people a day are held as Brexit campaigners say staying in the EU would put huge pressure on prisons” and “HALF of all rape and murder suspects in some parts of Britain are foreigners”.

The last, from the Daily Express, is perhaps the best. It notes “in areas largely unaffected by immigration, such as Cumbria and North Wales, no one charged with rape or murder was born overseas”. Which is criminally bad logic.

It also adds “in London, detectives charged 34 overseas nationals with murder and 186 with rape”. It fails to mention that in the same time, 5,593 rapes were reported in the capital, and also neglects to clarify how many of those who were charged went on to be convicted.

7. If crime doesn’t pay – benefits do

That’s right, if they’re not stealing our TVs, they’re stealing our benefits. I mean, there aren’t actually any solid statistics showing whether migrants put more into the benefits system than they take out, so the media can say what it likes really, right?

The Express claimed that “The average family of unskilled migrants costs the UK £30,000 a year – once tax, public service use and benefit payments are taken into account”, but the report notes “It did not balance this with research, by UCL, that migrants economically benefit the UK, or with research that concluded it was very difficult to establish how immigrants affect public finances”.

8. Lies, damn lies and… that’s all really

Is a lack of evidence the same as an outright lie? That’s your call, but in some cases Leave-supporting papers weren’t just a bit fast and loose with the truth, they downright ignored it.

Top of the table is The Sun’s claim that four in five jobs in Britain had gone to those pesky foreigners in the past year.

They hadn’t, and the paper later issued a correction.

Not on the front page though.

9. A picture tells a thousand lies

Poor old Getty. They take an innocent-looking photo of some children in a classroom, and before you know it, it becomes a symbol in the fight against immigration. IF WE DO NOT HALT IMMIGRATION THESE CHILDREN WILL BE FORCED ONTO THE STREETS.

Using stock pictures is nothing new, nor is questionable juxtaposition, but the report noted:

“The use of stock photographs, the splicing together of stock images of full classrooms with images of huge lines of migrants, and the use of emotive photographs out of context, illustrate the degree to which these news outlets sought to lead their readers to conclude that a ‘tidal wave’ of migrants was on its way to Britain, about to overwhelm Britain’s already strained public services, amongst whom were numerous violent and aggressive criminals.”

Other examples included a photo of man holding a gun standing over the body of another used by The Express to illustrate the story “Foreign criminals commit nearly 20 per cent of crime in the UK”, while the Daily Mail used a photo of four people around a park bench who appear to be homeless to accompany a story on jobless migrants – with no indication in the caption as to whether they are in fact migrants or jobless.

10. It’s only words

“Crisis”, “out of control”, “soaring”, “spiraling”, “rampant”, “intolerable”, “swarming”, “swamping”, “invading”, “stampeding”, “besieging”, “collapsing”, “bombshell”, “killers and rapists”, “plot”, “fears”, “mauling”, “deception”, “chaos”, “floodgates”, “terror”, “meltdown”, and “criminals” were all used repeatedly to strike fear into the hearts of Leave voters.

Analysis of the vocabulary used by Leave-supporting outlets showed they frequently co-opted language more associated with natural disasters, epidemics or catastrophe. A front page headline of “invaders” doesn’t really leave much to the imagination…

11. The Turks are coming!

A common theme – and the most frequently-mentioned country – in negative immigration stories was Turkey, and the millions of Turkish migrants queuing at Calais. If they were to become part of the EU. Which was unlikely before the referendum – even more so now.

The second biggest migrant threat according to the media were all those Albanians. Incidentally, ALBANIA IS ALSO NOT IN THE EU. Yes, it is a potential candidate for accession. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be flooded with Albanians if the country joins.

Remember on 1 January 2014, when the border was opened to Romanian and Bulgarian migrants? And the lone migrant met by Keith Vaz? What a welcome.

12. You say potato

No, not the ones left to rot because there’s no one to pack them once we kick all the migrants out.

The potato/potato conundrum (which clearly doesn’t work in text form) cropped up in media coverage of the referendum when it was noted that “migrant” became interchangeable with “refugee” or “asylum seeker”. To be fair, there hasn’t been much sympathy towards refugees in some parts of the media anyway (that’s right Katie Hopkins, we’re looking at you) but by removing the element of humanity and implying they’re just here to take our jobs, steal our benefits, crush our NHS, steal our school places, compound the housing crisis, depress our wages, put British firms out of business, smuggle weapons, increase traffic congestion, take up all the prison spaces reserved for white British criminals, destroy British social solidarity, threaten green-belt land, bring diseases in, kill us and, apparently, get cheaper weddings [and breath . . . ] it’s much easier to paint them as the biggest problem with EU membership.

Which Leave supporters did.

And it worked.

*(BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky News, the Daily Mail (including Mail on Sunday), the Daily Mirror (including the Sunday People), the Daily Express (including the Sunday Express), the Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday, the Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Guardian and Observer, the Times (including the Sunday Times), the Independent, the Sun (including the Sun on Sunday), the Economist, The New Statesman, the Spectator, Buzzfeed UK, Huffington Post UK and Vice UK).

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy