Immigration is becoming an increasingly heated political issue in Britain. It is seeping into debates over the economy, social welfare spending, the NHS and Britain’s relationship with, and position in Europe, and is inescapable. So much so, that the issue is being touted as one of the most pressing for voters in the oncoming general election. While politicians will spend the next few months outlining their stances, shielding questions and defending their policies, the real drivers of the immigration debate will be, and has been, the media.
The British media has been very influential in both setting the mood and the parameter of the discussion on immigration. Worryingly, the tone is largely negative, and helping foster public perceptions that are much different to the reality. Studies by the Migrant Observatory found that the media usually narrowly focuses on specifics aspects of immigration and type of immigrant. They found that the words “illegal”, “failed” and “sham” are the most common used descriptors for immigrants – and usually in sensationalized headlines. Statistics for inward migration are often prefixed with “influx”, “wave” and “floods”, creating a powerful image of an unstoppable force in motion. While this hyperbole can capture an audience’s attention, it has created a distorted concept of immigration that is from the reality; where legal outweigh illegal immigrants, who are not here primarily for welfare benefits but make a significant economic contribution and add to social cohesion. The media has helped redefine the concept of an immigrant; generally a “low skilled” or “benefit seeking” Eastern European, Middle Eastern or African. Somehow skilled Western European, American or Asian immigrants, who constitute a considerable portion of the total immigrant population, are often given a free pass. There is also very little coverage given to outward migration, which has remained relatively constant, and is often Britons retiring abroad.
It is understandable that such a highly emotive and polarizing subjects makes for interesting copy. It is however, almost always at the sacrifice of reasoned debate that can skillfully examine the complexities of the economic and social consequences. Instead opinionated talking heads and divisive politicians such as Nigel Farage are driving the narrative, with the main political parties playing catch up, waving their increasingly tough immigration policies in hand. Televised discussions on shows such as Question Time and Channel 5’s “The Big British Immigration Row” often descend into a form of political pantomime, where the language becomes more charged, anecdotal and playing to an audience with pre-existing opinions. Regrettably, it seems that a lot of this rhetoric starts to take on a quasi-factual status. All this drowns out the quietest voices in the debate: the immigration community and the moderates.
Not invited to the table, the immigrant population in Britain has been largely reduced to caricatures, statistics or economic units by the media. The human element has all but disappeared. Immigrants’ stories have been simplified into two paradoxical narratives; overburdening social welfare resources and taking up job opportunities. The economic benefits and issue have thus been bypassed as the media resorts to hysteria. The political has been stripped of the personal on the national level. While the public seem be in favour of a reduction of overall levels of immigration, they do seem to possess a much more complex view than what the media suggests. Immigration in practice and immigration in theory seem to be two very different beasts. Once the face behind the statistic becomes familiar, it can reduce the stringency of your views. You may support tighter immigration policies on a national level; but implementing them at a local level causes considerable hesitation. It’s harder to vilify your friend or colleague, as they become a neighbour on your road as part of London’s rich tapestry.
By Hannah Dowling, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.