Why do some members of the electorate feel so irrationally hostile towards immigrants? The answer: a rabid and divisive press that has manufactured an ethnic consensus in which there is very little scope or variety.
The UK political landscape is becoming increasingly divided with debate and reason replaced by tribalism and emotion. Nowhere is this trend better witnessed than in the debate surrounding immigration.
The possibility of ever increasing migration into Britain ensures that immigrants and asylum seekers are highly valued as a newsworthy topic. This coverage is rarely positive however, and is dominated by a discourse that immigrants undermine ‘British culture’, ‘our’ culture; how ‘they’ take our jobs and offer ‘us’ terrorism and disease in return. This narrative is dominant in the mainstream media, with news outlets such as the Express and Daily Mail openly crusading on an anti-immigrant platform.
The press are able to maintain the salience of this negative rhetoric by producing content that is culturally resonant with the British population. They achieve this by constructing a binary opposition that casts migrants as criminals and immoral ‘invaders’, versus the lawful, hardworking and innocent British host society. Other depictions include migrants as dangerous and fearful, who threaten our ‘British values’ and the freedoms we hold dear. The employment of these negative terms by the press to describe immigrants encourages readers to make similar associations.
Another interesting component in the press’s coverage of immigration is its frequent use of language that degrades and dehumanises migrants to this country. By referring to migrants as a ‘swarm’ or a ‘flood’, the press questions their status as human being and subtly suggests that they have not risen above their animal origins; they are less than human. The description of migrants living conditions as a ‘jungle’ epitomises this. Why bother about people who live in a ‘jungle’, who are cast as primitive and uncivilised? Why bother about people who are not like us, civilised citizens in a democracy? This characterisation is unchallenged, and becomes normalised by politicians using similar rhetoric. The most notable instance of this involves former PM David Cameron, and his infamous pledge to get tougher on immigration and “end the swarm of migrants”. The use of this language compares migrants to insects. Not only are insects devoid of human emotions, but they are also disease carriers, pests, and potentially harmful. The press frame immigrants to be considered in the same way.
The effectiveness of the press’s representation of immigrants as threatening, as invasive creatures, is increased by the general uncertainty over the contextual and legal status of immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. It is difficult for the press to challenge refugees from a humanitarian perspective, as refugees have strong legal rights and are worthy of sympathy. It appeals to the public’s basic compassion to help other humans who face persecution or are fleeing from an oppressive regime. The tragic death of Alayn Kurdi – the three year old Syrian refugee found on a Turkish beach after his boat sank in the Mediterranean – illustrates this point.
The strategy is to reclassify refugees as something else. New labels such as ‘asylum seeker’ are applied which changes the eligibility for the status of a refugee. These labels are effective in removing the humanitarian frame, and reinforcing a negative association with asylum seekers. This allows the press and, by extension, the public, to stigmatise and dismiss the needs of asylum seekers in a normalised and acceptable fashion.
It is clear then that a negative portrayal of immigrants is well established in the British press. Themes of invasion and hostility are predominant, fostering a climate of unease, suspicion and resentment towards immigrants. By framing immigration as an ‘us versus them’ issue, the press has created a consensus where its readers are invited and encouraged to view the incomers as a threat. This has culturally resonated with the British population, allowing the press to manufacture an ethnic consensus in which there is very little scope or variety. This offers a partial explanation as to why positive depictions of immigrants – centred on their significant contribution to British society and public services – are less salient. It does not resonate with readers. What can we do to rectify this unjust narrative?
Ideally, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) would adhere to stronger guidelines concerning the demonisation of immigrants. This could be achieved by preventing irrelevant references to an individual’s immigration status in a negative story. This would avoid the generalisation that immigration status is the primary reason behind a person’s negative actions. IPSO could also be more proactive in challenging the press’s emotive rhetoric that has converted editorial opinion into fact. Even with a wealth of data maintaining that immigrants do, in fact, provide a positive contribution to British society, there is a common misconception that they are a burden on public services and the welfare system. These perceptions are based not on figures, but on inaccurate, divisive and unchallenged media portrayals. As long as these negative portrayals continue, along with the ‘us versus them’ mentality that the press adopts, immigrants will continue to be considered in a negative light by the British public.
Joel Wilson-Hunt is a recent politics graduate from the University of Essex and lives in Kent. His research interests include British politics, political communication and migration studies.