Like Gary Barlow and Danish giraffes, the British public is brilliant at making a fuss about things that are fairly trivial. Whilst this national quirk is usually harmless, even endearing (see weather-related conversations), it can sometimes take a nastier and more cynical form. A 2013 YouGov poll found that 57% of the public believe immigration is amongst the top three most important issues facing Britain today. Contrast these results with some actual evidence, and you’ll see how misplaced these worries are. For example, a New Statesman poll found that only 18% of people report immigration as a problem in their area. Moreover, a 2013 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development argued that immigration is actually economically beneficial for Britain.
In spite of this, immigration is routinely a point of political contention, inevitably centred on the public perception of the problem, as opposed to the objective facts. Consider the hysteria brought on by the recent lifting of work restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians, allowing a larger number of citizens to come and work in the UK. Whilst some anticipated a mass exodus from the two countries (with Romania to be inhabited only by tumbleweeds, presumably), the reality was, if anything, the opposite.
Airlines and travel companies reported no change in passengers flying to the UK in January, with the Romanian budget airline, Blue Air, actually reporting a decrease in passengers on UK flights compared with the same period last year. Nevertheless, the alleged threat was still met with political posturing from all sides, including cuts to immigrant welfare by the government, as well as the issuing of new power to councils, enabling them to ban and export migrants caught sleeping rough for up to one year.
A result of this exaggerated attention on immigration is that government policy runs tangential to what would actually benefit the public. Furthermore, it allows immigration to become a disproportionately decisive factor at election time; inevitably at the expense of more important but less in vogue issues, which should be receiving greater political attention. But how much can we blame the political parties for talking about immigration, especially in light of elections?
As we’ve seen it is clearly a concern for the British public – even if it is an irrational one: so what would be the incentive for one party to opt out of such a marketable (and easy) talking point, and furthermore, how well would the electorate receive the charges that their immigration concerns were based on ignorance, or even bigotry? Assuming that political masquerading is a reflection of voter demand, the problem, at least on a pragmatic level, must lie elsewhere.
The problem, or at least a large part of it, lies with the media, and it’s representation of alleged ‘threats’ that sell as stories because they conform to a pre-determined narrative, but aren’t necessarily indicative of the truth. This influence in the Romania/ Bulgaria saga could not be more obvious. Anticipating the foreign deluge that was supposedly going to occur, papers such as the Daily Star warned of immigrant ”crime waves” and the Daily Express, certain that immigrants were only coming over to ‘leach off the system’, ran the headline “Benefit Britain here we come!” Of course, these ghost stories only ever existed in print, but by the time this was established, policies had already been implemented, with the familiar anti-immigration narrative alive and kicking.
But other than highlighting a problem that is fairly well known, what can actually be done to reduce this detrimental influence of the media? Jon Danzig, an investigative journalist, recently wrote a piece entitled “13 reasons why I’m taking the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Commission”, in which he dissects a Mail article containing thirteen lies about the ‘mass immigration’ that was supposed to occur in January this year. For instance, they made the claim that airplane tickets from Romania to the UK were fetching £3000 because demand was so high, when in fact there were still tickets selling for £150 on the day of writing. According to Danzig the Daily Mail breached the code of the Press Complaints Commission including Code 1, article i): “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.”
Danzig’s exercise is more than journalistic indulgence. His case is against the bigotry and confusion such ‘news’ articles help promote. If more people were as vigilantly outspoken, editors might think twice before publishing unfounded scaremongering stories that actually have a socially destructive effect. In turn, this would relieve the pressure on politicians to challenge this huge non-issue, which would allow for much more efficient political discourse no longer mired by misplaced suspicions.
Of course, the press is always going to sensationalise (see the aforementioned Danish giraffes), but there’s a difference between an article such as “9 people you won’t believe exist” (thumbnailed by a picture of a foot with a head) and malicious fabrications intended to create resentment within the general public. The papers need be more aware of this distinction, but crucially, so do we.