Frances Webber, author of Borderline Justice: the fight for refugee and migrant rights, has written a review of Bad News for Refugees by Greg Philo, Emma Briant and Pauline Donald for the New Left Project.
The review starts by outlining Bad News for Refugees‘ structure:
The authors set out eight themes around which stories around asylum are or may be framed. Five of these ‘frames’ are negative: conflating asylum seekers and illegal immigrants or economic migrants; exaggerating numbers; representing asylum seekers and refugees as a burden on the welfare system and the job market; associating asylum seekers with insecurity, criminality and terrorism; and making the case for stronger controls and more deportation. Three aim to look at the subject differently: the benefits of immigration; the problems faced by asylum seekers; and the contribution of global capitalism and imperialism to the creation of refugees. These frameworks established, the book’s remaining chapters analyse media (TV and national press) coverage with reference to them, over two specific time periods.
Webber then details the portion of the book which covers the negative representation of immigrants in the media:
The first period covered three days in May 2006 a week or so after the resignation of Charles Clarke as home secretary over the ‘foreign prisoners’ scandal (when the press revealed that around a thousand foreign offenders had been released at the end of their sentences without consideration of whether they should be deported). In the coverage analysed, only three of 99 quoted statements were from refugees or asylum seekers. Of the 81 politicians’ statements quoted, only two were positive. Much of the TV coverage conflated refugees and ‘illegal immigrants’ and in the press, the term ‘illegal immigrant’ was used 90 times in 34 articles. BBC2’s Newsnight came out as badly as the red-top press. One programme claimed that over half the world’s 191 million migrants came to ten countries, including the UK, giving the impression that over nine million people came to the UK, and presenters spoke of the UK as a ‘magnet’ because of its generous welfare benefits and ‘free labour laws’. Journalists pressed ministers in the programme’s lazy hectoring house style to say whether they had met their deportation targets, with no critical thought about the nature and desirability of the targets, and a former immigration officer interviewed on the programme was ‘certain’ that there were ‘millions’ of illegal immigrants in the country.
She then praises the interviews with journalists, who tell of the pressure they face when writing about immigrants:
Some of the most revealing interviews are with journalists themselves, describing the pressures young journalists in particular face to remove positive material from their stories, or to ‘monster an asylum seeker’. One who refused was given no stories other than negative asylum stories until she resigned. It would be interesting to find out what support the NUJ gives members who are under this kind of pressure.
The most significant part of the book, Webber says, is the discussion of the collusion of politics and the media:
Perhaps the most important aspect is the collusion of politicians and media, reflected in the preponderance of politicians in the views propagated on the small screen and in print, and laid bare in the £400,000 paid by the Home Office to the production company which made the UK Border Force series for Sky TV (and its subsequent repayment as the spotlight fell briefly on this collusion during the Leveson inquiry). For the most part, the national media (the local press consistently comes out better in this study, with more positive stories whose focus is integration and success) operate as a propaganda machine for government, but the right-wing bias of most of the press asserts itself against any perceived laxity in government. It will be interesting to see how, if at all, this relationship changes post-Leveson.
In her conclusion, she talks of the importance of the book’s depth:
Most of those who will read this book will be aware of the relentlessly negative coverage of asylum issues by most of the national media for at least the past two decades. Where the book excels is in providing systematic, in-depth analysis which activists can use to demonstrate how such coverage effectively manufactures ‘public opinion’, which is used to justify more and more draconian treatment of asylum seekers.
To read the article in full, click here.
Greg Philo and Frances Webber will be appearing at the Institute of Race Relations on Thursday 3rd October. Click here to read more and buy tickets.
“There is no person better equipped to write on one of the most pressing moral and political concerns of our times than Frances Webber. She writes with the authority of a legal expert who for thirty years has represented migrants and asylum seekers. Her new book raises questions for all concerned with the preservation of a truly democratic and humane society in which the endangered stranger to whom we owe nothing turns to us for protection and the right to life.”
Helen Bamber OBE
“This is an enormously important book that documents with meticulous scholarship the way in which immigrants have been stigmatised by the British media. It offers a compelling analysis of what is omitted from media accounts, which voices are left unheard, how simplifications and stereotypes are generated, and the consequences of this prejudiced reporting for immigrant communities who feel themselves to be under constant attack.”
Professor James Curran, Goldsmiths, University of London