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Brexit and discrimination in the UK press

Did British newspapers discriminate against migrants during the EU referendum campaign, ask Martin Moore and Gordon N Ramsay.

By Martin Moore and Gordon N Ramsay

Brexit and discrimination in the UK press

Did parts of the British press discriminate against migrants, or against specific nationalities, during the UK 2016 EU Referendum campaign? If so, then why was there no investigation or sanction on the basis of the code of practice to which most of the press subscribe? These questions have particular relevance given that, following the Referendum, there was an increase in hate crime towards migrants, and East Europeans in particular, which some ascribed to the way the campaign had been conducted, and to media coverage in particular.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) Report on the United Kingdom, published a few months after the Brexit campaign in October 2016, made special note of the role of some newspapers in contributing to a heightened environment of racism, xenophobia and intolerance centred in the debate around immigration and Islam in the UK: “Hate speech in some traditional media, particularly tabloid newspapers, continues to be a problem, with biased or ill-founded information disseminated about vulnerable groups, which may contribute to perpetuating stereotypes.”

“It is no coincidence,” the Chair of the ECRI continued, “that racist violence is on the rise in the UK at the same time as we see worrying examples of intolerance and hate speech in the newspapers, online and even among politicians.”

These accusations ought to be treated seriously, particularly since they appear difficult to reconcile with the large quantity of creditable, serious and valuable journalism published in the UK each day by a wide range of news outlets.

This chapter examines these claims on the basis of the articles themselves. It is based on analysis of every article about the Referendum published across 20 leading national news outlets online during the ten-week official EU referendum campaign (14,779 in total) to assess whether the articles, and the way they were presented, can – either individually or collectively – be shown to have moved beyond hostility to being discriminatory. The analysis focuses on news and opinions about migrants, and about specific nationalities, rather than on migration generally or on migration policy. It has been conducted using software called Steno developed specifically for the purpose of digital news content analysis. Following the analysis of the articles themselves, this chapter assesses whether certain coverage can be considered discriminatory. It does this using three separate definitions of discrimination taken from: the Oxford English Dictionary, the UK Equality Act (2010) and the IPSO Editors’ Code of Practice.

Our research found coverage of immigration was both prominent and voluminous in the national press during the EU Referendum campaign. Over the ten-week campaign, there were a total of 99 front-page leads about immigration across 15 national print newspapers. Over half these front pages were published by three papers: the Daily Express; the Daily Mail; and The Sun. As well as being prominent, there was also a high volume of coverage overall. The 20 national news outlets studied published a total of 4,383 articles online about the EU Referendum mentioning migrants or immigration. Three in every ten articles about the Referendum, therefore, referred to immigration.

Of the 99 front-page leads about immigration and migrants, 88 (89 per cent) presented a negative picture and 11 presented a neutral perspective. No front-page lead about migration presented a positive picture. Many of the negative front pages focused on the migrants themselves. These included, for example: ‘Soaring cost of teaching migrant children’ (Daily Express, 16/5/16); ‘Migrants cost Britain £17bn a year’ (Daily Express, 17/5/16); Brits not fair! 4 in 5 jobs go to foreigners’ (The Sun, 19/05/16); ‘Migrants Spark Housing Crisis’ (Daily Mail, 20/5/16); ‘Record number of jobless EU migrants in Britain’ (Daily Mail, 27/05/16).

In news, features and opinion pieces, migrants were blamed for many of Britain’s economic, social and political ills. Migrants were, for example, blamed for taking primary school places, overwhelming the NHS, putting strains on maternity services, creating a housing crisis, stealing jobs, taking benefits, reducing wages, undermining Britain’s security and increasing criminality.

The language used to describe migrants was frequently analogous to language used to describe the movement of water, insects, or epidemics. Migrants were swarming, swamping, storming, invading, stampeding, flocking, over-running, and besieging the UK. Descriptive words were those one usually associates with natural disasters or catastrophes: bombshell, blow, crisis, chaos, soaring, surge, mayday, floodgates, terror, and meltdown.

Migrants were frequently associated with criminality. In some instances, this association was explicit. The Daily Express, for example, claimed ‘HALF of all rape and murder suspects in some parts of Britain are foreigners’ (23/05/16). The Daily Mail led one of its front pages with ‘EU killers and rapists we’ve failed to deport’, and The Telegraph with ‘European criminals free to live in Britain’. In other instances, the association was implicit. The Daily Mail reported on ‘A rapist protected by police and the neglected mining town in the East Midlands that has turned into Little Poland’. The man they were referring to was Polish.

News articles about individual migrant stories were used as a platform for columnists to generalise about the criminal tendencies of migrants and the damage caused by migration. A news story about an Albanian migrant, Saloman Barci, for example, was used as an illustration of how migrant criminals are given more money and support than British citizens. The Barci case was, Leo McKinstry wrote in the Express, ‘all too typical of our society where the Government neglects the rights of Britons but bends over backwards to support foreigners’. Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail claimed the case ‘highlights the madness of Britain’s lax border controls, insane interpretation of the Yuman Rites [sic] Act and cavalier disregard for taxpayers’ money’.

Though the majority of articles mentioning nationalities did so in passing, where evaluative statements were included these tended overwhelmingly to be negative. Certain nationalities were singled out for particularly negative coverage – most notably Albanians and Turks. During the ten weeks, 90 articles were published in which evaluative statements were made about Albanians. All of these articles presented only negative statements. 111 articles were published in which evaluative statements were made about Turks. 98 per cent of these articles presented only negative statements. Were the UK to remain in the EU, these articles asserted, then millions of Turks and Albanians would flood to Britain, bringing with them organised crime, gang violence and general criminality. It was extremely rare in these articles to find someone from either nationality speaking in their own voice.

Coverage of other nationalities, such as Romanians, Poles and Bulgarians, was also substantially negative, though occasional articles referred to benefits associated with migrants from these countries. Often, these nationalities were stereotyped – Poles as plumbers or builders, Bulgarians as low-skilled or ‘goatherds’. As with Albanians and Turks, other Eastern European nationals were strongly associated with criminality, being called crooks, offenders, lawbreakers, gangsters, murderers, drug dealers, rapists, terrorists, and spongers.

Coverage across all publications was not equal. A small number of publications published a disproportionately high amount of negative coverage of immigration from most of the countries identified, with the Express, Daily Mail and Sun, for example, accounting for 65 per cent of negative statements about Albanians and 73 per cent of those about Turks.

Reflecting public concern and campaign rhetoric?

The news outlets responsible for publishing many of the articles which were highly negative about migrants argued that significant coverage of immigration was necessary, given demonstrably high levels of public concern. This claim is borne out by the monthly Ipsos MORI Issues Index, which shows immigration was one of the top concerns of the public for many months leading up to the Referendum. The amount of coverage, based on public concern, can therefore be justified. This does not, however, explain the overwhelmingly negative tone or the extent to which migrants were blamed for many of Britain’s social and economic problems.

The negative reporting can partly be rationalised as a reflection of claims made by campaigners themselves. Leading Leave campaigners including Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Penny Mordaunt and Iain Duncan Smith all made numerous negative statements about the effects of migration on the UK. These included pejorative claims about Albanians by Michael Gove, and about Turks by Penny Mordaunt.

Yet, these outlets also sought out information on their own initiative, particularly with respect to migrants and crime. ‘Free to walk our streets,’ the Daily Mail reported, ‘1,000 European criminals including rapists and drugs dealers we should have deported when they were released from prison’. ‘Shock revelations British port staff face migrants on a DAILY basis many armed with KNIVES’ the Express reported on 14 June. These stories and others were sourced, quite legitimately, by the newspapers themselves, not from campaign leaders. These same newspapers, however, did not seek out countervailing stories which presented a different or more positive picture of migrants.

Was coverage discriminatory?

Coverage of migrants, particularly of Poles, Albanians, Turks, Bulgarians and Romanians was, as illustrated above, consistently and generally unfavourable in certain news outlets. Whether this coverage was discriminatory, however, depends on the definition used.

Using the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, their coverage was discriminatory. It was consistently unfavourable and made imbalanced and in many cases demonstrably unjust generalisations about categories of people. The OED definition is, however, broad. The Equality Act (2010) has a more detailed definition of discrimination. It defines direct discrimination as ‘treating someone with a protected characteristic less favourably than others’. Protected characteristics include; religion, nationality, ethnic or national origin. Again, however, based on this definition, it would be difficult not to conclude the coverage by the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, and the Sun was discriminatory.

Yet, it is harder to make such a conclusion based on the Editors’ Code of Practice to which these publications subscribe. Clause 12 of the Code of Practice states: ‘The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.’ The reference to an ‘individual’ means an article is not discriminatory unless it identifies a specific person. Articles which denigrate nationalities, whether they be Turkish, Polish or Albanian, do not count as discriminatory. Moreover, unlike the Equality Act, the Code of Practice does not include nationality, ethnic or national origin.

This may be why, since it was set up in September 2014 until February 2017, the self-regulatory body which oversees these publications – IPSO – had upheld only one complaint on the grounds of discrimination. This was an individual complaint from Emily Brothers made about transgender discrimination by the Sun. In a general complaint brought against a paper for discrimination against migrants in July 2016, IPSO recorded ‘the newspaper [the Daily Express] noted that the complainant had not alleged discrimination towards any individual on the basis of any of the characteristics protected by Clause 12. As such Clause 12 was not engaged’.

It is hard to see when the Code could identify discrimination of nationalities or minority groups. Indeed, arguably the Code gives license to general discrimination by explicitly excluding it from its definition. News outlets know if they do not refer to an individual, then they cannot be accused of discrimination under the Code. There is therefore nothing to stop news outlets publishing articles that – by most definitions – are discriminatory against migrants, nationalities, ethnic groups and religious minorities, knowing they will not breach their own code.

This article is an abridged version of a chapter from the recently published book Brexit, Trump and the Media, edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy, Richard Tait.

Published by: Abramis

ISBN: 9781845497095.

The book can be purchased on Amazon.