Immigration has become one of the most salient topics in the UK public debate. Over the past decade, policymakers and politicians have directed a lot of energy and attention to migration policies, often citing public demand for stronger action to reduce immigration levels or tackle related issues.
Where do the public get their ideas about immigration? One frequently cited source – besides day-to-day contact with immigrants themselves, or what friends and work colleagues might say – is the media. UK media coverage of migration has evolved over the last decade to accommodate an array of profound changes: changing trends in the movement of people; changing governments; changing policies; changing geopolitics; and changing commentators in the debate.
This analysis looks at trends in the language used in newspaper reporting through that period, and considers how these developments relate to the current UK political context. In particular the report identifies six key trends:
A tendency for journalists themselves to play the role of framing problems in the migration debate, rather than simply reporting on others’ (such as politicians,’ think-tanks,’ or academics’) analysis. This highlights the key role played by journalists and media organisations in shaping the UK migration debate.
A tendency to blame politicians for the scale of EU migration, while in discourse about ‘illegal’ immigrants, migrants themselves are often blamed. Economic arguments dominated the discussion of problems related to both EU and illegality.
A sharp increase in the volume of newspaper coverage relating to migration since the election of the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010, particularly after the introduction of measures to reduce net migration in 2011 and 2012.
An apparent change in how immigration is discussed, with a significant decline in discussion of the legal status of migrants and an increase in the focus on the scale of migration from 2009 onwards. This was accompanied by a rise in the relative importance of discussion relating to ‘limiting’ or ‘controlling’ migration since 2010.
A sharp increase in the frequency of discussion of migrants from the EU/Europe after 2013, with a particular spike in 2014 when migrants from Romania and Bulgaria achieved full access to the UK labour market.
A notable change in depictions of refugees between 2006 and 2015, with a sharp increase in references to Syrians coinciding with the escalating Syrian refugee crisis.
The report suggests that press depictions of migrants have focused on concern about high levels of net migration, and particularly EU migration. This numerical focus has eclipsed a waning focus on ‘illegal’ migration and become the leading migration frame in UK national newspapers.
The role of media in shaping public opinion is not clear-cut. It has often been observed that the press is good at setting the agenda – telling readers what to think about – although there is an ongoing debate about the extent to which media coverage either causes or simply reflects the views of its audiences on the topics it discusses.
Immigration, and specifically EU immigration, has clearly emerged as a key factor in the decisions of many people to vote for the UK to leave the European Union. But the significant increase in the profile of EU migration within recent UK media coverage—which has been dominated by a focus on high levels of net migration, and challenges in controlling migration flows – predates the EU referendum debate (the analysis runs until May 2015) and shows that the media was already playing an important role in discussions of the EU and migration in the years leading up to 2016.