Bad News for Refugees

by Frances Webber

A new book documents how the media have helped make 'refugee' and 'asylum seeker' dirty words

First published: 26 September, 2013 | Category: Media, Racism

Bad News for Refugees, by Greg Philo, Emma Briant and Pauline Donald. Pluto Press, 2013.

The Glasgow Media Group has acquired a strong reputation for meticulous analysis of the power of the media and its systematic documentation of media bias, for instance in coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Group’s new book, Bad News for Refugees, tackles the creation by the media and politicians of a climate in which ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum’ have become dirty words, synonymous with ‘cheat’, ‘liar’, ‘scrounger’ and of course ‘illegal immigrant’ – and the effect of this wholesale and systematic vilification on settled minority communities as well as on the refugees and asylum seekers themselves. 

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. 

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.

In the press, refused asylum seekers (not offenders) were repeatedly described as being ‘at large’, as if their natural and rightful place was in detention, and for the Express, it was ‘African tribal culture’, with its ‘brutality’, ‘corruption’ and ‘thirst for civil war’, not imperialism or globalisation, which was responsible for emigration from that continent. The Express also attacked the Labour government for its use of mass immigration as ‘a weapon to transform the country into a multi-cultural society’ because of its ‘neurotic loathing for British heritage’.

The second period analysed in depth is June 2011, following the announcement that a backlog of asylum cases had been cleared in what much of the media described as an ‘amnesty’. The press again gave the impression of totally uncontrolled immigration. Although the Mail claimed that the ‘Border Agency’s default setting is to rubber-stamp applications for asylum’, while Andrew Green of Migration Watch, quoted in the Express, said that two-thirds of asylum seekers are rejected, they both managed to reach the same conclusion:: that ‘amnesties’ attract ‘illegals’.  The granting of legal aid to offenders fighting deportation became the ‘human right to sponge off the UK’ in the Mail, while the Express saw immigration as a ‘grotesque form of national suicide’ revealed through the spread of sharia law and of violent gangs. Only the Guardian referred to benefits of immigration, although the problems facing asylum seekers received some sympathetic coverage in three TV interviews and in the broadsheet press.

As a barrister working in this field, I became painfully aware of the impact of this kind of media coverage on decision-makers, including judges. Following the media witch-hunt against immigration judges who allow offenders’ appeals against deportation on human rights grounds, it has become virtually impossible to succeed on appeal, even for those offenders who have been here for most of their lives – the judges don’t want to be ‘named and shamed’.

The media’s impact on settled BME communities, asylum seekers and refugees comes out in the book through ‘focus groups’ and interviews. Many of the focus group participants were highly critical of the media for not telling positive stories and for stirring up racism, and of the government for doing nothing to correct or stop it. British Asians in particular felt their communities destabilised through the fear of immigration raids and racial attacks. One participant described having to emphasise his Glaswegian accent to avoid being mistaken for an asylum seeker. As for the asylum seekers and refugees themselves, their main complaint was of the ignorance and prejudice spread through fabricated stories, and by the failure of the media to describe the reality of asylum seekers’ lives – not just the dangers of the journey and what makes them leave their homes, but also the reality of the asylum process they endure, including the destitution enforced through the work ban, and the fears – of detention, refusal, removal – which force people to go underground. Attitudes formed and informed by hostile media coverage extend from officials whose decisions have the power to make or break lives, to children in school playgrounds.

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.

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.

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. 

Frances Webber is a retired human rights lawyer, vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations and the author of Borderline Justice: the fight for refugee and migrant rightsShe will be appearing with Greg Philo, a co-author of Bad News for Refugees, at the Institute of Race Relations on Thursday 3rd October to talk about media coverage and government policy on asylum issues.

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