A Change in Tone? Media Coverage of Immigration Before and After COVID-19
UK print media coverage of immigration is noted for its hostility and divisiveness. From the cliché that migrants heap unsustainable pressure on public services, to the depiction of asylum seekers fleeing persecution as ‘invaders’, various newspapers possess a seemingly ideological drive to enshroud immigration in a tide of negativity.
Yet when the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip the nation, public opinion towards immigration started to change. The invaluable contributions made by migrants in the fight against the virus became impossible to ignore, and the nation responded with uncharacteristic showings of support. Given the inextricable relationship between public opinion and media discourse, it is necessary to examine the extent to which this shift was reflected in column inches.
The European Context
To fully understand the significance of how coverage has changed in accordance with public opinion, consideration must be given to the international context, in particular the extent to which the British media’s stance on immigration differs from that of its European counterparts.
A UNHCR study of press coverage of the migrant crisis in five different EU countries (Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK and Sweden) found the UK to be the most negative and polarised, with right-wing publications ‘uniquely aggressive’ in their campaigns against refugees and migrants. This is demonstrated by the prevalence of certain themes- the discussion of migrants as a ‘cultural threat’ was the most prevalent in the UK, as was the tendency for the press to link migrants to crime.
Another noticeable finding was the high incidence of articles portraying immigration as a threat to welfare/health systems in the UK press (18.3%), which was much higher than the other countries in the sample (Sweden 11.4%, 7.9% Germany, 7.3% Italy, 6.7% Spain).
Amid this backdrop of internationally-renowned negativity, it is important to investigate how coverage has changed in light of migrants’ celebrated role in combating the most significant public health crisis in peacetime.
As touched upon, pre-COVID-19 media coverage of immigration was characterised by a divisive enmity. Migrants were framed in a plethora of damaging ways, all of which served to further embed the supposed ills of immigration into the public consciousness. Published on 30 September 2019, the following Daily Mail headline in many ways encapsulates the prevailing tone within considerable sections of print media:
‘More homeless migrants arrive at makeshift Park Lane campsite and leave Hyde Park littered with rubbish despite police and Westminster Council's attempts to clear them’
In this example, vulnerable migrants are framed as criminals- the journalist’s deliberate inclusion of the police’s involvement is designed to drive home the association between immigration and illegality. This theme is further developed in the main body of the article, which states that the campsite was littered with ‘drug paraphernalia’.
The prevalence of this trope is mirrored by the research. A 2016 Migration Observatory study found ‘illegal’ to be the third most frequent modifier of ‘immigration’ between 2006 and May 2015, while a 2013 Migration Observatory study found it to be the most common descriptor of all.
Further to this, a study by Statewatch found the ‘villain’ frame- present in the above headline through its insinuation of criminality- to be the most common, appearing in 46% of all articles analysed. More specifically, the headline in question evidences the ‘control’ frame, a subset of the villain frame pertaining to the notion that immigration is too high and out of control.
In light of the seismic shift in opinion that occurred amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one would assume that the media’s coverage of immigration shifted accordingly, particularly in light of the chicken and egg scenario regarding public opinion and media discourse. The reality is somewhat more complex- although a softening in tone did occur, much of the divisive rhetoric is regrettably still present, as evidenced by this Daily Express strapline from 13 December 2020:
‘DESPERATE migrants in Calais are attacking and threatening UK-bound lorry drivers amid fears their task will be harder after we leave the EU single market.’
Interestingly, two different- and contrasting- frames are used simultaneously within the same piece of text. The main point made in the strapline is that migrants are ‘attacking and threatening’ lorry drivers, thus depicting them as aggressors and therefore placing them within the ‘villain’ frame. However, this point is foregrounded by the notion that those doing the attacking are themselves ‘desperate’, indicating an awareness of the harrowing situations that migrants face, and therefore placing them in the ‘victim’ frame.
In many ways, this is emblematic of post-COVID-19 media coverage of the issue- increased consideration is given towards migrants’ circumstances, but this is interlaced with the corrosive coverage that has come to characterise UK print media. It is a paradoxical combination also on display in this Daily Mail headline from 7 November 2020:
‘More migrants risk their lives to cross the Channel just over a week after tragic family were killed when boat capsized off France’
By explicitly stating that asylum seekers ‘risk their lives’ in pursuit of safety, the headline conveys an understanding of the deeply distressing circumstances that are faced. This differs from the oft-recited narrative that asylum seekers are an invasive force attempting to enter the UK to game the welfare system. Having said this, the headline does display a focus on numbers, as evidenced through the use of ‘more’, which corroborates the Migration Observatory’s findings that words conveying the scale of immigration are frequently found across all newspaper types.
Additionally, it conflates migrants and asylum seekers, arguably a calculated move designed to obfuscate the complex and varied factors that drive migration. The aforementioned UNHCR study found this conflation to be incredibly common within the UK articles analysed- ‘coverage regularly conflated asylum seekers and refugees with other categories of migrant via inaccurate labelling’.
Reflecting on the discussed evidence, the tide of anti-migrant hostility in the media is showing some signs of subsiding. The Post-COVID-19 era has seen traditionally right-wing publications display an uncharacteristic understanding of the often distressing circumstances surrounding migration, perhaps the start of a slow evolution towards a more balanced discourse. Having said this, many of the clichéd tropes are still present, suggesting there is still some way to go before events are represented with true accuracy and decency.
Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that provides Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) services.