2+2=5? The Misleading Media Interpretation of Immigration Data

Published: 26 November 2014

Country: UK

by Dafina Halili

ImmigrationFor some of the British media, 2+2 does not always equal 4. The differences in reading the data and statistics related to migration is a chronic problem of the UK press. In the case of the latest study on the economic impact of migration to Britain, published by CReAM, Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College London (UCL), some of the tabloids and conservative press twisted the findings and turned them from positive into negative ones.

The authors of the recent UCL study, Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini, concluded after investigating the fiscal impact of immigration on the UK economy: “Our findings indicate that, when considering the resident immigrant population in each year from 1995 to 2011, immigrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) have made a positive fiscal contribution, even during periods when the UK was running budget deficits, while Non-EEA immigrants, not dissimilar to natives, have made a negative contribution. For immigrants that arrived since 2000, contributions have been positive throughout, and particularly so for immigrants from EEA countries. Notable is the strong positive contribution made by immigrants from countries that joined the EU in 2004.”

The positive conclusion of the CReAM study relating to the contribution of immigrants from EEA to the UK economy, was picked up by the Independent, the Mirror and the Guardian. These newspapers have featured the findings under headlines such as “EU migrants pay MORE tax to government than they receive in benefits” and “UK gains £20bn from European migrants, UCL economists reveal”. On the other hand, and unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail, Express and the Telegraph focused on the negative, and featured as the top headline the negative contribution of non-European immigrants.

For example, under the title “Immigration from outside Europe cost £120 billion”, the Telegraph reported that “the migrants from outside the EEA made a negative contribution to the public purse of £117.9 billion because they consumed more in public expenditure – including NHS costs, welfare hand-outs and education – than they contributed in taxes”. But the figure used to show a negative impact of migrants’ contributions to the UK economy, according to the researchers Dustmann and Frattini, was misleading. Dustmann was even quoted by The Huffington Post saying it was “kind of ridiculous and suggests they really didn’t read our paper”.

The Telegraph and Daily Mail quoted a figure of £120bn as the cost of Non-EU migrants to the public finances. The UCL researchers say that the figure of £118bn from their report does not say anything about how much these migrants cost Britain in net terms. Also the figure includes people who came to Britain in the 1950s and does not take into account their contributions during a major proportion of their residence in the country. “In fact, as they are now older, they are likely to have higher rates of welfare dependency and low labour force participation that does not reflect their overall contributions,” said the authors of the study to the Guardian.

The outright disparity in news reports based on the same research paper is not merely due to different interpretations of technical statistics. This reflects a broader negative stance of some newspapers towards migrants. It is a clear case of cherry picking data to continue an anti-migration narrative to the point that even the authors of the concerned study call such reports “kind of ridiculous”.

The authors of the recent UCL research believe that the discussion should focus on the positive financial contributions made by migrants who arrived in Britain since 2000. According to the press release issued by UCL, the net fiscal contribution of immigrants arriving since 2000 was positive:

  • Ten countries that have joined the EU in 2004 made around a £5bn POSITIVE contribution
  • The rest of the EU made around a £15bn POSITIVE contribution
  • Non-European migrants made around a £5bn POSITIVE contribution and
  • Native UK born residents made around a £617bn NEGATIVE contribution

In the article titled “Why the rightwing press can’t tell the truth about migration”, the Guardian’s Hugh Muir says: “It is just that they have a business model, and one of the constituent parts is fear of The Other. They believe they have a good idea about who the core readership is, and one of the ways they prise a reaction from that readership is through shrieked alerts and cautionary tales about The Other.”

The Media Diversity Institute (MDI) has already warned before that the contradictory reports on the number of immigrants coming to the UK, as well as on their contribution to the British economy and society, damage the possibility for a serious and open public debate, as well as the media’s reputation. It spreads xenophobia and intolerance and it adds to discriminatory and inflammatory language already used in media reports on marginalised groups including migrants.

*photo credit: pedrosimoes7 via photopin cc