Why Starmer’s bid for press applause on migration diminishes us all

By Milica Pesic, Media Diversity Institute Executive Director

With immigration a key election issue, leaders’ pledges can affect public opinion and social cohesion, what they say matters. So, are they being responsible? And how should we regard the role of the media when it comes to amplifying views that increase divisions and discrimination?

Keir Starmer’s promise to the Sun that a Labour government would “make sure British businesses are helped to hire Brits first” received plenty of press attention, but it may have the effect of increasing the public’s hackles around immigration. That’s  what a recent study by the European Journal of Political Research of how news headlines affect public opinion suggests.

“The public consider immigration more important than other policy-related issues when there is an increase in the volume of news and more political claims on the topic in the media,” it found.

On one level, this is a statement of the obvious. We depend on media to know when the weather will be bad, the shops closed, or the roads clogged with traffic. But we also depend on it to know where wars, crime or terror could threaten us, which countries are becoming unstable, and how we should read the runes.

That’s why press coverage has had “agenda-setting effects” in politicising immigration as the European Journal of Political Research study put it.

Not all broadsheets have the same editorial standards and even tabloid agendas – often set by billionaire press barons with anti-migrant legacies stretching back to the 1930s – can themselves be influenced by power.

Media framing of the migration debates

The Conservatives election victory in 2010, was followed by a sharp increase in press stories about migrants (particularly from eastern Europe) and about “limiting” or “controlling” immigration. It was also accompanied by a tendency for journalists to frame – rather than report – the migration debates themselves, researchers found.

In the run up to the 2015 election, another survey found that 46% of UK newspaper stories depicted migrants as villains, 38% framed them as passive victims, and only 10% as a benefit to society. 

As UNESCO noted, “media framing and priming of refugees’ matters greatly affects public perception.”

Former Labour leader Ed Milliband’s disastrous attempt to get ahead of the curve with a Labour Party “controls on immigration” mug in 2015 illustrated plainly why the left never benefits from attempts to play this race-based election game: appropriating far right discourse benefits the far right.   

This is also why the bid in the Labour Party’s new manifesto to hit on immigration will sooner or later backfire. The programme complains that the number of failed asylum seekers deported under the Tories has fallen by 50% and sends air kisses to the tabloids with promises to “smash the criminal [migrant] gangs by using counter-terror style tactics”.

The governing blueprint pledges more immigration police, more convictions of refugee smugglers, and more deportations. A Labour government will “destroy the evil business model of human trafficking,” it says. A great soundbite for tomorrow’s headlines; but less so in a few years’ time.

In the Sun, Starmer eviscerated “sky-high” migration, warning: “Read my lips – I will bring immigration numbers down,” a bromide apparently aimed at credulous Red Wall voters.

Under Labour, businesses that requested foreign work visas would first have to show that they had trained British workers to do the same jobs, Starmer said, adding: “I’m not going to duck the challenge. [Immigration has] got to come down.”

The unnecessary pitch for the anti-foreigner vote

In the absence of proposals to make asylum claims from abroad easier, or to increase avenues for legal migration, it is hard to see how repressive measures alone will lower illegal immigration.   

The danger is not that the far right will win this election but that their prognosis of problems and solutions – mediated by a distorted press conveyor belt – will emerge from it strengthened, confirmed and ready for future battles. Battles that Starmer, and others may only win with ever more inhumane measures enabled by the logic of this Dutch auction on policy. Significantly, Starmer’s counter-terror paradigm for discussing migration comes from a playbook well-thumbed by far-right leaders such as  Orban and Meloni.   

The pitch for the anti-foreigner vote is all the more unnecessary because, as well as hurting the most vulnerable people in the UK and spurring racism, it is also bad for businesses. Jobs and GDP in the UK have been boosted by migration in recent years, according to the latest OECD outlook, released last month. Higher immigration was accompanied by the creation of more jobs here, it found.

The narrative of diversity

There are plenty of positive stories that could be told: of how migrants enrich our food, music, fashion, language, sport and society in a myriad of ways, how they have rebuilt their own shattered lives, and confirmed the humanity of their host communities.

This is the narrative of diversity that politicians should be selling to the press, and it is a million miles away from the false, provocative and racially charged dog whistling of Nigel Farage and his Reform party, which last week disgraced itself with grotesque political advertising.

When political parties collude in reductionist press narratives portraying refugees and migrants as an undistinguished, unskilled and threatening mass, out to steal British jobs, homes or services, they fortify a far-right world view. And they build the foundation for a greyer, crueller and poorer world.

For their part, journalists should think before they trot out the well-rehearsed clichés on migration. Punching down on vulnerable refugees is easy.

As the Reporters Without Borders New Deal proposal this year made clear, the public has a right to reliable information- on migration too. If current media business models militate against this, they too should not be above public debate.

Pictures from shutterstock.com

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Media Diversity Institute. Any question or comment should be addressed to  editor@media-diversity.org