A Chronicle of a Brexit Foretold? Migration in the British Media

21 kwietnia 2021

by Rodrigo Munoz–Gonzalez

Migration has been a key ingredient of the ongoing debate on Brexit. Although many factors evidently played an important role during the referendum campaign and have been present during the negotiations after it, it is clear that many voters decided to leave the European Union based on negative views towards migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

The press is an essential gatekeeper in every electoral process: traditional and online newspapers are sites where crucial political developments are reported, and diverse positions and perspectives exposed. In order to understand the Brexit debate better, then, it is crucial to question how the media has portrayed migration. Through this inspection, it is possible to observe the ways in which particular stances and viewpoints frame the complexities of migration in a central arena of public opinion.

February 2016 was the month in which David Cameron called for a referendum to decide the permanence of the UK in the European Union. Analysing the coverage, by the press, of topics related to migration during this time allows to identify the frameworks that were being used to make sense of an issue decisive for the upcoming vote. To study this dynamic two newspapers, The Guardian and The Times were chosen. 50 articles were selected from each medium – i.e. 100 in total – with the intention of examining the evolution of the representation of migration during this momentous month for British political life.

The findings of this research throw pivotal insights to comprehend how the media plays a paramount part in the social understanding of migrants, and to discern the mode in which two ideologically different newspapers cover the same issue.

The Guardian

The Guardian is a left-wing, or progressive, newspaper which has a strong pro-migration position. Indeed, during this month, matters related to migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers were featured prominently throughout its pages. In the period covered, Europe and the UK were portrayed as urgently dealing with the outcomes of the ‘migrant crisis’ and the military conflicts in Syria; thus, this human catastrophe was an outstanding component of the month’s coverage.  This can be appreciated with the issues that were covered by this newspaper, as illustrated in the next figure:

N.1 Issues Covered by The Guardian February 2016

Thematically, 60% of The Guardian’s coverage was dedicated to issues related to the ‘migrant crisis’ as such, and the difficulties that migrants face in their host countries. Indeed, migration is depicted as a crisis based on the high volume of people who are seeking refuge in Europe. With this in mind, it is clear that this newspaper exhibits a sympathetic view towards the human costs of migration. The news stories often describe the stark conditions experienced by asylum seekers in their quest for a better life. In addition, their motivations are exposed in order to show the more ‘intimate’ side of a situation which is often described mainly in numeric terms.

Most of the stories were focused on migrants coming to the UK (40%), Europe (30%), and France (14%), being these countries the most frequent arrival points. Migration, as reported in The Guardian, had as its point of origin the Middle East. In this regard, Syria (20%), the Middle East (18%), Afghanistan (7%), and Africa (7%) were the most frequent places where the direction of movement was located. Whether a specific country is singled out or a whole area is mentioned, the newspaper portrays migration from a clear regional focus.

The Guardian’s overall focus is situated at the micro-level, i.e. the newspaper is concerned with the personal, or every day, aspects of the migrant crisis. For instance, the developments that occurred at Calais, in the migrant camp known as ‘The Jungle’, were featured prominently with an emphasis on the difficult conditions faced by the people living there.

Despite being sympathetic towards the human costs of migration, The Guardian does not take into account the actual voices of refugees or asylum seekers in most of its coverage. The actors who speak in the reviewed news stories are often politicians or members of NGO’s or international organizations. The ‘migrant crisis’, thus, is represented through individuals who are not directly affected by it. This can be assessed with more detail in the next figure:

N.2 Who Speaks in Migration Stories? The Guardian

This representation is problematic for it is based on a sense of pity. In other words, the newspaper deploys discursive tactics to highlight the difficult life of migrants in order to generate sympathy. Migrants are always sufferers who need to be protected by mediators. The focus, therefore, becomes their adversity and not the conditions that are behind this crisis. Overall, The Guardian has a tendency of reporting migration as a matter of individual pain instead of a political, economic, and social phenomenon.

The Times

The Times, the second newspaper analysed, had a different kind of preoccupation: the consequences of migration in the UK. Thematically, the issues covered by this medium are built around this concern, linking migrants to a wide array of topics. This can be observed as follows:

N.3 Issues Covered by The Times February 2016

The Times, a right-wing and more conservative newspaper, was paying careful attention to the negotiations between David Cameron and the European Union in terms of in-work benefits for migrant workers. The eventual deal that came from these negotiations would become the blueprint for the ‘Remain’ campaign during the Brexit referendum. Hence, these negotiations represented 26% of the newspaper’s coverage during this month. The other most frequent issues tackled by The Times were the ‘migrant crisis’ (22%), negative consequences of migration in host countries (16%), national laws and policies (12%), and concrete causes of European migration to the UK (10%).

The coverage expressed a deep concern towards migrants from Europe and other parts of the world for they are depicted as taking advantage of the UK’s social welfare system. Regarding the destination of the reported migratory movements, The Times identified their arrival point in the UK (56%), Europe (30%), France (4%), Australia (4%), Germany (4%), and Austria (2%). On the other hand, the news stories related to migration frequently located the direction of movement in Europe (19%), the Middle East (16%), Africa (14%), Syria (13%), and specifically East-Europe (12%).  

Just as its counterpart, The Times featured more voices of politicians or institutions than of migrants. As migration is depicted through the lens of the negotiations between the UK and the EU, it is obvious that politicians will account for the highest number of voices speaking about migrants and migration. For instance, in the reviewed articles, the voices from European migrants are entirely absent in the discussion of their role in British society. This problem of voice can be observed in the following figure:

N.4 Who Speaks in Migration Stories? The Times

Overall, The Times does deploy a more integral approach, in terms of journalistic technique, when it reports on migration. The news stories of this medium often have balanced views on the matters they are discussing, or at least make clear that a specific standpoint is being pursued. In this respect, the complexity of the migrant crisis as such is satisfactorily addressed by The Times. This newspaper usually provides a background to the crisis in every article concerned with migration – for instance, a brief explanation of the Assad regime is given when the topic entails Syrian refugees. This marks an important difference with The Guardian, as these explanations are not common in its coverage of the ‘migrant crisis’.

However, The Times falls into the trap of British nationalism. Refugees or asylum seekers are sympathetically depicted inasmuch they are not trying to enter the UK. Moreover, the reviewed articles have a strong emphasis on European migration, with mostly Eastern European migrants described as negative. European migrants are compared to ‘abusers’ who suck out the benefits from the welfare system of the UK, affecting the quality of the services, specifically, and affecting the identity of the country, by introducing other lifestyles and traditions, generally.

Migration and the EU-referendum campaign

During the period covered, which marked the beginning of the EU referendum campaign, the two newspapers tackled the issue of migration in diverse manners accordingly to their ideologies. The Guardian pleaded for the necessity of attending refugees and asylum seekers coming to Europe from a humanitarian approach, whereas The Times criticised migration coming from Europe as a threat to the UK’s economic stability. Indeed, these two positions symbolise a part of the arguments unfolded in both ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ sides during the electoral process that led to the victory of the ‘leave’ side.

In this regard, it would be irresponsible to suggest that media ‘influenced’ people to think in a certain way. Multiple elements led voters to pick a side over the other in this electoral process. Nevertheless, analysing the discourses enacted by the press during a specific period of time is a mode of understanding the values and meanings prevalent for certain actors and stakeholders of society. In other words, it is a way to identify ideas that were gaining traction, that were being accentuated according to diverse ideological principles.

Migration gained track in the public discourse thanks to the media that brought the issue to their agenda. By inspecting the coverage of The Guardian and The Times, it is feasible to grasp how specific representations of migrants were being fostered, contributing to an imaginary that would permeate future political discussions. Although migration was one of the biggest issues discussed during the campaign, its representations did not originate on February 2016; rather, they were part of broader processes of public deliberation weaved in the past. Brexit is a product of time, not of a single day in which the electorate made a decision. The different discourses that tainted the election can be traced not only months before the vote, but years. What these two newspapers reported during this month is just only a tip of a larger iceberg, a chronicle of a Brexit foretold.

About the author:

Rodrigo Munoz-Gonzalez is a PhD candidate at the Department of Media and Communications of the London School of Economics and Political Science. His main areas of interest are audience studies, discourse theory, new media and the poetics of communication. In this project, he is exploring representations of migrant children in British media and the storytelling techniques used to describe migration as a humanitarian crisis.