The EU referendum campaign revealed the need for a fairer debate on immigration

By Bethany Peters

‘Record strain on the NHS leads to £2.45bn black hole’: This was the headline of the Daily Express on 20 May 2016 as the country was preparing to take to the polls to vote in the EU referendum. One could easily presume this to be a current headline in reference to the lack of government funding for the NHS, but the ‘strain’ was actually pertaining to the pressure that immigration was putting on the health service. A new report from the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, based at the Policy Institute at King’s, has analysed UK media coverage of last year’s Brexit campaign and found that migrant-blaming was rife in the run-up to the vote. After the result, hate crimes in London were said to have increased by 20%, and sadly, Home Office statistics have shown that a spike in hate crimes occurred across the rest of England and Wales too. As we head to the polls less than 12 months later, perhaps this time around the public should be questioning the way in which immigration is portrayed by the media.


The new report found that coverage of the effects of immigration was overwhelmingly negative. Based on the number of times it led to newspaper print front pages, immigration was the most prominent referendum issue. Migrants were blamed for a wide range of political, social and economic problems in the UK. Aside from overwhelming the NHS, these included violence, taking British jobs and benefits, creating a schools crisis, gaining council houses ahead of British applicants and bringing diseases to Britain. While strains to public services may be a legitimate concern about immigration, is it fair that immigrants are deemed solely responsible for this? After all, it is the decision of the government, not immigrants, to choose whether or not to build more council houses, or whether more funding is given to the NHS.


Out of 111 articles that expressed a view about Turks, 98% (109) were negative. Out of 90 articles that expressed a view about Albanians, 100% were negative. Intolerance towards migrants was also expressed in the language used to describe them. Three metaphors were found to be dominant in the coverage of migrants: migrants as water (‘floodgates’, ‘waves’), as animals or insects (‘flocking’, ‘swarming’) or as an invading force. In dehumanising migrants, readers and voters are at risk of viewing them with hostility and failing to realise that these people may not be too different from themselves. Indeed, it could be suggested that they are likely to have more in common with them than the politicians and newspaper editors creating this dangerous rhetoric.


How can we counteract the negativity towards immigration, as promoted by the media? Many of the problems that migrants were accused of were in relation to the use of local public services such as schools and GP surgeries. So perhaps more should be done to ensure there is a better sense of cohesion within local communities, with more opportunities for people to learn about minority cultures. The benefits that migrants bring to their community should also be actively promoted. Finally, we must be teaching the importance of critical thinking in schools from a young age. Only then will readers have the skills to think carefully consider who is behind these headlines and why it might be in their own political interest to write them – something we should all bear in mind as we cast our votes on 8 June.

Bethany Peters is a PR Assistant at King’s College London and a recent graduate in English Language and Communication.

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