British media coverage of refugee and migrant crisis is the most polarised and aggressive in Europe

Much as for Ronald Reagan, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, for the UK press, one newspaper’s “asylum seeker” is another paper’s “migrant”. And, as you’d expect, the aggressive way that the media is covering this issue is polarising debate in Britain.

But how does this compare with news coverage of the refugee crisis in other European countries? Over the past three years the refugee and migrant crisis on Europe’s borders has become an increasingly prominent feature of press and broadcast reporting across Europe. Most people still use the traditional media as their main information source so the different editorial lines taken in various media outlets in different countries inevitably find their way into public consciousness.

Last year researchers at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies conducted a study to examine how the refugee and migrant crisis was being reported in various European countries. Our study examined reporting in Germany (Bild, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Welt), Spain (El País, El Mundo, ABC), Italy (Il Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, La Stampa), Sweden (Sydsvenska Dagbladet, Aftonbladet, Dagens Nyheter) and the UK (Guardian, Telegraph, Mail, Mirror and Sun). We also supplemented our UK sample with a selection of stories from the late evening (10pm) mass audience bulletins on ITV and BBC.

Among the things we looked at most closely were the different types of source used by the press, whether it be politicians, NGOs or the general public. We also examined differences in the use of terminology – “migrant”, “refugee” or “illegal immigrant”. It was also important to analyse the different themes highlighted in coverage, whether it be policy debates, humanitarian suffering or potential threats to national security, as well as the range of explanations for population flows and discussion of how the crisis could be resolved.

Our research pointed to some very clear findings in relation to the controversial issue of terminology. Last year Al Jazeera publicly declared that it would no longer use the term “migrant”. In an editor’s blog, Al Jazeera declared:

The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.

While Germany (91.0%) and Sweden (75.3%) overwhelmingly used the terms “refugee” or “asylum seeker”, in Spain the most widely (67.1%) used term was “immigrant” and in Britain (54.2%) and Italy (35.8%) “migrant”.

We also found that when it came to political sourcing, government spokespeople tended to dominate (from 51.3% of political source appearances in Sweden to 79.6% in Germany) and the main opposition in Sweden, Italy and the UK came from right wing anti-immigrant parties. Interestingly, the lack of far-right parties with representation in national parliaments in both Spain and Germany meant that the voice of the anti-immigrant right struggled to be heard in their press systems.

However the most striking finding in our research is how polarised and aggressive British press reporting was compared to the other countries. In most countries, newspapers, whether left or right, tended to report using the same sources, featured the same themes and provided similar explanations and solutions to the crisis.

But in Britain the situation was very different. While The Guardian and – to a lesser extent the Daily Mirror – featured a range of humanitarian themes and sources sympathetic to the plight of refugees, the right-wing press consistently endorsed a hardline anti-refugee and migrant, Fortress Europe approach.

This can be seen, for instance, in the low proportion of articles which featured humanitarian themes (Daily Mail 20.9%, Sun 7.1%, EU average 38.3%) as well as the high ratio of articles which emphasised the threat that refugees and migrants pose to Britain’s welfare and benefits system (Daily Telegraph 15.8%, Daily Mail 41.9%, Sun 26.2%, EU average 8.9%).

However this raw data only tells half the story, for while in the EU press the negative commentary on refugees and migrants usually only consists of a reported sentence or two from a citizen or far-right politician – which is often challenged within an article by a journalist or another source – in the British right-wing press, anti-refugee and migrant themes are continuously reinforced through the angles taken in stories, editorials and comment pieces.

It is this consistent, hard campaigning edge which differentiated the British right-wing press from anything else in our European sample. This was graphically illustrated in the week following the deaths of 1,000 refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean in April 2015. In the Guardian, the EU response – to focus primarily on using military power to attack people smugglers – was criticised. In reported stories and opinion pieces, journalists, NGOs, and lawyers condemned the policies of the EU and Australian government, while arguing for more settlement places and legal migration routes.

However in the Telegraph, Daily Mail and the Sun there was strong endorsement of military solutions and Australia’s “ring of steel”. Plans for EU quotas were condemned, as was the United Nations for failing to acknowledge “the social impact of what many Europeans see as uncontrolled and illegal immigration”. In the Telegraph and Mail these views were primarily expressed in editorials and comment pieces while in the Sun the key forum was the letters page. Here’s are some typical examples:

Well done, Katie Hopkins, for saying it how it is. Immigrants do not have a gun to their heads when they board these boats and are aware of the risks. They have only one thing in mind. Get to England and then screw the taxpayers for every penny they can get. (ALAN CARRINGTON Wickford, Essex, Sun 22 April 2015)

I AGREE with Katie Hopkins, pictured. Send them back, then sink their boats. (TERRY SCOTT, Ballymena, Co Antrim, Sun 22 April 2015)

GUNBOATS should be used to turn back the migrant boats trying to gain access to European countries. More lives will be saved by returning boats and arresting the captain and crew. (BRIAN MORSE by email, Sun 22 April 2015)

LIKE Australia, we should ignore all illegal immigrants’ rights and send those coming from Libya to Italy and back home. (JOHN HAWKEN Carterton, Oxon, Sun 22 April 2015)

A different picture emerged in our analysis of UK broadcast coverage. Here BBC and ITV reporting looked very similar. The most common approach was to build reports around interviews with refugees and migrants either in Calais or on the Mediterranean. Many of these reports focused on the experiences of people fleeing wars and persecution and were highly empathetic.

However relatively little broadcast coverage focused on how to respond to the crisis, and the coverage that did focused primarily on attempts to strengthen the UK border rather than on arguments for adopting a more liberal and humane asylum policy, as in the following example from BBC News:

Britain and France are attempting to bolster security at Calais in an attempt to help tackle the problem of illegal immigrants trying to enter the UK. (BBC News at Ten, 9 October 2015)

This was due to two factors. First, broadcast reporting tends to be closely tied to the perspectives of frontbench Conservative and Labour politicians, none of whom advocated a more open policy. Secondly, there was a consistent tendency to frame the issue as one of “illegal migration/immigration” rather than a situation which, in large part, involved the resettlement of refugees.

This was compounded by the fact that neither broadcaster pointed out that those fleeing conflict are being blocked from exercising their right to claim asylum because there are no legal routes to enter Britain.

Overall, very little reporting – especially outside the German and Swedish press – focused on the positive economic, social or cultural contributions that refugees and migrants could make to EU states. And most discussion of responses – such as improving search-and-rescue operations, more aid or attacking people smugglers – focused on the symptoms of the crisis, rather than on the push factors driving refugee and migrant flows. Out of nearly 2,000 articles in our sample, only a handful focused on the need to resolve the conflict in Syria or address human rights abuses in states such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan or Iraq.

In recent research on EU attitudes, Italians (57%), Greeks (56%) and Britons (48%) were found to be most in favour of more restrictive asylum policies whilst Germans, Spanish and Swedes tended to say that their asylum policies were either about right – or should actually be less restrictive. Whilst these patterns cannot be attributed exclusively to media reporting, research has demonstrated that the kinds of media messages that we found in our British press sample – repetitive, negative, narrow and derogatory – can be highly influential.

As Roy Greenslade noted recently newspapers influence their audiences through “repetition” so that “in a drip-drip-drip process over months, if not years, newspapers have an impact on readers who never think about, let alone question, the propaganda they consume”.