The Meaning of Migration in UK news

Posted by: Dr Kerry Moore

As the British parliament have debated the 2013-4 Immigration Bill the meaning of migration in UK news agendas has been informed by a range of very different news narratives. These have included familiar tabloid scare stories about the supposed threat of migration – fuelled largely by coverage of failed government targets on reducing net figures and the lifting of work restrictions for EU citizens from Bulgaria and Romania on 1st January 2014.

As Roy Greenslade’s Guardian blog recently recalled, spurious press reports of booked out flights and buses, warning frantically of our impending inundation by migrants, have been comprehensively exposed for their inaccuracy. Yet, with one eye trained on the juicy political dynamic of UKIP electoral fortunes, the alarmist note has reverberated in public discourse regardless – reasserting migration as a ‘crisis story’ dominant in various guises since the late 1990s.

However, ‘migration crisis reporting’ with a very different political and ethical focus has also made headlines in recent months. The Syrian refugee crisis for example, with more than 2.5 million people registered as refugees over the last four years in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt has clearly maintained an important position in the news agenda – often with humanitarian concerns to the fore. High news value has also been attached to the multiple boat wreck tragedies off the coasts of Sicily and Greece – most notably the October 2013 incidents near the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa in which more than 390 migrants lost their lives. Indeed, just last month, reports of seven drowned and two missing Syrian asylum seekers from a capsized boat off the coast of Lesbos chillingly connected the Syria refugee and boat wreck narratives, confronting us with a powerful alternative ‘crisis story’ to those usually found in domestic migration news. Yet the reality is that most migrants lost at sea have never made UK national headlines, a great many of such deaths passing unrecorded and unnoticed.

According to migrant rights organisations Migeurop and United Against Racism in Fortress Europe, an estimated 3300 lives have been lost since 2002 in the treacherous waters surrounding Lampedusa. This is despite the waters surrounding Southern Europe being some of the most heavily policed in the world. FRONTEX was established in October 2004 to patrol and secure external borders by intercepting clandestine migrants and preventing them from reaching EU soil. Responding to the Lampedusa incidents, Cecilia Malmström (European Commissioner for Home Affairs) argued that the tragedy highlighted the need for further investment in FRONTEX and increased resources for patrolling and securitising the European southern border. Yet migrant rights organisations seriously question whether an agency primarily purposed with policing and preventing clandestine migration could simultaneously fulfil a search and rescue function that genuinely serves humanitarian interests. They argue that the treacherous journeys migrants attempt are rendered all the more dangerous because of the securitising apparatus already in place, with attempts to reach European soil pitted directly against measures designed to deter, apprehend and prevent their success.

But even if such issues are suggested in news coverage of humanitarian emergencies involving migrants, can this disrupt the dominant negative public discourse on migration? Can the reporting of such events destabilise naturalised assumptions about ‘threatening migrants’ or in any way challenge the distance politicians so repeatedly emphasise between the ‘hard working’ people of Britain and the identities of those who seek to ‘come in’?

In placing migrant suffering and the precariousness of migrants’ experiences centre stage, the emotional currency of such news stories contrasts significantly with the morally outraged, ‘keep them out’ themes of much regular migration reporting. Whereas a focus on statistics is often criticised as dehumanising by scholars analysing domestic migration news, in humanitarian crisis narratives statistics on rising death tolls invested with the pathos of victimhood can function very differently. Some reports even articulate a moral discourse of shame, potentially encouraging reflection upon how such human tragedies could be allowed to occur, recriminations surrounding existing immigration policy or measures required to prevent repeat occurrences in the future.

Yet although vivid images of migrant death and mourning and dramatic accounts of troubled rescue operations appear to amplify and make these distant events feel more ‘real’, does it actually follow that the news audience is moved to empathise or feelings of human camaraderie? Is sharing a common humanity with victims necessarily signified or encouraged by such coverage? As Lilie Chouliaraki’s research in this area shows us, the relationship between the spectatorship of suffering and solidarity with distant others is no straightforward equation. There are no guarantees that the reporting of such tragedies will shatter anti-migrant prejudices or translate into increased sympathies, cosmopolitan understandings or feelings of hospitality. Although an engagement with migrant vulnerability may displace hostility in news coverage, this does not necessarily signal a counter- or more progressive discourse on migration.

However, what the range of migration coverage in recent months does demonstrate is that alternative meanings for migration in UK news remain a possibility, and this is important. If Migeurope is correct in asserting that ‘Rather than saving lives, the aim [of European policy] is to keep the future “tragedies of migration” far from the eyes and ears of the European public’, then journalism clearly has an central ‘fourth estate’ role to play in exposing those aims, in (arguably) disrupting further justificatory discourses surrounding the militarisation of national borders, and in critiquing the ‘migration problem’ policy paradigm of wealthy nation states.

The complexities of global migration including the politics of border security are of course no easy matters for journalism to relate, and continue to be key topics that sociologists, media, political, cultural and legal scholars, artists and creative practitioners seek to illuminate through their research.

How such issues as the heterogeneity of migrant experiences are mediated and understood in different social contexts, how migrant voices are heard through campaigning initiatives, creative practices and transcultural media, and how exactly journalism deals with current migration policy issues will be just some of the themes explored by academics and creative practitioners on April 17th at The Meaning of Migration: a one-day conference organised by the Jomec Journal at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

Registration for the The Meaning of Migration conference is free and can be made through Eventbrite.