It is baffling how immigration has changed the game in British politics these days. There are more fundamentally important issues facing British society, most notably a stalled economy that has the country on the edge of a triple-dip recession. Yet, the immigration threat, and the supposed ills it has unleashed on Britain, has gripped the public imagination.
The government considers the immigration issue to be the winning card for securing electoral capital after Ukip's spectacular gains in the local elections on the back of its immigration platform. But should Ukip get the credit for placing the immigration at the heart of British politics? In part, yes. Despite an otherwise generally disjointed party platform, they have made hay of immigration and related fears on the European Union. But let's face it, the media has a tremendous contribution as well. Before Ukip's surge in popularity, it was the media who constantly pushed forward a misinformed campaign opening the door to endemic speculations about the fictional Romanian and Bulgarian migrants who will invade Britain next year. At that time Ukip was hardly mentioned in any immigration-related coverage. However, they knew how to boldly and strategically capitalize on this discourse and take ownership of it. Now there is hardly any article on immigration which doesn't mention Ukip and vice versa.
In the two weeks running up to the local elections that took place at the beginning of May, there was not a single day without an immigration debate in the mainstream media. It started in mid-April when BBC published the results of a survey they commissioned in Romania and Bulgaria. The survey aimed to estimate how many migrants from these two countries would move to the UK after January 2014 when the EU restrictions to the labour market are lifted. The results of the survey, heavily featured on flagship programmes such Radio 4's Today and BBC Two's Newsnight, were inconclusive. Nonetheless, the ambiguities of responses allowed press outlets to cherry pick information and interpret the results in whatever way served their own political agenda. This quickly fuelled the immigration debate in the public arena.
The same week, Channel 4 News had a week-long series on immigration when they even took Nigel Farage on a trip to Bulgaria. He had the time of his life making the most of the Eastern European hospitality (you can watch the video here). More importantly he confessed on the Bulgarian National Television that he is the son of refugees. (His own ancestors fled to Britain when they faced persecution as Huguenots in Europe). The next day Channel 4 News had a 15-minute live debate from a pub in Southampton with a handful of politicians, locals and a few Eastern European migrants. The face-to-face set-up added nothing new to the debate. It simply retreaded out the same old actors, the same old discourses, the same old stereotypes.
I don't think there is a political commentator in the British press who has not written an opinion piece on immigration in recent days. The British media now seem much more obsessed with immigration than even Ukip. And they seemed to have gone to great lengths to keep the subject on the front page. In the space of nearly five months, between 15 January when the public hysteria kicked off and today, there have been well over 600 articles on immigration published in the British mainstream press. I know because I have a news alert set up so I can monitor the media coverage on immigration for the purpose of my research. It sends me an email whenever an article including both the words 'Romania' and 'migrant' is published in any of the national British newspapers.
As a point of comparison, I made a search of newspaper articles on Romanian migration to the UK published between 1 January 2006 and 31 December 2007. The search covers one year before and one year after the official date when Romania joined the European Union, i.e. 1 January 2007. There were about 500 articles. In other words, the current coverage on 'possible' Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to the UK has already exceeded in less than five months what was written over a twenty-four-month period six years ago.
The increase in column space is not the only difference. There is a significant change in tone as well. In 2007, an alarmist tone was largely restricted to the tabloid media; this year, it can be read on the pages of all the British national newspapers. Journalists are not shy from portraying Eastern European migrants with derogatory terms such as 'scroungers', 'benefit tourists', 'criminals', 'NHS tourists', 'education tourists', 'illegal'. They do not hold back from using exaggerations such as the already infamous Daily Express and Daily Mail headlines implying that the entire population of Romania and Bulgaria amounting to 29 million will move the UK from next year. Also, there have hardly been any considerations given to any evidence-based research on migration factors. But why would there be? Hyper-sensationalism sells, nuanced discussion is a non-starter. For a change journalists might make an effort and attend conferences organized by scholars (such as the conference on citizenship and migration I participated to last month in Oxford) or by think-tanks (such as last week's Migration Voice annual conference) where they can get better informed as the immigration issue is debated based on research and people's experiences.
As a result of the media's hysteria about immigration, politicians from the three mainstream parties promptly have reacted by sending their representatives on a now practically daily media blitz in a competition to see who can give the most radical anti-migrants speech. Of course, none of them do a better job than Ukip. Nigel Farage is currently a media darling. He is invited on prime-time, high-audience TV and radio shows and quoted readily in the print press as an immigration expert. While he seems a jolly chap who loves a good laugh over a pint, his views are generally not being critically challenged. It seems the media have comfortably abrogated its duty to not report opinion as fact.
The high profile given to the immigration debate and the likes of personalities such as Farage posing as 'experts' in the media also helped propel an e-petition ('Stop mass immigration from Bulgarian and Romanians in 2014, when EU restrictions on immigration are relaxed') reach the threshold of 100,000 signatures necessary to recently secure a debate in the Westminster Hall. This was attended by less than 10 MPs who largely wasted a whole afternoon doing nothing else but repeating what they had read in the media. No one bothered to bring any new evidence (either pro- or anti-migration) to the table.
In the unstable economic climate, it is naturally expected that people get agitated about issues they perceive as threats, such as immigration. But what baffles me again is the way the whole debate has unfolded in the public arena. It all started with the British media igniting the debate with fabricated and hyperbolized immigration speculations. These were the sparkles which lit the fire. The mainstream parties joined in with their 'we hear people's concerns' line. These tactics created a prolific environment for extreme views to grow into mainstream. UKIP seized the opportunity to elbow their way into the limelight. The whole debate reached its pinnacle last week when immigration policies dominated the Queen's speech. It has been spreading like a wildfire and now nobody can contain it, as concerns over immigration steadily rise getting to the highest level since Coalition took power. This is what happens when you play with fire. You get burned. And the government got really burned in last week's elections. By putting immigration policies at the heart of the Queen's speech, they were merely licking their wounds.