There is little secret about the fact that the migration debate in the British media often lacks subtlety and nuance.
In one media camp are those for whom immigration is the root of Britain’s decay; in another are those who see migrants as oppressed, struggling minority groups; and in another still are those for whom migrants are symbolic of the free market.
So, as one might expect, the relationship between choice of newspapers (and other media) and views on immigration is fairly pronounced.
It is, of course, the role of migration scholars to rise above petty and simplistic arguments, to delve deeper into the issues and generate understanding of more complex truths hidden within the subjects they are studying.
But once these truths are exposed they need to be shared with the wider world. Sharing research within the academy is essential, but issues relating to migration invariably have value to the broader debate, and inserting our findings into public debate effectively places us in the middle of the media bun-fight.
How we choose to share what we do is an important consideration, as it shapes how effectively our messages are circulated. Essentially we have three choices –
While it is perfectly possible to make choices that push all three of these buttons, impact often comes from sources about which many migration scholars are suspicious, as Britain’s media landscape is dominated by right-wing tabloids and right-leaning broadsheets. These tend not to look particularly fondly on the issue of migration.
But while it may be challenging to get our materials into these outlets, and disheartening when they misinterpret or misuse our work, we avoid working with these titles at our peril.
The Daily Mail and The Sun have immense political clout, and a motivated readership that will often take up causes with their local MPs – politicians know this and work hard to court these newspapers. The Telegraph and the Times outsell the Guardian and the Independent by a substantial margin.
The Mail, Times, Sun, and Telegraph are the newspapers of choice for millions of people in Britain, playing a substantial role in shaping the British political debate and representing the only interaction with the migration debate many British people ever have.
So we can bemoan the commentators who lay all of Britain’s ills on the doorsteps of asylum seekers or Polish economic migrants, and we can raise our eyebrows at the string of online comments that follow news stories, summoning the sprit of Enoch Powell, or calling for the UK to quit the EU, but – if we aren’t working to communicate directly with these people through the media they use – can we really say that we are trying to improve the quality of debate?
While it is essential to maintain strong and close relationships with ‘supportive’ media – we also need to be constantly striving to find elements of our work that chime with the readership of the news outlets that we currently shy away from. We need to do this to make sure that as full a picture as possible of migration in the UK reaches them. It will take time and involve innumerable knock-backs, but if we don’t try, the issue will continue to become more and more tribal.
I think it’s time for migration scholars to start working to understand (and perhaps even to embrace) the Daily Mail.
But don’t expect the Daily Mail to embrace you back – yet…