Fears over immigration re-entered the list of voters’ top ten concerns in August – an all-too predictable response after weeks of inflammatory scare stories about ‘an invasion of illegal migrants’ arriving along the English Channel coast.
Alarmist coverage in newspapers such as the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express encouraged broadcasters to follow suit.
Radio and television crews headed out to sea from Dover to intercept inflatable dinghies and other small craft.
Live reports filming the migrants’ boats – and snatched shouts and answers between reporters and those heading for England – were condemned by several MPs as being dehumanising and tantamount to voyeurism.
The August Issues Index compiled by the pollsters Ipsos Mori (11.8.2020) put ‘immigration/immigrants’ in eighth place (9%) when people were asked, ‘What do you see as the most/other important issues facing Britain today?’
Although well below ‘unemployment’ on 16% and ‘Brexit’ on 30% – and with ‘coronavirus’ way out in front on 75% – the re-entry of this issue to the top ten mentions was a notable change.
Throughout the early months of the pandemic fears about immigration had fallen well down the list and had failed to make the top ten.
Perhaps this shift in people’s anxieties was only to be expected given the blanket news coverage for the impact of Covid.19 and the imposition of lockdown.
Another factor that might well have helped to lessen such fears was the extensive media coverage of the exceptional contribution made by BAME staff in the NHS during the pandemic and their disproportionate loss of life.
While the re-awakening of concerns over ‘immigration/immigrants’ in the August figures – up 3% in a month to 9% – might seem small increase, it should be seen alongside a YouGov survey, also published in August (11.8.2020), which showed that just under half of all adults had ‘not much’ (22%) or ‘no sympathy’ (27%) for migrants crossing the channel from France.
Expressions of sympathy were lower by comparison: ‘a great deal’ (19%) and ‘a fair amount’ (25 per cent).
From the start of lockdown in March there were news reports of a surge in small boats being intercepted in British territorial waters.
Initially newspaper reporting was restrained and factual, reduced to a few paragraphs on inside pages as most press coverage and broadcast output was entirely dominated by the mounting Covid.19 death toll and the repercussions of life being reduced to a standstill.
However, by late April, with more frequent publication of pictures of boat loads of people crossing the channel in inflatable dinghies and other assorted craft, the tone of the coverage began to harden.
‘The new Battle of Hastings’ (Daily Mail, 23.4.2020) gave an alarming account of the challenge facing Border Force officers: ‘Boatloads of desperate migrants have now been landing around the genteel Sussex resort – some even chased across the cliffs by barefoot officers.”
As the numbers of migrants being processed at Dover steadily increased during May, the Home Secretary Priti Patel faced calls from Conservative MPs to do more to return them to France and Belgium.
Brexit-supporting newspapers added their weight to the clamour. Failure to stem the flow was increasingly being viewed by press commentators as a test of the ability of a post-Brexit Britain to ‘Take Back Control’.
By late June, Ms Patel was left under no illusions by the Sun (29.6.2020): ‘Priti: Europe must do more to halt influx’.
She met her French counterpart in mid-July and The Times (13.7.2020) reported that the two countries had signed a new agreement to create ‘a joint intelligence cell’ to interrupt the people smugglers.
Briefings to staunch Conservative newspapers told a different story: Ms Patel was said to have blamed Paris for failing to get to grips with the crisis. In response, the UK was planning military-style tactics. ‘Navy testing nets to snare migrants’ (Daily Mail, 16.7.2020).
By the end of July, over 3,000 had entered since the start of the year, compared with the 2,000 who made it in the previous two years. The Sun mocked the effectiveness of the Border Force: ‘Illegal’s pedalo bid to reach UK’ (20.7.2020).
When over 200 migrants crossed in a single day – setting a new record – the Daily Mail was incandescent about Britain’s border farce: ‘Bordering on Madness’ was the headline across a two-page spread. (31.7.2020)
With the interceptions increasing and the daily records tumbling, the House of Commons Defence Committee chairman, Tobias Ellwood, demanded action. He told the Sun that the Royal Navy should be deployed. (‘Dover and Out’, Sun, 6.8.2020).
Ellwood’s headline-grabbing intervention was the trigger for a flurry of Sunday exclusive stories about new counter measures. ‘The Interceptor: Priti appoints Marine to combat migrants’ (Sun on Sunday, 9.8.2020); ‘Ex-Royal Marine signs up to protect Channel’ (Sunday Express, 9.8.2020).
A Mail on Sunday exclusive claimed Home Office officials were preparing at least five prisons to provide short-term accommodation for record numbers of arrivals. ‘Secret jail plan to house migrants’ (9.8.2020).
Given the way the story had been ramped up by the tabloids, broadcasters responded by sending television crews to join the cat-and-mouse hunt off Dover. There were live reports on Sky News and BBC Breakfast. Dinghies were filmed approaching the coast with the migrants on board being asked which country they were from.
When the coverage was condemned for being dehumanising, the BBC insisted that the number of Channel crossings was ‘a topic of huge importance’. Reporters had endeavoured to cover the story ‘sensitively’.
This defence did little to reassure the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants which argued that journalists should not be ‘making a spectacle out of people’s trauma”.
Several politicians went further. Labour MP Zarah Sultana accused broadcasters of participating in ‘a grotesque reality show’. Stephen Farry, deputy leader of the Northern Ireland Alliance Party said journalists should be holding the Home Office to account rather than engaging in ‘voyeurism and capitalising on misery’.
The Sun’s attempt to lead the pack in what it dubbed ‘Channel War’ (13.8.2020) has coincided with the BBC series, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, which explored Rupert Murdoch’s predilection for ‘shaking up the establishment’ by using his newspapers and television stations to ‘heat up the temperature of a country, to hot things up’.
David Yelland, a former Sun editor, described how in the immediate lead-up to the 2016 European Referendum, Murdoch had been at the Sun’s office ‘day after day, marshalling the coverage’.
‘The Brexit vote was Rupert Murdoch’s finest moment, the moment he achieved most power, his greatest moment in British newspapers...without Rupert there would have been no Brexit.’
No mention was made of the fact that immigration scare stories were the Sun’s weapon of choice in campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote. Day after day its front page focussed on demands for tighter immigration controls that the Sun said could only be delivered by Brexit.
As Britain enters the final straight before the end of EU transition period on 31 December, ‘immigration/immigrants’ – the issue that had the greatest influence on Brexit voters – is again rising up opinion polls and news agenda, and seems destined to become a flashpoint for Conservative-supporting tabloids as they strive to demonstrate that Britain has ‘taken back control’.
Illustrations: Metro, 20.8.2020; Daily Mail, 23.4.2020; Sun, 9.8.2020; Daily Mail, 16.7.2020