There is nothing new about scapegoating migrants and blaming them for the various problems of our society and the system of which they, too, are victims. But the latest comments by the new Immigration Minister and the depressing media coverage they received were too much to swallow.
Under a sensationalist and misleading headline, "Phil Woolas: lifelong fight against racism inspired limit on immigration", the Murdoch-owned Times published a long interview with the new Immigration Minister on 18 October, 2008. A front-page article summarising the main points of the interview was also published in the same issue with the headline "Immigration to be cut as unemployment soars".
In the 1,400-word interview, apparently his first since becoming Immigration Minister in the Cabinet reshuffle earlier this month, Woolas says he wants to see "a dramatic reduction in the number of migrants coming to Britain." Linking his 'intentions' to the current economic crisis, he claims that "If people are being made unemployed, the question of immigration becomes extremely thorny." "It's been too easy to get into this country in the past and it's going to get harder," he adds. "This Government isn't going to allow the population to go up to 70 million. There has to be a balance between the number of people coming in and the number of people leaving."
Woolas's xenophobic comments seemed to serve two purposes: first, to appear no less 'tough on migration' than his predecessor. Liam Byrne; and second, to exploit the current economic crisis and people's fears to pave the way for implementing controversial plans to restrict population growth in Britain by restricting immigration. Immigration quotas, advocated by the Conservatives, some Labour MPs and the far-right, had been repeatedly dismissed by Labour ministers, including Byrne, as 'impractical' and 'unworkable' (see this BBC report, for example).
The story was picked up by many national and international media outlets, most notably the BBC, which gave it a hard-to-explain prominence. The story was top on Radio 4's Today programme on 18 October. In a 2-minute piece at 7:09am, political correspondent Ross Hawkins discussed the minister's comments, followed by a 8-minute piece, at 8:10am, hosting Keith Best, the chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, and Labour MP Frank Field. Under the headline "Migrant numbers 'must be reduced'", the same story was the lead article on the BBC website that afternoon, with a further piece later on by Ross Hawkins titled "Eye-catching population promise". The story was also made into a video report by Chris Buckler, which was broadcast on BBC News.
So a minister's comments made in a sensationalist interview conducted by another paper were deemed by the BBC editors more important and newsworthy than Zimbabwe's opposition leader saying he had failed to agree on a new cabinet at power-sharing talks with President Robert Mugabe; former American Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsing Barack Obama; the financial crisis moving 'from the banks into the family home'; and other, apparently less important, stories on that day.
The only explanation one can think of is that Woolas's interview and the subsequent media coverage it received were merely a PR exercise by the government and its faithful allies in the mainstream media to push through their immigration agenda. Indeed, a day after Woolas stressed in his Times interview that employers "should put British people first, or they will risk fuelling racism," the Times ran yet another article on Woolas entitled "Minister asks employers to opt for British workers." Again, that was presented in the context of fears of "soaring unemployment" and the global financial crisis.
Our 'theory' was only bolstered over the few following days as the Woolas fiasco unfurled further. The minister's comments, particularly his immigration cap suggestion, caused a storm. He was accused by fellow MPs and trade unions of "pandering to right-wing extremists" and of starting an "auction of anti-foreigner rhetoric" with the Tories and the far-right (see this Guardian article, for example). But this was apparently deemed by the Times and BBC editors less newsworthy than the original comments. The BBC chose, instead, to run a story about the Tory accusing Labour of "floundering around" on migration, giving the impression that not enough is being done by the government. The article, of course, was nowhere near the front page of the BBC website, nor was there anything on the Today programme that morning.
The BBC's anti-immigration bias is even more obvious in Ross Hawkins' piece ("Eye-catching population promise"). Whose eye is the immigration cap promise catching? And who are the "some" who "worry that, if unemployment rises, the economy might struggle to cope with the new arrivals"? Isn't Hawkins simply recycling Woolas's spin by linking the government's (old) immigration agenda to the current financial crisis, playing on people's fears?
When Woolas "rowed back" on his immigration cap suggestions, in an interview on BBC One's Politics Show on Sunday, 19 October, the BBC website ran a piece the following day which had as its headline and lead paragraph the Conservatives' accusation of the government that "no action [was] offered on migration." Although Woolas had said on the Politics Show "I think, frankly, there's a lot of nonsense talked about the cap... it's very difficult, even if you're in favour of a cap...", the quote the editors chose to single out in a side box was "I'm not saying there could be no limit whatsoever." As for the Times, all they had to say was a 147-word piece, buried in page x, which was essentially a denigration of the minister for "backtracking on a commitment made in an interview with The Times."
The Times journalists who conducted the interview, Alice Thomson and Rachel Sylvester, did their best to present Woolas as reasonable and convincing as possible. The first few paragraphs are constructed very carefully to sell him as an anti-racist hero but, nonetheless, tough on immigration and not afraid of facing up to the 'thorny' questions. Everything the minister says -from his claims that "it was fighting racism that got him into politics" and that dealing with immigration has been his "lifelong purpose", to his claim that "the immigrant community itself is the strongest advocate of fair and firm immigration rules"- goes unchallenged to the extent that the reader is left wondering whether this is an interview or an edited statement or press release.
The only 'difficult' questions the journalists seem to have asked are just the sort of questions the minister would have liked to be asked: that extremists such as the BNP "exploit the perception that immigrants receive unfair benefits" and, so, he wants to "tackle them head on" by cutting back on "the few cases of abuse so people see that the system is fair"; or "the stories of immigrants being given £1 million houses at taxpayers' expense," which make him "appalled" but are, after all, "wrong council decisions" and "rare".
To give you an example, while they make sure they mention the BNP presence and the 2001 'race riot' in Oldham, they do not bother to counter-balance his claims by mentioning his famous remarks in the aftermath of the events calling for the "reality of anti-white racism" to be acknowledged. Similarly, while they dedicate two paragraphs for his views on the hijab issue, they 'forget' to mention the 2006 case of Aishah Azmi, in which Woolas was famously involved and called for the teaching assistant to be sacked.
In both its interview and front-page article, the Times misleadingly gives the impression that a cap on immigration has been decided by the government ("inspired limit on immigration" and "immigration to be cut"), while it is clear that this is a controversial and undecided question within Labour and the government. The least one would expect from a professional journalist or editor is to make it clear that this is what the minister thinks or wants and not a government decision already made (for example, by putting the words 'limit on migration' and 'to be cut' in inverted commas). In their own interview (paragraph 10), they say: "Although he does not think it is practical to talk about a cap on the number of new arrivals, because the Government cannot predict how many people will be emigrating, he says: 'We have to have a population policy and that means at some point we will be able to set a limit on migration.'"
In their front-page article, the Times journalists (Richard Ford, Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson) try to appear more professional and balanced by also presenting what is supposedly the 'other side' of the argument. They quote Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, and Habib Rahman, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, to the effect that the government is not (yet) endorsing immigration quotas and its new point-based system is its current answer to 'managing migration'.
Worse still, both the Times and the BBC pieces unhesitatingly quote Andrew Green, the chairman of Migration Watch, which they both unreservedly describe as an organisation that "argues for balanced migration." In the quotes, Andrew Green describes Woolas's comments as "a potential breakthrough" and "a significant development."
Migration Watch is, in fact, a right-wing pressure group that was set up in 2001 by ex-diplomat Sir Andrew Green and Oxford don David Coleman, with a clear anti-immigration agenda. Both men had worked for the Thatcher government and are known for their xenophobic views. Their briefings and reports often play with immigration statistics and figures to scaremonger and advocate anti-immigration policies. Even the Home Office has said that Migration Watch's figures should be treated with "considerable caution". Nevertheless, it is often quoted as an authority on migration-related issues by The Times, the BBC and other mainstream media, notably the Daily Mail, and has suddenly become a 'respectable' and 'independent' think-tank.
The BBC online piece also quotes former Labour minister Frank Field MP welcoming the government's "seeming change of emphasis." The Labour 'rebel', who was also interviewed on Today, is merely introduced as "a member of a cross-party group on immigration", with no mention of the fact that Field, as co-chairman of the Cross-Party Group on Balanced Migration along with Tory MP Nicholas Soames, had been calling for "a statutory limit on the number of foreigners allowed to settle in Britain" or the fact that Woolas had repeatedly expressed "sympathy" with the campaign led by Field (see this Sunday Times article, for example).
Like Migration Watch, both the Times and BBC cite some vague figures to support their main message in the pieces. The Times front-page article went: "The latest figures estimate that net migration – the gap between those entering and those leaving the country – will run at more than 200,000 a year until 2012. About 70 per cent of population growth over the next 25 years is expected to be a result of migration." Similarly, the BBC online piece said: "Figures from the Office for National Statistics show the population grew by nearly two million to almost 61m people between 2001 and 2007. Various official projections predict this to rise to 77m in 2051 or 110m in 2081."
A recent study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), an influential think-tank with strong ties to New Labour, concluded that fewer migrants were arriving in the UK and more were leaving, trends which were "likely to be accelerated by the economic slowdown." Compared with many other Western countries, the study found that long-term net migration flows into the UK were "relatively small." For example, between 1971 and 2006 the UK population grew by 8.2 per cent, while the US population grew by 44.6 per cent, with international migration the "main driver in both cases."
According to the study by Max Nathan, short-term UK migration flows, by contrast, are "very large" but the mix is now "changing rapidly." While estimates differ, IPPR’s analysis suggests that over a million workers from the A8 (the eight countries that joined the EU in 2004) have arrived in the UK since accession, but around half have now returned home.
And so, after all these (probably needless) words, I am left wondering: was this what a xenophobic minister wanted to say through stupid media, or what xenophobic media wanted to say through a stupid minister?