Review: Bad News for Refugees

Another review from Issue 2 of Post. The Glasgow Media Group have done some really important work over the years and Bad News for Refugees is no different:

Bad News for Refugees is the latest release from the Glasgow Media Group, a distinguished group of media researchers led by Professor Greg Philo and housed in the sociology department at the University of Glasgow. For almost 30 years the group has been producing essential analysis of the mainstream media and its impact on public understanding, often focussing on particular issues such as industrial relations, British foreign policy, mental illness and the Israel/Palestine conflict. In turning its attention to immigration the group has made an invaluable contribution to what has become one of the most emotive political issues of recent decades.

Those familiar with the work of the group will recognise the methodology employed in Bad News for Refugees. The book begins by setting out some important historical context of how immigration issues in the UK have changed. For example it points out how during the 1980’s the opposition Labour Party often criticised Thatcher’s Conservative government for being too hard on immigrants, and in particular refugees. After Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power in 1997 however we saw the Labour Party largely accept the narrative of William Hague’s Conservatives that the government was too weak on immigration, and indeed it was the Labour government that introduced citizenship tests for immigrants, removed the right for asylum seekers to work and made it more difficult for immigrants to obtain citizenship. This move to the right is also reflected in media coverage.

As with much of their previous work, Bad News for Refugees then proceeds by first considering the range of possible perspectives on immigration issues that might exist and then looking at samples of media coverage to see which of these perspectives actually appear. The results are sadly unsurprising, with media content found to be overwhelmingly hostile to immigrants and refugees. So while it is common to find discussion of ‘abuse’ of the asylum system by ‘illegal immigrants’ (a term that is persistently misused) or how Britain takes too many asylum seekers, it is extremely rare  to find discussion of the benefits that immigration brings to society, or how in 2007 United Nations data revealed how the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the UK took a leading role accounted for more than half of the worlds refugees.

Indeed the lack of discussion of the responsibility of western nations is one of the most striking findings of the book. The policies of western governments contribute to immigration in a number of ways, be that through military interventions, arms trade, imposing ‘free market’ economic policies on developing nations, or, increasingly, through environmental destruction and climate change. In the samples looked at in Bad News for Refugees almost no discussion of these perspectives was found anywhere in the British media, including in so-called progressive media sources such as The Guardian and Channel 4 News.

But it is perhaps the final section of the book, which looks at the impact of media coverage on migrant communities in the UK, that is most noteworthy. Two contrasting case-studies in particular are striking. In 2001 a Kurdish asylum seeker on a Glasgow housing estate was stabbed to death and two other Kurds attacked. A statement from the United Nations Refugee Agency described these kind of attacks as predictable ‘given the climate of vilification of asylum seekers that has taken hold of the UK in recent years’. In contrast, a Sudanese asylum seeker describes a candlelight vigil that took place in Glasgow to try and stop a deportation:

“The Scottish people when they are going to work they just asking us, ‘Why are you standing like this?’ and we tell them this is happening. Most of them they come and join us there. The second day they came because before they don’t know why these people are standing outside.”

The message from these examples, and from the book as a whole, is clear. Informed understanding leads to empathy, and this empathy makes an enormous difference. On this point our media is failing.

This article was first published in Post Magazine Issue 2. You can buy or download the magazine here.

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