UK tabloids and the EU referendum: giving us the facts?

The way that the tabloid press is framing the choice is preventing an informed debate on EU migration

Andrew-Clement-100Recently, I encountered a headline in The Sun entitled ‘Pole Chancers’. The article beneath the headline reported that a Polish newspaper had published a 20-page report aimed at convincing Poles to come to the UK because of the country’s generous welfare system. The Sun mentioned that this behaviour occurs amid fears of increased migration in the context of the forthcoming EU referendum.

I decided to do a bit of checking. As it turns out, most of the claims that the article made are true – sort of. The UK-based weekly newspaper, Polish Express, did publish a Polish-language booklet regarding benefits rights in the UK. It comes under a section on the website’s Polish version, labelled ‘advice-books’ (Poradniki) and a subheading under that labelled ‘Benefits’ (Zasiłki). But, upon reading the actual document, the following quickly becomes clear: it is intended simply as a ‘know your rights as an emigrant’ guide, aimed at Poles already living in Britain. One does not learn anything more from it than one could by reading an advice guide for UK residents on the subject.

What is striking about this article is the manner in which it clearly reflects how the triumvirate of British tabloid papers – the Sun, the Mail and the Express – report issues related to EU migration, especially in the run-up to Britain’s referendum on EU membership. They are some of the most read papers in the UK and their style of reporting spins facts whose interpretations cannot be easily verified (or, for that matter, disproved) by the broader public. Even when the claims made by an article seem blatantly vague or suspect, it is not important. The point seems not to inform, but to obfuscate – to plant an idea in the reader’s minds: EU migration is a threat. Vote out.

Why is this important? Much economic data – facts that these same papers seem loathe to publish – tell a far different story. Although studies differ as to exactly how much, many conclude that EU migrants not only are greater contributors to the government’s coffers than non-EU immigrants, but also more than British citizens themselves. Further, there is little evidence to suggest that migration drags down wage rates, or has an overtly negative impact on employment levels in the longer term. It can even stand to boost productivity. As such, it can be argued that EU migration has been a largely positive aspect of the UK’s membership of the European Union.

Yet, by placing figures and events out of their broader situational and economic contexts, readers of these papers get a completely different picture. A recent Express article claimed that there are 1.3 million more EU migrants in the UK than the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is willing to admit – because of ‘National Insurance data discrepancies’. The number sounds shockingly large and, whilst some attempt is made to explain the ONS data, the unsuspecting reader comes away with the suspicion that the UK is being overrun by EU immigrants and that the government does not want to reveal the ‘real’ extent of EU migration as the referendum approaches. This logic becomes self-reinforcing: the more the existence of said migration as a menace is denied, the more the ONS is seen as having reason to hide the ‘true’ extent of the problem until after June’s vote.

What drives this type of reporting? Here, it is tempting to claim that the ownership of these media outlets discourages publicity of information that would portray the EU in a more positive light, the purpose being to achieve certain political ends of the owners. This may have some role to play. However, it also may be that sensationalism sells more than dry economic figures, especially if a readership demographic comes to expect a certain tone from a given media outlet.

Either way, controversial claims regarding EU membership have dominated the press, noticeably in recent weeks. Indeed, an argumentative logic has been applied to several other issues beyond EU migration. Business leaders’ numerous statements of support for continued membership have been less visible in some papers than in others. Accusations of government involvement in supposedly pressuring John Longworth to resign as the Director of the British Chamber of Commerce were also given widespread coverage in the tabloids. The same was true for The Sun‘s claims regarding the Queen’s supposed position on the EU.

Ultimately, it is not the veracity of Eurosceptic claims that matters. The power of the claims is precisely due to their non-verifiability. Any subsequent statements of denial can be explained away as attempts to cover up the true extent of the threat that EU membership poses. In other words, this is not a type of narrative into which arguments for the economic benefits of free movement fit readily.

Simon Bulmer argued in a recent post on SPERI Comment that in the run-up to the referendum, ‘above all, the need is for an informed debate’. Yet that is what this type of reporting seems to forestall. It is ironic that some in the ‘out’ campaign have labelled supporters of remaining in the EU as engaging in ‘Project Fear’. It is precisely this emotion which the Eurosceptic tabloid press seeks to activate.