During the referendum campaign, most national newspapers problematised free movement, only to emphasise the economic costs of ending it after the vote, finds James Morrison. Six months on, however, discourses framing migrants as ‘invaders’ or ‘exploiters’ resurfaced.

There’s nothing very surprising about an analysis of UK press coverage of European Union free movement which concludes that migrants have typically been portrayed in negative, even stigmatizing, ways: as threats to British jobs, public services and, at times, security. In this respect, my new research into how newspapers depicted EU migration immediately before and after the 2016 Brexit referendum paints a depressingly similar picture to those of other recent studies that have emphasized how economic migrants, immigrants, and refugees are routinely conflated as an anonymous mass of marauding invaders – intent on draining the UK of its resources and exploiting its sainted taxpayers.

But what is much more intriguing about the detail of the findings is the revelation that the referendum’s initial aftermath witnessed a sharp swing away from conventional narratives portraying EU migrants as economic burdens. By contrast, the month immediately after Britain’s ‘Leave vote’ saw everyone – from Polish plumbers to state-hopping bankers and telecoms engineers – re-framed as economic assets: disproportionate contributors to UK Plc whose impending, and lamentable, departure would in all likelihood be followed by that of the multinational employers for whom many of them worked. This re-framing was present in all but the most diehard pro-Brexit papers (the Sun and the Express).

In order to quantify the degree of national press support for and/or opposition to EU migration at key points in the short-term ‘life-cycle’ of the 2016 referendum, I analysed every print and online newspaper article in which the term ‘free movement’ appeared during three snapshot periods: the week leading up to the vote (17-23 June inclusive); the month immediately afterwards (24 June-23 July); and the last equivalent calendar month of the year (24 November-23 December). Numbering some 1,154 pieces in all, my sample purposely focused on news reports, rather than more openly opinion-based articles – the aim being to identify the dominance of implicit bias in articles that might nominally be expected to convey the ‘objective facts’ of a story. After reading each article (in some cases repeatedly) to determine what position, if any, it took on the free movement issue, I was able to assign it to one of four categories. These were ‘anti-migrant’, ‘pro-migrant’, ‘neutral’ and ‘incidental’: a category denoting a substantial number of articles that did not directly focus on free movement, but nonetheless mentioned it in passing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, during the seven days prior to the vote, anti-free movement sentiment reached a febrile pitch in Britain’s, by then, overwhelmingly pro-Brexit press bubble – with more than 41% (or 50 out of 121) of the stories analysed adopting slants which were clearly opposed to migrants (and, in many cases, immigrants generally). This was, lest we forget, the week that had commenced with then UKIP leader Nigel Farage unveiling his now-notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster – which misleadingly framed an image of Syrian migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border as a symptom of  EU free movement policies.

Disregarding pieces that alluded to free movement incidentally, the anti-migrant bias was even starker, with 50 out of 78 articles (64%) adopting negative frames, compared to a mere eight (10%) that portrayed migration positively. This negative framing commonly ascribed either or both of twin forms of villainy to migrants. The consistent use of natural disaster-style metaphors, such as ‘surge’ and ‘influx’ (familiar from years of rhetorical repetition by Conservative  and UKIP politicians) imagined waves of rampaging invaders disembarking from mainland Europe, while oft-regurgitated axioms  about migrants plundering jobs, benefits, NHS services and housing cast them as freeloading exploiters.

Six months on from the fateful referendum, the picture would be broadly similar. Under still newish prime minister Theresa May – whose years of presiding over a ‘hostile environment’ policy as Home Secretary had given her impeccable migrant-sceptic credentials, despite her failure to substantially cut (im)migration numbers – ‘hard Brexit’ voices were emboldened by figures suggesting net migration had hit record levels, amid a supposed wave of last-minute arrivals keen to squeeze in quick before the drawbridge was raised. All of this contributed to a media discourse once more skewed towards migrant-baiting – with nearly ten times as many stories portraying free movement negatively (135 out of 236, or 57%) as those giving it favourable coverage (16 – or just 6.7%).

Much more significant, and deserving of studied interpretation, was what happened between these two ‘before and after’ snapshots. During the month immediately after the referendum, the nature and tone of press coverage of free movement underwent a startling transformation, as the number of ‘pro-migrant’ news articles soared from one in ten to nearly a quarter (24.9%) of all stories focusing on the subject. This recalibration became all the more striking when the sample was adjusted to remove the disproportionately large number of articles published by the Daily and Sunday Express – two outliers that were so rabidly Eurosceptic they had backed Farage for prime minister in the 2015 general election. Disregarding the 71 articles published in the Express papers (all of them ‘anti-migrant’) brought the total number in this category down to 37, or just one in five of the 178 pieces focusing on migration – compared to the 62 (or 35%) that adopted ‘pro-migrant’ positions.

So what forms did these new, more counter-discursive, narratives take – and, more importantly, why did press attitudes towards free movement undergo such an abrupt about-turn at this time? In terms of a common thread, immediate post-referendum ‘pro-migrant’ stories were overwhelmingly preoccupied with concerns about the potential damage to Britain’s economic competitiveness: with warnings that ending free movement might thwart everything from a putative London Stock Exchange merger to future Premiership transfers, and lead companies from easyJet to Vodafone to decamp overseas. How, then, do we explain this dramatic turnaround – even in longstanding Euro-sceptic papers like the Daily Telegraph?

One simple interpretation is that countervailing forces that had been present all along (if largely ignored by the mainstream press) suddenly seemed to offer fresh sources of newsworthy fire and fury to fill a ‘post-war’ vacuum created by the silencing (however temporarily) of siren voices clamouring for Britain to ‘take back control‘. A more sophisticated reading might be to consider the referendum result through the prism of the well-documented commercial pull of ‘futuricity’ and ‘unexpectedness’ as contemporary news values. While the campaign raged on – with more polls, on balance, predicting a Remain than a Leave victory – the drama lay in both the day-to-day media spectacle of politicians taking lumps out of each other and in imagining what the world might be like if the Brexiteers were to triumph. After the result, by contrast, the drama lay in contemplating not what we might ‘gain’ by voting Leave but what we now stood to ‘lose’.

But what the change of emphasis represented more than anything was a reflection of the frantic battle for sense-making affecting everyone – from politicians to public – as they slowly digested the enormity of what had happened. As early fissures between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexiteers began to muddy the Leave message, a clearer prognosis seemed to be offered by a media line-up of blue-chip CEOs, university vice-chancellors and assorted pundits united in concern and consternation at the result. Though business as usual would soon resume, as ‘anti-migrant’ discourse leeched its way back into news coverage of free movement, there are lessons to be learned from this brief moment of sanity amid the madness – ones that Boris Johnson would be well advised to heed.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics, it first appeared on LSE British Politics and Policy. It draws on the author’s published work in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

James Morrison is Reader in Journalism at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen

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