The Reporter
Issue 488, 24 February 2003
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Beyond the riots and rhetoric – unpacking the asylum debate


On contentious political issues like asylum, it’s sometimes hard to see who’s calling the shots. The tabloids – self-appointed barometers of the nation’s mood – proclaim moral outrage. Politicians, courting public opinion, compete for the toughest stance. Believe them, and Britain is a nation of xenophobes, fundamentally anti-asylum. But is this true? And who is in control of asylum policy: politicians or newspaper editors? Research at the University of Leeds is unpacking the rhetoric, posturing and sensationalism to see what people really think and who pulls the strings to shape the debate and the policy on asylum.

Paul StathamPoliticians and the press have got it wrong, believes Dr Paul Statham (left) of the centre for European political communications. And he’s amongst the best placed in the country to judge: he’s been analysing the last ten years of the asylum debate, looking at the positions of the major players and how they affect public policy. By monitoring newspaper coverage, interviewing key figures and organisations, and through focus groups, he is establishing a unique overview of this contentious and complex issue.

“Immigration policy in Britain is informed by the ‘racist public’ thesis – the conception that the public is unchangingly xenophobic and will basically react in a racist fashion,” said Dr Statham. “This idea comes from opinion polls, but the polls don’t necessarily reflect reality. The problem is they demand one-off answers to random questions. If you do that, you get the standard, anti-asylum response. Probe a bit deeper, and you find that opinions are based on values, and the values on which people form opinions are not unidimensionally against asylum seekers. They can support far more positive views.”

Part of Dr Statham’s research uses structured discussions with focus groups, varied by age, gender and ethnicity, to identify the real values underpinning public opinion. By confronting people with the actual moral dilemmas of real asylum cases, the researchers have found that many change their position to become more favourable towards asylum seekers, proving that the public can shift when faced by alternative viewpoints and information.

If the public were properly informed about the factual reality of asylum and immigration, both by their political leaders and through balanced press coverage, then at least they would be in a position to take an informed stance on asylum policies, believes Dr Statham. But the press – particularly the tabloids – also subscribe to the ‘racist public’ thesis. And hardly a day goes past without some government statement with a negative take on asylum. Yet Dr Statham’s analysis of the past ten years shows the government position is very different to that of the Labour Party policy in opposition.

“Labour changed their policy once they got into power,” said Dr Stratham. “By taking what they thought would be a vote-winning anti-asylum stance, they missed an important opportunity to set a more constructive agenda on asylum. In the end, they’ve only made life difficult for themselves. It’s now very hard to formulate rational public policy on an issue when the public debate is full of misinformation, emotion and extremism.”

The Labour Party was wrong to run scared and, in government, is making the situation worse, believes Dr Statham. “History teaches us that the public take their lead from political leaders, and that policy decisions strongly influence the debate. But at present the government is not formulating rational policy. For example, there is no alternative set down for economic migrants. Currently they have to come through the asylum process, and are so dubbed ‘bogus’. By stigmatising them, you don’t stop immigration, you just send it underground, ensuring that who can enter Britain to make a new life here is decided, not by policy makers or officials, but by smugglers.”

Asylum is not an issue which will win or lose elections, according to Dr Statham: “People vote on issues much closer to home, such as housing, tax or unemployment. The main political parties have been scared of losing votes to the far right, and have tried to undermine the BNP by co-opting some of their politics in the rhetoric on asylum, but this has only served to legitimise the far-right’s position.”

Tabloid newspapersThe press may, in general, be anti-asylum, but they can provide a source for mapping the debate. Ten years of coverage from two broadsheets (the Guardian and the Times) is being analysed, taking out the ideological slant, to identify the major players and their input to the issue, from demonstrations to press statements, riots to policy decisions. All the information is coded, and entered into a database, which can then be analysed to show detailed information on each actor within the debate, cross-comparisons, and changes over time. In addition, Dr Statham is interviewing the main actors, from policy makers to the media, lawyers, political parties, the churches, unions, welfare and pressure groups. He is building up a picture of the structure of the relationships between them and how they influence policy decisions.


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