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Crossing ‘crisis’ stories do not match the facts

by Dr ANITA HOWARTH


NEWS headlines over the summer repeatedly trumpeted “record numbers” of “illegal migrants” crossing the English Channel in small boats.

British broadcaster and leading Brexiteer Nigel Farage ratcheted up the populist rhetoric to demand Government take back control of Britain’s borders from people traffickers. The Government called developments in the English Channel a “crisis” and announced a raft of measures including draft laws that would penalize asylum seekers based on their mode of entry contrary to Britain’s obligations as a signatory of international agreements on the treatment of refugees.

In a context where “figures” can be re-appropriated to legitimize a spiral of draconian and inhumane policy measures, the news reporting warrants closer scrutiny. The claim about an increase in crossings is plausible. War, conflict, and persecution did not subside because of Covid. Lockdowns and travel restrictions curtailed the main pre-pandemic mode of irregular entry into Britain by plane, so it is conceivable that irregular migrants shifted route from air to sea to circumnavigate new constraints. However, as Hannah Arendt observed, it is easy for a plausible hypothesis to congeal in our thinking into a “fact” even when there is no evidence to support it and from whence it becomes possible to justify the unjustifiable.

Two of the most common forms of journalistic evidence are visuals and data. A review I undertook of both in hundreds of online articles published over the past three years found a growing number of images of Channel crossings taken either with a telephoto lens by a photographer standing on the British shoreline or from a hired boat. However, there is a gap in evidence between a visual that tells us that a crossing is happening and news reports of an increase in crossings or that new records have been set.

The analysis found the “new record” story originated with PA Media, a news agency, and from there it circulated widely in local and regional newspapers. However, the omissions in the original story are striking. No mention was made of how the numbers were collated, which actors provided figures or of the difficulties in collecting data on what government, contrary to international conventions, deems to be an illegal act. Comparisons between current figures and past ones in support of “new records” were based on figures for the previous month or year yet news outlets would be wary of reporting “record summer temperatures” in the same way because to do so would invite ridicule.

In fairness to news organizations reporting on irregular migration is challenging. Many migrants seek to evade the authorities until they file an asylum claim so are reluctant to be interviewed until then. Official statistics on irregular migration are patchy. The most reliable ones are of asylum claims because these are systematically captured in official processes but there is usually a time lag of up to 18 months in their release, so their usefulness in a fast-moving news story may be limited. The only other figures available on irregular migration into Britain were released for the first time by the Home Office in March 2019 in a heavily caveated response to a select committee request for information on Channel crossings. Even then the data captures “intercepts” of boats by various border authorities and agents but not crossings. Crucially, it excludes facilitators who unintentionally or intentionally enable an irregular migrant to enter Britain and includes people smugglers or traffickers who are part of a much bigger illicit political economy that by nature operates under the radar of the authorities.

The question that arises is not a prescriptive one of whether journalists should report figures of crossings but of how they do, whether it is appropriate to report as fact what are at best guestimates and what level of transparency is needed to enable the reader to assess the credibility of the data. It is also an argument for more precision in journalistic writing.

George Orwell wrote in 1946 that language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts ... bad habits spread by imitation ... if one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration”.

Author’s Note: The George Orwell prize is awarded each year to the Brunel University student whose work best reflects his journalistic interests.

Dr Anita Howarth is a lecturer in Journalism at Brunel University.

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