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Portrait von Anna Islentyva

On the Representation of Migration in the British Press: A Conversation with Anna Islentyeva

Anna Islentyeva is a linguist in the field of English language studies. She currently teaches and researches at the University of Innsbruck. In the context of our macht.sprache. project, we spoke with Anna about her research on migration discourse in the contemporary British press. She explains how Brexit has affected the discourse around European migration and how the linguistic patterns used by conservative and left-liberal media differ, but also resemble each other.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and how you came to pursue your research on the discourse on migration in the British press?

I moved to Berlin from St. Petersburg in 2009 to do my studies in English and German at the Free University of Berlin. Five years later, I started working on my PhD thesis, which I then successfully defended in April 2018. Two years later, Routledge published this thesis as a book which is called A Corpus-Based Analysis of Ideological Bias: Migration in the British Press. In general, migration in its widest sense has been amongst the most topical issues in the European and in the British press. It attracts a lot of attention from the government, the media and the public in general. Also, it is a personal issue to me. I still consider myself an immigrant even after living in Europe for 13 years. Currently I am working as a postdoctoral research associate and lecturer in English Linguistics at the University of Innsbruck. Teaching constitutes a very important part of my academic life. I really appreciate this academic exchange between students and lecturers. I’m currently working with my students and former students on several projects.

You address in your book the discursive representation of migration before and after the Brexit referendum. What differences have you identified between the two periods?

My analysis was four dimensional. We looked at the difference between left-wing and right-wing press. Then we looked at the differences between Pre-Brexit and Post-Brexit. In the pre-referendum period, the right-wing press used two patterns: migrants as a threat and migrants as a burden. To give an example, migrants as a threat would be migrants that are coming to the UK could be criminals and terrorists. Migrants as a burden would be migrants that are coming to either steal our jobs or apply for benefits and we have to provide for them – which makes them a burden for the British welfare-system. After the referendum the right-wing press still keeps to this pattern, but now they classify migrants into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants. We have skilled migrants or professionals, for example, doctors, academics and international students, or unskilled migrants.

The left-wing press do not have very salient patterns. There are some, but they are not as consistent and not as powerful as the patterns found in the right-wing press. Left-wing press tries to create counter discourse by blaming the government and the right-wing press. But the problem is, when you criticize the used patterns, you also reproduce them. So unfortunately, the patterns of migrants as a threat and as a burden are still very frequent in the left-wing press, because they just reproduce them by criticizing them. A change in the post-referendum period was that they tried to avoid using the word migrant, for example. The focus was on European migration because of Brexit, so they describe European migrants in neutral terms as either EU citizens and nationals, or in a positive way as EU workers, sometimes even as neighbours and friends. The emphasis was on the positive economic impact of migration. Migrants pay taxes, claim less benefits and they produce and bring profit. One and the same group of people will be described differently. We see this framed as economic burden in the right-wing press, but as their bringing profit in the left-wing press. That’s called ideology. And that’s why ideological bias, as I pointed out in the title of my book.

You highlight in your work that the individual terms – refugee, asylum seekers, immigrants and migrants – are semantically linked, but they still have different meanings. Does the use of the words correspond to their actual meaning in the newspaper articles?

Semantics change and discourses change. To give you a specific example for the word migrant. It was frequently identified in two contexts: First in relation to the economy and the second was in relation to refugees. But actually, they are not the migrants who decided voluntarily to come and live in a different country and probably work for better money. They decided to move because they did not have any other opportunity. They are refugees. This was a consistent feature when instead of referring to them as refugees and asylum seekers, they are just called migrants. The right-wing press had already these negative associations with migration as claiming benefits and as being criminal. That was one of the major findings that can be considered problematic and dangerous.

What other linguistic and discursive patterns are used by the media to create a particular framing around immigration?

Dehumanizing metaphors are among the most frequent discursive devices and two examples would be water and object metaphors. For instance, “a new wave of refugees” or “a steady flow of migrants”. Or this one is kind of positive, but still it says: „to import the best and the brightest the world could offer” which actually implies the human beings in question are just goods to be imported. My colleague and friend Charlotte Taylor published an article on diachronic analysis of metaphors of migration. She found that dehumanizing metaphors like water and object metaphors are the most persistent in the British press throughout a 200-year period. Water metaphors used to be more favorable in the past and were used with settlers, immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, but interestingly, not colonists. 

Further techniques would be quantification, collectivization and impersonalization. In the first place, the media treats all individuals as one big group. And secondly, the features and characteristics and actions of one individual, that could be dangerous, is usually then deliberately projected onto the whole community of immigrants and migrants and this is a dangerous technique.

And what can readers pay special attention to when reading the news or listening to the radio or similar?

There are at least two major points to take into account. First, the differently politically-orientated newspapers employ different techniques in the representation of migrants. It is important to understand what kind of media you are reading. This is actually your conscious choice. Second, in order to remain adaptable to the changing socio-political climate, the media outlets adjust and change their techniques. It is essential that the general public be made aware of the ever-changing discursive patterns that help differently politically-orientated media outlets construct the identities of different groups and thus promote their competing ideologies. So, you should be conscious of what you’re reading and when you are reading this.

What would you say is the relationship between the media, the Brexit vote and the current political climate in the UK? 

The decision to leave the European Union has been referred to as one of the most important, but also most disastrous policy decisions made by the government since the 1930s. My research in general has contributed to the global understanding of media discourse on migration in the times of crisis by demonstrating how adaptable the British press can be to the changing socio-political context of Brexit. But I also think it is important to look backwards, to see that the British have typically identified themselves as non-European, both historically and culturally. Identities are constructs that are partially created as relational concepts; mainland Europeans have long served as significant others in the British quest for the national self and I believe that the current political situation is also a result of this discourse that aims to emphasize the different and even superior nature of the British as a cultural and national identity.

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