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‘Net migration’: when does a term move from policy into the press?

© DIGITAL VISIONOur latest guest post looks at the fascinating topic of the language used to talk about migration. Will Allen is a Research Officer with The Migration Observatory and the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS), both based at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the ways that media, public opinion, and policymaking on migration interact.


Policymaking can give rise to a whole host of terms that often sound odd or rather technical outside of their original contexts. One example from my own research into the language of immigration in the UK is net migration. The term net migration refers to the difference in any given 12-month period between the number of people who entered the UK and the number who left. So for example, if 100,000 people enter (immigrate) in one year, and 5,000 leave (emigrate) during the same period, then ‘net’ migration equals 95,000 for the year.

This term is associated with the UK Conservative Party’s manifesto during the 2010 General Election, when they pledged to bring net migration down from ‘hundreds of thousands’ to the ‘tens of thousands’. And, after the election results created a hung parliament where no party had a majority, the Conservatives formed a coalition government with another party, the Liberal Democrats. Between then and the next General Election in May 2015, independent commentators agreed that the government failed to honour its pledge to reduce net migration. Although the coalition government introduced many policy changes which were aimed at reducing the numbers of people entering the UK, net migration stood at 327,000 for the year ending in March 2016.

One question that arises is whether the term net migration, which was widely used by politicians, expanded into other areas where immigration debates happen, such as the press. There are some theories that the press is subservient to other political elites, and merely takes on ideas that ‘cascade’ towards them from higher levels. According to this view, the media is a venue for politicians to communicate their positions. So, it seems that measuring the frequency with which the term net migration occurs in the press would be a good way of testing the extent to which this happens.

A new report by The Migration Observatory, ‘A Decade of Immigration in the British Press’, contributes new evidence that, in the case of net migration, the press did not immediately line up with the rhetoric of politicians and policymakers. But when it did, this may have been due to the government’s failure to meet the target.

The report uses corpus linguistics methods to analyse over 171,000 articles that mentioned migration-related terms and appeared in 19 UK national newspapers between January 2006 and May 2015 (the month of the most recent General Election). This graph shows the average number of articles per month that contained the phrases ‘net migration’ or ‘net immigration’.  Two points are worth noting. First, unsurprisingly, there is a small increase in the frequency of these terms in 2010—the year when the announcement was made. Second, average monthly frequency didn’t really take off until at least 2013—and more dramatically in 2014.

In the report, we analysed how these frequencies match up with actual net migration figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics. After all, it’s possible that the newspapers would respond to higher numbers by mentioning the target more. We found that the two broadly rose in line with one another. However, we also found that the relatively high levels of net migration between 2006-2008—before migration targets became part of government policy—did not attract the same amount of coverage. Other researchers have suggested that the press isn’t actually interested in reporting on targets which have been successfully achieved. So, one possible interpretation is that the press covered the target more often as it became clear that the government would not be achieving it. This is consistent with other findings in the report, which show how problems, rather than successes, are more prevalent in UK press coverage of immigration.

The spread of terms between and beyond their original circles of use is important for many people interested in language. The case of the complicated relationship between the press and policy is one where words carry deeply political meanings—and, with respect to the topic of immigration, have potentially enormous impacts on people’s lives. This report aimed to take tools from linguistics and apply them to studying how the UK press has actually communicated about migration during a significant time in British politics. And by taking a longer view over the issue, perhaps we can gain insight into the current situation surrounding Brexit and the ramifications of the EU Referendum—in which immigration will likely continue to play a significant part.

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Will Allen

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