IMMIGRATION BIAS: The fourth Newsnight special about the EU referendum was on May 10 from inside the Boston Stump in Lincolnshire, the town’s affectionate name for its stunning parish church. The programme topic was immigration, and Boston was apparently chosen because it faces what Newsnight reporter Chris Cook claimed were ‘extreme’ pressures through a large influx of EU nationals. Was the idea that such pressures elsewhere were ‘less extreme’?
What was very clear in the Stump was that there was a lot of local anger about immigration. But from the outset, host Evan Davis’s main aim was to show that whatever locals thought, there were strong arguments that such an influx was vital to the economy.
The introductory section set the tone for the show. First off – from among the audience – was Angie Cook, who explained that she had been forced out of business because her HGV driving agency faced impossible competition from a rival company staffed by immigrants on the minimum wage. Evan Davis asked what she did now. The answer was a new ‘micro business’. But before she could say anything to explain this, or express her views about immigration or the EU, in a step that was clearly pre-planned, he was on to the next interviewee, Darren Bevan.
ED: Erm, Darren, Darren Bevan, where’s Darren? Darren, what’s been your effect of migration in this area?
DARREN BEVAN: From our perspective, as a business, the effect of migration has been a very positive one. Erm . . .
ED: It’s food processing, your business?
DB: It’s food processing, I work for a business just outside of Boston, erm, we’ve been around for about 15 years or so, we make a huge contribution to the local area, in terms of employment, but we also do employ a number of migrant workers.
ED: Now, have the, you see, Angie’s really saying, it’s going to be great for you because it has pushed the rates down. Has that been your experience? DB: It’s fair to say that it allows us to be competitive within our business arena. And any business, one of the key objective is to be competitive in your arena, yes.
Next up was Paol, an immigrant from Eastern or Central Europe, who was teaching English in a local school and said that he was very close to all the problems of migrants. He noted that they ‘commented a lot’ about these problems. Davis then spoke to his next carefully-prepared contributor, Carole Saxelby, the principle of a local girls’ school. Like Darren Bevan, she was very pro-immigration. In her book, Eastern Europeans ‘add another dimension to our school’. She said:
‘…so I’m principle of Walton Girls’ School in Grantham and we have an amount of migrants in the school population, but we find that they integrate very, very well with our strong pastoral support system. Erm, and actually we’re quite used to a slight flux in our population, because we feed the . . . the RAF bases feed our school population as well. So, as regards education, I think as long as there’s strong and robust pastoral systems and there’s partnership at every level beyond outward facing academies, actually we’ve found the Eastern Europeans add another dimensional to our school.
ED: But what do they add, I mean, I can see that you can deal with the problems of language, but what . . .
CS: (speaking over) That’s right they . . . well, they add the cultural aspects, the work ethic, their parents contribute as well as the students, and they are part, very much part of the community, as all students are. And all students add a different dimension to academies, and that is the way it should be in outstanding high-performing academies. They all have a lot to contribute, they all have a lot to learn. And like I say, with a robust pastoral system, transition enables students to settle in very, very well and they achieve a lot
Davis then said:
Okay, well we’ve heard a number of perspectives there, and some of the themes we’ve just heard, we’ll be picking up on as we talk through the issue. And we’ll get more comments from the audience too.
Hardly. The first contributor, Angie Cook, said that she had been forced out of business by low immigrant pay, but she was then abruptly cut off. Business owner Darren Bevan, in sharp contrast, had lots of space and was encouraged through Davis’ questions to trumpet the importance of immigrant labour and to say his business was booming because of it. Paol the immigrant pointed firmly to that immigrants faced lots of problem when they came to Boston; and finally, a local headmistress opined that immigration enriched and enhanced the community, and that immigrants were hard-working and brilliant academically. What we had heard were the pro-immigration views of three people in the audience who thought strongly that immigrants enhanced Boston life, despite the problems they faced in coming there. We heard nothing at about the opinions of a woman who might well have thought otherwise about immigration.
Next came a scene-setting recorded report from Chris Cook. He was at pains to say that Boston’s experience of immigration was ‘very extreme’ and ‘all of those immigration effects are dialled up to extreme levels’. Here, it is necessary to do some immediate fact-checking. A report based on 2011 census figures found that Boston’s rate of immigration was the highest in the country. The population had grown from 55,000 to 65,000, and the number of foreign-born residents (mostly from the EU) had increased by almost 450%. But was this ‘very extreme’ in terms of the numbers? Overall figures suggest otherwise, many parts of the country have had substantial increases not far short of that in Boston. To suggest Boston was wholly exceptional, as Cook did, was misleading. He seemed to be bending over backwards to try suggest that any local views on the topic must be treated with caution because they were based on freak figures.
Another fulcrum of Cook’s report as contributions from councillors. Again, some fact-checking here yields interesting results. What Cook did not mention was the composition of the council – there are 12 Ukip members, 12 Conservatives, two Labour and a handful of independents, with the balance of power marginally in the hands of the Conservatives. That would suggest a high level of concern among local politicians about immigration – is that what Cook was insinuating when he suggested that the experience of immigration was dialled up to ‘extreme levels’, that a bunch of extremists ran the local council?
That said, the main political contribution in Cook’s report came from neither of the main parties, but from Paul Gleeson, a Labour man.
And he was not just any Labour councillor. Gleeson was one of around 400 such representatives who were so pleased that Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Labour lead that they added their names to his election website as ‘endorsers’. Another contributor was from an ‘academic’, who, claimed Cook, were generally ‘usually quite positive’ about the impact of immigration.
This is what Cook’s chosen ‘academic’, Professor Christian Dustmann, said:
‘Well, we have done a study which now dates back some years, we were looking at the period between 1997 and 2005. And over that period what we found was that immigration held back wages at the very low end of the wage distribution. On the other hand, that impact was very, very small. It did increase wages further up the distribution and on average the impact of migration on wages was actually positive. From the evidence we have from a study which dates back a little bit further, we find, basically, very little evidence that immigration has done anything in terms of increasing unemployment.’
Then later on:
‘So immigrants to this country and in particular from Europe are actually very well educated. They are better educated than the average UK worker. However, that does not mean that they necessarily work from the very start of their migration history in highly skilled jobs. They very often downgrade because they’re downgrading, they are working jobs which are below their observed levels of education. Because they need some skills which are complimentary to their education. Such as for instance language skills. And they acquire these skills and then they very quickly upgrade to those jobs which are more in line with the education they bring with them.’
In other words, Dustmann’s role was to say that immigrants have a very positive impact. Is that what all academics think? Emphatically not, as this posting on the News-watch website shows. Commenting on the methodology in the very study to which Dustmann referred, Professor of statistics at UCL Mervyn Stone said:
‘Most of the underlying crude assumptions that the all-embracing approach has been obliged to make have not been subject to sensitivity tests that have might been made if the study had not been so obviously driven to make the case it claims to have made.’
In other words, some academics, in direct contradiction of Cook’s claims, think that Dustmann’s report (from which Cook quoted) was based on twisted statistics and flawed methodology.
Here, the BBC has form, again outlined on the News-watch website. Cook simply repeated the same problems in the Corporation’s original coverage of the Dustmann report and exaggerated them by claiming wrongly that academics were generally positive about the impact of immigration.
Other elements of the Cook report were also biased. There were two contributions from Vivien Edge, one of the local Ukip councillors, compared to five from the Corbyn-supporting Paul Gleeson. The latter’s main contribution was to say that the area had always been dependent on the labour of outsiders, and to claim that the latest influx was in order to make the local economy more efficient and effective. Edge was edited to say first that immigrants had problems with alcohol, and then that the country was over-run by immigrants and the country needed to get its borders back. Cook used the latter point as a base for his conclusion:
‘There is a hard question for the Leave campaign to answer, though. Would immigration actually be lower post Brexit? It is certainly the case that if we were to leave the European Union, we would have an opportunity to recast our immigration policy. What we can’t say though, is what that immigration policy would actually be. So for example, it is quite plausible that a future British Government would cut a trade deal with the EU to get market access to that big market and part of the price of that would be much the same migration conditions as we have right now. Few other towns, or their annual fairs, have been so rejuvenated by new arrivals. Few enjoy such low unemployment. But few also face such congestion, or pressure on living standards. Most places are not Boston. So the effects of migration are more nuanced and much harder to spot.’
The guts of what he said was first to cast strong doubt on the idea that Brexit would allow changes in immigration policy; secondly that immigration had strongly benefitted Boston; and third, that although there were pressures in Boston as a result of the influx, what it faced was unusual (or ‘extreme’ as he had earlier said).
This was the bedrock of the discussion and audience interaction that followed. It was predictably skewed. Dissecting the opening sequence shows that both Cook and Davis were deeply biased in their approach. They appeared most focused on trying to play down or minimise the negative impact of immigration while at the same time bending over backwards to incorporate the views of those who thought it was beneficial. The choice of Christian Dustmann as the sole expert about immigration, and of Paul Gleeson as the main local political commentator, underlined the extent of that bias.