Comparing the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent

By Matthew Randall

Introduction: Distorted Agendas

As a rule, UK parliamentary debate on asylum and immigration is both selective and power serving. While the actual demographic and economic effects of immigration on the UK are rarely discussed, the causes of immigration – global inequality, conflict and human rights abuses – are ignored.

Irrespective of party, leading politicians repeatedly highlight issues of exclusion – fears of ‘invasion’, alleged ‘threats’ and actual prejudices – ensuring a very negative image of immigrants despite their statistically small impact on society (see below). Concerns over crime, disease, terrorism, detention and surveillance are consistently pushed well to the fore.

This lack of balance can be attributed to a number of factors, including the existence of a covert racist ideology and the political expediency of ‘the race card’ – factors that repeatedly compromise the welfare of refugees and immigrants.

Honest consideration of asylum and immigration issues should involve a far more diverse range of topics, reflecting the complexity of contemporary national and global relations. These include issues of nationalism, sovereignty, racism, demography, human rights, arms sales, war, refugee health, economic policy and moral responsibility.

Liberal Media Balance?

A truly independent and honest ‘quality’ press would include debate on these marginalised issues, providing readers with a balance to the distorted focus of party politics. But does this happen? What +do+ we actually read in broadsheet newspapers on asylum and immigration? Which themes are consistently emphasised? And who speaks to us through these articles – who sets the agenda for discussion?

Is appropriate coverage given, for example, to the fact that in 2001 the UK had only 169,370 officially recognized refugees living within its borders compared to Germany’s 988,500, Iran’s 1.9 million or Pakistan’s 2.2 million? Are we made sufficiently aware that during the same year the UK received 71,365 applicants for asylum, granting this status to just 11,180 individuals – 0.02% of the UK population? Or that Pakistan received a single influx of 199,900 Afghan refugees? Or that the ten largest refugee movements in 2001 were, with the exception of Yugoslavia, all made between countries in the Third World?

How many of us learn from our press that UK population growth is slowing down to the extent that it has actually become a cause for concern? How many are aware that a 2002 UN report recommended “replacement immigration” as a solution to this problem, or that the recommendation was rejected by the European Commission on the grounds that the impact of immigration on population was insignificant?

What do the media have to say about the fact that the UK has recently sold arms to all five countries of origin topping the UK list of asylum applicants in 2001? This, despite the fact that, in each case, violent military conflict remains the dominant root cause of refugee flight. More generally, what emphasis is placed on adverse conditions in countries of origin – poverty, human rights abuses, global income disparity, conflict and torture – in articles concerned with asylum and immigration?

A Case Study: Immigration, The Propaganda Model, and Three UK Newspapers

With these and other questions in mind, the following case study was carried out to compare articles from the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent. The methodology was not complex. Using an archive search at each of the newspaper’s websites, the first thirty articles in 2003 with titles displaying any of a set of keywords: ‘asylum’, ‘asylum seeker(s)’, ‘immigration’, ‘refugee(s)’ were located and used as a representative sample. These ninety articles were then analysed to record the themes/topics discussed. An article merely had to refer once to a certain topic to be counted as having mentioned it, even if this reference consisted of one sentence.

The secondary element of the case study involved identifying the ‘voice’ of the articles, reflecting the opinions or perspectives consulted and who was being directly quoted. All opinions and perspectives referred to in an article were included in the initial count irrespective of whether these were later criticised either by the journalist or by any other group.

The hypothesis being tested proposed that the three newspapers chosen would all, despite perceived differing political leanings, discuss topics and themes in line with the interests of elite power, as predicted by Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model of media control. More specifically it was predicted that macro themes – particularly those reflecting badly on Western state-corporate power and those providing a more global perspective on asylum and immigration – would be marginalised, reflecting the preferred focus of dominant elites.

It was also hypothesised that micro issues, such as asylum accommodation and welfare payments, would be discussed at great length and would form the dominant theme of this sample, with topics involving negative portrayals of immigration – illegality, terrorism, crime and disease – also pushed well to the fore.

A further prediction was that the opinions consulted would heavily favour powerful interests, as predicted by the propaganda model’s third filter (the sourcing of mass media news). In this way it was anticipated that high-ranking politicians would form the major ‘voice’ of the articles, with the people most affected by the issues discussed, i.e. asylum seekers/immigrants, being heard less often, if at all.

Same Difference – Media Themes

One of the immediately striking results of the case study is the consistent unity of themes across the different newspapers. The three most popular themes are the same for all papers, consisting of exclusion policies aimed at ‘bogus’ asylum applicants (mentioned in 73% of the Guardian articles / Independent: 80% / Telegraph: 73%), crime/terrorism perpetrated by asylum seekers (Guardian: 56% / Independent: 60% / Telegraph: 66%) and the accommodation/detention of applicants awaiting decisions (Guardian: 60% / Independent: 26% / Telegraph: 36%).

At the other end of the scale, five major themes fail to attract even one sentence in all ninety articles. These are: effects of immigration on UK population figures, poverty/ income disparity in sending countries, effects of the arms trade, effects of Western economic policies in sending countries, and comparisons of UK refugee intake with Third World countries.

According to the study, the leading topics for press debate on asylum and immigration are clearly micro issues, irrespective of a newspaper’s political ideology. The two most dominant themes both reflect negatively on the subject of discussion: the criminal/terrorist activities of asylum seekers/ immigrants, and policies to exclude ‘bogus’/illegal individuals from the UK.

The opinions conveyed on these matters vary between journalists and newspapers. The fact remains, however, that when a reader opened these newspapers and read an article mentioning asylum, refugee or immigration in the title, 56% of the articles mentioned crime or terrorism and at least 73% discussed policies designed to exclude fraudulent applications.

It is interesting to compare coverage afforded to crime committed by asylum seekers/immigrants with coverage afforded to crime committed +against+ them by other groups. The Telegraph, for example, discusses the former in exactly two thirds of the case study, while failing to make one reference to the latter. The other two newspapers also follow this trend, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. Overall, in the ninety articles, 61% refer to immigrant criminal activities, with just 8.8% mentioning crimes against immigrants.

These figures tell us much about the degree to which these articles discuss issues that promote fear and prejudice in the UK population, a choice that is closely aligned with the agenda of political elites. The issue of asylum and immigration is reported in terms of a ‘threat’ and ‘invasion’ despite a lack of statistical evidence supporting such dramatic claims. Thus, as can be seen from the above example, the huge number of crimes committed against immigrants – ranging from torture, forced eviction and illegal detention in their countries of origin to property abuse and physical violence in the UK – is given far less attention than the much smaller proportion of crimes committed by immigrants themselves.

Continuing this trend, all three newspapers produce more articles referencing the health risks from immigrants (an unsubstantiated concern dismissed as early as 1903 by the Royal Commission on Aliens), than those mentioning the health of asylum seekers who often arrive recovering from trauma, torture, malnutrition and physical violence.

Macro Themes – Minor Coverage

As predicted, macro themes are very poorly represented in this case study. Comparative analyses of immigration and asylum worldwide are barely referenced at all. When this does briefly emerge, the issue in all cases involves a positive commentary on the strict exclusion policies of other European countries, and not, as might be expected, any analysis of the UK’s comparatively low intake. Discussion of the number of refugees and migrants entering and living in non-western countries is completely absent from all ninety articles – a major omission given the huge statistical discrepancies existing between these two groups and the clear relevance this would have for UK policy.

Other macro themes focusing on important root causes of immigration and refugee flight, such as war, torture, poverty and oppression, are referred to fleetingly, if at all. The effects of poverty and inequality in sending countries are deemed unworthy of mention in any newspaper despite extensive coverage detailing politicians’ condemnations of ‘bogus’ and ‘illegal’ ‘economic immigration’.

Analysis of the economic conditions that might lie behind these ‘illegal’ attempts to enter the UK is therefore absent. War and violent conflict are mentioned in just eight of ninety articles in all three newspapers, a very low figure when compared with the thirty-seven articles discussing the relatively minor issue of asylum seeker accommodation. That these articles were published during the intensive build-up to the US/UK invasion of Iraq did not appear to have any affect on this figure, despite the fact that a large proportion of UK asylum applicants arrive from Iraq.

Only one article in the Guardian discusses the potential effect of the invasion on refugee numbers. This minimal coverage reflects a general failure to discuss the situation in sending countries. In each newspaper this theme warrants a reference in just two articles, 6% of the material studied.

The fundamental macro issue of demography – indicating both the insignificant effects of immigration on population growth and its potentially positive effects on the UK’s aging population – is not mentioned throughout the case study.

Macro issues that might embarrass powerful state-corporate interests are also ignored or neglected. Two major examples include the impacts of the arms trade and economic trade liberalisation. The former receives no mention at all, while the latter is hinted at (indirectly) in one piece in the Guardian. This consists of a brief sentence by a Catholic Bishop, stating that asylum seekers were a symptom of “a tragically disordered world; victims of unjust social, economic and political structures.”

The one ‘awkward’ theme for elites that appears to receive a proportionate share of coverage is that of human rights. This issue is referenced in nineteen of the ninety articles, a total of 21%. However this exception becomes less outstanding when the nature of the references becomes clear: sixteen of these nineteen references relate to the same story – initiated by comments from both government and opposition politicians – that the UK might be forced to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights in order to continue its justified exclusion of certain asylum seekers.

Although this is a human rights issue, it is placed in the context of exclusion policies and ‘bogus’ asylum applicants. This limits to just three articles any mention of human rights abuses in the country of origin – abuses that might have caused the original application to be made, and which cast a far less negative light on the subject of asylum and immigration.

An interesting, perhaps ironic, footnote to the thematic results involves the eight references made to media coverage. Both the Guardian and the Independent provide a number of articles denouncing what they describe as the essentially racist coverage of tabloid and right-wing newspapers, including the third news outlet in this case study, the Daily Telegraph. The latter does not follow this theme and has no articles mentioning media coverage.

However, as this case study shows, although opinions expressed on immigration themes certainly illustrate ideological differences between ‘right-wing’ newspapers such as the Telegraph and the more ‘liberal’ Independent/Guardian, there is clear conformity when it comes to deciding +which+ themes to discuss – a fundamental conformity which closely follows the predictions of the propaganda model. Comment on this aspect of coverage does not feature in the Guardian/ Independent articles criticising media performance.

Opinion Groups

As predicted, the major opinion groups consulted by all three newspapers were either government or opposition politicians. Overall the opinions of politicians are referenced in seventy-two of the ninety articles, or 80% of the material studied. By contrast, the major subjects of discussion, i.e. immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, express their views in five articles, 6% of the case study.

In the Daily Telegraph, politicians are quoted in twenty-three of the thirty articles whereas only one asylum seeker is afforded an equivalent forum. Even this one exception consists of only two short sentences. In the Independent statements by politicians are referenced in 76% of its articles while the opinions of asylum seekers and refugees can be heard in only 3% of the sample.

The second major group represented in the articles are non-governmental (NGO) spokespeople who have their opinions recorded in just under a third of the case study. This would seem to suggest a certain level of balance afforded to people outside elite political circles. However a closer analysis shows that politicians remain overwhelmingly the agenda-setters in these articles with NGO representatives very seldom initiating the subject of the news item. Their role is very much confined to reaction and comment. Of the fifteen Guardian articles that give NGO opinions, ten are in specific reply to a government initiative or statement.

This essentially passive role in defining which events are newsworthy, results in a clear lack of themes that one would expect to be highlighted by organisations working directly with refugees and asylum seekers. Only two Guardian articles provide exceptions to this trend, with one warning of a refugee crisis and the other highlighting the racist violence visited on immigrants.

Despite the substantial body of academic research devoted to the subject of immigration and asylum, the opinions of independent academics are effectively absent from the case study. Only one article of the ninety references an academic source. Even this one exception does not quote a scientific study, choosing instead to mention an anecdotal account of a Cambridge professor.

The huge dominance of party political opinion in the case study lends particular credence to the propaganda model’s third filter. Analysis of media sourcing demonstrates that UK newsgathering has a strong symbiotic relationship with political elites ensuring that a substantial number of articles are formed around government press releases and statements of policy. Groups without recourse to large public relations resources – such as asylum seekers, refugees and the predominantly small NGOs that represent them – tend not to set the agenda for issues under discussion.


The results of this case study indicate a consistent tendency amongst ideologically distinct newspapers to focus on aspects of immigration and asylum that concur with the priorities of the political elite. These are aspects, moreover, that represent an extremely narrow range of information and opinion.

The argument is not that individual journalists necessarily support the agenda of political elites – many articles argue fiercely against government policy. However, indirect support of this agenda occurs through the significant avoidance and omission of important themes and issues that should form regular and central points of reference.

Matthew Randall lives, works and studies in Berlin, Germany, where he recently completed a postgraduate Masters Degree in Intercultural Work and Conflict Management.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]