In the UK we have almost become accustomed to seeing headlines in (mostly) right wing and conservative media about refugees and people seeking asylum that have famously included ‘The Swarm in Our Streets’ and more recently focussed on government plans to ‘stop the boats’. But do these messages, and the values that underpin them, truly reflect those values that most of the British public hold to be important?
The media furore earlier this year that surrounded sports broadcaster Gary Lineker’s tweet expressing concern with the direction of immigration policy in the UK is just one example of a possible ‘gap’ between how those headlines suggest we might feel, and how many of us might actually feel about people arriving in the UK; raising important questions about our shared cultural values and how those are reflected, or not, in the mainstream media.
In March, Lineker took to Twitter to express concern about a video introducing the Illegal Migration Bill released by the British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Responding to a Twitter user who described his comment as ‘out of order’, Lineker replied: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?”
Lineker’s comments were condemned by Conservative politicians, some of whom urged the BBC to censure the sports broadcaster for his use of language. Responding to a reporter from the Telegraph, Conservative party deputy chairman Lee Anderson said: “This is just another example of how out of touch these overpaid stars are with the voting public”. Watching or reading coverage of immigration policy you could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Anderson is correct; much of the conversation seems to lack empathy and compassion, instead engaging values like achievement, power and security. Reflecting on years spent reporting at Europe’s borders, the author Daniel Trilling describes how many of the people he met “were surprised at the lack of understanding, even indifference, they felt was being shown to them.”
Twitter is a particular community, with its own demographic and far from representative of the UK population, but Lineker’s expression of concern with the Home Office’s stance on people seeking asylum seemed to open space for a conversation to be had about the real disconnect many people might feel between the universalism and benevolence values they hold dear, such as equality, social justice and helpfulness, and the current government policy on asylum seekers. An #ImWithGary hashtag started trending as people displayed solidarity with the Match of the Day host and their opposition to the Illegal Migration Bill, saying they are ‘with Gary, not Braverman.’ Could it be that it is, in fact Anderson, and the Government he represents who are out of touch with the UK public, not the sports broadcaster?
Research by the British Red Cross in April 2022 found that 74 per cent of the UK public has sympathy towards refugees and people seeking asylum – up from 59 per cent in December 2021. This resonates with analysis of the results of the World Values Survey * published in February this year that shows that across Europe, people in the UK have among the most welcoming attitudes towards refugees and people seeking asylum. It feels reasonable to assume that this is motivated by universal and benevolence values such as equality, social justice and helpfulness; lightyears away from the focus on ‘security’ and ‘scarcity’ that much mainstream reporting often implies.
Could it be that with his tweet, and by publicly challenging the dominant narrative, Lineker helped, even momentarily, to narrow what we have called the ‘values perception gap’; or the underestimation many of us make, and in this case, that the mainstream media has been making, of importance that a typical fellow citizen places on universalism and benevolence values?
Our behaviours and attitudes can be influenced by our own values, our perceptions of the values held to be important by other people, and the values promoted – either deliberately or inadvertently – by social institutions, like businesses, educational institutions, the media, government and arts and cultural institutions. Research into the ‘values perception gap’, including that carried out by Common Cause Foundation, shows that the majority of people place greater importance on intrinsic values, such as equality, unity with nature and community, than on extrinsic values, such as wealth, ambition and public image. However, the majority of people then go on to underestimate the importance that a typical fellow citizen places on intrinsic values and overestimate the importance they place on extrinsic values.
Some aspects of the nature of news reporting tend to accentuate extrinsic values, monetary value is ascribed to a range of phenomena and power is celebrated. It’s also very likely that people working in the media are making this same misjudgement of our collective values as the broader public. And, of course, it may be that a number of outlets do so intentionally as it serves some media owners to maintain the status quo by elevating extrinsic values.
Those making policy pay attention to what is reported as a barometer of public opinion (or at least claim to), potentially exacerbating the perception gap still further as the policy and reporting of migration enter a self-reinforcing feedback loop that may have contributed to the implementation of policies that have made seeking asylum more difficult here in the UK and across Europe over the last decade.
The values perception gap is also linked to other outcomes. People who hold this inaccurate belief about other people’s values feel significantly less positive about getting involved in public life– joining meetings, voting, volunteering. These people also report greater social alienation. They report feeling less responsible for their communities, and they are less likely to feel that they fit in with wider society – relative to citizens who hold more accurate perceptions of a typical British person’s values. Survey participants in perception gap research reported that they felt social institutions, including the media, encourage extrinsic values more so than intrinsic ones; thus contributing to the values perception gap.
So what can we do about redressing the balance of values in the media? Constructive journalism, or solutions-based journalism, sets out to challenge the current imbalance by focussing reporting on solutions rather than negative and conflict-based stories, but, if UK citizens are to respond collectively to profound social and environmental problems and to build social cohesion, social institutions, such as the mainstream media, need to go deeper and build on our shared, intrinsic values.
Instead of sharing stories about people seeking asylum and refugees that exacerbate fears about ‘security’, or the supposed ‘cost’ of housing refugees (elevating the extrinsic value of wealth), or the supposed threat to livelihood and the order of things (elevating the extrinsic values of security and power); what if the mainstream media consciously chose to elevate stories of shared universalism and benevolence values; a, perhaps, more accurate reflection of the values we collectively hold to be important? Stories of people living together in friendship despite their supposed differences, of helping one another through our individual and collective challenges; of expanding, diverse and ever-evolving communities?
A recent short film from Care for Calais suggests just one way that media reporting on immigration could elevate a different set of values. Anything for Love begins by asking whether there is a limit to what people would do for those they love like their families and friends, before pivoting to reflecting on the plight of people seeking asylum in the UK. Doing so, they make what we at Common Cause Foundation call a ‘benevolence pivot’; turning the care we feel for those we love and know well (our ‘in group’) towards people we haven’t met and don’t know (the ‘out group’) and activating values of universalism, as well as the benevolence values so many of us hold dear.
A new Common Cause project is looking into the role the media plays in shaping our values, and asking whether what is reported and how it is reported might contribute to the values perception gap. If journalists are bound to ‘report the truth’ without fear or favour then perhaps they should be reporting in line with public values?
We are in conversation with a number of people working across the media in the UK to explore how we might better support them in working with values and are hoping to publish our initial research by the end of the summer. If you work in the media and are interested in the project, you are welcome to contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
* Sidenote: this is exciting for those of us interested in working with values – the World Values Survey is one of the largest and most widely used social surveys in the world and the UK is a full participant for the first time in 15 years giving a wealth of new data to explore.