BBC belatedly grasps third rail of immigration. What took it so long?

British broadcaster tackles divisive topic of immigration in a documentary that opens door to previously sidelined voices.

Stoyan Nenov / Reuters
A man carrying a bag adorned with colors of Britain's Union Jack flag steps into the bus departing from Sofia's central bus station in Bulgaria to London.

On its face, the BBC's decision to air a new documentary on immigration to Britain seems unremarkable. The topic is stirring deep passions in the UK, as anti-immigration and anti-Europe sentiments surge across the country. So attention by the public broadcaster appears natural.

But Tuesday night's documentary has also thrown the spotlight back on the BBC itself, as critics – including the documentary's editor – say the broadcaster has previously failed in its coverage of immigration over the past two decades, by not addressing criticism of pro-immigration policies due to liberal concerns about fueling racism.

The documentary, presented by BBC political editor Nick Robinson, investigated the politics behind the influx of migrants and the demographic changes it has made. Running under the title "The Truth About Immigration," it laid out new data on the scope of public fears triggered by the inflow of people, particularly from Central Europe, under the new EU laws: 75 percent of Brits want to see a cut in people coming into the country.

Historically one of Europe's most welcoming countries towards incoming migrants, Britain has been increasingly divided by concerns that the influx was threatening jobs, reducing wages, and fueling racial tensions. Policy debate has been picking up momentum in Westminster, with current policies coming under attack by Britain’s anti-European UK Independence Party (UKIP), whose popularity is surging at the polls. The debate has been given fresh impetus by the EU-enforced action to lift access restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians last week.

'Deep liberal bias'

But even as it aired the heavyweight documentary, the BBC itself came under withering criticism for purportedly side-stepping the immigration debate in the past.

In an interview in Britain’s Sunday Times over the weekend, Mr. Robinson criticized the BBC’s historically timid attitude to reporting on the topic, saying it had previously made a "terrible mistake" in censoring far-ranging, "warts-and-all" coverage of immigration and related public concerns for fear of unleashing racism. “They feared having a conversation about immigration, they feared the consequence,” he said. But there's been a gradual change in attitudes, he added, with the BBC "now getting it right."

BBC-commissioned review conducted last July found that the corporation did not adequately reflect the public’s concerns about immigration, and EU membership more broadly, because of a "deep liberal bias."

Gerard Batten, UKIP spokesman on immigration and a Member of the European Parliament, says that the BBC had failed its own charter by not properly discussing the topic. The BBC is "institutionally politically biased," he said, but now UKIP's growing sway was changing the political establishment and forcing the BBC to alter its coverage.

“The BBC has had a duty to cover immigration in a balanced way," he adds. "[This] would have meant, one, they would have been carrying out their contractual obligation. And two, it would have helped politically to have a proper debate about the issue, rather than anyone wanting to talk about it being called a racist.”

BBC officials said that Mr. Robinson's Times interview reflected the views of the broadcaster's top leaders, playing down suggestions that it was an attack on his employers.

“[F]ormer Director General Mark Thompson and former Director of News, Helen Boaden ... have already acknowledged that that there had been slowness in the past in the BBC accommodating changing opinions on immigration," a BBC spokesperson said. "As we’ve previously made clear, this was a historical issue, and we now believe our reporting is in the right place.”

More immigrants... and more concerns

Between 1997, when the reformist "New Labour" came to power, and 2010, Britain accepted net immigration inflow of four million people. About half of them received UK citizenship. The Office for National Statistics projects that the British population will reach 70 million in 2027, compared to about 64 million today, prompting widespread debate about the inflow's impact.

Tuesday's documentary included a survey of social attitudes which reveals that three-quarters of British people want to see a cut in immigration. However only 47 percent of respondents think immigration is bad for the economy, compared to 52 percent in 2011. 

These findings highlight the complexity of this issue for politicians facing two elections in 18 months, said Penny Young, chief executive at NatGen Social Research which carried out the study referenced in the program. This leaves them "with limited options if they want to attempt to reduce migration from Europe.”

The MigrationWatch think tank, founded by a former ambassador Sir Andrew Green in 2001 to monitor immigration, found BBC coverage to be changing, according to its deputy chairman, Alp Mehmet.

“I think Nick Robinson is right and said what we have been saying for a long time – that they were too worried about causing offense and less worried about the issue," he said. "And maybe that’s putting it too kindly."

“Programs like Nick Robinson’s do help the debate, but I wish the BBC had been doing this 10, 15 years ago when [the issue] first arose,” Mr. Mehmet says.

Mirroring Westminster?

Other observers wonder whether the BBC's avoidance of the topic constituted anything more than a reflection of the most prominent debates at Westminster, where the topic has not gained volume until recently, for much the same reasons it's been shaded over on the BBC.

“You’ve really got to ask what the BBC is there for," says Mike Berry, a journalism lecturer at Cardiff University. The corporation’s political coverage often mirrored the ongoing debate in the "Westminster bubble," he argues, and if mainstream parties were not debating the issue, neither would the BBC.

UKIP has a fair point in that it has forced immigration higher up the agenda, spurring both mainstream parties and the BBC to discuss it, Dr. Berry says. But the BBC is no stranger to controversial, immigration-related topics, he adds, as it has covered stories such as fake cross-border marriages, child beggars, and health tourism.

"I believe [the BBC] has a responsibility to deliver accurate, fact-based reporting rather than people’s views on immigration,” he says.

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