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    Monitoring the media, and teaching them

Catching Illegals down-under (1)

A new, and seriously important opportunity has developed to "nail down" journalists and writers in Australia who engage in forms of distorting the facts in relation to refugees and asylum seekers.

The opportunity is a development based on efforts as well as research into media representations of refugees and asylum seekers.

Below is a collection of background information, mainly from the UK, but this page starts with a call to action in Australia. Please be part of it!

Update 29 May 2004: Complaints have been lodged against the Sydney Morning Herald. Click here for details!

Bringing reporters to account

The UK situation

As the documents, reproduced below, clarify, the UK Press Complaints Commission (PCC, item 2) recently issued new Guidelines for journalistic behaviour relating to writing about refugees and asylum seekers in the UK press.

The PCC identified the use of the term "illegal", "illegal immigrant" or "illegal asylum seeker", and stated that the use of this terminology is erroneous in the context of asylum claimants' rights under the UN Refugee Convention and as such constitute a Breach of the PCC clauses of "accuracy" in reporting.

In Australia

In Australia, a Perth-based refugee advocate recently wrote to the Australian equivalent of the British PCC, the Australian Press Council (APC), seeking to ensure similar action from APC in response to the Australian press.

The Australian Press Council replied to him (see item 1 below) stating that it would only develop such a policy in response to "complaints received" from the public.

Your role

This is where our opportunity resides. Your action is needed, and in this, you will play an essential role in building the momentum so sorely needed in Australia towards the issuing of new guidelines from the Australian Press Council.

The use of the terms "illegal", "illegal immigrant" or "illegal asylum seeker" and "unauthorised arrival" is erroneous: under the UN Refugee Convention also those who enter "on their own initiative" have the right to claim asylum, whether they arrive by plane, boat, container or in a dinghy, with or without valid identity papers.

In addition, but this is just my personal view: under pressure and with the debatable "leadership" of the Howard government and its ministers, sitting members and candidates, before, during and since the last Federal election, the use of this type of terminology deliberately sought to mislead the Australian public about Australia's obligations to asylum seekers under the UN Refugee Convention, because the refugee convention was written and developed precisely to pre-empt this type of 'arriving' in a country.

Please take up this opportunity, use one letter for each article or item, name the journalist, and write a letter of complaint to the Australian Press Council.

Address details:

Australian Press Council
Policy Development
Suite 10.02, 117 York Street
Sydney NSW 2000
Tel: (02) 9261 1930
Fax: (02) 9267 6826
Email: info(at)


Please note that the Australian Press Council does not oversee television, radio or books. APC alerted us to this, and wrote to us that APC "deals solely with the periodical press media - newspapers and magazines - and not with the electronic media nor with books."

"Your encouragement to register complaints has had some impact but a number of the letters received by the Press Council have dealt with television stations (which are oversighted by the Australian Broadcasting Authority) or books (which have no regulatory or self-regulatory body)."

Your method

Its important that you follow a correct and smart procedure in this action. Initially, you need to write to the author and the publisher (ie the newspaper) and send a copy of your writing to the Australian Press Council, making it clear to the author/publisher that you have sent a copy to APC - this will denote your first line of pressure, and ensure that you're taken seriously.

If you do not receive a reply or you receive a reply that does not satisfy, you need to submit a complaint to the APC. That is as easy as using the complaints form on their website (keep your text in a file) or you can write or email. Make sure the author/publisher gets a copy of your complaint.

Letter from the Australian Press Council


Australian Press Council

Suite 10.02, 117 York Street
Sydney NSW 2000
Tel: (02) 9261 1930
Fax: (02) 9267 6826

email: info(at)

Professor Ken McKinnon (Chairman)
Jack R. Herman (Executive Secretary)

19 December 2003

"Name Deleted"
"Address Street 99"
"TOWN PC 9999"

Dear 'Name Deleted'

At its December meeting the Australian Press Council's Policy Development Committee considered your letter of 12 November.

It noted the actions taken by the UK PCC but determined that no such action was required by the Press Council at this time. The Council generally acts on the basis of specific complaints and, in the absence of such complaints about particular examples of the Australian press misrepresenting the bona fides of asylum seekers and refugees, it was not prepared to issue any guidelines on the matter.

It would be happy to review that decision in the light of a specific complaint or complaints.

Yours sincerely

Jack R. Herman
Executive Secretary

Report from UK Press Complaints Commission

Refugees and Asylum Seekers (use of the term "illegal")


Over the past few years, the Commission has received increasing numbers of complaints - principally concerning discrimination - about the coverage of issues relating to refugees and asylum seekers.

The clear majority of complaints - including those stemming from partisan comment and campaigning - raise no breach of the Code of Practice.

However, one discrete group of complaints - which fall under the broad banner of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code - has led to a number of breaches, and the Commission thought it useful to draw this issue to the attention of editors.

Those breaches of the Code that have occurred - in a similar manner to the issue of the reporting of mental health, about which the PCC issued guidance in 1998 - appear largely to have arisen from misunderstandings about terminology.

The Commission is concerned that editors should ensure that their journalists covering these issues are mindful of the problems that can occur and take care to avoid misleading or distorted terminology. By way of example, as an "asylum seeker" is someone currently seeking refugee status or humanitarian protection, there can be no such thing in law as an "illegal asylum seeker". A "refugee" is someone who has fled their country in fear of their life, and may have been granted asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention or someone who otherwise qualifies for Humanitarian Protection, Discretionary Leave or has been granted Exceptional Leave to Remain in the country. An asylum seeker can only become an "illegal immigrant" if he or she remains in the UK after having failed to respond to a removal notice.

Those groups set up to support and advocate on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers can provide further clarification to journalists if required.

Editors are, of course, already aware that pejorative or irrelevant reference to a person's race, religion, or nationality is already prohibited under Clause 13 (Discrimination) of the Code. Similarly, the Commission - in previous adjudications under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code - has underlined the danger that inaccurate, misleading or distorted reporting may generate an atmosphere of fear and hostility that is not borne out by the facts.


Journalists' Code Should Protect Asylum Seekers, Says Professor

The Scotsman [ News]
Thursday 19 February 2004
By David Barrett, Home Affairs Correspondent, PA News

A new clause should be created in the journalists' code of conduct to protect asylum seekers, it was proposed today.

Professor of journalism at City University Roy Greenslade told the annual general meeting of the Refugee Council he would put forward proposals to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) within weeks.

The existing clause which aims to stop discriminatory stories being published needed enhancing to combat a tide of negative coverage on asylum issues, said Prof Greenslade, who is also the Guardian Newspapers' media commentator.

"I think the PCC recognises there is a crisis over this matter," he said.

"And I believe the new chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, has opened himself to the possibility of making some proper changes.

"Indeed, the member who has called for change is Les Hinton, the chairman of News International.

"That is a very generous offer to make and we should take it up."

He added: "Clause 13 of the code on discrimination is not tough enough, and I wonder if we can amend or add to it.

"My students at City University have come up with some ideas about changes to the code, and I have got some of my own.

"Alan Rusbridger (editor of The Guardian), who sits on the code committee of the PCC, would welcome any suggestions to put forward to other editors."

Another amendment which Prof Greenslade may put forward would change clause 1, which says that corrections should be published "promptly and with due prominence".

Prof Greenslade suggested, following a proposal from one of his students, that "due" should be replaced with "equal".

The code committee is due to meet next month, he added after the meeting at London's City Hall.

Chief executive of the Refugee Council Maeve Sherlock said:

"I would like to see tougher guidelines if they would have an effect on improving the accuracy of media reporting of refugee and asylum issues."

Background documents (UK)

1. What's the Story?

Sangatte: a case study of media coverage of asylum and refugee issues

An Article 19 Publication

From the Article 19 website: "The case study focuses on one story, the closure of the Red Cross centre at Sangatte, that appeared in the media during the lifetime of the project. The purpose of this case study is to illustrate the key issues that have emerged throughout the course of the research in a concrete and meaningful way.

These key findings, which have been primarily taken from the media monitoring element of the project, include: the way in which labels and language are used to describe asylum seekers and refugees, the representation of refugees in photographs and imagery, the use of sources, and the presentation and interpretation of statistics.

The story of Sangatte has been selected due to its dominance of the print and broadcast media for the past two years. It also epitomises issues which - rightly or wrongly - have become central to the asylum and immigration debate: the number of asylum seekers and the manner in which they arrive in Britain, the alleged loss of control of Britain's borders, the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in comparison to British citizens, and the charge that the asylum system is an open door for uncontrolled illegal immigration.

Quotations which appear throughout the report have been taken from the interviews conducted with refugees and asylum seekers. A full analysis of the interviews, media monitoring results and the outcome of the debate at this seminar [is] presented in the final research report, [...] published in June 2003."

Download the document

NOTE: This is an externally located document, it's not stored on our website, but when you start the download you'll be taken to the Article 19 website. (right-click, 'Save As' to download)

  • Sangatte Reporting: What's the Story? - Sangatte: a case study of media coverage of asylum and refugee issues. "The case study focuses on one story, the closure of the Red Cross centre at Sangatte, that appeared in the media during the lifetime of the project." (PDF File 3Mb)

2. Medialens


08th December 2003

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.

Suggested Action

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.

Visit the Media Lens website:

3. Reporting Refugee and Asylum Issues

In a recent press release the UNHCR noted that hostile and alarmist media coverage of asylum and refugees undermines the lives of those who have had to flee persecution, usually from countries where there is no free press, rather than inform any legitimate public debate on these issues.

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