Speaking for Ourselves

Editorial: Media mis-information

Editorial: Media mis-information


 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - Editorial: Media mis-information

Almost ten years ago, we set up Migrant Voice to challenge bad reporting about migration in the media. This week, courtesy of the Daily Mail and the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, we’ve had a painful reminder that our work is still necessary.

On 24 May, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report into the government’s response to allegations of cheating on an English test by international students in 2014, something we’ve been campaigning on for the last 18 months. Based on evidence given to the Home Office by the company that ran the test, tens of thousands of people were accused of deception and had their visas revoked. But many were innocent and have been fighting for five years to clear their names.

The NAO report, to which we contributed, exposed a catalogue of Home Office failures and clearly proved what we have long suspected – that the Home Office, led by Theresa May, failed to scrutinise the evidence given to them by the testing company and shockingly chose to accept it at face value, despite multiple significant flaws in the data.

Reports ran in most major news outlets, with many taking the same top line as us. ‘Home Office “failed to protect innocent students in cheat case”’, wrote The Times. ‘Innocent students may have been unfairly removed from UK over exam cheating, report finds,’ wrote Sky News.

The Daily Mail, however, staying true to its anti-immigrant agenda, chose to skew the report and misquote the head of the NAO – and then simply ignore two official complaints pointing out their slanderous inaccuracies.

In his report, Home Affairs Correspondent Ian Drury suggested that the 7,467 people who have been granted leave to remain – out of 56,242 who were accused of cheating or possibly cheating – were undeniably cheats who tried “to dupe the system” and should never have been allowed to stay in the UK.  

That’s deeply misleading. Many of those students who have been granted leave to remain have only won that right after fighting expensive, years-long legal battles to clear their names. Courts have ruled either that they definitively did not cheat, or that the Home Office has failed to prove that they did. Ultimately, they are people who were wrongly accused of cheating and who have been able to prove that in the courts.

To claim they all tried “to dupe the system” is both wrong and defamatory.

The second error is yet more flagrant. Ian Drury writes that the NAO acknowledged that a “small proportion” of innocent students may have been removed from the UK. He later said in an email that he was quoting from a statement by Sir Amyas Morse, head of the NAO (which can be read here).

But nowhere in his statement does Sir Morse say that the proportion was "small". He says that “however small the proportion [of innocent students] might be”, the Home Office should have acted to protect them, i.e. the NAO does not know how big or small that proportion is, but even if it was just one student, it was wrong of the Home Office not to protect that person. Indeed, the NAO says explicitly several times in the report that they were unable to conclude how big or small the proportion of innocent students is. 

The phrase “small proportion” is not only a total fabrication and a fundamental misrepresentation of the NAO report, but a falsehood that has significant implications for the thousands of students trying to clear their names. With one deft blow, the Mail undermined their claim to innocence, exonerated the Home Office (which has repeatedly claimed that the proportion of innocent students is likely very small), and justified its own poisonous stance that migrants are cheats and unworthy of our concern.

The BBC Radio 4 Today programme also made deeply misleading errors in its reporting on 24 May, claiming that those sitting the test were all recent arrivals to the UK – while in fact many had already lived and studied in the UK for years, completing English-language diplomas and degrees – and suggesting, like the Mail, that some guilty students have been allowed to remain in the UK.

Many of the students we work with were hurt and angered by the bad reporting, which threatened to undo five years of hard work as they have battled against the odds to convince judges, politicians, and the general public of their innocence.

Whether driven by laziness, hastiness or anti-migrant sentiment, bad reporting on migration does real damage, to the individuals implicated in that reporting, and to the image of migrants in this country, most of them ordinary, hard-working people who are simply trying to make a life for themselves and their families.

Much of our work at Migrant Voice is focused on getting more migrant voices into the media and public debate, where such voices are too often absent or silenced – but good reporting on migration is about far more than that. In its report on 24 May, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme included a clip from an interview with an affected student (and Migrant Voice member) who spoke about the devastating impact of the allegation on his life. But their inclusion of a migrant voice does not and cannot outweigh their later errors.

Just as concerning as the errors themselves is the failure of both the Daily Mail and BBC Radio 4 to respond to our complaints. Ian Drury, author of the Mail article, did respond to our email on 24 May but took four days to address the matter and concluded there was nothing amiss in his reporting. Two official complaints to the Mail, via the website, and sent to the editorial team (as suggested by Ian Drury himself), have gone unanswered, as has a complaint submitted by email to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

In a world where the odds are already stacked against migrants and where too many people are ready to believe the worst about them, such reporting is dangerous and irresponsible.

We urge all journalists and editors to prioritise accuracy in their reporting on migration, to include migrant voices wherever possible, and to turn away from agenda-driven journalism that demonises an already marginalised group of people.