How the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph twisted good news into an attack on immigrants

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“… on touchstone issues, you knew that the headline had been written before the story came in and your job was to make the facts fit.”

– former Daily Mail reporter; cited in Nick Davies, “None Deadlier Than The Mail”, New Statesman, 24 January 2008

Have you heard the one about the immigrant who went out for a meal, then didn’t pay the bill? No? Well, actually, they paid in full and left a generous tip, but I’ve chosen to discount that for the purposes of this joke.

If that didn’t make much sense, you’ve probably not read the UCL Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM)’s latest report – or seen how the right-wing press covered it.

“Overall … our analysis draws a positive picture of immigration’s fiscal effects on the UK”: the UCL study

Since the British media complain about how much immigrants take from the public purse, CReAM decided to investigate the issue. They looked at two periods: 2000 to 2011 and, for the sake of completeness (since they had the records in front of them), 1995 to 2011.

The first is more useful, they point out – because it covers only migrants that entered the country since 2000. Between 1995 and 2011, we can look only at immigrants already in the country, whenever they might have arrived. And that doesn’t tell us much if we don’t know anything else about them: many will be retirees who have worked and paid taxes all their lives, for instance, but now draw their pensions.

Here’s what the study discovered:

  • Migrants since 2000 have paid in more than they received.
  • Since 2000, non-European (Economic Area) migrants paid in more than they received, while natives received more than they paid in.
  • Between 1995 and 2011, migrants were less likely to receive benefits than natives.
  • Between 1995 and 2011, non-European (Economic Area) immigrants received more than they paid in, but at a level similar to natives.
  • In both periods, European (Economic Area) migrants paid in more than they received, and made the biggest contribution – even while the UK was running a deficit.
  • Natives received more than they paid in across both periods.

As CReAM point out, however, the study’s “baseline scenario” is biased against migrants in several key respects:

  1. Immigrants contribute learning and skills – wealth their home countries paid to create – effectively saving us money. This isn’t taken into account.
  2. We don’t know how old migrants in the UK were between 1995 and 2011, how long they’d lived here, or how much they’d already paid in. This is not taken into account.
  3. The study counts migrants’ offspring as incomers while they’re kids and natives once they’re adults. But adults work and pay tax, while kids receive education and social support. So this is a massive bias: the bill for education lands on migrants, but natives take credit when that investment pays off.
  4. Some public services – like the military – don’t cost more as more people enter the country. In fact, they get cheaper for the rest of us, because more people now cover the cost. Yet the study treats them as if they get more expensive.
  5. A lot of non-European (Economic Area) migrants live in London, where people more often live in social housing – immigrants and natives alike.

The study notes these biases.

How, then, did right-wing papers cover it?

Cherry-picking a damning, misleading figure

The Daily Mail leapt on the most misleading, negative piece of information available. “Migrants from outside the EU have taken £120billion more from the state than they paid in taxes over 17 years”, screamed its headline.

The Telegraph was even more dishonest. “Immigration from outside Europe ‘cost £120 billion’, its headline proclaimed. It went on: “New report shows immigration from outside Europe over the Labour government years cost the public purse billions of pounds”. But this is false: the report did not measure “immigration from outside Europe over the Labour government years”; it counted migrants already inside the country, telling us nothing about their overall “cost” since arriving.

Presenting dishonesty as honesty

The Mail presents its figure as more honest. “Crucially,” they state, “this group includes all non-EEA migrants – not just the new arrivals since 2000, who Dustmann and Frattini [the authors] focus upon.”

So does the Telegraph (citing anti-immigrant lobbyists):

“The authors – whose research has previously been criticised by the right of centre think-tank Civitas and by MigrationWatch UK, which campaigns for tighter immigration laws – emphasised their findings on the contribution of European migrants and gave less prominence to the findings on the costs of non-EEA immigration.”

But this conveys the opposite of the truth. The report states:

“the net fiscal contribution of immigrant populations at a particular point in time varies according to demographic composition, which in turn depends on historic arrival intensities and return migration pattern. Therefore, although we report these figures for completeness, such figures are difficult to interpret, which is one rationale for focusing our discussion on arrival cohorts since 2000.”

In other words, we don’t know where in the life-cycle these migrants are – paying taxes or drawing pensions? Others will have spent a lifetime paying in, then gone back abroad.

… and honesty as dishonesty

The Mail claims “the calculation showing” the £120bn figure is “buried inside the 51-page report”.

If so – it’s in Table 6 on page 26 – other findings are “buried” with it.

First, that when taking into account services non-European (Economic Area) immigrants pay for but don’t use, the cost falls to £60bn. In other words, it is cut in half.

Doing so, you find that while natives have paid in 92% of what they’ve received, non-European (Economic Area) migrants have paid in 91%. That’s 99% of what natives paid. Hardly a national scandal.

But even that ignores the value of the education migrants bring with them – worth somewhere between £35 billion and £43 billion.

Plus, it charges immigrants the cost of child-rearing, but counts those kids as natives once they pay tax.

Ignoring crucial information

The Telegraph quotes the report:

““Immigrants from non-EEA countries … contribute less than they receive,” the 50-page study concluded.”

Here’s that line in context:

“Immigrants from non-EEA countries, on the other hand, contribute less than they receive; however, this outcome is similar, albeit larger in magnitude, to natives, who also make a negative net contribution over the same period. This finding may partly be explained by the larger number of children non-EEA immigrants have over the period considered, whose cost we assign to immigrants while assigning these children’s contributions after entering the labour market to natives. Yet this strategy, necessitated by a lack of information in our data set on the foreign born status of immigrants’ parents, is likely to overestimate (rather than underestimate) the relative cost of immigrants in all our computations.

That line taken alone, in other words, is a misrepresentation.

Omitting explanation

“The explanation given,” the Mail reports, “is that non-EEA nationals – many of whom are likely to have arrived from the Commonwealth – may have been in the UK longer, have more children and a lower employment rate.”

The Telegraph states the same:

“The report, to be published in the Economic Journal, said the non-EEA group – largely made up of immigration from countries such as India, Pakistan and African Commonwealth countries – contributed less because families tended to have more children and lower employment rates.”

This represents immigrants and their kids as a net cost. But having more children counts against them because the report makes it count against them; and staying longer means they may be drawing pensions.

Why might their employment rates be lower? As the report notes:

“Greater parental responsibilities may also partly explain the lower employment rates for non-EEA immigrants.”

The Mail and Telegraph ignore this.

Concocting false allegations

“Critics will say the report is backward looking,” the Mail objects – “focusing on the taxes paid by the influx of Eastern Europeans when they are young, single and healthy – but not the future burden their families may place on schools, hospitals and the welfare state.”

Yet the report fails to “look backwards” at the past contributions of immigrants in the UK between 1995 and 2011. It fails to “look backwards” to the years their home countries spent paying for their education.

Where it does “look backwards”, it is biased against migrants, charging them as kids, but transforming those kids into natives once they’re paying taxes – when that investment bears fruit.

But in any case, the report does “look forwards”:

it is likely that many of these immigrants will return migrate, thereby spending their later and less productive years in their home countries (Dustmann and Weiss, 2007). Second, a large fraction of these recent immigrants are at the beginning of their careers – and possibly underemployed for lack of complementary skills like language – and thus far from reaching their full economic potential (Dustmannet al., 2013). Hence, although their net contributions may decrease in later years because of demographic changes, given their more favourable educational distribution, the contributions of those who decide to stay in the UK will probably increase through individual career development. Indeed, recent immigrants’ returns to an additional year of labour market experience are 1.2 percentage points higher than those for natives”.

In other words, migrants are likelier to contribute more the longer they stay; but many will return overseas.

It’s not hard to work out why the Mail presents immigrants as a problem. As investigative journalist Nick Davies reveals, its reporters are required to adopt unambiguously racist news values. One former reporter states:

“on touchstone issues, you knew that the headline had been written before the story came in and your job was to make the facts fit.”

On this evidence, the Telegraph is little different.

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