Asylum: The truth behind the headlines

Author: Mollard, Ceri

Author Organisation: Oxfam

Date: 2001



To explore how adverse press coverage in certain sections of the press has contributed to a climate of fear and hostility towards asylum seekers, and to support for government policies which increase hardship and suffering among Scotland's asylum community. To make recommendations to ensure fair and informed reporting.


Over an eight-week period (6 Mary 2000 - 28 April 2000) all weekday national news coverage of asylum issues was collected from 6 Scottish newspapers. Each of the 253 news items collated was classified as negative, balanced, or positive according to specific criteria outlined in the report. Articles were also classified by their 'type' (e.g. editorial column), its main subject, its source, secondary source and by the nationality of the asylum seekers referred to in the article. Each article was also monitored for key words and 'asylum myths'.

Key Findings

The main findings include:

  • Forty-four per cent of articles judged negative, 35% balanced, 21% positive
  • Use of myths a 'major feature of the coverage analysed' (not quantified)
  • Members of the public were a source of 37.5% of new items; journalists 15.5%; central and local government and opposition 26.5%; asylum seekers, NGOs and the Scottish Refugee Council 6%
  • Fifty-eight per cent of items from the public were negative. In tabloid articles there were typically two to three very hostile sentences.
  • Sixty-seven per cent of editorials and 52% of opinion pieces were negative. All but one of these negative opinion pieces were in the tabloids. These items contained the most extreme positive and negative character.
  • Seventy per cent of items from central and local government and opposition politicians were classified as 'balanced' in content but conveying negative messages.
  • Most of the coverage reviewed was negative; reporting had to be partial and based on false assumptions to sustain the level of hostility. The media used hostile letters from the public to support their own negative reporting. The public was therefore less well informed and government policy was not subjected to independent scrutiny. Newspaper hostility has increased threats to asylum seekers.


The UK Government and political parties were advised to reaffirm their commitment to the All-Party Declaration on the Immigration and Asylum Bill. The Scotland Office, The Scottish Executive, The Scottish Parliament and NGOs were encouraged to develop media relations strategies to encourage positive reporting on asylum issues and local authorities were advised to develop community relations strategies to encourage awareness and understanding between local residents and asylum seekers 

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