Prejudice against Poles in UK blamed on media

April 30, 2014 by Mike Addelman, University of Manchester

A University of Manchester researcher has found evidence which shows the media bears some of the blame for stirring up prejudice against migrant communities.

The findings come 10 years exactly since Poland joined the EU and Britain opened its door to Polish .

Alina Rzepnikowska has spent over a year researching communal contacts between Polish migrants and the local population in the UK and Spain, revealing the impact of the portrayal of Polish migrants on everyday social relations.

Whereas the British might blame the Poles for "driving down wages", "stealing their jobs" and "squeezing public services", there was little evidence of similar attitudes towards the Polish communities of Spain.

However, the Spanish public and media were much more likely to blame non-Europeans, North and Sub-Saharan Africans, and to some extent Romanian migrants for social and economic problems, she found.

British attitudes to Polish migrants, she adds, started to change around the time of the financial crisis and subsequent recession of 2008.

She bases her analysis on the theories of Professor Teun van Dijk, who says that readers' system of social beliefs are influenced by the media.

The mass media, he argues, are the main instrument which provides information about immigration to the majority of society and thus contribute decisively to the attitudes of most people towards immigration.

Ms Rzepnikowska said: "It is very difficult to categorically attribute the direct impact of media reports on our attitudes to migrant communities, but this comparative study is a way to do that.

"And it shows quite powerfully that media scapegoating, homogenising and racialising of migrant groups is passed on to the people who read and see it.

"How otherwise can you have a negative impression of someone you have never met?"

According to the PhD researcher, the British media often does not recognise the diverse economic and social background of Polish migrants, and rarely gives them a voice.

The focus groups and narrative interviews she conducted revealed that a substantial amount felt intimidated by locals, who sometimes accused them of 'stealing British jobs' and using scarce public resources, mirroring what they had read in the newspapers.

One respondent, who worked as an interpreter for the NHS, reported similar attitudes from relatively well educated doctors.

Ms Rzepnikowska said: "In Britain, it's nowadays less acceptable socially to scapegoat Black and Asian people- so it could very well be that these to Poles act as a proxy for the others.

"In Spain, however, Poland is generally seen as culturally and religiously close to Spain and consequently, there is very little negative coverage of Polish migrant communities.

"Instead, it's the Black and Arab communities who bear the brunt of it."

Ms Rzepnikowska used participant observation - a method to achieve close and intimate familiarity with her subject matter- to study groups – of which many Poles were members in Manchester and Barcelona.

She added: "This is not about numbers: there are nearly 400,000 Britons living in Spain –which is comparable in size to the numbers of Polish people in the UK.

"But the Brits in Spain do not receive as much negative coverage in Spain as Polish people in the UK.

"The media need to show responsibility and consistency when reporting on migration.

"Migrants and settled ethnic minorities are an integral part of society and proper reporting will surely help meaningful coexistence and more positive contact between different groups and individuals."

Explore further: Polish teenagers speak English like locals, study shows

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