Jerry Kammer, Center for Immigration Studies, January 14, 2014
There has been an apparent breakthrough in the discussion of immigration in Britain. BBC political editor Nick Robinson has acknowledged that for many years the organization made “a terrible mistake” by muzzling its immigration coverage because of concern that it might stir racist unrest.
Even more important, Robinson’s new documentary, which aired last week, not only explained the causes of that journalistic form of political correctness, but also provided an example of sophisticated, even-handed, and open-minded discussion of this most complicated and controversial of public issues.
“In public life, in politics and, I accept, historically at the BBC [we] didn’t have a warts-and-all . . . debate about immigration,” Robinson told the Sunday Times. He said some of his colleagues at the BBC “thought it would unleash some terrible side of the British public.”
But the corporation is “now getting it right”, Robinson said, completing an assessment that I fervently hope will one day be earned by our own Public Broadcasting Service. Immigration coverage at PBS — especially in its ironically titled “Need to Know” program — has long been stunted and muzzled by the same self-censure and bias that Robinson laments at the BBC.
The title of hour-long documentary, “The Truth About Immigration”, is itself an acknowledgement that the BBC deliberately sat on the truth. Robinson cautions that, even as Britain faces up to the serious costs of immigration, it must not lose sight of the considerable benefits.
The timing of the report is significant, coming as citizens of Romania and Bulgaria are now free — seven years after the two nations entered the European Union — to seek employment across the UK. That has prompted concerns in Britain that migration from the two countries will surge as dramatically and unexpectedly as the migration of other Eastern Europeans in recent years. Meanwhile, asylum-seekers from around the world have greatly added to the flow.
As Robinson reports, immigration has already been running at a record pace. It totaled 2.5 million persons between 2002 and 2012, thereby becoming “the greatest movement of people in our nation’s history.”
Robinson shows that the recent immigration justifies concerns of a new massive influx. He notes that when Tony Blair was prime minister, government researchers estimated that net immigration would amount to about 13,000 people a year. But as Jack Straw, a former member of the Blair cabinet, tells him, those predictions “were completely catastrophic; they were wrong by a factor of 10.”
Michael Howard, a Conservative leader from 2003 to 2005, speaks of the enforced political correctness that Robinson identifies as stifling the discussion. A clip from a session of “Prime Minister’s Questions” shows Howard observing that most other EU countries had imposed immigration controls. He then asks, “Why haven’t the British government?” Howard tells Robinson that for those efforts, “I was told that I was scare-mongering.”
As the documentary shows, the charge of scare-mongering on immigration is rooted in an infamous 1968 speech by Enoch Powell, a conservative member of Parliament who said that the pace of immigration — running at about 50,000 annually — was putting Britain on course for racial violence.
In an allusion to Virgil’s Aeneid, Powell said, “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.'” The speech became known as the “Rivers of Blood Speech”. While it was condemned as divisive and dangerous, it also drew an outpouring of support from people who shared at least his fundamental concern that the 1960s immigrant wave was bringing too many newcomers to Britain.
Robinson visits communities where local residents feel stunned by the recent wave of immigration, half of which has come from beyond the EU, including such countries as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. He speaks with a second-generation Pakistani-British man who expresses alarm at the anti-social ways of the recent wave of Roma (Gypsy) migrants into Southampton.
Robinson cites an authoritative public opinion survey in which 77 percent of the respondents said they wanted immigration to be cut and 56 percent “want immigration to be cut by a lot.” He says the new wave of public anxiety is the result of a decision made by the British government “with remarkably little public debate.”
“Yet in 50 or a 100 years’ time historians are likely to say it’s amongst the most significant taken since Second World War,” he adds. “So why did they take it? Well, it’s a remarkable story, a mixture of good intentions, of wishful thinking and an awful lot of miscalculation.”