The media critic Ben Bagdikian once complained that trying to be a first class reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach’s ‘St Matthew’s Passion’ on a ukulele. He must have had in mind the conscientious hack who was attempting to do justice to the rich and varied story of migration when he came out with that line.
It wasn’t American newspapers but the venerable old BBC that got me to mull over media coverage of immigration with its offerings last week of a whole suite of programmes dealing with the issue, which ranged from Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford’s two-part Too Many Immigrants? through to the musical drama Glasgow Girls, taking in Tim Samuel’s The Great Big Romanian Invasion on the way.
Brits v Migrants
Nick and Margaret’s effort contaminated the subject with the sleazy populism of ‘Benefit Street’. The programme’s protagonists – native Brits versus the newly arrived immigrants – were paired up in a series of confrontations purposely designed to bring mis-understanding and prejudice onto a collision course. The show acquired the element of compulsive viewing – such as it was – from the intially uncompromising extremism of those who were prepared to argue it out with their immigrant counterparts that they were a burden on the country. What sort of a slugfest could we expect or hope would come from that? Stayed tuned folks – the answer comes up after the breakdown in rationality……
What changed the dynamic however was the context in which the slapdown was setup in, provided by the ‘The Apprentice’ programme’s two former business stars. Nick and Margaret elbowed into the narrative often enough to signal where this stuff was intended to go. The not-so-gently nudged the whole thing towards a resignation of the fact that the modern world of aggressively competitive markets is the only way to go. From this point of view migrants were playing the useful role of showing the natives how to survive within its parameters and we should therefore have the good grace to agree that they were thus a benefit rather than a burden on the country.
It is a chronically limited point of view but one that shouldn’t be flatly contradicted as a general conclusion. But getting there across the span of these two programmes often felt like a process of hammering square pegs into round holes. Under tis pressure, Romford Michael was the first to buckle and concede that he’d learnt a lot from his French counterpart, Marilyn, about how you hunt down a job in a low-paid service economy. South London building workers Jaime and his dad Andy reluctantly agree that their Irish parents/grandparents did pretty the same thing as the Poles they now feel so bitter about. Even Kiran, the Hounslow-born British-Punjabi mother who was holding out against multiculturalism, at the same moment as proclaiming her devotion to Sikhism, came down to conceding that, once you’ve spent a couple of weeks hanging out with a Somali Muslim family, it is difficult to pronounce them a burden on the country.
There is no doubting that many of the least enlightened viewpoints expressed by the participants deserved to be taken on and pulled apart, but it is a step too far that this should be done by brushing aside the anxieties and insecurity of people whose lives have been made worse by the triumph of the market over so many aspects of community life. When push comes to shove Too Many Migrants? came across as an unpleasant mocking of the people most pushed around as a consequence of being amongst the losers in the society which British has become in these early years of the 21st century.
Tim Samuel’s documentary on the Romanian ‘invasion’ that never happened scored higher on the charm and ‘info-tainment’ index by being less patronising about its subject. The Romanian’s and the Brits they came into contact with seemed less like stripped-down caricatures of the prejudices they were supposed to represent than those who appeared in Nick and Margaret’s show. The amiable and disarmingly open Viktor, the only new Romanian to turn up at Heathrow on 1 January 2014 to take advantage of the freshly-granted access to the labour market, has become something of a national celebrity in both the UK and his native land. Further down the pecking order, Ion, the Roma man struggling to survive amongst the rag-pickers and pavement-dwellers offered up his own story, placed in the context of his abused and contemptuously-treated people which we would all do well to listen to.
In the end Samuel’s used the personal history of his family – Jewish-Romanian immigrants who arrived in Manchester in the 1890s – to offer up the disappointing cliché that it will all work out in the wash and our grandchildren will look at the issues which so concerned us with baffled amusement. Maybe, but that leaves out the important fact that even getting there will require something a great deal more that the complacent assurance that the nowadays favoured instrument of progress – the market – will teach us all to live together in peace and harmony.
When young people speak about migration…
Which brings us to Glasgow Girls. This television version of the splendid stage musical, which we mentioned in a blog back in February last year, slotted into this sequence as a timely reminder of the that that the resources which will be needed to move us towards the solidarity and effective action if we are ever going to build something that approximates to a decent society. This true story of working class school girls with homes in the tower block estates in central Glasgow gives us the best hint of what will be needed to get us to that happier place.
The experience of hardship is as likely to generate a powerful sense of social injustice as it is of deep, energy-consuming grievance. Whilst the latter can often promote the desire to lash out in anger at those nearest to your, the former is much more likely to generate the understanding that the world itself needs changing if there is ever to be progress. The Glasgow Girls took this route, and it is their example we should be working to emulate.
So, even if the business of getting the themes of migration considered by the audiences who engage through the mass media is like playing St Matthew’s Passion on a ukulele, last week’s offering suggest that even then some attempts are more successful than others. You make your choice as to which one you want to hum along to.
Read original story here.
This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.