Britishness and the Media. Evaluation of the role of news media in creating, reinforcing or challenging notions of Britishness and belonging

Essay, 2017

10 Pages, Grade: B+



Great Britain is historically a country of immigration. The kingdom’s colonialism has united different countries and their cultures. Nowadays, expected life-opportunities attract immigrants from former colonies and all over the world. Since the early 1990s the number of immigrants coming to the UK is increasing (see Appendix B). In 2016, the UK had the second highest number of immigrants in the EU (see Appendix A). 13.5% of the UK population was foreign-born in 2015 (Vargas-Silva & Rienzo, 2017), representing a multi-cultural country and immigrants as an important part of the country. However, opposing implications are presented by media and politicians, nationally and globally (Smith, 2016). Therefore, it is crucial to ask what Britishness means. Are immigrants perceived as British? What role does the media play in this context?

Britishness is a flexible and dynamic concept. The understanding of Britishness differs, different definitions are applied. Britishness and understanding Britishness are influenced by several factors, such as social structure, history, culture and the media. Despite that, the concept is often used by politicians and the media as an exclusionary force (Smith, 2016). The media often present Britishness by showing everything that is ‘supposed to be’ non-British. The following analysis will show that mainly immigrants, people of colour (POC) and Muslims are in the focus of the discourse. Therefore, this essay will present how the media defines Britishness by reporting about non-Britishness and stereotypes. Firstly, the terms media, culture and Britishness will be described and discussed. Secondly, examples for stereotype-creation and stereotype-use in the media will be given and explained.

Concepts: Media, Culture & Britishness

Jary and Jary (2006) state that the mass media of communication are “the techniques and institutions through which centralized providers broadcast or distribute information and other forms of symbolic communication to large, heterogeneous and geographically dispersed audiences” (para. 1). Only books and newspapers were representing the media in its early days. With further technological developments gramophones, radios, cinema, TV and video were added (ibid.). Ofcom (2015) states that the importance of the newest medium, the internet, is growing. Furthermore, Ofcom (2015) found increased laptop usages for media consumption, for example for watching TV. Jary and Jary (2006) state that today the mass media have importance for social systems in every society:

“They are often large-scale organizations whose ownership is concentrated in the hands of the state or in the hands of a relatively small number of proprietors and shareholders, often with financial interests in several media. [...] Critics, however, argue that the media do not operate simply as neutral channels of communication, but are actors in the cultural and political process and structurally allied to the powerful on whose behalf they can sometimes be seen as engineering consent. I n reality, the influence of the mass media is complex and many-sided.” (para. 2)

As the quote lines out, the media’s purpose can vary. Reasons can be found in the fact that the media are a sub-system of the economic system and mainly driven by one value: profit (Schimank, 2013). The media often use cultural values to draw profit or to support the elites’ interests, without paying attention to consequences (van Dijk, 2014, p. 17). Thereby, interests of controlling actors, like power elites, can counteract the system’s driving value of profit.

The media plays a crucial role for the social construction of reality in societies, as most information only becomes interesting for the public after being mentioned in the media (van Dijk, 2014, p. 17).

Britishness can be understood as a part of the UK’s culture. Sandywell (2011) states that culture can be understood as

“[...] autonomous ‘ways of life’ - collective social experience, normative relations and processes: the myths, symbols, rituals, values, beliefs and normative practices shared by a particular group, sub-group, community or society (for example, folk culture, popular culture, the practices of a specific cultus or subculture).” (para. 1)

Cultural orientations are structures of interpretations which frame institutional structures of expectations on an evaluative, normative and cognitive way (Schimank, 2013, p.117ff.). Evaluative cultural orientations show actors what is desirable, normative cultural orientations what is moral and cognitive cultural orientations what is actually doable (ibid.). All those cultural orientations work together to reduce complexity in action-situations (ibid.). Cultural orientations emerge from collaborations of actions of interest- and influence-driven actors and are therefore flexible themselves and in their influence on actors (ibid.)

As mentioned in the introduction, the concept of Britishness and understanding Britishness differs. Therefore, the concept will be described as a clear definition is missing. Britishness in the media is often mentioned in a context of “good old times” (Modood & Salt, 2011, p.226f.). Though, it also touches topics like devolution, the UK’s role in Europe, immigration, globalisation and the white working-class feeling (ibid.). As much as Englishness, Britishness has systematic, largely unspoken, racial connotations as it refers to Whiteness (ibid., p.226f.). However, Britishness has not only to be understood as a negative connoted term, as it is used in both anti-multicultural and pro-multicultural discourses (Modwood & Salt, 2011, p.226). It might be argued that Britishness refers to citizenship, while for example, Englishness refers to ethnicity and race (ibid.). This becomes noticeable in immigrants who are born in England and reported to be seen and to see themselves as British, but not English (ibid.). Additionally, Englishness, Welshness, Irishness and Scottishness refer to national culture, while Britishness refers to culture which reaches out to English or British colonialized countries as well. After Poles, Indians were the second largest immigrants group in the UK in 2013, 9.5% and 9% respectively (Vargas-Silva & Rienzo, 2017). That shows that the British society is not only characterised by European immigrants but by immigrants from all over the world. However, a United Kingdom does not mean that an overarching culture is applied and that Britishness includes all British. Especially the media is accounting for resulting racism by reporting negatively about non-European immigrants as major problem, invasion, national threat or illegal habitants (van Dijk, 2014, p. 22ff.).

Britishness in the media is often referencing to group differences and stereotypes which reinforce demarcating white British-born people without migration background from others (like POC, immigrants and Muslims). Several sociological and psychological theories explain such social phenomena on a group level. The Intergroup Contact Theory (ICT) explains that categorisations, identifications and comparisons lead to in- and out-groups (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). While Britishness protects in-group members’ self-esteem, it simultaneously leads to stereotypes through categorisations and comparisons with out-groups (Tajfel et al., 1971). A (feeling of) belonging with the in-group is established by identifications. Values of in-groups can be influenced by the media and support negative stereotypes and prejudices (e.g. towards Afro-Americans, see Gormley, 2005). Though, stereotypes are changeable; but that takes time (Downing & Husband, 2005, p.39ff.). The latest stereotype for POC was ‘immigrants’ (Dowing & Husband, 2005, p.44f.). Nevertheless, stereotypes like this can be challenged, for example by demographic developments towards multinationalism and multiculturalism. For example, the stereotypes that POC are always immigrants became weaker due to large numbers of British-born POC (ibid.).

Stereotype-Creation and Stereotype-Use in the Media

Individual’s expectations about being British and (subjectively perceived) national identity are shaped by institutions like the education system, etc., but also by journalistic presentations (Modood & Salt, 2011; Anderson, 1983). However, van Dijk (2014, p. 17ff.) states that the media is the main source of racism, stereotypes and prejudices in the public discourse.

The following section will describe how the media present people who are not seen as British. Being non­British is described by out-group membership. The media often connects being non-British with deviant behaviour, coloured skin, migration or asylum status and Islam. Selected research about British and international media from the 1960s to the presence will be presented to sketch a historical development of stereotypes about Britishness (and non-Britishness) in the media. Afterwards, implications are given and discussed.

In the 1990s reports about POC were only one-sided, positive or negative (Downing & Husband, 2005, p.41f.). Hall and colleagues (1978) found that the British media highlighted street assaults by young black males in the 1970s. Downing and Husband (2005) explain that the origins of this phenomenon goes back to the “long term decline of the British economy” (p.42), which led to large labour unrests and social militancy since the 1960s. In this context, powerful circles with media-access created stereotypes about Blacks like in the USA (p.42f.).

Van Dijk (2015) analysed most frequently used words in headlines of 5 British newspapers between 1981 and 1986. Police, Riot, Black and Race were the 4 most used words which gives implications to the newspaper-agendas’ focus in the 1980s. However, not only print media but also several Hollywood films from the 1990s present out-group members like Africans or Africanism on an objectifying way to the mainly white audience (Gromley, 2005, p.183ff.). Objectifying footages include violence, as well as often body-focused and shocking scenes (ibid.). In the analysed movies, POC were also labelled with physical or even violent behaviour while race-discourses are missing (ibid.). Ensuing, Peffley, Shields and Williams (1996) state that in the media being black is associated stronger with criminality than being white, which leads to activations of racial stereotypes.

After the terrorist attacks in New York September 2011 multiculturalism was attacked by the global political spectrum, as multiculturalism was used as the scapegoat of all social problems (Siapera, 2010, p.2).


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Britishness and the Media. Evaluation of the role of news media in creating, reinforcing or challenging notions of Britishness and belonging
University of Abertay Dundee  (Social and Health Science Department)
News, Truth and Power
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ISBN (Book)
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Britishness, Media, Racism, POC, Culture
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Max Korbmacher (Author), 2017, Britishness and the Media. Evaluation of the role of news media in creating, reinforcing or challenging notions of Britishness and belonging, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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