May 19, 2011 • 4:18 pm

“Despite the overall surge in numbers, a regional split shows that London’s ethnic population has remained virtually static at just over 40 per cent even though the capital accounts for 28 per cent of the net inflow of “non-white British” migrants”. The Evening Standard, 18 May 2011.

Yesterday the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a bulletin looking at the changing population of England and Wales over the last decade. The figures showed a marked increase in the number of people from ethnic minorities, and the story was widely covered.

Focusing on the changing population of London, the Standard noted that in 2009 the proportion of Londoners who were not classed as ‘White British’ was 40 per cent, a similar percentage to that in 1991.

However, reporting this as London’s ethnic population could lead to some misunderstanding, a concern raised by a Full Fact reader.

Earlier in the article it is stated that: “The biggest increase over the eight-year period, of 553,000 people, is among the “other white” group which includes Europeans, such as Poles, as well as citizens of countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa… The largest ethnic populations, however, are of Indians, who account for more than 1.4 million people living here, and Pakistanis, who represent a further one million residents.”

If the Standard is considering non-British White populations as an ethnic group, as is suggested by their 40 per cent figure, than this group would be Britain’s largest ethnic group according to the ONS statistics – at 1.93 million in 2009. The British Indian population stands 1.43 million.

Ethnicity can be defined as ‘sharing a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like’; and under this understanding of ethnicity, British Indians would constitute the largest ethnic group, with non-British White people a collection of separate ethnic groups.

However, including the non-British White populations as ethnic populations could be problematic considering that some readers may interpret ‘ethnic’ as being non-White. However, technically speaking these populations could be considered as ethnic groups, so the bounding-up of these populations within the 40 per cent figure for London is justified, if potentially confusing.

More clarity might have been possible had the Standard reported that 40 per cent of Londoners are now from non-British White and non-White populations.

Despite these pitfalls, most of the press reporting of the findings were fair and accurate; something which, in Full Fact’s experience that should not be taken for granted with statistics.

Arguably the form and presentation that new statistical releases take is crucial to how the media will interpret new figures, and the likelihood that they are misunderstood or misinterpreted. In this case, the Population by Ethnic Group 2002-2009 statistical bulletin released by the ONS was thorough and detailed, clearly laying out the relevant and important figures. The table below outlined the main overview of population changes.

In this case, a clear and objective report was followed by press articles that have been consistent across the papers, accurately reflecting the ONS figures.

The main themes to emerging in the papers centred on the rise in the number of people in England and Wales from ethnic minorities. The Daily Mail reported: “The number of people from minority backgrounds who live in England and Wales went up by 2.5million in eight years, figures revealed yesterday. Estimates said that 1.75million of the rise came about because of immigration, while 734,000 was the result of rising birthrates.”

Similarly, the Guardian reported that “The non-white British population has grown by 4.1% a year, adding up to 37.4% growth – 2.5 million – over the whole period. The only group to shrink is the white Irish population – down from 646,600 in 2001 to 574,200, due to falling birthrates and migration.

Conclusion

When the ONS reported on the changing ethnic make-up of the UK it was inevitable that many papers would seek to go for the sensational headline. However, overall reporting of the new figures was faithful to what was said by the ONS, which was likely aided by the clarity and comprehensive nature of the figures.

While the Standard did seem to opt for a potentially confusing figure for the ‘ethnic population’, they too choose figures that reflected the report.  

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