Prof Stephen Coleman
Professor of Political Communication in the School of Media & Communication, University of Leeds.
His most recent book is ‘How Voters Feel’ (Cambridge University Press) and he is the author of the forthcoming book, ‘Can the Internet Strengthen Democracy?’ (Polity).
Section 3: News
- The press and the Referendum campaign
- The narrow agenda: how the news media covered the Referendum
- Newspapers’ editorial opinions during the referendum campaign
- Brexit ‘mansplained’: news coverage of the EU Referendum
- Scrutinising statistical claims and constructing balance: television news coverage of the 2016 EU Referendum
- Regulated equivocation: the referendum on radio
- The view from across the pond: Brexit on American media
- A victory of the nation state: the EU Referendum in the Southern European press
The live drama of election night results’ programmes constitutes a moment of ritual affirmation, reminding people that even the most contested political conflicts are bounded; that the allocation of power has been settled without bloodshed; that everyday life will go on the day after and the cycle of plebiscitary choice will come round again before too long. Like switching off the Christmas lights, these are ceremonies of closure, signalling that the moment of democratic choice is now over and the return to mundane governance can commence.
The live drama of election night results’ programmes constitutes a moment of ritual affirmation, reminding people that even the most contested political conflicts are bounded; that the allocation of power has been settled without bloodshed; that everyday life will go on the day after and the cycle of plebiscitary choice will come round again before too long. The referendum result’s programme on BBC1 tore up that script.
The referendum result’s programme on BBC1 tore up that script. Far from being an exercise in soothing reassurance, this was a precarious fairground ride. Far from being an exercise in closure, it seemed more like the announcement of a closing down sale. Such moments of existential instability present a challenge to broadcasters who are, as Roger Silverstone reminded us, key framers of everyday normality.
What can be gained from pursuing a forensic study of media spectacles of this kind? From the narrow perspective of political science, results’ coverage would seem to be a peripheral detail, explaining little or nothing about why voters chose to vote one way or the other or how political campaign strategies succeeded or failed. Beyond such instrumentalist accounts, there is rather more going on in the political sphere than the dynamics of competition. Politics is inherently dramatic and illuminating political analysis seeks to understand the dramatic structures that underlie the distribution of power. In Victor Turner’s terms, drama occurs when there is an interruption in the rhythm of mundane experience; a ‘time out of time’ in which relationships between scene, script and potential action seem somehow open-ended. Political drama entails indeterminacy and the ways in which people choose to respond to it. Where there is no disagreement there is no politics. Where there is certainty about what will happen next there is no drama. Few moments in politics capture the intrinsic uncertainty of politics more vividly than election night. It is here that rhetorical certitude is forced to encounter historical unpredictability. The drama of democracy resides in moments when people endeavour, however crudely, to shape the scene in which they are social actors.
Election results’ coverage provides a rare moment of liveness in a political world that is largely dominated by memories, hearsay, narratives and visions. Most of the time political discourse is buried in reflections and aspirations. Even the live coverage of parliamentary proceedings is overshadowed by an architectural edifice designed to invoke the authority of the past. Election night programmes are live performances, reminding viewers that there is no script, only extemporarality.
The unfolding drama of the Referendum result on the night of 23/4 June, 2016 will be recorded by historians as a pivotal moment in the decline of the United Kingdom. The results’ programme began, as most of these events do, with guest politicians offering self-serving speculations and strange, animated maps of the UK flashing in anticipation. These were moments of prelapsarian innocence in which liberal expectations of business as usual still prevailed.
The first crack in the appearance of normality occurred just after midnight when the result from the Newcastle area came in, defying the psephologists’ predictions and signalling a ripple of dramatic uncertainty. As the hours passed it became clear that the vote was likely to be very close. At just after 4am Nigel Farage, having earlier appeared to concede defeat, made a victory speech, asserting that ‘we fought against the merchant bankers’ and that the anticipated vote to leave was a victory for ‘decent people’. At 4.16 Chuka Umunna was the first person to use the word ‘seismic’, a metaphor than then ran wild, with no fewer than seven different speakers using it eleven times to describe the emerging reality. At 4.38 the BBC forecast a leave result. At 4.52 a tearful Keith Vaz appeared via video link, speaking of the result as a ‘crushing, crushing decision’. A tweet from Paddy Ashdown declares ‘God help this country’. By 5am the mood in the studio was funereal.
As dawn broke the programme began to move from shocked acknowledgement to stuttering explanation. At this point a new metaphor emerged: voters had decided to give the establishment ‘a kicking’. This phrase was used five times, evoking images of voters as a gang of street thugs putting their boots into anyone who looked like they had passed their A-levels.
My plan in the coming weeks is to:
- note every single metaphor used in the course of the results’ programme.
- explore the meanings and genealogies of these metaphors.
- devise an affective ‘heat map’ of the programme’s content with a view to seeing how the referendum played out as feeling.
It will be a modest contribution to a much larger analysis of what preceded and followed the referendum result. But sometimes it is in the liveness of the moment that meanings can best be grasped.