Brexit: inequality, the media and the democratic deficit – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Brexit: inequality, the media and the democratic deficit

Fenton-Goldsmiths-006

Prof Natalie Fenton

Professor in Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communication, Goldsmiths, University of London.

She is Co-Director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre and Co-Director of Goldsmiths Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy. Her latest book (2016) Digital, Political, Radical is published by Polity.

Email: N.Fenton@gold.ac.uk

 

EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 4

Section 4: Journalism

Brexit has come as a shock to many people – including those who voted for it. It reveals the scars, we are told, of a deeply divided nation. An election like no other. But referenda are not normal elections. As a snap choice of this or that they bring to the fore fears and anxieties while offering solutions that are never as simple as either/or. To begin to explain what has happened we need to bring context and history to bear. One thing we have known for some time is that inequality has increased. As inequality has increased so social mobility has fallen. As the poor have got poorer so they have had less and less influence over policies and politicians and feel ever more cut adrift from politics, left without the dignity of being able to influence the making of their own history.

If you were ever in any doubt that media reform is needed in the UK to support something approximating democracy, the reporting of the Leave campaign surely gives you your answer. When newspapers lie to bring about referendum results and the regulator is not prepared to stop them, the consequences are socially and politically catastrophic.

The last decade has also been marked by public manifestations of dissent – mass demonstrations against student fees, public sector strikes and riots, the Occupy movement – protest is now more common than ever, but rarely taken notice of by those who govern. Functions of the state that once were public have been handed over to the private sector and then judged solely on economic grounds. Anti-trade union legislation has hollowed out the ability of workers to have any effective representation over falling wages and facilitated ever more insecure employment. Welfare services and public investments have been diminished while corporate prowess gains in cock-sure confidence through deregulation. Neoliberalism has built a structure of feeling that people are dispensable, that publics don’t need to be listened to.

So the tag line for the Leave campaign – ‘Let’s Take Back Control’ – speaks to a very real disaffection that this democracy doesn’t work for the vast majority of its members. Crouch has famously termed our current democratic decay as a continuing process of dissolution towards ‘post-democracy’, a state where ‘the forms of democracy remain fully in place’, yet ‘politics and government are increasingly slipping back into the control of privileged elites in the manner characteristic of pre-democratic times’.

Forgotten publics

When publics are abandoned, when their voices no longer matter and their identities are demolished through economic inequality, precarity and non-recognition, they lose faith in the political institutions that are supposed to represent them. And they see a political system that is entangled with a neoliberal practice – forms of power detached from authority and from responsibility to those left behind, particularly in periods of economic crisis.

So it is possible to see the Brexit vote as a desperate plea for change; a bid to turn politics from something that is done to us into doing something for ourselves. Is it any surprise then that in the pursuit of reassurance and solidarity in the face of economic insecurity, that for some life takes on a sinister and resentful white nationalism – us against them – a convenient xenophobic rhetoric peddled by the three white men of Johnson, Gove and Farage all too willing to feed a tabloid frenzy. British newspapers were overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit, with the Mail, Telegraph, Express and Star accounting for four times as many readers and anti-EU stories as their pro-remain rivals.

The fact-checking pro-Remain website In Facts run by a group of editors, made complaints to IPSO against 20 pro-Brexit stories in the national press that are mostly concerned with inaccurate and distorted stories about the numbers of EU migrants coming to Britain and their impact on the UK. Only 5 of these false stories have so far been corrected but even then the corrections are never given the same prominence as the original article. The misleading headlines and sensationalist reporting are nothing new – this is a discourse that emanates from a longstanding Eurosceptic press that has campaigned against Brussels for years. And while research tells us that the media’s influence resides in telling us what to think about rather than telling us what to think, we also know that most people consume news from sources that largely reinforce their views. When views go unchallenged they gain in popular credibility. This begins to explain research undertaken in 2014 by Ipsos Mori that mapped popular perceptions against reality. According to their survey the British public think that one in 5 British people are Muslim when in reality it is one in twenty and that 24% of the population are immigrants when the official figure is 13%.

If you were ever in any doubt that media reform is needed in the UK to support something approximating democracy, the reporting of the Leave campaign surely gives you your answer. When newspapers lie to bring about referendum results and the regulator is not prepared to stop them, the consequences are socially and politically catastrophic.