UK newspapers and the EU Referendum: Brexit or Bremain? – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

UK newspapers and the EU Referendum: Brexit or Bremain?

How far do newspapers influence public opinion on vexed political issues, such as the Europe question in Britain? This is a very difficult question to answer definitively because causation one way or the other can never be proved beyond doubt. However, what we can establish in light of the British public’s decision to leave the EU is that the media – and the most widely read UK newspapers in particular – have played a vital role in structuring the parameters of the debate for many years. Senior politicians from all the main parties over the past two decades have consistently testified to having had to consider how their policies will ‘play’ in the opinion-forming press. They have long felt it important to rub shoulders with influential media magnates such as Rupert Murdoch in a bid to elicit his support or at least assure his acquiescence in new or controversial policy manoeuvres.

If the Brexit newspapers are deemed to have been crucial then it should not be overlooked how far their professed faith in Britain is in fact a subtle mask for commercial imperatives. ‘Europe’ has become one more battleground for readership numbers in a declining newspaper marketplace.

On the Europe issue the public has been fed by many quarters of the press a solid diet of anti-EU reporting, centering on an undemocratic ‘Brussels’ machine subverting Britain’s governing institutions, British liberty and its way of life. These scare stories (akin to a twenty year-long Project Fear of the press’s making) have covered the full range, from the inflammatory to the mythical and the plain wrong, as the Leveson Inquiry pointed out. The divorce between fact and reality has done nothing to lessen the appeal of EU-bashing in Britain because there has been such little pushback on these stories from a political class unwilling to put the positive case for British achievements at EU level. The British public has been given a limited knowledge of EU history, politics and policy-making from politicians, the press and through the general educational system, which has amply fed Eurosceptical narratives of Britain’s past, present and future outside the EU. Britain’s uneasy status as an ‘outsider’ within the EU makes the referendum outcome seem less of a shock when the structuring effects of Eurosceptic media coverage, combined with the abdication of political leadership on the question until it was too late, are taken into account.

Given this long tradition of EU-bashing in the UK press it was no surprise that many newspapers came out on the side of Brexit before the referendum: the tenor of reporting by the Telegraph, Mail and Sun has long been antithetical to British membership of the European project. The Express, moreover, was the first newspaper to launch a ‘Get Britain Out’ campaign as long ago as November 2010. What was less widely predicted was that there would be differentiation within media groups. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and Sunday Times urged Brexit, while the Times supported Remain. The Mail Group was also split, with the Mail on Sunday supporting Remain, in opposition to its daily stablemate.

The differences within newspaper groups are interesting for two reasons. First, they reveal the extent to which a newspaper’s editorial line is driven by commercial reality as much as its ideology on political matters. Newspapers spend a good deal of time polling their readers and clearly do not want to alienate core audiences. Second, it gives us a potential insight into the commercial calculations underpinning ownership positions. For example, Roy Greenslade’s magisterial history of UK newspaper proprietorship amply demonstrates that the Sun has always been known to be Murdoch’s favourite UK press outlet – his authentic voice, as it were. The strident nationalism in the Sun has been toned down for ‘establishment’ Times readers, where more balance has also been injected over the years by the inclusion of more Europhile voices. This façade of ‘balance’ in the Murdoch empire works to head off criticisms that he is one-eyed on the European issue. Yet in truth Murdoch knows that the lukewarm Europeanism on offer in even the most EU-sympathetic newspapers (Times plus Independent, Guardian and Observer) cannot outweigh the Eurosceptic commentary elsewhere across the press.

Both in terms of breadth (judged in readership numbers) and in terms of intensity, the Eurosceptic press has more or less had the playing field to itself for years. Thus, as the Conservative and Labour blood-letting begins, and analysis gets underway into what won the referendum for Brexit, the newspapers are already playing a central role. If the Brexit newspapers are deemed to have been crucial then it should not be overlooked how far their professed faith in Britain is in fact a subtle mask for commercial imperatives. ‘Europe’ has become one more battleground for readership numbers in a declining newspaper marketplace.