The British media have been accused, along with the politicians, of doing a poor job of informing the nation about the great issues thrown up by Brexit, the biggest story for a generation. Is the criticism justified?
A review of the course of the great debate over the past year and the media’s role in it points to two defects in the media’s overall performance as informer of the public — although the quality of coverage has varied widely. The first is the evident bias in sections of the print media in favour of Brexit without careful consideration of the consequences; the second is the dearth of adequate explanation of the major issues as reported in some of the most widely read newspapers. That was surely one factor in leaving large sections of the population feeling ignored, short-changed, and bitter. So that’s two black marks against the media.
Since February 8 2017, when the House of Commons approved the ‘Brexit bill’ on its third reading with a massive majority, the media have faced an even tougher challenge as the long, meat-grinding process of Brexit negotiations comes into focus and will soon start up in earnest.
That task is for the news media to attempt in good faith to inform all parts of the public about what’s really at stake for them in the process and the final outcome. If the news media fail, the social backlash is likely to be even more painful and divisive than what we have already seen. That would be a third black mark for the media in reporting the story of a lifetime.
Lop-sided reporting of the referendum campaign
No consensus exists about how far the media, taken together, really were biased on either side of the debate. Each voter had a different mix of exposure to media sources, including social media, and formed their own opinion about what they saw and read.
Brexiters complained that the BBC and other broadcasters were too much in the pockets of the establishment, despite strict rules on ‘balanced coverage’ on TV channels. Remainers complained about a triumph of sentiment and prejudice in the tabloid press, which they saw as shrill flag-wavers for Brexit with scant respect for the facts or the legitimate arguments of opponents. Leading figures on both sides of the argument suffered vicious personal online attacks and some reportedly faced death threats.
But a clear picture regarding the written press emerged from a content analysis by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) of coverage during the campaign in a cross-section of mainstream newspapers. It found that of all the articles about the referendum 41 percent were pro Leave as against 27 percent pro Remain. After factoring in the ‘reach’ of the nine papers concerned, the study found that 48 percent of all articles were pro Leave and just 22 percent were pro Remain – an imbalance of more than two to one.
The freedom of newspapers to take sides editorially in elections and referendums is beyond question and a vital feature of Britain’s questioning and lively press landscape. But such a clear predominance of pro Leave angles in news articles that made up the day to day coverage of the campaign raises serious questions about whether the public interest was well served. The evidence suggests that a good deal of the referendum reporting in some titles was more about presenting a set of pre-conceived opinions than about an honest examination of known facts.
Did the press mislead?
Did the British press raise unrealistic expectations or mislead readers in ways that were likely to lead to disappointment and eventually to deeper resentment? A sober conclusion must be that there is at least a case to answer.
The RISJ study highlighted points which editors and owners should reflect on and learn from if they are to raise the generally low levels of trust the written press commands among readers and consumers of news. One was the disproportionate amount of space given to the internal battles among leading Conservative politicians, who accounted for as much as 64 percent of all UK politicians cited in articles. Another was the finding that academic experts and foreign politicians were cited in only 2% and 5% of reports respectively. More than usual, the nation was talking to itself in the referendum campaign. The shortage of perspectives from outside was a factor in what is widely seen as having been an ill-tempered as well as ill-informed campaign.
The Press Gazette wrote on 24 June 2016, the day of the result, that it was probably the Sun, Telegraph, Express and Mail titles ‘wot won it’ for the Leave campaign, because in view of the closeness of the result those newspapers’ ‘strident campaigning’ could well have been decisive.
If the media failed to hold the ring as an honest umpire, so did the other usual authorities, during what former prime minister Sir John Major called a ‘squalid’ and ‘deceitful’ campaign. On 27 May 2016, less than a month before the vote, the UK Statistics Authority publicly rebuked the Vote Leave campaign for persisting with the claim that EU membership costs the UK £350 million a week, which could be spent on the NHS or elsewhere.
The official Vote Leave campaign went on parading its tour bus with the £350 million claim emblazoned on its side up until the day of the vote, and a large number of voters apparently continued to believe it. After the vote a prominent figure on the Leave side acknowledged in a BBC radio discussion that his campaign team had consciously chosen to make ‘outrageous’ claims, after finding that it worked. Indeed it did. It can reasonably be assumed that the tactic helped to erode the early lead of the Remain side and give Leave new momentum.
The Remain side lost a good deal of credibility, too after the government conjured up its own arbitrary forecasts of a swift recession and threats of more austerity were much ridiculed and dismissed as ‘project fear’. Brexiters also kept up their attacks, claiming for example that the BBC’s Newsnight programme had given twice as much airtime to Remain as to Leave campaigners.
As for the Independent Press Standards Organisation, its chairman the former appeal court judge Sir Alan Moses told the FT he felt frustrated with the ‘nasty tone’ of much coverage on immigration and race, and he would like to see the press being more responsible. But he said it was not the role of the regulator to intervene on matters of tone and taste. The editors’ code which most UK newspapers have signed up says the press should avoid ‘prejudicial or pejorative references’ to an individual’s race, colour or religion.
The very first section of the Editor’s Code of Practice that newspapers regulated by IPSO have agreed to follow deals with accuracy. It says:
- The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
- A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published.
Opinion polls confirmed that voters felt poorly informed about the key issues. Polling for the Electoral Reform Society showed that the number of people who felt well informed about the EU referendum actually fell between the end of March and the end of April, at the height of the campaign, from 23 percent to 21 percent.
Enough of ‘experts’
In this context the giddy comment by the then Justice Secretary and Brexit campaign leader Michael Gove’s that “people in this country have had enough of experts” symbolised the burning impatience and sense of mission of those who fought the campaign to quit the EU with a conviction that the nation had to be freed from control by familiar elites — even though Michael Gove and some other Brexiters belong to those elites themselves. Mr Gove’s words were uttered in a TV interview when he was pressed to respond to predictions of a drastic economic downturn if Britain voted to quit the EU. A frequent sub-theme of the campaign was indeed that ‘elites and experts’ were targets to be blamed both for the last decade’s financial crash and for letting the UK become enmeshed in the labyrinth of complex EU rules and processes.
In one way Michael Gove’s attack on experts was illogical in the mouth of a then minister (of justice) who has earned a reputation as a serious policy thinker and one of Britain’s most intellectual-minded politicians. Yet in another way it went to the heart of the matter. The theatrical, public-square-debate aspect of the referendum campaign, fuelled especially by the heightened focus on the issue of ‘uncontrolled’ immigration, turned out to be fertile ground for a widespread grass-roots revolt. And that revolt, it turned out, was firmly based on deep-rooted ideas about British exceptionalism and national sovereignty.
In the mood that prevailed during the referendum campaign, as the Leave side focused relentlessly on the immigration issue, it is fair to say that the Brexiters came out on top in many exchanges. A glaring weakness in the government’s presentation of its case for staying in the EU was exposed. That was reflected in the victory by the Leave side by 51.9 to 48.1 percent and the clean sweep for Leave across most of England outside London.
In the fever of the debate the tangible benefits to Britain of mutual ties with other European states, the single market, and the EU’s valuable role as a forum for settling differences and close coordination in key policy areas such as energy, business, trade and national security often went unmentioned or unrecognised. EU systems are notoriously complex, but so are legislative and governmental process within most states. A dismal lack of knowledge about how the EU works and how the UK exerts influence inside it was on display by many UK politicians as well as some journalists and commentators (again, with plenty of exceptions).
Their counterparts around Europe could not conceal their shock at the tone of the debate and its outcome. Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council president and self-styled historian, responded to the referendum result by saying he feared it ‘could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation.”
The day after: ‘There is no plan for Brexit’ and ‘What will it mean for me’?
In the months since the vote the main lines of the Brexit narrative in the media moved from the blood-letting at the top of the Conservative party to two new stories. One was the jaw-dropping realisation on all sides – in the UK and across Europe – that there really was ‘no Plan B’. It fast became clear that the government really had prepared no plan for Brexit. The second was a scramble by every concerned interest group and economic and social sector in the country to say ‘What will it mean for me (or us)?’ and to press for clarity and for protections for their own futures.
Pro-EU crowds have staged protests in many towns and cities against Brexit and the way it is being taken forward. And a wide range of voices from British society — students and academics, car and pharmaceutical firms, financial service companies and fruit growers, NHS leaders and scientists, and UK residents elsewhere in the EU and EU residents here — have clamoured that their interests are still being ignored, and that they fear acutely negative impacts on their lives and prospects, especially from a ‘hard’ Brexit.
That wave of dismay and sometimes anger has been directed in part against the media. Historian and self-declared Europhile Timothy Garton Ash wrote in an article on 24 June, the day of the referendum result: “The degree of partisanship and distortion in the British press, from The Sun’s “Queen backs Brexit” to the Express front page announcing that the EU would ban British kettles, has no rival anywhere else in Europe.”
The shock at the government’s lack of preparation also prompted newspaper editorials and columnists to criticise its ‘irresponsibility’ in leaving the country’s futures to the winds. But on 2 October the prime minister Theresa May used her Conservative party conference speech to close down that line of attack by her opponents. The core part of her speech was the laconic sentence ‘Brexit means Brexit – and we’re going to make a success of it.”
In response the press again divided along traditional lines, the Conservative-supporting papers cheering the prime minister on to complete her declared mission, others deriding her words as a facile evasion. But her next phrase gave away her tactic for seizing control of the next phase of the debate. “We will not be able to give a running commentary or a blow-by-blow account of the negotiations”, she told the party conference, repeating the phrase countless times thereafter.
So a government on the back foot used the old weapon of government secrecy, combined with an appeal for patriotic loyalty, to hush its opponents and gain time.
Media choices: between reporting the story taking sides
At such a time media outlets have a choice whether to close ranks behind the government or to stand by the principle that the role of the press is indeed to ‘hold power to account’. Large parts of the UK media have until now opted to ally themselves with the current government out of loyalty to its declared priority of seeing Brexit through, even though the path and destination remain unclear.
Now, again, the government seems to be to some extent protected by opinion polls showing that so far the nationwide support from the goal of Brexit is little changed, if at all.
A BBC radio and online report last September points to an explanation for this. In it, reporter Emma-Jane Kirby heard the views of residents of a so-called ‘Brexit Street’ in Thornaby, near Middlesbrough, about the underlying mood that contributed to the strong Leave vote in the area. One resident, Mark, said: “ I think we are probably going to be worse off economically by leaving the EU, but I think that’s a small price to pay to get our independence back. For us to rule our own shores.”
That willingness, by some at least, to face economic loss as a price worth paying for the perceived benefit of living in a UK free of EU rules and judgements speaks to a powerful basic instinct which has surprised many.
Nonetheless, searching scrutiny by the media of government actions and decisions is especially needed in uncertain times like these, as the UK embarks on a massive reconfiguration of its political and legal system and its place in the world.
As late as November 16 last year the willingness of government leaders to listen to the well-founded concerns of their critics was put in question – certainly in the eyes of other European countries – by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who described the statements of EU leaders that freedom of movement is one of the fundamental rights of the European Union as ‘a total myth’ and ‘b******s’. The Daily Mail ‘s news report sided squarely with Mr Johnson, saying he ‘lashed out at EU zealots who are refusing to offer a deal that would allow Britain to stay in Europe’s single market and restrict immigration’.
Three months later, the UK’s future relations with the rest of the EU look like being shaped by a new recognition that the EU is likely to stand by the ‘four freedoms’, including freedom of movement.
Will editors and managers in charge of the British media recognise the need to do better in informing the public about the consequences of the choices that are made in the next phase? That new phase is already upon us.
Dealing with realities: a time for mandarins, Eurocrats and lawyers
So far the government looks like containing any parliamentary rebellion against its goal of a ‘clean Brexit’. But the steam-roller of the Brexit process, affecting almost every department of government, is throwing up piles of grit that are looking like a formidable barrier, if not actually a ‘Stop’ sign in the road.
For the media, the essence of the story of ‘doing Brexit’ will be that the UK’s future will be decided through fiendishly complex multilateral negotiations. It is in the hands not only of Mrs May and her ministers, but of the 27 other European states, Whitehall mandarins and Eurocrats, and inevitably of lawyers and courts. Comments by European leaders, including friends of the UK like the prime minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat (whose country currently holds the EU’s 6-monthly rotating presidency) and the Swedish prime minister, Stefan Loefven, have been widely reported in British media. They have been clear that the UK will not advance its interests best by aggressive negotiating tactics and unilateral decisions but through European-style give and take.
In parliament, the pro-European former cabinet minister Ken Clark ridiculed those who pretend that getting a favourable Brexit deal will be easy, saying: “Apparently you follow the rabbit down the hole and you emerge in a wonderland, where suddenly countries around the world are queuing up with trading advantages and access to their markets.”
An important question now is whether the right-wing press will take proper and well-researched account of the complexities ahead, or if those newspapers will continue with aggressive attacks on those who speak up about obstacles for the negotiations and issues of acute concern for those affected by Brexit. The Sun, Express, Telegraph and Mail showed their claws in early November after the Supreme Court’s ruling that the assent of parliament if needed before the government could trigger Article 50 to notify the EU of the UK’s intention to leave. The Daily Mail’s attack on the judges concerned as ‘Enemies of the people’ has entered the annals of ultra-provocative and deliberately offensive tabloid headlines.
Sir John Major: elder statesman or ‘traitor’ to the UK?
This week former prime minister Sir John Major gave a serious speech setting out the formidable difficulties the government will face in negotiations and saying from his own long experience that he saw little chance the UK can match the advantages of the EU’s single market which it is set to leave. He confronted the May government and the right-wing media headline-writers when he warned of ‘expectations being inflated beyond any expectation of delivery’, and criticised ‘cheap rhetoric’ and displays of ‘bigotry and intolerance’. He identified a threat to ‘the right to disagree and to express dissent’ , and called for a frank acknowledgement of the hurdles ahead to avoid the risk that the UK would end up with what he called the ‘worst possible outcome’, which he said could lead to a serious social and political backlash.
Sir John’s reward was a Daily Mail headline proclaiming ‘Treachery of Remoaner Major’ and an opinion piece by columnist Quentin Letts labelling him as always ‘an intensely vain man’. The Sun dismissed his analysis as ‘defeatist gloom’ and warned its readers to ‘stand by for years more moaning’. It was as if Major himself had foreseen the onslaught, when he deplored attempts to ‘shout down’ the legitimate concerns of those who believed the UK would be more secure staying within the EU.
Against that, eight months after the referendum vote the tone and contents of a great deal of news coverage and comment about the prospect of Brexit now consists of information reflecting concerns about the host of policy matters that are of pressing concern to enterprises, government departments, and citizens. The picture that emerges is sobering. In the past several days: –
The Economist highlighted the 60 billion euro bill that the UK may be pressed to pay for Brexit. ‘This will come as a shock’, the magazine observed, to those who were told Brexit would save them £350 million a week.
Arch-Brexiteer Christopher Booker fulminated in his Sunday Telegraph column about the ‘nightmare scenario’ of bare shelves in our supermarkets and long queues of trucks at our ports waiting for customs clearance – the result, he warns, of Theresa May’s decision to pull the UK out of the EU’s single market and the European Economic Area, which he now calls’ a catastrophic act of self-harm’. Booker quoted an undoubted expert – a leading figure in the UK road haulage industry.
The Guardian cited a Whitehall insider (described as a senior official in the international trade department) as observing that people ‘don’t seem to understand that any trade deals are years off’, and that ‘the Brexit-leaning press’ seems to have lost all its critical faculties’.
The Daily Mail faithfully reported the “Brexit secretary”, David Davis, saying that low-skilled migrants from the EU could be allowed to come and work in Britain for ‘years and years’ after the UK has left. It was a significant acknowledgement that net immigration may not come down very much in the medium term.
Also, Theresa May’s visit to India in November was not reported as the success that the government had hoped for, after the Indian side baulked at a grand new trade deal unless Britain eases its visa regime for rules for Indians. And HSBC and other banks have gone public with plans for relocating some staff away from London to protect their own best interests in anticipation of Brexit, while Amazon and other big US firms have announced new investments in Britain regardless of Brexit. Lord (Gus) O’Donnell, former head of the UK civil service, was asked last November if the civil service was ready for the business of Brexit. “There’s a simple short answer to that, and it’s no,” he told the Politicshome website.
In the face of the uncertainties and fears of loss of business and opportunities a stream of warnings, complaints and special pleas are being aired daily by pharmaceutical giants, car parts makers, environmental organisation, supermarkets, research councils and labs, universities, the airline industry and others. It is obvious that every ounce of the arcane knowledge and experience of civil servants and experts in every field will be needed, and soon.
Lost in a legal labyrinth?
The coming Brexit talks have been described as the most complex set of international negotiations ever undertaken by the UK or by the EU itself. An extra element which will magnify the difficulties for news media is that detailed matters of domestic and international law will be crucial to the negotiators and the chances of reaching mutually agreed outcomes.
Some clues about the pitfalls ahead were set out at an event on Legal Challenges Post Brexit hosted by the British Institute of International and Comparative Law in London at the end of January.
Among the headline points that I took away from the gathering were:
The EU treaties are unlike any other international treaties the UK has entered into, because the UK’s membership of the UK’s EU membership meant the acceptance of the Union as a separate source of law in a vast number of areas, providing (like it or not) a ‘new constitutional structure’. To disentangle the bits the UK wishes to keep, those it may no longer keep, and those it wishes to discard, will be unimaginably complicated.
Trade agreements are ‘miserable, dirty and hard-fought affairs’, which will give countless opportunities for political games and delays, and hardball tactics on the part of all the usual suspects, from famers in the Club Med countries to powerful industrial lobbies on both sides of the Channel and the potato-growers of Maine (in the case of a wished-for UK-EU free trade deal).
The UK government’s determination to escape from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will be extremely hard to achieve and can be expected to take much longer than the two years allotted for the negotiations. In the long run a host of issues concerning mutual recognition of standards, arbitration, and resolution of disputes between the UK and the rest of Europe will require that all sides accept the same rules and a court or courts to enforce them.
The mastery of political, legal and commercial detail during the negotiations on the UK’s divorce and post-divorce settlements with the rest of the EU represents a unique challenge to the news media and its claim to be a genuine ‘watchdog of the public interest’.
Even more important will be that the media play their full part in respecting the democratic principle that the rights and opinions of minorities of all kinds are taken into account and not ‘shouted down’. That, too, is what press freedom is about.