UK Press Coverage of the EU Referendum
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st September, 2016
British newspapers are notoriously partisan, which is a polite way of saying politically biased. But do they actually influence the way people think and vote, or rather do readers gravitate to titles that reflect their own opinions? It has often been argued that the latter is the case, which might suggest that the bias does not really matter, yet when so much of the UK Press argued for Brexit, I couldn’t help wondering if that contributed significantly to the narrow vote to leave the EU. So I was pleased to be able to attend a seminar last night at Europe House, headquarters of the European Commission and European Parliament London representation, to listen to a panel discussing the findings of a report on UK Press coverage of the EU Referendum, published by the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism in association with PRIME Research. The study, which looked at the Tuesday and Saturday editions of nine leading newspapers, found that 41% of the articles that focused on the referendum were pro-Leave whereas only 27% were pro-Remain. When the readership reach of the different newspapers was factored in, the imbalance was even more marked, as 48% were then identified as pro-Leave and only 22% pro-Remain. The study noted that Europe was not a particularly important issue for voters until 2010 and only became so after it was linked to immigration. The referendum campaign itself coincided with a decline in David Cameron’s popularity and the Remain campaign appeared unable or unwilling to articulate a positive vision for Britain’s EU membership instead focusing on the risks of Brexit. The Leave side then cleverly exploited what it dubbed Project Fear. The Remainers concentrated almost entirely on economic arguments whereas the Leavers gave more weight to matters such as sovereignty and migration. Neither side could claim to have told the unblemished truth, though the most egregious lie was the £350 million a week claim the Leave campaign could be saved by no longer paying in to the EU budget, instead spending the money on the embattled NHS. The Daily Express maintained a barrage of anti-EU migrant stories, though the reach and therefore impact of the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph was more significant. The pro-Remain newspapers were essentially the Daily Mirror, the Guardian and the Financial Times, though interestingly polling results later showed that a significant number of Daily Mirror readers voted to Leave, underlining the social/economic class dimension to the vote.