Brexit in the News
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
With just under a month to go before the end of the Brexit transition period, it's probably time to reflect upon how we arrived here.
Debate over Euroscepticism goes back to the 1960s, but the topic of the UK leaving the EU began to appear more frequently in the news around 2010. The news has played a vital and controversial role in the portrayal of the Leave and Remain campaigns, with their main task being to educate readers in order for them to make an informed decision about the referendum.
Whilst British broadcasting media such as the BBC have a legal duty to remain unbiased, British newspapers have had a long tradition of partisanship (prejudice in favour of a particular cause) and presenting certain political agendas. Media news outlets decide how the news is presented to the readers and in what way it is framed. Therefore, when the controversial topic of the Brexit referendum arose, newspapers were divided in how they chose to inform the public about the UK’s membership to the EU.
With political parties and politicians split on their views, a newspaper’s allegiance to a political party did not create a straightforward allegiance to Leave or Remain. On the whole, more newspapers were skewed towards the Leave campaign than Remain, with PRIME research showing that 41% of articles on Brexit were in favour of leaving and only 27% were in favour of staying in the EU. This political bias led to a spread of fake news and sensationalism primarily derived from the Leave campaign which resulted in British news producing a misleading presentation of Brexit.
During the Brexit referendum campaign, several news outlets shared misleading facts and figures surrounding the implications of continuing membership of the EU. The majority of these false news and statistics came from the Leave side of the referendum debate.
A prime example of this is Boris Johnson’s reported claim of a £350 million weekly bonus to the NHS if the UK left the EU. This slogan was quite literally paraded around London on the side of the red Vote Leave bus and became an unforgettable part of the Leave campaign. However, the claim became hotly disputed amongst news outlets as it was seen to be inaccurate. The claim was not condemned enough by the press and Johnson himself did not admit the claim was false until 2019. Despite the statistical figure being false, the sentiment and agenda behind the message was there, and the newspapers played a part in the presentation of this message to the public.
Need more info? Read our Guide: How to Spot Fake News.
This wasn’t the only reporting of misinformation spread during the referendum campaign. The Leave campaign adopted a right-wing position in their focus on immigration with the slogan ‘Take back control’ widely repeated. This resulted in significant speculation around immigration in the UK and the spreading of false information by various leave supporting media outlets.
The notion that Turkey and its population of 73 million people would ‘flock to the UK’ was misleading as Turkey’s membership to the EU was not assured. This combined with other false headlines such Farage’s ‘breaking point’ poster presented the of fear of immigrants as legitimate and promoted a nationalistic agenda without providing much of a voice to the contrary.
This is where the issue lies, although providing perspectives on all sides of the debate is necessary and newspapers have the freedom to push certain political views, it becomes an issue when these agendas include false statistics which misinform the public.
Therefore, some newspapers did not create a fair representation of Brexit from which readers could make an informed decision.
Another issue resulting from newspapers’ framing of the referendum campaign was sensationalism. This is the appeal to viewers' senses through the exaggeration of facts and news stories in order to gain sales or views. A study shows that sensationalism stimulates more viewing time, particularly if the topic is negative.
In 2016, newspapers became focused on speculation and exaggerating certain ideas of the debate instead of focusing on the facts. During the campaign, the Remain side grounded their approach in facts and the economic risks whilst the Leave camp created a focus on an emotive pull, something which the newspapers reflected and expanded upon. This can be seen with many of the Leave-supporting newspapers running headlines such as ‘Queen Backs Brexit’ and ‘EU now wants us to ban our kettles’. These articles have little substance or truth about them, but by splashing large eye-catching titles across the front pages, the readers' attention is certainly grabbed. Certain right-wing partisan newspapers such as The Daily Express became focused on furthering their own political agendas (which were increasing their sales and popularity) than providing a balanced view of the debate.
What about Remain?
With most of the newspapers' focus on the sensationalist speculation from the Leave campaign, the Remain campaign’s voice was left drowned out. With a majority of newspapers providing more space to pro-Brexit headlines, less attention and volume of information was given on the remain campaign.
Arguably, newspapers could have tackled this by having a bigger role in debunking the Leave campaign’s lies, thus providing more balance. However, perhaps newspapers are not all to blame and the strategy of the Remain campaign itself was flawed. Ultimately, the remain campaign failed by losing the referendum. In a time of declining popularity for David Cameron who was the face of the Remain camp, their stance was passive and focused on the negatives of leaving rather than framing staying in the EU as a positive thing.
So, newspapers’ presentation of Brexit and both sides of the debate left something to be desired. However, the broadcasting media, bound by laws on impartiality, presented a variety of views and opened up the debate. The BBC in particular put forward a more balanced coverage of the referendum, leaving the viewers to decide what is or isn’t true.
This has faced backlash from some such as Robert Peston who view that providing a balance of information does not constitute fair impartiality. Instead, additional guidance from the BBC towards what views are accurate or not is needed.
Despite this, it can be seen that on the whole, broadcasting media found a more truthful middle ground in the debate than the newspapers, which can also be applied to broader British news coverage in general.
The Brexit referendum was a highly contentious and divisive debate, and British news outlets contributed towards this debate in their framing of the campaigns. In their partisan stance, newspapers fuelled speculation towards the implications of the UK’s membership of the EU and contributed to the spread of fake news, particularly coming from the Leave campaign.
The news media is not solely to blame; the false statistics and headlines were predominantly sourced from the Leave campaign’s attempt at pulling at emotions.
However, newspapers have a duty to their readers to fact check in their presentation of the truth.
There exists a fine line between reporting facts and propaganda, with several newspapers instructing readers to vote a certain way in their election headlines. Should this be the role of newspapers?
A question which then arises is: what can be done? It's important to keep in mind that, in a society founded on freedom of speech, impartiality is arguably impossible to achieve. Indeed, in a system where Boris Johnson himself began his political career by misreporting on the EU for a Daily Telegraph column, political ambitions and agendas will always play a part in presenting facts.
The extent of the impact on how much influence newspapers have on voting behaviours will remain highly contested. As we approach the official end date of the transition period, we are now in a position to reflect upon statements made during the referendum campaigns and how this influences how Brexit is being reported in the news today.