BREXIT: The UK’s very own political pissing contest

Did the British media fight or fuel this fire?

Image by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

The UK’s referendum shook the media to its core and dominated an abundance of historic headlines for the next four years to follow. Upon the recent news of Britain finally reaching a deal with the EU (almost a year after its official departure) we’re going to be taking it back to 2016 to look at how the British press covered this political explosion and the ongoing effects it’s had on the journalism industry since!

The possibility of the UK withdrawing from the EU was, for most people, a highly puzzling concept. This perplexing nature provided the British press with a great deal of power as much of the British population (including myself) looked to the media to break down these complexities and provide the coverage needed to make that all encompassing decision:

Leave or Remain?

Brexit coverage was highly politicised. Content published across the nation soon highlighted the political stance of major national newspapers as their positions on the EU Referendum became transparent. A survey conducted by The University of Oxford found that the ratio of articles pro Leave to Remain stood at 48%:22%, with the remaining 30% having no position.

However, surely this percentage of unbiased reporting should stand at a higher rank than 30%? How can a member of the public, unsure on what the term Brexit even means, be expected to make an informed decision on their vote if 70% of the content available to them is biased in some form or another? It’s to that question that I say welcome to the fundamentals of the British media. A media that constantly shames modern social media influencers for doing a job with principals that don’t stray far from their own morals when studied at more than a glance.

Image by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

The University of Oxford’s study also found that a bare minimum of coverage was reserved for groups that didn’t find themselves falling under either of the two campaigns, or a member of a political party. The public saw limited insight into the opinions of academics, experts, foreign politicians and business leaders as the tones of each side relied heavily on political figures and their campaign developments to draw in the readers through their alignment with the particular party or their outrage at the latest claims.

For a statement that sounds incredibly optimistic in the favour of democracy, there’s no denying that the British people most definitely had their say, just after the media got theirs first!

The media prayed on trending topics amongst public attitudes to focalise their content and influence votes. The remain camp set their sights mainly on the consequences on the economy, trade and finance whilst the leave camp combined the economy with immigration and terrorism. Dramatic headlines with drastic claims worked to solidify the opinions of voters without any need for further research into the assertions being made due to the influx and ease of media access and consumption.

Headlines in The Sun and The Times

These headlines lack any neutrality in the debate, exhibiting the news giants’ roles as political instruments for each camp. The Sun’s use of a patriotic pun is a clear tactic of persuasion to those more inclined to vote leave, with The Time’s direct statement working to influence a voter as to why voting remain is the correct way to go.

But how ethical is the media’s influence on public opinions with consequences of this magnitude? Should there be stricter limits on the extent of bias allowed to circulate within a publication?

Front page of The Daily Express

This Daily Express headline claimed that 92% of Brits ‘want to quit the EU’, however this doesn’t reflect the final outcome that saw 48% of votes to remain within the European Union. Although this data is representative of the poll carried out in February 2016, only 68,777 people took part in the survey mentioned! This exhibits how media headlines can be misleading to readers, especially those merely glancing at the newest headlines. This risks inaccurate perceptions of public opinions due to not being a complete representative of the 46,500,001 people registered to vote in 2016.

The political propaganda didn’t stop after the definitive vote to leave the European Union was decided on 23rd June 2016. Fast forward to 2019, Helen Lewis’s article for The Atlantic on ‘Brexit and the Failure of Journalism’ summed up the media’s attitude (and failure) towards reporting on the UKs withdrawal from the EU through the official slogan of the 2019 Conservative Party conference: ‘Get Brexit done.’

Claims of the need for a fast withdrawal left questions surrounding the security of this democratic decision as it became clear that certain parties feared an overturning of the pro Leave victory. Lewis discusses how democracy requires significant decisions to be taken ‘only after due consideration’, a statement that the media fail to consider when producing fast paced headlines aimed at obtaining as many reads and clicks as possible. News giants continued to polarise Brexit issues between the two camps, relying on audience uproar to their latest claims to pressurise the government into acting accordingly with their criticism.

The media’s political approach affects their highly crucial social responsibility to their readers in providing unbiased and neutral content. Readers were exposed to a multitude of coverage whether they asked for it or not, with Brexit debates dominating UK discussion from media platforms to staff room gossip. The suffocating nature of the British press allowed for indoctrination through the ease of consumption as opposed to burdened independent research. Is this the media’s fault? Absolutely not. However, do they rely on this to maintain readership, relevance and influence? Undoubtedly.

What are your thoughts on the power and influence of the British media? Be sure to let me know and check out my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for the latest news updates and links to my new blog posts!

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Kim Renton

Final year English student at Bournemouth University discussing all things news and journalism! 👩🏻‍🎓