The role of the British press in campaigning to swing the Brexit vote – and the failure of broadcasters to hold either Remain or Leave to account – dominated a conference in London organised by the Association of European Journalists.
An array of tabloid front pages – including the Daily Mail’s “Enemies of the People” and more recently, the Sun’s “EU Dirty Rats” headline after the disastrous Salzburg summit – were cited as examples of biased press coverage in support of Brexit.
In the view of most of those taking part in the conference (28.9.2018), the unleashing of a continuing tide of headlines about Remain “traitors”, and a torrent of stories about “ambushes” and “bullying” by the Brussels establishment, will have the effect of reinforcing a false prospectus.
There were dire predictions for the tone and content future coverage by the Brexiteer newspapers in a “diminished Brexit Britain”.
Sir Martin Donnelly, a former permanent secretary for business and trade, believed the narrative of the Brexiteers and their press supporters in the aftermath of departure from the EU would be a constant tide of resentment about decisions taken in Brussels as they impacted the UK economy, security, and foreign policy.
“We will get a constant litany of complaint about an invented ‘Brussels’ plot to do Britain down’, and the rhetoric in Westminster will harden against Brussels and the European Parliament.”
Quentin Peel, a former Financial Times correspondent and now an associate fellow at Chatham House, forecast an ongoing backlash. “I think the angry press backlash we will see will be that it is ‘not our fault’, that it is ‘Brussels’ fault for not giving us a better deal’.”
Sir Martin opened his speech by holding up the Sun’s “EU Dirty Rats” front page as an illustration of British press coverage and the difficulties faced by the European Union and the UK government in getting across the complexity of the Brexit talks.
“The problem for journalists is how to connect the level of detail in the Brussels’ negotiations with a wider narrative for the public.”
Imke Henkel, a former UK correspondent for German newspapers and now a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Lincoln, reflected on the origins of Euro myths that sustained the British press.
Story lines about bans on bent bananas or prawn-flavoured crisps dated from the early 1990s when Boris Johnson was the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels.
These myths survived and sustained the mythology of a “feisty” Britain standing up against the EU bully.
“Boris Johnson realised people were not interested in the EU but did like funny stories which tapped into the myth of Britishness, of Britain standing up to the EU bully.
“This explains why ‘sovereignty’ resonated in the Brexit campaign, and why Jacob Rees-Mogg is still talking about EU bully boys.”
Quentin Peel agreed with her analysis. Britain’s immediate experience of joining the EEC in the 1970s was an economic downturn.
“Maggie wanting her money back has coloured the media ever since, ‘a battle to get our money back’, a story line always sold as us against them, victory or defeat.”
Peter Foster, Europe editor of the Daily Telegraph, accepted that media coverage was partly to blame for the Brexit vote, but the driving factor behind press criticism of Brussels was that Britain had never invested in the European project.
Britain had always been an island nation; the schengen area of free movement was something EU people believed in; and the UK had never joined the Euro.
“There is something in the British DNA, not just in the figment of the imagination of the Sun. There is a hard-nose British view which was echoed by the Sun’s 1990 “Up Yours Delors” headline”, and the slogan ‘take back control’ was an act of genius.”
Immigration was the biggest issue and David Cameron was responsible not only for calling the Referendum, but also for coming up with the arbitrary target of getting net immigration under 100,000. People blamed the EU for the failure to achieve that.
James Hawes of Oxford Brookes University thought it was a false prospectus to suggest that democratic and economic stability would survive after Brexit if newspapers such as the Sun continued to unleash “tanks of the lawn” headlines about Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Stephen Jukes, professor of journalism at Bournemouth University, said the broadcasters’ policy of a providing viewers and listeners with a balance of Leave and Remain opinion during Referendum campaign had underlined the failure of stop-watch neutrality.
To its credit, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom, had finally called time on the reluctance of television and radio presenters to challenge the accuracy of political figures talking “nonsense”.
The ruling in April that the BBC had broken its own rules on accuracy by failing to challenge inaccurate assertions by the climate change denier Nigel Lawson should be heeded by all broadcasters as the Brexit end game played out.
Broadcasting organisations needed to do far more to verify facts, ensure the transparency of sources and contextualize their reports.
Gisela Stuart, former Labour MP and chair of the Vote Leave campaign – who admitted she was “tired of this whole debate” – blamed journalists for failing to turn complicated issues into approachable stories, a failure made worse by the “majority of journalists not knowing their facts”.
Illustrations: Sun 21.9.2018 and Daily Mail 4.11.2016