1An hour after victory was declared for the Leave side in the referendum, Tony Gallagher, the editor of the Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, crowed: “So much for the waning power of the print media”. In common with the overwhelming majority of the British press, the Sun had throughout the campaign made no secret of its support for Brexit, and had, just days before the referendum, emblazoned its front cover with a Union Jack and the message “BeLEAVE in Britain”.
A politically engaged British press
2In British public life, the press, specifically the rightwing popular press, has long been accorded an almost supernatural power to influence the outcome of elections and referendums. A 1992 front-page headline in the Sun— “It’s The Sun Wot Won It”—, which followed an unexpected Conservative general election victory, has become part of political and media folklore. The Sun, and papers like it, were credited with the power to deliver the votes of many millions of readers, usually to the Conservatives. Since 1992, however, the Sun’s circulation has dropped by 50 per cent and other papers have suffered similarly, leading many commentators and politicians to conclude that their power may be on the wane. Had Britain opted to remain in Europe, it might have signalled the beginning of the end of the British press as a political force.
3Hence Gallagher’s delight at the outcome—a victory for the Leave campaign by 52 per cent to 48 per cent. The result had not been widely predicted: pollsters, most pundits and even senior Leave campaigners had been publicly and privately expecting Britain to vote for the status quo. When the outcome became clear, at about 5am on Friday June 24, it set in train a domestic upheaval that saw the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron and most of his senior allies and a period of shocked introspection on the part of the political and media classes.
4On all sides of the debate, there is agreement that the referendum was only nominally about Britain’s place in the European Union. The public, especially those who voted Leave, were responding to a complex series of issues: migration, disillusion with the political class, a growing divide between London and the rest of the country, the politics of “austerity” which, since the global economic crash of 2008, have seen dramatic cuts in public services, a labour market in which “jobs for life” have been replaced with casual, short-term employment, economic insecurity, falling real wages. It was as if Britons were being asked to vote in a referendum on the state of the country and whether or not they felt happy, safe and secure. Fairly or otherwise, for many of those who voted Leave, the European Union had become a proxy for everything that they felt was wrong with the country and with their lives. The Sun and newspapers like it reflected and amplified these discontents.
5Britain, perhaps more than most Western countries, has a press that is politically engaged and parti pris. This goes beyond the traditional opinion pages, where commentators peddle the paper’s editorial line. Over the last couple of decades opinion has increasingly leached into reporting, such that on some issues, many newspapers make little or no pretence of objectivity.
6The most aggressively committed parts of the British press are firmly on the right of politics. They proclaim a view of the world that combines revolutionary fervour for free-market, small-government economics with ultraconservative nostalgia for the monocultural, socially stratified, deferential (and partly imaginary) Britain of the 1940s and 1950s. Most British newspapers owe their existence to a small group of “press barons”—aggressive businessmen such as Lords Beaverbrook, Northcliffe and Rothermere, who founded newspapers for profit and political influence and required them to reflect their conservative social and political views. Ownership has passed on (though the Rothermere family still owns the Mail through a publicly-quoted company), but the culture remains. Today’s press barons are generally strong-minded businessmen of aggressively right-wing cast—Rupert Murdoch is the best-known and most powerful. They use their papers to propagate their political opinions and appoint as editors people who share their views. These are, pretty much without exception, in the image of the proprietors: white men, middle-aged or elderly (Paul Dacre, the long-serving editor of the Daily Mail is approaching 70), with a nostalgia for the British Empire and the Second World War.
7To this group of proprietors and senior journalists, the European Union represents much that is odious: regulation, taxation, social welfare, collectivism, the constant reminder that Britain is just one country among many (in contrast with the Empire which we ruled). They had been campaigning for Brexit long before the word existed: the Sun first demanded a referendum in 1990 and, along with much of the rest of the media, has been viscerally hostile to the Europe, its Union, its Parliament and the Commission for decades. In newspapers like the Sun, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, reporting of Europe has focused on cost, waste, bureaucracy, interference in domestic sovereignty and, particularly in the last ten years, on immigration. The tone has alternated between poisonous vituperation and mockery: coverage was often untrue or exaggerated beyond reason, to the extent that the European Union set up a “Euromyths” website, devoted to debunking the claims made by the British press.
8This approach to reporting Europe was pioneered by a journalist called Boris Johnson, who was Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in the 1990s and whose coverage became a byword for mendacity harnessed for comic effect (the EU is banning prawn-flavoured potato crisps, is dictating how much cleavage a barmaid may show, will ban abnormally curved bananas). Johnson later became a politician (he is now British Foreign Secretary) and was a major figure in the Leave camp, campaigning against a caricature of Europe for which he was in large part responsible.
The campaign for Brexit
9It is impossible to calculate the effect that the longrunning British press campaign had in preparing the ground for the moment when the referendum was finally called and the campaign began. At that moment, there was no doubt that papers like the Mail, Express, Telegraph and the Sun would be participants in the campaign rather than reporters of it.
10Even knowing this, it was hard to be prepared for the torrent of coverage that followed and its bitter rage. “Who WILL speak for England?” the Mail asked on its front page in February, likening opponents of the EU to British politicians of the 1930s who spoke out against Hitler and the Nazis (though the paper was careful to say that there are “no parallels whatever between the Nazis and the EU”). As the referendum drew close, the Mail ran another front-page reading: “Lies, greedy elites. Or a great future outside a broken, dying Europe. If you believe in Britain, Vote Leave” while the Sun’s front page offered its “BeLEAVE in Britain”. Each of these features was clearly labelled a comment piece, albeit they appeared on the front page, where readers traditionally expect to see news. As we shall see, though, the pro-Brexit convictions of the British press went far beyond the realm of commentary: news coverage which (according to traditional journalistic conventions, at least) should strive for balance and accuracy, became infected by bias, distortion and lies. This isn’t a completely new phenomenon in the British press, which has increasingly allowed political conviction to override its journalistic scruple. What was startling, in the daily barrage of pro-Brexit news coverage in the press, was its absolute disdain for professional ethics and norms. Large parts of the British press were so committed to the Leave campaign that they became, in all but name, part of its propaganda operation.
11In the first three weeks of June, as the referendum drew closer, there was a blizzard of anti-EU, pro-Brexit news stories on the front pages of newspapers and, particularly, story after story about migration. The Express offered “Migrants pay just £100 to invade Britain”, “20,000 migrants ready to sneak into Britain”, “There will be bodies on our beaches” (a warning from Leave campaigner Nigel Farage on immigration), “Cover-up over migrants sneaking into UK”, “Huge boost to EU exit hopes”, “New EU threat to your pension”, “Outrage at bid to ‘rig’ EU vote”, “Migrant seized every 6 minutes”, “Migrant crisis will cost £20bn”, “Fury at PM’s EU pension threat”, “Proof we can’t stop migrants—five million EU citizens have been given right to enter Britain”, “Outrage over plans to raise our taxes”, “New EU tax raid on Britain”, “EU’very bad ‘ for pensions”.
12The Mail’s front pages included “Migration revolution” (a proposal by senior Leave campaigners for tougher rules on migration), “EU killers and rapists we’ve failed to deport”, “What a way to tackle a migrant crisis!”, “The Albanian double killer who’s lived freely in open-borders Britain for 18 years”, “Arise Sir Remain!” (on a controversial knighthood for a remain campaigner), “Fury over plot to let 1.5m Turks into Britain”, “Brexit poll boost as migration fears grow”, “We’re from Europe let us in!”, “PM’s TV Mauling over migration”.
13The Telegraph offered “Boris: learn English if you want to move to the UK”, “Cameron savaged as voters revolt”, “Gove blasts EU elite for destroying British jobs”, “European criminals free to live in Britain”, “Britain can fight terror threat better outside EU”, “Number 10 panics as Leave surges”, “boost for Leave camp as it takes poll lead”, “Out camp reveals its blueprint for Brexit”, “Vote Leave, change history”, “Cameron’s migration deception”.
14As well as the sheer number of newspaper front pages advocating Brexit, either implicitly or explicitly, it is worth considering the types of story that they ran. Pro-Leave announcements were covered positively and largely without criticism, such as the Express story on Nigel Farage’s warning on immigration and the Telegraph’s story on the Leave camp’s Brexit proposals. By contrast, warnings and announcements from the Remain side were presented as controversial, focusing on the criticisms that they attracted (“Outrage over plans to raise our taxes”, “Cameron’s migration deception”).
15Migration was the topic that came to dominate the debate, even though it was (and still is) remains questionable whether leaving Europe will have any effect on the numbers of migrants coming to the country. The Leave campaign relentlessly focused on migration with a series of announcements, posters and photo opportunities, which drew allegations of racism. The Mail was forced to apologies for a story in June—“We’re from Europe let us in”—which featured a picture of migrants emerging from a lorry in Essex, when it emerged that the migrants were from the Middle East, rather than Europe (the story also ran in the Sun). The Mail was also forced to correct a story that wrongly claimed that EU migrants were responsible for 700 crimes a week. The corrections, as is invariably the case, received a fraction of the prominence granted to the original story.
16Observers guided solely by the press could easily reach the conclusion that Britain is a uniquely insular nation and one that is deeply hostile to foreigners. The reality is different: Britain scores more highly on international measures of social liberalism than countries such as France and Belgium. In particular, the young, the university educated, dwellers in large cities are likely to hold quite tolerant views and each generation is more socially liberal than its predecessor. That this has not produced a more liberal press is due in part to a demographic quirk that reinforces and helps to explain newspapers’ anti-Europe bias. With the growth of digital media, young people have deserted the printed media. The ageing readers who remain tend, like the papers’ proprietors and editors, to be socially conservative—and hostile to Europe. Detailed analysis of the referendum results showed that 61 per cent of over-65s voted for Brexit, compared with just 25 per cent of 18-24-year-olds.
17Even more pertinently, the elderly ensured that their voices were heard. It appears that over 80 per cent of over-65s voted in the referendum, compared with only 40 per cent of the 18-25 age group (despite a vociferous public campaign to encourage the young to participate). If newspapers are read by under 40 per cent (and falling) of the population, this is a group that wields disproportionate influence over the political process.
18This is not the only reason why, despite a rapidly declining circulation, the British press continues to influence and shape political debate. An important factor is the daily news cycle, which is enshrined in political and media process and observed with quasi-religious devotion by politicians and journalists alike.
19It begins with the Today news and current affairs program on BBC Radio 4, which is broadcast between 6am and 9am on weekdays and whose centrality to British public life is impossible to overstate. Day in, day out, it is Today that determines the political agenda, as politicians of all parties vie to appear on it, timing important announcements so that they are heard for the first time on the program. Announcements, debates and gaffes (Today’s famously adversarial interviewers pride themselves in forcing politicians into damaging admissions) are then picked up by websites and other broadcasters, and roll through the day’s news, sometimes to the evening and beyond.
20Yet Today’s own agenda is determined (more than it would probably care to acknowledge) by the press. The stories to which it gives prominence, lines that it takes, the questions it puts to its guests are influenced by and often drawn entirely from, the headlines in that morning’s newspapers. Politicians on the Remain side were obliged to respond to claims drawn from that day’s Sun or Mail and vigorously pursued, rather than having room to put their own case. This image of campaign on the defensive would set the tone for the day’s coverage across the British media.
The post-truth era
21Throughout the campaign, both sides paid fast and loose with the truth. The strategy of the Remain side was to issue an escalating series of blood-curdling warnings about the economic consequences of leaving Europe. Leave campaigners countered these rather effectively by branding them “Project Fear”, the implication being that they were at best exaggerated and, at worst, untrue. Newspapers picked up the “Project Fear” claim: the pro-Brexit media was enthusiastically scornful, to the point of accusing the Leave side of treacherously “talking Britain down”. Papers on the pro-European side of the divide greeted the Leave claims with a mixture of weary scepticism mingled with a kind of embarrassment.
22If Remainers were guilty of exaggeration and distortion, the Leave camp lied with a dizzying aplomb, placing at the heart of their campaign two assertions, which proved crucial in persuading wavering voters, despite being rapidly exposed as lies. The first was that EU membership costs the country £350 million a week and, that if we were to leave, this money would be spent on the National Health Service. This was a particularly potent claim because of cuts to public services and because of the totemic position that the NHS occupies in British life: it is, as a senior Conservative politician once observed, “the closest thing that the English people now have to a religion”.
23The second powerful key assertion made by the Leave side was that Turkey is likely to join the EU by 2020, raising the spectre of unlimited migration from a Muslim (though technically secular) country and from its neighbours such as Iran and Syria.
24Neither of these claims was true: the cost of British membership is around £248 million a week (due to Britain’s long-standing rebate from the EU) and the figures in any case take no account of EU spending in the UK, which amounts to around £100 million a week. Nor was there any likelihood that the money saved would be spent on the NHS (within hours of the referendum result, Leave campaigners abandoned this aspect of the claim entirely). For a host of political reasons—including the fact the UK, like all EU countries, has a veto over new members—there is no possibility of Turkey joining in 2020 or at any time in the foreseeable future. Again, since the referendum result, this claim has disappeared from British public discourse.
25During the campaign, these statements were made repeatedly, in the press, on the radio and on television, by the most senior figures in the Leave campaign, even after their falseness had been clearly established for anybody who was interested in knowing the facts. Conventionally, politicians caught in a lie face consequences: they must apologize or even resign; they and their campaigns are damaged and discredited. In the referendum campaign, the lies, and their regular repetition, seemed to strengthen the Brexit cause.
26In their book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel say that journalism is at its essence “a discipline of verification”: it is respect for facts coupled with a determination to uncover the truth that separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction and art.
27There has been something of a return (in some journalistic circles, at least) to the old-fashioned and perhaps unglamorous discipline of fact-checking: this is probably a response to the storm of unsourced information unleashed by social media. Does that video really show a drone strike in Raqqa? Is that Twitter account genuine or fake? Journalists are engaging seriously with these issues by subjecting claims to serious scrutiny and that is a very good thing.
28In the Brexit campaign, however, it didn’t work. The £350 million claim was debunked, over and over again by the most reputable of organisations. The BBC examined it in minute detail and concluded unequivocally: “Leaving the EU would not give the UK an extra £350m a week to spend on the NHS.” As the campaign went on, some papers took the unusual step of describing the claim as false in their reporting. Yet, on referendum day, polls showed that over half the population still believed it to be true.
29In all political campaigns there are debates about facts, allegations of lying and actual blatant untruths but the Brexit campaign felt like something different. What we witnessed was an example of the phenomenon that is starting to be called “post-truth” politics, alongside Donald Trump’s US presidential candidacy and Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy in the Ukraine. In “post-truth” political discourse, the accuracy of what you say is unimportant, what matters is the force and frequency with which you say it and the emotional resonance that it holds for your audience.
30Trump’s successful US presidential campaign was built on a series of controversial and in many cases provably false claims, ranging from inchoate assertions of Hillary Clinton’s “crookedness” to the specific, yet fantastical, allegation that Barack Obama was the founder of Isis. For his part Putin has claimed on television that there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, despite plentiful evidence to the contrary.
31The claims of Trump, Putin and the Brexiteers are delivered with conviction, hammered home by repetition and maintained even in the face of proof of their untruth. The £350 million Brexit claim was painted on the side of the buses that took Leave campaign leaders around the country, long after it had been exposed as a lie. The claims skilfully push certain psychological buttons—nationalism, disgust at political elites and so on—so that supporters believe them unquestioningly while waverers are inclined to believe that there must be some substance to them. The burden of proof then falls on political opponents and the media, who have to sift through data and come up with facts to repudiate the claim. But by that time, the original claim has been firmly established in voters’ minds. The fact that the lie is out there, being debated by opponents and the media, gives it credibility.
32The Leave campaign grasped this early on and made it a core part of their strategy. Arron Banks, a multimillionaire backer of Leave, compared his campaign to Donald Trump’s, saying: “It was taking an American-style media approach. What they [political strategists Goddard Gunster, who worked for Leave] said early on was ‘facts don’t work’ and that’s it. The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.” With the support of much of the press, the Leave campaign sought to discredit public figures who made the case for Europe. Pro-Remain politicians, economists, entrepreneurs, artists and writers were attacked as biased, unreliable, elitist and out of touch, in a strategy which climaxed in the assertion by Michael Gove, a cerebral senior Conservative politician at the heart of the Leave campaign that “the people of this country have had enough of experts.”
33In the face of the lies, distortion, exaggeration and scorn of traditional sources of authority and information, this could have been a moment for journalists to demonstrate the virtues of “media gatekeeping”—filtering information to ensure that the public is properly informed on a matter of historic importance. As we have seen, a large part of the British press was determined simply to propagandise. That part of the media that set out to inform— principally broadcasters and a few newspapers—found hampered by perceived journalistic norms of news coverage. In the name of neutrality and objectivity, claims known to be false made by one side, were often juxtaposed with factually accurate rebuttals from an opponent but without any guidance from the reporter as to their relative credibility. This “he said, she said” approach to reporting may have felt like neutrality to journalists, and looked like neutrality to their readers, but in reality it represented a damaging false objectivity that gave equal weight to truth and lies. Rather than journalistic punctiliousness, it represented a kind of dereliction of duty.
34It does not help that reporting is expensive and good reporting requires trained and experienced people. For newspapers in straitened financial circumstances (which in Britain is all newspapers), it is easier and cheaper to fill pages and websites with opinion pieces: tens of thousands of words of evidence-light, assertion-heavy commentary written by people who are experts in everything and nothing. The role of columnists in the decline of British journalism should not be overlooked. (Before the referendum, Boris Johnson was a columnist; after the referendum, Michael Gove became one. The role of columnists in the decline of British politics may be worth examining, too).
35Of course, there were other factors at play. The Leave campaign was far more skilfully executed than that of the remainers, with a surefooted understanding of public opinion and how it can be influenced, allied to a lack of scruples as to ways and means. Social media was hugely significant, with its unchecked flow of unverified information and its “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” which mean that we are increasingly unlikely to be exposed to facts and opinions that challenge our view of the world.
36But in the end this was a failure of journalism and of journalists. The way the Sun, the Mail and Express behaved wasn’t a surprise: we knew what they were like. What was revelatory was, for all their reporting, fact-checking and punditry, how irrelevant to the debate the rest of the media was.