The unwinnable game: the British Press and Brexit

The British popular press applauded the results of the EU referendum held in June 2016: they had played the long game and were finally being repaid for all their efforts.

Speakers at the ‘Brexit, the EU and the British press’ panel held on 7 April 2017 at the International Journalism Festival took some time to discuss the space given to the European Union and its institution in the British press before the Brexit vote to try and better understand what role journalists played over the final result.

“It was a phenomenal achievement, one way or the other,” debuted Rupert Myers from GQ Magazine. He admitted to be astonished by the turn out figure, amounting to a nearly 1.3m point-margin vote for the Leave campaign.

Myers recognised that, while many factors weighed in on Brexit, journalists’ coverage had been significant: stories about the EU had, over the years, not been given the relevance they might have deserved and been subjected to a mostly negative, if not derisive, scrutiny. “There was so little engagement to the extent that after the victory of Leave [Jeremy] Corbyn came out saying we [the UK] should trigger Article 50 immediately and no one knew what that meant.”

He also partially blamed the results on the inability of the press to overcome the filtering process that the United Kingdom seemed to have adopted when faced with the European Union: a leftover from the early 1990s governments, the EU had come to be considered as Conservative party internal problem to deal with.

But Myers had no issue saying that, while misreporting had over the years had a tangible impact on the British public, one of the main caused of Brexit had been the ability of the Leave campaign to transform lying into a viable strategy. The Brexiteers’ achievement did however create a dangerous precedent according to him, as they were able to legally justify their lies.

“The whole Brexit thing was lost twenty or more so years ago,” commented Alison Gow, Digital Innovation Editor at Trinity Mirror. EU stories had either been not covered in enough detail, thus failing to provide the necessary background for the British public to understand the working mechanisms behind it, or described with an overly dismissive tone.

The forty years delay in proper coverage made it so that, when the British press became ready to report the EU story in a more suitable manner, audiences could simply not engage with it.

Gow also suggested that the surprising results to the vote could have also been caused by an inability of the press to speak directly with the people to understand their true feelings regarding European institutions, and European ideology. From a regional perspective, owning the discourse more could have made an impactful difference on how people voted: “Hearing from your peers is better than being lectured.”

News organisations should realise that, to obtain better engagement with their readers, they “have to have, across the brands, really good people that can be trusted,” and to Gow is of special importance the presence of journalists readers can relate to within the newsroom staff.

Ben de Pear, Editor of Channel 4 News, appeared unimpressed by the reactions of some of his colleagues when results came out in June: “I was surprised by the liberal members of the media.” He recounted how, for years, “all types of newspapers, even broadsheets,” had used the European Union as a scapegoat to blame for unpopular policies in the UK. The “cheeky” approach that for years characterised coverage had established a routine for the readers, one that could hardly be affected by new editorial decisions and could be instead swayed by a proliferation of misinformed pieces available online.

De Pear went on to suggest that immigration, rather than the relationship with the EU itself, had played the most relevant role and that the unwillingness to risk hosting what could be perceived as “racist” guests on air decreased programmes’ chances of reaching wider audiences with opposing views as the one considered more correct. To him, a possible solution to the matter would be to improve the local presence of the staff, and “to get younger generations of journalists to engage with the population at large rather than just the politicians.”

Following up on Gow, Richard Sambrook, Director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University, defended the British press and their actions. The issue with Brexit, he admitted, hadn’t been with the supply side of news but rather with the demand: journalists did what they had to, but the public did not want what was being offered.