Last year United Kingdom voted to leave EU in a nation-wide referendum. The vote saw dramatic repercussions, economic and political, at home and abroad. It brought with it uncertainty and instability at domestic and regional level with no foreseeable respite. This complexity made people call for broader introspection as to why UK ended up leaving EU. The debate still goes on!
Popular narrative views immigration, economy, democracy deficit in EU institutions, and jobs being reasons behind Brexit. What is being ignored is the ‘agenda setting’ and ‘manufacturing consent’ role that media played in this whole scenario. How media coverage was influential in bringing about the desired result is seldom mentioned. The misinformed analysis by media on economy, immigration, and sovereignty made people believe in something which they did not comprehend in its entirety. It is not recognized how selective nature of media reporting, framing of issues, and filtering of information played a significant role in Brexit. The EU referendum was itself held as result of pressure from euro skeptic media, politicians and public. This can be substantiated by following facts and statistics:
Report by the Loughborough University Centre for Research in Communication and Culture (CRCC) on national news reporting of the 2016 EU Referendum (6 May – 22 June)
The report finds that pro remains coverage focused more on public opinion whereas pro-leave coverage was dominated by immigration and corruption in EU. The issue of immigration received more than twice as much media attention than the issue of sovereignty. Topics such as Lisbon treaty, euro zone, post-Brexit scenario etc were not covered.
The explicit news media focus was on a relatively small group of individuals led by the two people: David Cameron and Borris Johnson. It was mainly male-dominated campaign and coverage. Analysts/experts, academics, and foreign politicians featured relatively little (respectively 11%, 2%, and 5%).
Overall there was a greater volume (60 to 40%) of newspaper articles supporting leave over remain. When these figures are weighted by sales, this advantage is far larger (80% versus 20% in favour of leave).
BMG Research survey on source of public information on Brexit
About 34% of people said the BBC; 20% said newspapers; 18% said talking to family members; 16% said social media.
People thought the conduct of the campaigns lead by media was not fair and balanced as they perceived it to be one-sided/unbalanced/biased/ partial (31%) and the information is inaccurate and misleading (31%).
According to BBC, Lord Sainsbury, a supermarket magnate, made largest a monetary contribution to remain campaigns in the UK. David Harding, a billionaire, donated £750,000 while Lloyd Dorfman, Travelex founder, contributed £500,000. Lord Rose, former Marks and Spencer chairman, was the one who spearheaded the ‘Remain campaign’. The total funds accumulated by remain camp were £2.3m.
Patrick Barbour, the founder of Barbour Index, donated £500,000 to the Leave campaign. Terence Adams, construction mogul gave £300,000 while Peter Cruddas, banker, and businessman, contributed £350,000 for the Brexit cause. The total funds accumulated by Leave camp were £2.78m.
Rupert Murdoch, the owner of NewsGroup Newspapers (largest media house in the UK), is a well-known media mogul and euro skeptic.
For four decades he has been strong an opponent of European integration and regulations. He commands considerable political influence owing to his unaccountable corporate power. This explains why The Sun, most read newspaper, went all out in support of Leave campaign disregarding its role of watchdog.
Media was central in shaping the narrative and public opinion over Brexit. Major funding sources of both camps also indicate how corporate elites and politicians had control of the whole process. Women, minority, and youth representation on media amongst lead campaigners were negligible. Hence the popular narrative prevalent on media on EU referendum was exclusive and insensitive to gender and minority considerations. The calls for the second referendum stem from this misrepresentation and misinformation on the issues important to EU membership.
In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. In EU referendum this was evident in the quantity and quality of news being published on media. Each media house as per their ideological and political leanings projected the Britain’s EU membership thus affecting the objectivity of their coverage. Political endorsement with disregard to media ethics like impartiality and originality further fragmented the British society over the issue.
The role of media in Brexit is an interesting and significant case study for scholars and policy makers to understand the role media plays in contemporary political and economic issues. It becomes more important as the United Kingdom negotiates with the European Union for the best Brexit deal. It must tackle domestic media, the force behind Brexit, to prevent negotiations becoming hostage to UK media’s agenda setting and manufacturing consent once again.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.