By Mikko Sihvonen
It wasn’t just a stop the press moment; it was a genuine stop the press day. Few days in the post-War period have seen such a tide of dramatic news breaking out than June 24th, 2016, as events unfolded one by one.
Having woken up at 6.45am to the shock and awe of the BBC News website announcing that the majority of voters had actually cast their vote for Brexit contrary to the early evening forecasts of the previous night, the news kept on breaking at a breath-taking pace throughout the day. The 4% lead of the Remain campaign predicted by previous days’ opinion polls had, in a very British election night manner, turned to a victory for the Brexit camp. In terms of the news stories of the century, this day would without doubt come a close second to 9/11. Before I made it to my workplace at ITV’s offices in MediacityUK, news of the pound slumping, the stock market crashing and the Prime Minister resigning broke out, and it wasn’t even 9am yet.
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Instead of the usual Jeremy Kyle Show – the long-running staple of daytime tabloid television featuring hapless desperado couples washing their dirty linen in public for advertisers’ benefit, I was now watching another very large scale divorce being planned before me with the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon calling for a second Scottish independence referendum. Both the BBC and ITV ran amended schedules, with ITV’s product placement-driven chit-chat show Loose Women being replaced with a live stream of breaking news of invariably dramatic and/or gloomy nature. It truly felt like watching a plane crash in a slow motion. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the few remaining journalists on call (mainly trainees) in the Nordic countries observing the Midsummer Eve bank holiday. The abundance of news must have been overwhelming, yet there was nobody who could predict what happens next in the process.
Undoubtedly, that was the feeling shared by many among the UK electorate. The future was going to be unclear and the EU leaders had indicated that the UK would be facing a rocky road in negotiating a deal with the member states. Yet readers of the UK newspapers weren’t pestered with the confusing regulatory-imposed neutrality and balanced opinions of the television coverage of the day’s events. The Brexit-frenzy tabloids, most notably Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Sun spared no words in celebrating the victory they had been influential in orchestrating in the weeks ahead. The Sun, which has won every single UK general election since 1979, was quick to cash on the populist Right sentiment by blaming the political elite for its unwillingness to listen to what it called the voice of the working classes. It was another ‘The Sun Wot Won It’ moment.
The referendum result can be seen as a victory for the right-wing tabloid press: it could take pride in supporting the winning side, which allowed it to form a closer bond with its readers. Considering the election result, it is perhaps not surprising that these publications also enjoy the largest circulation in the UK. The three aforementioned newspapers have manoeuvred a relentless disinformation campaign several decades long. Their campaign has targeted segments of the population from the C2DE demographic group in particular with low interest in politics and a lower degree of education. Blatant lies have been put forward about the presumed extremities of the EU, while the UK’s structural shortcomings have been blamed on it. Fabricated and/or untrue stories about excesses of EU legislation have turned out to be bestsellers for tabloid publishers. With a light-touch system of voluntary press self-regulation that sanctions breaches with a mere slap on the wrist, it is hardly surprising that these newspapers are always keen to sacrifice editorial standards if cheap populist tactics can be translated to quick financial gains.
In the run-up to the referendum, Labour MP Jo Cox became a victim of such scaremongering tactics. While she was killed by a right-wing extremist with mental health issues, the tabloid press had been influential in legitimising xenophobic, racist, anti-EU discourse that culminated in the first murder of a British MP since the 1990s. Having witnessed the social unrest of the Thatcher era and the Northern Ireland troubles in the 1980s, her killing certainly felt like an end to an era of stability. Would there be more Breiviks to come?
It used to be a well-known fact amongst UK media scholars that nothing tells more about one’s social class and voting intentions than one’s newspaper reading habits. For instance, the Guardian readers is a slightly pejorative term referring to a liberal middle class population, while Daily Mail readers are at the conservative right-wing end of the political spectrum. In the run-up to the referendum, the division between pro-EU liberals and Brexit conservatives became clear in the press notwithstanding the schizophrenic situation of some Sunday newspapers adopting a different EU stance to their weekday sister publications (as was the case with The Times (Remain) and Sunday Times (Leave), and the Daily Mail (Leave) and the Mail on Sunday (Remain)).
The shortcomings of the Remain supporters can be blamed on its lukewarm campaign lacking real passion and emotional dimension. The Brexit campaign run by the tabloid press was not able to provide the voters a roadmap for the post-Brexit future, but it cashed on people’s anti-Brussels sentiment by using highly emotional and value-laden language, yet paying little attention to life after Brexit. Such an optimistic campaign that all but ignored the warnings made by leading economists, politicians, NGOs, academics and business leaders was successful amongst the disillusioned voters trying to cope in Britain’s post-recession economic landscape that had seen the living standards of the poorest deteriorating rapidly. Tabloids were quick to cash on these tactics by running a populist campaign that exploited the anti-Brussels sentiment, but failed to give the voters enough information about the consequences of their vote. As research conducted by Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture demonstrated, the pro-Brexit mass-circulation tabloids featured the lowest percentage of balanced or neutral reporting on the referendum issues, and featured the highest proportion of Brexit-supporting reporting in UK press. Together, the pro-Leave newspapers have 82% of the total UK press circulation.
A new dawn was promised, yet warnings about the oncoming economic and political storm were ignored. The fact that ‘What does it mean to leave the EU’ and ‘What is the EU’ topped Google UK’s EU-related searches prompted The Washington Post to speculate whether most of the voters even knew what they were voting for. Considering the populist campaign of the tabloid press that lacked all speculation about the potential consequences of Brexit, this may well be true. UK pro-Brexit tabloid newspapers were happy to stand at the forefront in what they successfully branded the ‘people’s revolution’ against ‘elites’. Should the still obscure Brexit plan backfire in economic terms, readers of these newspapers would be in the forefront in bearing the consequences. I’m afraid of the possibility that this may well give a fertile ground for seeds of racism and xenophobia sown and nurtured by these publications that will escalate to something far more sinister.