The June 23 referendum in the UK, with its now infamous outcome that Britain should leave the European Union, marked as The Economist noted, a ‘bold step into the unknown,’ ending a very heated political campaign.
Since February, when David Cameron set the referendum date, the attention of news outlets, in the UK and around the world, grew to fever pitch.
PRIME Research teamed up with Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism to investigate what role the British press played in the campaign. This research project lead to a comprehensive report, published last week and available for download on the RISJ’s website.
On September 20th, the report’s main findings were presented at a sold-out event hosted by the European Parliament Office in London.
Introduced by PRIME Research’s CEO Richard Bagnall, the event featured a presentation of the key findings by Dr. David Levy, Director of the Reuters Institute and Lead Researcher of the report, followed by a lively debate.
Moderated by Dr. Sara Hagemann, assistant professor at the London School of Economics, four high profile panellists debated the study’s results: Matthew Elliott, CEO of Vote Leave, Lucy Thomas, Deputy Director and Chief Communications officer of Britain Stronger in Europe, Jonathan Isaby, Editor of Brexit Central and former BBC journalist, Richard Corbett, Labour MEP in Brussels.
As reflected by the Twitter activity (click to see our Storify summary), the discussion touched on a wealth of issues raised by the study.
Pro Leave bias
A first, striking finding of our research was that coverage had a dominant pro Leave bias.
Clearly, the British press was highly polarised, and the panellist were quick to point out differences between print and broadcast media.
Matthew Elliott and Lucy Thomas agreed that, although broadcasters have to respect impartiality standards, the focus on ensuring fair-play introduced an element of “distortion” in the referendum news coverage.
Lucy Thomas expressed the view that broadcasters “ended up tying themselves up in knots to be balanced and fair” to the point that, for example, some of the Stronger In stories did not get covered because of the need to discuss different topics each day, rather than repeatedly covering economy-related stories several days in a row.
On the other hand, Matthew Elliott saw a disadvantage, at least in the first part of the campaign, as the pro Leave spokespeople were often asked to ‘defend’ their position, speaking in answer to government statements in favour of a Remain vote (especially in broadcast media).
What were the key factors in the success of the Leave campaign?
Richard Corbett MEP stressed how strong and versatile was the Vote Leave message inciting voters to ‘take back control.’
Additionally, the link created between migration and the EU, which Matthew Elliott suggested was developed by the UKIP campaign, contributed a very effective narrative.
The report’s data indeed show that, although the main battlefield in the debate was the economy, both sovereignty and migration were key topic areas.
Finally, the red bus with the ‘NHS claims’ (almost omnipresent in the referendum media coverage) was brilliant in its targeting of a demographic that would traditionally lean towards a Labour vote, added Richard Corbett.
At the same time, the Remain campaign’s communication shortcomings were identified as the lack of traction generated by their positive messages, Lucy Thomas explained: “lots of speeches were about all the benefits of staying in Europe. However, they did not get covered […] they weren’t an interesting story.”
She also added an anecdote concerning some of the tabloid’s open bias: “It got to the point where one person from the Daily Mail said to us (Stronger In campaign): Don’t bother sending us press releases or rebuttals.”
Additionally, Richard Corbett suggested the vote was lost on migration: “the Remain campaign shied away from the topic or tried to highlight the benefits of migration. The problem is that you can’t show the benefits of migration in a short campaign.”
Conclusion: what was the role of newspapers in shaping people’s opinion?
Jonathan Isaby pointed out that newspapers, as commercial entities, tend to reflect what their audiences would like to read, rather than attempt to change their readers’ opinions.
University of Westminster’s Prof. Steve Barnett, who was in the audience, did however point to research showing that broadcasters often used press coverage to define their agenda.
Given the nature of the referendum debate, often cutting across the traditional party lines (turning into a ‘blue-on-blue’ battle), the report itself suggested that print outlets may have had a far deeper impact on the referendum outcome.
A video recording of the event is available on the European Parliament UK Office’s website. For any questions, and if you would like to receive a free copy of the report, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org