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How Our Mainstream Media Failed Democracy

01/07/2016 16:52

Three days after the Referendum, I spoke to a Labour MP who represents a Northern constituency with one of the lowest proportions of immigrants in the country. A majority of her constituents had voted to leave the EU.

Why? Mainly, she said, because they were convinced that waves of immigrants would soon overwhelm their local communities, take their jobs, and undermine their way of life. They were particularly concerned about Turkey's imminent arrival in the EU.

If there is one normative principle that is taught in virtually every journalism and media course throughout the western world, it is this: that a free, well-functioning, pluralistic media system is essential for an informed democracy. Without it, citizens will be ignorant and ill-informed, and democracy will suffer.

A referendum is ostensibly the purest form of democratic inquisition: a single issue, uncomplicated by tactical considerations or concerns about individual candidates, a decision that can be based purely on weighing up the facts and arguments to answer a single question. So our media have an uncomplicated but profoundly important role of conveying information and analysis to assist the decision-making process.

Our mainstream media failed spectacularly. Led, inevitably, by the viscerally anti-EU Mail, Sun, Express and Telegraph papers, most of our national press indulged in little more than a catalogue of distortions, half-truths and outright lies: a ferocious propaganda campaign in which facts and sober analysis were sacrificed to the ideologically driven objectives of editors and their proprietors.

Having charted some of the worst excesses of those four publications, journalist and blogger Liz Gerard wrote of the scaremongering about immigration: "Turks, Romanians, Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, Albanians: millions of them apparently want to abandon their homelands and settle in the English countryside - and only leaving the EU will stop them. No claim was too preposterous, no figure too huge to print." Gerard compiled a montage of front page headlines whose constant reiteration of words such as "migrants", "borders" "EU" systematically ramped up the xenophobic message.

Perhaps the most egregious example was the Daily Mail headline of 16 June (inevitably followed up by the Sun), claiming that a lorry load of migrants had arrived from Europe. Despite video footage which clearly demonstrated they were refugees from Iraq and Kuwait, the banner headline "We're from Europe - let us in!" was plastered across the front page. The following day's correction consisted of 54 words at the bottom of page 2. Hugo Dixon, founder of InFacts, has drawn attention to both the number of inaccurate stories and the chronically inadequate "corrections" relegated to inside pages.

Did this rampant euroscepticism make a difference? Effects studies over the years have taught us that media influence on voting is empirically unknowable. Those newspapers will, however, have exerted substantial influence on the national conversation in three ways.

First, the barrage of headlines designed to reinforce campaign slogans will have shored up Leave strategists with confidence to pursue their simple messages. An orchestrated tabloid campaign around EU pen-pushing bureaucrats, EU cost to the UK, and untrammelled EU immigration lent itself perfectly to the oft-repeated mantra of Take Back Control.

Second, it is inevitable that - even with falling circulations and readership fragmentation - the constant drumbeat of headlines in newsagents, garage forecourts, on TV and radio news programmes and online, will have infiltrated the minds of some voters. Anxieties about hordes of Turkish immigrants, with no foundation in fact, were reinforced by tabloid scaremongering.

Third, and perhaps most important, is their agenda-setting role for broadcasters. Remain campaign strategists were confident that the message of economic risk would succeed - as it had in the Scottish independence referendum - but had not factored in a deeply hostile press whose slogans served as an echo chamber which broadcasters could scarcely resist.

This echo chamber was particularly evident on the BBC which - mired in negotiations about Charter review - was far more susceptible to following than leading. Early in the campaign, a classic example followed Emma Thompson's outspoken criticism of Britain as "a cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island". The Sun had responded with a front page splash headlined "Shut Yer Cakehole", followed by quotes from Eurosceptic MPs labelling her "the worst sort of fat-cat luvvie" and an "overpaid, leftie luvvie".

On the following night's BBC Newsnight, Evan Davis interviewed Lord Mandelson about the forthcoming referendum and suggested that "Luvvies and New Labour" would be "a big problem for the Remain campaign over the next few months". It was an irrelevance prompted entirely by a deliberately mischievous Sun front page.

We need more detailed ethnographic research in newsrooms to identify the nature and scale of this agenda-setting problem, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the newspapers' overwhelming and full-blooded Euroscepticism seeped easily into broadcasting agendas.

In her post-referendum media round-up, the Guardian's Jane Martinson revealed that, within an hour of victory for Leave being declared, Sun editor Tony Gallagher told the Guardian: "So much for the waning power of the print media." And that is precisely our problem. A world in which social media was supposed to democratise communicative power is still dominated by the same unaccountable behemoths that have dominated Britain's political discourse for decades. A referendum that was supposed to be an exercise in informed participation has fuelled hatred and ignorance, and debased our politics. Our mainstream media failed us at a time of greatest democratic need.

This article will be published in EU Referendum Analysis 2016: Media, Voters and the Campaign, eds Daniel Jackson, Einar Thorsen and Dominic Wring, available on http://www.referendumanalysis.eu.

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