Will the Media Win the EU Referendum?

The media were not decisive in the EEC referendum - they went with the clear winner from the start. But today, in 2016, the media's decision could swing the vote and result in us leaving the EU forever. They know this and they know that they will, at some point very soon, need to decide. And that's causing them all sorts of problems.

On 5 June 1975, 67% of the British electorate voted to stay in the European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market. The turnout was a whopping 65%. The media rejoiced - it was their result.

But what about this time? It's different now, isn't it? It's much closer. People are divided. The press are still undecided. And now we've got social media, bloggers, and online outlets too, all adding to the noise. The mainstream media can't expect to get their way this time, surely?

Same campaign, different decade

First let's unpack 1975. The Labour Government's official line was to remain in the EEC. But Cabinet members were split - amongst others, Michael Foot, Barbara Caste and Tony Benn all wanted out of the Common Market. The Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Democratic Unionist Party also wanted out. The Conservative Party and both Liberal parties supported remaining in the EEC.

As now, there was a period of renegotiation which ended in a similar fashion with Prime Minister Harold Wilson stating: 'I believe that our renegotiation objectives have been substantially though not completely achieved.' Sounds, as David Cameron would say, 'basically' familiar?

In 1975, once the starting gun went off, people were subjected to a huge bombardment, mainly from the 'In' or 'Yes' campaign. Alongside advertising campaigns and TV broadcasts, households received three official pamphlets: a Government one arguing to stay in, another from the 'Yes' campaign and a lone 'No' leaflet. The Government focused on food, money and jobs, citing that by staying in the EEC shoppers could get secure supplies of food at fair prices; Britain would not have to put VAT on necessities; we would pay a fairer share of the EU budget and would not be forced to join an 'Economic & Monetary Union'.

There was also a fair amount of scaremongering. Foreign investment and business would be harmed by an exit. Exports to Europe would tank; we would have no voice or influence in Europe; unemployment and inflation could be affected.

The 'Yes' campaign leaflet focused on friends: they need us, we need them, and retaining our British culture. One classic paragraph states: 'We can work together and still stay British. The Community does not mean dull uniformity. It hasn't made the French eat German food or the Dutch drink Italian beer. Nor will it affect our British way of life'.

On the 'out' or 'No' side, the pamphlet focused, unsurprisingly, on the right to rule ourselves: 'Already, under the Treaty of Rome, policies are being decided, rules made, laws enacted and taxes raised, not by our own Parliament elected by the British people but by the Common Market - often by unelected Commissioners in Brussels'. Could have been written yesterday.

So, the arguments are broadly the same. But in 1975 immigration was a total non-issue. In fact, quite the opposite. Emigration was the fear - families moving to Europe to find work and build new lives was a growing concern. Immigration will play a huge part in 2016 and, depending on events, may swing the result regardless of the media. But in 1975, did the 'out' campaign ever have a chance of victory? The straight answer is 'no', and the media knew it.

In 1975 everyone wanted to stay in the EEC

In 1975, the vast majority of the media were with the Government right from the start. They supported staying in the EEC and were happy to poke fun at the 'No' brigade. As Roy Greenslade pointed out in a great Guardian article last week: '[The] national press exhibited hysterical enthusiasm for European integration during the run-up to the June 1975 referendum'; 'The papers' major aim throughout their pro-EEC campaign was political, seeking to exploit the divisions in Wilson's government by concentrating fire on leftwingers who were urging a no vote. And their central demon figure was Tony Benn...'

Celebrities also joined in the fun. A-listers of the day including JB Priestly, David Bailey, Arthur Lowe, Richard Briars, Katie Boyle and Kenneth More all came out publicly for the 'Yes' campaign. Sports stars including Henry Cooper, Jackie Stewart and Mary Peters posed for 'Keep Britain In Europe' posters. And Mrs Thatcher was photographed wearing a fetching multi-European-flag sweater.

Business leaders were also convinced. In May 1975, The Economist published a poll of 653 chief executives - 95% declared their support for staying in the Common Market.

That was then. This is now.

In 1975, Britain was, according to many, the 'sick man of Europe'. The EEC was seen as innovative, dynamic and modern. European solidarity was a cause embraced by the young - and for the older generation, for whom World War Two was still fresh, the EEC increased security and reduced risk.

In 1975, the media didn't need to pick a side. There was only one on offer. They didn't need to 'call' the result and make a big play of how they 'won it'. Everyone must have known the result was a forgone conclusion. Politics, culture, business, economy and most of Joe Public were all batting to stay in the EEC.

The media were not decisive in the EEC referendum - they went with the clear winner from the start. But today, in 2016, the media's decision could swing the vote and result in us leaving the EU forever. They know this and they know that they will, at some point very soon, need to decide. And that's causing them all sorts of problems.

The established media is currently weighing up the options. Most are biding their time. They've got some political and social difficulties with both arguments. For the right-leaning media, it's becoming apparent that David Cameron's renegotiation is not going down well with their readers - even the moderates - and so it's a very hard sell.

For papers on the left, the problems are many. Though they want to stay, not all Labour voters are convinced, and nor were they in 1975 when, according to the History & Policy think tank, 'for the Left and many in the unions [...] the EEC was a capitalist club, which would seek to stop a Labour government from carrying out its socialist policies'. So, to back the 'in' campaign could mean alienating a large chunk of their readership.

The media will win it - but only if they have a 'demon'

Currently, the papers are having fun with the results of Cameron's renegotiation. Almost every paper has pilloried the deal to some extent. But they're still waiting. Why? Because just like in 1975, they desperately need a 'central demon figure' who wants to leave the EU. They need another Tony Benn; a big-beast politician who will allow them to crystallise their arguments and inject real passion. Only once there is a demon can the papers pin their colours to the mast. But unlike in 1975, politicians care a little more about their own personal brand. They don't like to risk being on the losing side, which is why so many high-profile, and usually opinionated, politicians are talking about everything except the referendum.

At the moment the media are rudderless. They have no one to circle, to deride or celebrate. The press will play a vital and deciding role in the EU referendum result - but not until a big-beast politician stands up for the 'out' campaign.

But let's hope that someone does stand up soon to cut through the noise, give the papers a new focus and help them articulate the real arguments, for and against. If someone doesn't stick their head above the parapet we might end up having to settle for posters of Nigel Farage and front pages featuring Captain Mainwaring. And that would be a real shame. After all, it's possibly the most important vote we'll ever have.


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