EEC/EU campaigning in long-term perspective


Prof Jay Blumler
Emeritus professor of Public Communication at the University of Leeds and emeritus professor of Journalism at the University of Maryland.He is a leading, internationally recognized figure in political communication, having published numerous books, including The Crisis of Public Communication (1995).Email:

EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 1

Section 1: Context

Despite some similarities, the Referendum campaigns of 1975 and 2016 were as different as proverbial chalk and cheese. The differences shed a penetrating light on how the UK political communication process has evolved over the last four decades – not much of it for the better!

Voters were therefore being asked to decide whether to stay in or leave an institution about which they could know very little. It was as if the public service troika had lost one of its three wheels, running on entertainment and information but not on education!

But first, the similarities. Turnout was high on both occasions – 65% in 1975, even though a vote to stay in the EEC was a foregone conclusion throughout. Both major parties were divided on the issues, especially Labour in 1975; hence the formation of cross-party umbrella organisations to do battle with each other. In advance of the campaign proper, the terms of Britain’s membership were successfully re-negotiated with the EEC by the Labour government, enabling it to support the pro-European position. Much of the argument turned on economic prospects (but somewhat more disaggregated than in 2016, looking more specifically at implications for jobs, prices, balance of trade, agriculture, etc.) and restoration of the country’s democratic sovereignty.

What were the main differences between the 1975 and 2016 campaigns?

Whereas in 1975 face-to-face confrontations were in short supply (just a few in the last campaign week), in 2016 there were debates galore all over the television schedules, often organised around pointedly challenging questions from members of studio audiences. This reflected the less respectful and more populist tenor of 2016’s opinion climate as well as broadcasters’ recognition of the popular appeal and civic value of leader debates in the 2010 and 2015 General Election campaigns.

But what about the leading actors and their modes of discourse? The differences on these crucial matters were stark.

For one thing, there was a huge difference in the perceived integrity of the principal spokespersons in the two campaigns. There could be no reason to doubt that in 1975 Roy Jenkins, Ted Heath, Shirley Williams, Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Enoch Powell genuinely believed in the cases they were making. Fast forward to 2016, when after a record peppered with policy flip-flops, David Cameron had become something of a damaged rhetorical good; doubts hovered over Boris Johnson’s real reasons to enthuse over Brexit; rivals continually accused each other of deliberately misleading the public, corroding people’s trust, and down-right lying; and the public voice could be characterised as `They try to pull wool over our eyes’, `All we hear is propaganda’, and `They only say what they think we want to hear’.

There was also a huge difference in how the European Community/Union was represented in the two campaigns. In 1975 the broadcasters pulled out all the cognitive stops in order to inform viewer/voters about the EEC, its institutions and their powers. Just two examples of many such efforts: ITN presented a series of 18 short films, totaling 72 minutes of viewing time, in which different features of Common Market workings were explained. World in Action went on a `Voyage of Discovery’ throughout Europe (3,000 miles in all) `In Search of the Common Market’. The same cognitive commitment shaped British broadcasters’ approach to coverage of the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979. Out of 26 editors and reporters I interviewed at that time, 23 said they regarded it as their responsibility to give voters essential background information about the European Community. In fact, such items appeared regularly in BBC1’s nine o’clock news and in the Today programme. But in 2016 no such effort was mounted. Voters were therefore being asked to decide whether to stay in or leave an institution about which they could know very little. It was as if the public service troika had lost one of its three wheels, running on entertainment and information but not on education!

A media-system difference in the two periods will have been a source of another referendum coverage difference. Whereas the 1975 coverage was spread across campaign political broadcasts (four for each side), some half-hour morning press conferences, items in the news bulletins, and commentary, analysis and discussion in the four main weekly current affairs programmes, in 2016 the balance had shifted, television news having become a prime target of the campaigners (preferably to top the running orders) and a prime source of voter awareness. This meant that protagonists’ claims were filtered far more predominantly and strictly in 2016 than in 1975 by conventional news values – especially those of conflict, drama, concreteness and personalisation.

This is related to a more fundamental – and more fundamentally worrying – political communication system difference between the two periods. In 2016, politicians on both sides of the fence closely followed the rules of a quite firmly entrenched game. To play it well, this would require a pre-designated core theme, which could be unfolded in successive attention-grabbing variants, be encapsulated in short sound-bites (an unknown term in 1975), be closely coordinated from on high, and be voiced by spokespersons trained to stay on message. There is a sharp contrast between the Leave campaign’s proclaimed faith in the British people’s potential to achieve all sorts of greatness and its operative assumption that most people can take in only one or two simple, repeated ideas. More troubling, however, is how the broadcasters tethered their coverage to the campaigners’ ploys. Of course, they reported each side’s challenges of their opponents’ claims, and in interviews and debate moderation, vigorously pursued the inadequacies of those claims. But bound so tightly to them, they never moved the argument on. And so they utterly failed to prepare the electorate in advance for the momentous depth and breadth of uncertain change, which only after the Leave fact are they depicting now!