From Super-Market to Orwellian Super-State: the origins and growth of newspaper scepticism


Prof Dominic Wring

Professor of Political Communication at Loughborough University.

He is the co-founder of the UK Political Studies Association’s Media Politics Group and former Chair of the International Political Science Association’s Research Committee for Political Communication.


EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 1

Section 1: Context

The influence of print media has been a theme of the debate post-Brexit. Explaining ‘How Vote Leave won the EU Referendum’, Sebastian Payne of The Financial Times attributed some responsibility for the outcome to the avowedly partisan press coverage: ‘The role of the media in this campaign must also be taken into account. For almost a quarter of a century, Fleet Street has been fomenting Eurosceptic sentiment. The media operation from Stronger In was unable to compete with the populist message orchestrated by tabloid newspapers such as The Sun’.

Eurosceptic journalists (were) associated with a largely minority cause … This changed following the passing of the Single European Act in the 1980s. Paradoxically, given its significance as a defining moment, the legislation did not attract the level of press scrutiny that subsequent moves towards greater European integration would’

Among those most keen to leave the EU were Sun, Mail and Express readers. These groups are even more Eurosceptic in outlook than three demographics(1) – the over sixties, less formally educated, and those belonging to social classes C2DE- whose support for Brexit has been highlighted as a key reason behind the Leave victory. There is, however, some considerable overlap between all the aforementioned categories of voter. This interplay of different demographic factors helps explain why readers of the Mirror, the only pro-EU popular newspaper, also appear to have supported Leave, albeit by a closer margin. However more analysis is clearly needed to account for the dramatic Referendum result.

In suggesting press reporting may have had some bearing on the Referendum outcome, Payne also acknowledged newspaper opposition to European integration is a longstanding phenomenon. Initially when (Western) European integration was first discussed it was the left leaning Herald (which later became The Sun) that raised doubts about the potential impact on its core working-class readership. Among the right-wing press the Express voiced opposition to proposed British membership of the EEC in the 1960s before later abandoning this stance prior to the Referendum the following decade. Announcing a resounding June 1975 pro-EEC vote that all major national newspapers had supported, the title’s front-page ‘SUPER-MARKET’ headline said it all.

Although there were periodic criticisms of the EEC over budgetary and other matters, the debate over UK membership was not as intense as it would later become. Eurosceptic journalists associated with a largely minority cause included right-winger George Gale and the Communist Morning Star. This changed following the passing of the Single European Act in the 1980s. Paradoxically, given its significance as a defining moment, the legislation did not attract the level of press scrutiny that subsequent moves towards greater European integration would.

Three weeks before Margaret Thatcher’s 1990 downfall, partly over Europe, The Sun had brought the issue to the fore by proclaiming ‘Up Yours Delors!’. This memorable denunciation of the Commission President ensured both he and his integrationist agenda became decidedly more newsworthy. The subsequent hiatus caused by Britain’s September 1992 exit from the ERM (for which David Cameron, then an aide to the Chancellor, had a ringside seat) only intensified debate with The Sun proclaiming ‘The European dream is in tatters’. The best-selling daily paper denounced what it saw as the Maastricht Treaty’s plan for a ‘United States of Europe…run from Brussels’ deciding policies on tax, immigration and the economy with recourse to a Central Bank. Among the popular press, the Mirror found itself isolated in arguing for ‘ever closer unity in (a) Europe’ that had acted as a force for stability in the post-war era.

After Thatcher’s more emollient successor John Major had forced the passage of Maastricht through a fractious parliament, newspapers became a key forum for raising criticisms of European integration. The then Brussels based Telegraph correspondent Boris Johnson was one of those journalists who became most associated with propagating what the Commission denounced as baseless ‘Euro-myths’ designed to undermine its credibility. Nonetheless many tendentious stories about ‘Euro-crats’ seeking to standardise condom sizes or ban bananas that were too bendy stoked ridicule of ‘interference from Brussels’. Following the Commission’s controversial 1996 ban on exports of British beef, the debate became increasingly rancorous. The Sun once again provided some of the most polemical copy: ‘We want to see free trade between friendly nations, a genuine Common Market, not an Orwellian superstate…’. Predictably it was the Mirror who came to the defence: ‘Britain needs EU… If we ever cut ourselves loose from our partners across the Channel, we would become an isolated irrelevant island’.

In 1997 The Times helped to try and ensure, as it put it, ‘Europe is the one big issue’ in that year’s election. The same editorial asked readers to vote for candidates ‘who will make the Commons more sceptical’ rather than a party. Intriguingly this even meant endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn, a critic of the EU, despite his acknowledged ‘support for Irish Republicanism’. A year after Labour’s subsequent victory Murdoch’s other daily, The Sun, labelled Tony Blair the ‘Most Dangerous Man in Britain’ and warned him not to commit the UK to joining the Euro. Although this never happened, the pace of European integration led to other intensive debates. Having been originally elected Conservative leader on a Eurosceptic platform, David Cameron found himself increasingly drawn into an issue that continued to bedevil his party in government and that would ultimately destroy his premiership. During the 2015 election Cameron had been warned of the consequences of holding a referendum by the pro-EU, Labour supporting Mirror. At the time the Prime Minister could not have imagined that the same newspaper would be his only popular daily press ally in what would become the last fateful and defining campaign of his career.

1 I am grateful to Will Jennings for alerting me to this information.