Newspapers’ editorial opinions during the referendum campaign

Without solving the million-dollar question (or should that be £350 million?) about media effects, it is unwise to claim that newspapers’ editorial positions influenced the referendum. However, my analysis of all editorials in the fortnight preceding the vote reminds us that newspapers should be scrutinised as independent political actors. Representing a newspaper’s collective opinion, newspapers intervened in the debate through declarations of editorial positions with the strategic aim of influencing politicians, campaigners and readers. Whilst we already know that news coverage was skewed towards Brexit, what editorial positions were taken, how strongly were these injected into the debate, and how were positions constructed?

Overall, in keeping with their reputation, the anti EU newspapers shouted loudest, with the strongest conviction, and with a message that we can assume voters found more compelling

Deep divisions within political parties, public opinion, and Britain’s complex relationship with the EU were always going to make it difficult to predict which side newspapers would support. Including their Sunday counterparts, and the surprise positions of The Times and the Mail on Sunday, 6 newspapers supported Remain (Mirror, Guardian, Independent, Financial Times) and 5 backed Leave (Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times). The sibling disagreement between the daily and Sunday editions of the traditionally Conservative supporting Times and Mail titles adds to evidence that editorial opinions are determined by a far more complex set of influences than loyalties to proprietors or parties.

Although all papers declared a position, not all chose to promote their agenda to the same extent. Measuring the salience of opinion between 10-23 June, Diagram 1 shows that on average Leave newspapers published editorials on more days (9.4) than Remain papers (7.6). The Sun and Mail voiced their opinion every day and the Telegraph and Express were not far behind. The Guardian was most vocal on the Remain side, but the other Remain papers made for much quieter company.

Perhaps more revealingly, combining a range of factors in addition to basic salience to provide a score for the tenacity of each newspaper’s editorial position illustrates that those supporting Leave had by far the loudest voice during the last week of the campaign. Even without considering that the combined readership of the pro-Leave papers outweighs that of pro-membership titles, it is clear that Leave newspapers dedicated more resources to promoting their view (Tenacity score 92). The Express created a campaign logo from their English Knight masthead to announce the paper’s crusade to ‘get us out of the EU’ on two front pages and used this in a free poster claiming “We demand our country back”. The Daily Mail and Sunfrequently published more than one Leave editorial on the same day and gave their opinion the highest possible prominence by featuring it on the front page at least twice. They were joined by the Telegraph and Express in using their front pages to plead with readers to vote Leave on polling day. Such vigorous campaigning was not matched by the Remain papers, which were 30% less tenacious and varied in their campaigning efforts (Tenacity score 61). Only the Mirror came anywhere near a Tenacity score (21) to rival the highest of the Leave papers (24). The front page was used sparingly by 3 out 5 (Mirror, Times, Guardian) to declare and/or promote their position. Most disappointingly, whilst the Leave papers pulled out all the stops on polling day, only the Mirror clearly called for a vote to Remain. The Independent chose simply to urge readers to ‘get out and vote’, the Guardian said nothing, and the Times seemed to get cold feet, using one of its three editorials to point to multiple ways it thought the EU should reform.

Newspapers’ constructions of the issue were characterised by three themes. First, the majority of editorials on both sides focussed on criticising and denouncing each campaign, ironically perpetuating the very lack of ‘facts’ that they criticised. Second, a narrative of ‘us vs them’ was a strong feature of this criticism, with both sides (although Leave more so) emphasising the gap between politicians/elites/experts and the electorate. Although details of who constituted ‘us’ and ‘them’ varied according to predictable Labour/Conservative affiliations, papers were united in their anti-establishment view which arguably played into the Leave campaign’s hands (see Diagram 3).

Third, Leave newspapers employed compelling narratives and metaphors, combining language more familiar to descriptions of war with nationalistic concerns about sovereignty and immigration: “This is truly a Battle for Britain” (Express, 19/6); the Daily Mail claimed to explode and demolish the four main Remain lies (23/6); “Today you can make history – by winning Britain’s independence from the crushing might of the Brussels machine. We urge you to vote Leave … and make today our Independence Day” (Sun, 23/6).

Overall, in keeping with their reputation, the anti EU newspapers shouted loudest, with the strongest conviction, and with a message that we can assume voters found more compelling. Why does this matter now that we have voted to Leave the EU? Because, whilst we no longer have seat at the table, we are still next door neighbours, which makes the job of scrutinising the EU more important than it was before.

Firmstone_Diagram_1_(1) Firmstone_Diagram_2_(1)

The Tenacity Score is aggregate of the daily scores for each newspaper. The Tenacity score was calculated for each day of a newspaper’s coverage as follows: 1 point per editorial article, 3 points for editorial comments featured on the front page, 3 points when the entire space for editorial comment was dedicated to the referendum, 1 extra point for editorial positions promoted with banners or logos on the front page. Maximum Tenacity score per day = 9.