Mind the gap: the language of prejudice and the press omissions that led a people to the precipice

A pervasive Euroscepticism has now reached its zenith, drawing on a collective memory, borne of the moment we chose to be a good friend of post-war Europe – but not part of it. As the UK eventually joined, unable to influence the project’s direction, we have never fully understood what the pooling of sovereignty nor belonging to the club mean. The projection of Europe in the collective memory, reinforced by seldom articulated facts (by either politicians or press) has resulted in an ‘other’, based less on a grasp of the reality and more a common-sense understanding. Neither the political class nor the mainstream press has ever confronted the cultural presuppositions of a British past never really harnessed to a European future.

The projection of Europe in the collective memory, reinforced by seldom articulated facts (by either politicians or press) has resulted in an ‘other’, based less on a grasp of the reality and more a common-sense understanding.

Initial linguistic analysis has established a discursive construction, prevalent in the mainstream mainly right-of-centre national newspapers in the weeks running up to the referendum, claiming to “take back our country”; “regain control”; and divorce from Ever Closer Union, as unprecedented as the constitutional and democratic crisis in the UK it has clearly contributed to. The main conduit for the articulation of the preceding notions is immigration. It is argued that never before in living memory have some newspapers fed the public’s hopes, fears and yes prejudice against Europe (and Europeans) to this extent. They have tapped into a selective collective memory, the resulting common sense presuppositions and ignorance. Some newspapers have acted irresponsibly, have damaged our democracy and played a pivotal role in creating the crisis we now face.

The evidence to support this position can be found in the high levels of argumentation, metaphors and misinformation prevalent in mainstream newspaper discourse in the weeks before the EU referendum, as much prevalent in news stories as commentaries, despite the tenuous claim they are reporting the facts. For example, in The Sun’s editorial on June 20, the paper backed leaving the EU “partly because it’s a bloated, undemocratic and ruinously expensive political relic.” But also so MPs could “regain control over Britain’s borders”, so they can “get a grip on the spiralling rate of immigration putting such a strain on wages, jobs, schools and hospitals”. The Sun then added a caveat, mitigating possible fallout, acknowledging “some on the fringes of this debate have unjustly targeted migrants.” The Daily Mail editorial on June 20, argued: “How will he (Cameron) prevent the NHS and other services being overwhelmed if unfettered free movement continues?

“It is argued, what is far more serious is what was not said about reclaiming the country’s economy, sovereignty and control of immigration. There was plenty of unsubstantiated argumentation prevalent in the right-wing and particularly popular newspapers, regarding immigration. None of it (on initial scrutiny) addressed how, on leaving, Britain would be unlikely to actually curb it. Barely any of the coverage spoke of how subsequent trade deals with Brussels would likely include free movement as a precondition. Instead the rhetoric fed the collective memory; nationalistic fervour; the understanding of the nation in relation to the ‘other’, Europe and through ellipsis, an ill-informed common sense understanding of how we would get our country back, was left for the reader to fill the gaps. Countless English working class voters, often in impoverished parts of the UK, were televised using this refrain.

Within a day of the vote, the extent to which they had been led to this conclusion by populist politicians and the press (without supporting evidence) was apparent. Brexiters were soon backtracking.

Tory MEP, Daniel Hannan said free movement could result in similar levels of immigration after Brexit. He added: “Frankly, if people watching think that they have voted and there is now going to be zero immigration from the EU, they are going to be disappointed.” Hannan also made clear there had been no suggestions of changing the status of any EU nationals in Britain. Leading Brexiteer, Liam Fox, said: “A lot of things were said in advance of this referendum that we might want to think about again…” Boris Johnson himself said during his speech after the result that Brexit, needn’t mean pulling up the drawbridge and that the victory for Farage would somehow “take the wind out of the sails” of anyone playing politics with immigration.

Few read the Foreign Affairs Committee analysis of Brexit. It will be used as benchmark, together with fact-checking websites, to establish the extent of misinformation in coverage.

It is therefore the consistent discourse of taking back our country and regaining control of immigration, that were established in the collective memory in the years prior to the campaign that facilitated the final result, which itself has led to the deepest crisis this country has faced since the Second World War.