The Brexit issue has been deeply divisive, and this is reflected in the media coverage, which, unfortunately, has failed to provide the clarity that is so desperately needed.
Papers like the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express supply a daily diet of pro-Brexit propaganda. Prominent public figures who have had the temerity to argue in favour of remaining in the EU are denounced and ridiculed. Examples of people who have been targeted include Gina Miller, the British-Guyanese businesswoman who initiated the 2016 court case against the British government over its authority to implement Brexit without approval from Parliament. The judges who ruled in favour of her appeal have been branded ‘enemies of the people’ with their faces and backgrounds splashed across the front pages of the Daily Mail. Rebel Conservative MPs who voted against the government have also been battered by pro-Brexit papers and labelled as traitors. The Daily Mail said that the 11 ‘self-consumed malcontents’ had betrayed their leader, party and 17.4 million Brexit voters.
Anna Soubry, one of the Conservative MPs who defied government whips leading to the government’s first Commons defeat over Brexit, has received multiple messages saying she should be hanged as a traitor. Soubry blames the media for fuelling this outpouring of bile. She is quoted as saying, ‘The words in certain newspapers are replicated—so “mutineer” is then in an email saying: “We all know what happens to mutineers, let’s see you hanging from a lamppost or a tree.”’
While the abuse came from a tiny minority of people, Soubry said, it seemed indicative of deep divisions in the country that were not being addressed. ‘It’s the job of government to do everything they can to bring people together, and it’s the responsibility of everybody in public life to build a more tolerant society,’ she said.
Deepening the divide
Sadly, sections of the media are only deepening this divide. Another hate figure for the pro-Brexit media is the former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, who drew up the amendment to the EU withdrawal bill that was narrowly passed, ensuring that MPs must have a final vote on any Brexit deal. He has also been receiving death threats.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the EU, are vilified by the right-wing press. The heroes in the eyes of these publications are hard Brexiteers like UKIP’s Nigel Farage, and Conservatives, such as David Davis, Liam Fox and Iain Duncan Smith.
The shrill comments of the newspapers coincide with their own battle for survival. There has been a sharp decline in sales of all print newspapers over the past decade as more readers seek news online or from free papers such as the Metro, which is owned by the Daily Mail Group. Further falls in sales and advertising could force more titles out of business. One newspaper, the Independent, a broadsheet with a centre-left perspective, collapsed as a print publication in 2016.
Furthermore, the rise of Twitter as a medium through which anyone can express their political views to a mass audience has prompted the newspapers to become more attention-grabbing in expressing their own strongly held opinions.
In the tabloid press, the Brexit issue is often entangled with another debate that charges people up emotionally: immigration. Again, papers like the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express have been relentless in peddling the line that immigration is at the heart of the UK’s problems. They give the impression that all EU immigrants live off benefits and are a drain on the economy. Few point out that the majority of European immigrants have jobs and pay taxes. Studies that indicate that there are already signs that the Brexit vote is having a negative impact on the economy are either dismissed or ignored.
TV and radio tend to be more balanced, but hard facts on the pros and cons of Brexit are hard to come by.
Rita Payne is President Emeritus of the Commonwealth Journalists Association and a member of the Editorial Round Table.