“Did the British press cause Brexit?” – notes from a panel session at #ijf17

I’ve been at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, where on a lovely sunny day in a beautiful Italian palazzo, several British journalists gathered to talk about #Brexit, and the role the British press had played in the Leave vote. The panel featured Richard Sambrook, Alison Gow, Ben de Pear and Rupert Myers, and was moderated by my Guardian colleague Jane Martinson.

“Let these idiots get it out of their system” – Rupert Myers, GQ magazine, lawyer, drone-flyer

Rupert Myers said the short answer is no, the British press didn’t cause the Leave vote. It was won on an astonishing turn-out figure, with a 1.3m vote margin to Leave. However much we focus on the failures of the press, he said, we should not disregard the agency of individuals. You can blame a lot of people, including the Remain camp for running “a weak sauce terrible campaign”, and the Leave campaign “lying through their teeth” all the time. The British press did, though, create the conditions that meant that the 17m people could win. The #1 reason people voted, Rupert said, was the concept of “control” – the British press for decades has blamed the EU for an increasing number of society’s ills, but also left the country in a state where nobody could explain how the EU works. It’s a weird mixed narrative of the EU as an “extremely all-powerful controlling force” which also was slow, monolithic, with inexplicable workings. “The British Press really seriously didn’t think any of this would happen”, Rupert said of the Leave vote. Reporting on the EU with a focus on bendy bananas had framed European politics as entertainment and trivia. Even much of the campaign was seen as an internal Tory party fight – “Let these idiots get it out of their system”

“The whole Brexit thing was lost twenty years ago” – Alison Gow, Digital Innovations Editor, Trinity Mirror

Alison Gow explained that “I’m a digital animal rather than a political one”, but she felt “the whole Brexit thing was lost twenty years ago because of the water on stone effect of us not reporting things in detail.”

She suggested the EU had been approached with a real British attitude of if you don’t quite understand it, then take the piss out of it. We’d spent so long covering the EU and European politics in a dismissive or light-hearted tone, that by the time we wanted to cover it seriously, our audiences weren’t really engaged.

Alison mostly works with Trinity Mirror’s regional and local papers in the UK, and she said that some of them explicitly chose to come out for Remain, and got some of the worst reactions on social media they’d ever seen. Their coverage in Wales was broadly positive for Remain, because so much of the country has benefitted from EU funding via agricultural spending and other means, but Wales still voted to Leave.

“I don’t think that we spoke enough to people to understand what was going on in peoples hearts and minds”, Alison said. She worries we have become too insular, looking at our own newsrooms and our own social media, and the arguments that won the referendum didn’t happen in that space.

“It wasn’t really about the EU” – Ben de Pear, Editor Channel 4 news

Ben de Pear said the vote wasn’t really about the EU, it was about whether people were unhappy or not. They voted because they were angry. Ben was keen to draw a contrast between newspaper coverage and broadcast coverage. Newspaper journalism is entertainment as well as journalism, he said. Papers in the UK are read in a way that people don’t especially believe or expect it to be all true – put people read it for opinions, and an attitude, and a certain cheekiness.

The regulations on impartiality gave them some problems in planning their coverage – they had to stopwatch balance the amount of time they gave to each campaign. Once you’ve got to a point where 85% of economists are saying this will be a bad thing, broadcasters ended up in a place where they were having to invite the same voices from the 15% on over and over again to provide “balance” in terms of minutes, but maybe not “balance” in terms of conveying how much support there was for each position.

People, he said, think they’ve voted to Leave the European Union, but they’ve also voted for five years of chaotic negotiations, and excruciating news coverage in detail of what David Davis has had for breakfast. He didn’t looked thrilled at the prospect of commissioning and editing it.

Ben said that Channel 4’s “Fact Check”s did well, some getting millions of views. But he suspects that they were being shared in Remain echo chambers.

Ben de Pear said that the British media seemed to have lost the ability to speak to the British public on this subject. The overwhelming feedback Channel 4 got was ‘give me the facts’ and ‘tell me which way to vote’. We were doing the first, he said, and we weren’t allowed to do the latter. He said “This is the most difficult story we’ll have to cover for the next…[pause]…300 years.” Everyone in the room laughed. But inside their hearts they died a little.

He also spoke a bit about the problem with some material they couldn’t always run. The day after the vote, they’d been sent some footage of a reporter who’d done vox pops in a Leave-voting town with a depressed economy. Every single white person the reporter spoke to said something along the lines of “We’ve got our country back and now the Muslims can go home.” Ben questioned the reporter, trying to find out if he’d deliberately sought out these views. The reporter insisted it was every single person he’d spoken to. “We couldn’t use it in that format”, said Ben, because they don’t want a new programme full of racists. But it also means that perhaps the anti-immigration component of the vote got downplayed in the media.

“Overwhelmingly coverage featured Conservative MPs arguing with each other” – Richard Sambrook, director of journalism at Cardiff University

Richard Sambrook said it was condescending to say that negative coverage caused the result, but that the referendum was held against a backdrop of a severe lack of understanding or interest in European affairs. He also cited the paradox that people were simply not interested in European politics, but also considered the EU an interfering superpower.

The university where Richard works did some research on coverage of the campaign. They found that coverage of the Leave and Remain sides had been balanced, but there was a heavy reliance on political voices in the coverage, and overwhelmingly it featured Conservative MPs arguing with each other. Labour and the Liberal Democrats were very much left out of the picture.

They also found that coverage was dominated by walkabouts and campaign strategy, rather than a true focus on the policy issues that underpinned the arguments. Sambrook said that if you measured newspaper coverage, it was 41% pro-leave and 27% pro-remain. If you weigh those numbers by circulation, though, coverage in the run-up to the vote was 80% pro-Leave. He reminded us that press regulation is in a bit of a mess in the UK, but also that for decades we’ve had a strongly partisan press and tightly-regulated broadcasters, but actually most British people quite like that.

Sambrook was quite strident in saying that balance and impartiality had been absolutely the right thing for broadcasters. He made the point that it was a binary referendum, on an issue that the public were almost split 50/50 on. It was inconceivable, he said, that broadcasters should have tried to tip the balance one way or the other. Although whether they challenged all the arguments of the campaigns adequately was a different question.

Richard deftly summed up the entirety of the radio and TV coverage of the whole referendum: “One side says this, one side says that, if you really want to understand it, go and look at this website here”

You can watch the session online: “Brexit, the EU and the British press

Find all my blog posts from the 2017 International Journalism Festival, and you might be particularly interested in this one: “‘How we got the final #Brexit poll wrong’ – Ben Page of Ipsos Mori at #ijf17