How the media failed in the Brexit debate
As the fallout over Brexit rumbles on, with infighting on all sides of the debate, it’s perhaps worth considering the part the media played in the run up to the polls.
The three main media influences – broadcast, newspapers (and their digital equivalents), and social media – all played very different but significant roles in the debate. For one reason or another, and whether through omission or policy, it is my view that all three ended up broadly supporting the intentions of the Leave campaign.
The broadcast media has its hands tied by Ofcom. The regulator’s rules on how they must handle political debate insists on ‘impartiality’ and ‘balance’.
On the Saturday before the poll, I was with a friend who runs a number of renewable energy businesses. He drew parallels between the referendum coverage and that of the climate change debate: over 90% of climate scientists felt that climate change was largely man-made, yet broadcaster ‘balance’ requirements meant that every time the issue was debated on current affairs programmes one of the very few sceptical scientists was also given air time. This gave a strong signal that there was more debate around the science than the facts bore out.
Something similar happened around the referedum. Here’s an example: in the run up to the vote, a poll of economists found 90% felt the UK would be worse off after Brexit. Only 4% felt it would be better off. In order to put that in perspective, here is an old joke: two economists, three opinions. They can never agree on anything – yet 90% agreed on this issue. You would not know it from the broadcast debates: one pro-remain economist would be weighed against one pro-exit (usually Roger Bootle, since there were precious few others in his camp).
Similarly, while the vast majority of business leaders felt that exit would be damaging, in the latter stages of the campaign James Dyson’s comments were constantly rolled out to provide ‘balance’.
As another friend said: this is balance without representation. Of course, people may choose to listen to the voice crying in the wilderness: but the viewers and listeners do need to understand the extent to which that voice is isolated.
Spurious ‘balance’ without context is meaningless and misleading, and broadcasters need to do better in future elections and referenda.
On the Monday following the vote, I had lunch with a senior executive from a national newspaper business. He was pretty grim-set, even though his paper had backed Brexit.
“To be honest,” he said, “we never thought it would actually happen. We just wanted to be on the side of our readers, show them we were backing them.”
Of course, Brexit could be a disaster for advertising-reliant newspapers; a recorded fall in consumer confidence this week will send alarms through the advertising world.
So what were the newspapers thinking? In truth, not much: they got caught up in the fever of the hustings and, like the broadcasters, didn’t do their proper job – to hold every side to account. There is a constant pressure on newspapers in the UK – as opposed to the US, where the default position is more akin to our broadcasters’ charter – to declare their position. And this can lead, and certainly did in the Brexit campaign, for clear and identifiable facts to be ignored or overridden. When newspapers become obsessed with protecting one position, they fail to report.
Both sides of the argument were guilty of this. Although the split between pro- and anti-leave positions across the daily national titles was fairly even, analysis by the University of Loughborough shows that the weighting of opinion (readership x column inches) means that the “out” viewpoint was hammered home to 82% of readers, while “in” reached just 18%.
Social media is, as we all know, the repository of all hatred and bile. Yet, while analysis of social media during the campaign shows that the bulk of heat came from the Brexit camp (no surprise, since the ‘remain’ position was inherently sedentary), there is a curious anomaly. The vast majority of social media users are in the 18-40 demographic: but the vast majority of this demographic also voted ‘remain’.
There appear to be two – slightly contradictory – forces at play here. One is that the bulk of the social media generation is much more sceptical about the voices they encounter: they recognise that UGC has no more validity than their own published views, so treat the absurd as absurd. The other is the ‘echo chamber’ effect: people tend to follow people whose views they agree with, so literally don’t encounter the viewpoints of others. This selective reinforcement of preconceived ideas leads to polarisation rather than diversity of viewpoints: in a binary vote, it merely serves to confirm a user’s decision-making.
Overall, then, at a time when the public desperately needed to be given plain facts, and the lies of both sides needed to be consistently challenged, the media failed in its job. Whatever your views of the result of the poll, it should serve as a wake-up call for the industry.