Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 14 November 2016

Cutting the Mail down to size: welcome to Scotland

For non-UK readers who might be mystified by the picture above, some background. The Daily Mail, a UK newspaper that once supported Hitler and seems to be returning to those good old ways, recently called the three independent judges, who had just ruled that parliament should have a say on triggering Article 50 to leave to EU, “enemies of the people”. In response to this and their remorseless headlines pushing the idea of a migrant threat, a group called Stop Funding Hate asked advertisers to take their business away from the Mail. Lego appears to be their first success.

All the UK tabloids have Scottish editions, but there is one additional Scottish tabloid, the Daily Record. In Scotland the Daily Record has a little under a third of the daily tabloid market. The Scottish Sun has a little over a third. The Mail has only 15%. Contrast this with the rest of the UK, in which if I’ve done my sums right the Mail has a third of the market, the Sun has a third, and the rest is split between the Mirror, Star and Express. So in Scotland, unlike the rest of the UK, the Mail does not dominate the tabloid market.

But everyone knows Scotland is just more left wing and liberal, you might say. But you would be wrong. When social attitudes are measured, Scotland consistently comes out as looking very similar to the rest of the UK.

The idea that the media is just a mirror, reflecting the political attitudes of its readers, is a (dare I say cultivated) myth that falls apart the moment you think about it. It relies on the idea that if a paper does not reflect a reader’s political viewpoint, the reader will stop buying. But most people do not buy newspapers for the politics. Furthermore, the market is hardly flooded with alternatives. These facts give newspapers considerable agency to push their owners views. Of course there are limits to what a paper can do, and Murdoch in particular is very careful not to let his papers get too out of line with its readers, but within those limits they have considerable power. Why else do politicians spend so much of their precious time courting them, if they have no influence? As Murdoch said, when asked why he was so opposed to the EU: “That’s easy. When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.”

In the EU referendum we know how the Mail, Sun and Express became part of the Leave campaign. That means that only around 20% of the UK tabloid market argued to Remain. What is more, this 80% pushed their position in a way that can only be described as propaganda. Was this dominance just a reflection of readers views?!

In Scotland however the Daily Record argued for Remain, and the Scottish Sun sat on the fence. (Compare the Scottish Sun’s editorial to the one the rest of the UK saw.) That means that those arguing for Leave were in a slight minority in Scotland. But perhaps more importantly, readers obtained information from newspapers, not propaganda. As we know, Scotland voted by over 60% to stay in the EU.

I listened to this talk (text) by Nicola Sturgeon at SPERI a week ago. She argued, correctly in my view, that leaving the EU but staying in the single market was the obvious way forward after such a close vote. She says that not only did austerity cause significant economic damage, but it also hurt the very fabric of society. She talks about how a fairer society is also good for the economy. None of the leaders of the three other main parties could argue these points. And she argues all these things with calm authority. It is natural to ask why the UK as a whole does not have a political leader of this quality. Perhaps a more balanced tabloid press in Scotland is part of the answer, although there are no doubt many other reasons.

Of course Sturgeon and the SNP can attempt to deceive voters, as they did in the Scottish referendum when it came to the short term fiscal costs. Yet in Scotland newspapers, including the Sun, gave their readers both sides of the argument rather than feeding them propaganda. And Scotland voted to stay part of the UK. It was close, but so was the EU referendum vote in the UK. Whether people get facts or propaganda from their newspapers can make that difference.


  1. I read John Curtice's piece for the BBC website comparing Trump and Brexit voters, and compared that to the BBC's information on Brexit voters from the Ashcroft poll.

    The US looks like a continuation of their culture wars in which the Electoral College and FBI created enough cynicism to give the 'win' to the second most popular candidate for president.

    In the UK, in terms of the 'national interest' and unlike Trump voters, the big movement for Brexit were the elderly on lower incomes with an equal gender balance.

    These are presumably many of the Sun and Daily Mail readers.

    The split in age at which Remain turned Leave seems somewhere in the 45-50 age group, just where I would speculate that the tabloid reading cohort tails off into the internet age.

    The national interest calls for more emphasis to those 45 and under, if you are taking a once-in-a-generation decision, than to a group who, because most of them voted for Thatcherism while drinking, smoking, and over-eating, have a poor life expectancy.

  2. "Yet in Scotland newspapers, including the Sun, gave their readers both sides of the argument rather than feeding them propaganda. And Scotland voted to stay part of the UK. It was close, but so was the EU referendum vote in the UK" oh dear ...and you're a professor!...every single media source was pro-union during the indyref. The Sun giving a single column of alternative views a week does not not balance make

  3. There's a bar-chart on the "Stop funding hate" Facebook page showing "net trust in the written press" in 33 European countries in 2014 and 2015. The UK came bottom of the league in 2015. Here's the link:

  4. In the interests of fairness you should have mentioned the SNPs support for Hitler.
    Being pro singl emarket and anti-austerity is not really a credible position, ask the Greeks. Sturgeons position is based more on her desire to break up the UK than any sound economic analysis.

  5. Liverpool has boycotted "The Sun" for years, ever since its stories on the Hilsborough disaster. Has any research ever been done on how its absence has affected political attitudes there?

  6. The opening paragraph of this

    Blaming the tabloids has a terribly dated 1980s feel about it, when most get their news from faebook. Does anyone look at paper newspapers any more?

    Outside of Oxbridge SCRs, of course.

    was aimed at you.

    1. Driving to work each morning through the middle of Oxford was always a problem as I tried to negotiate the massive stacks of Suns, Mails and Expresses waiting to be picked up from the gates of the Colleges. With all those newspapers cluttering up the city centre I often wondered what happened to the five copies that Birmingham used to order---were they passed around hundreds of times amongst the Mail readers of Aston and West Bromwich? Who on Earth was buying 1.6 million copies every day? Who was buying 1.8 million copies of The Sun? It was a relief to go past the Blavatnik School of Government and see about a million copies of the Times and the Telegraph: at least that place had some intellectuals in it.
      And who the hell was reading all this false news on Facebook?

  7. "Of course Sturgeon and the SNP can attempt to deceive voters, as they did in the Scottish referendum when it came to the short term fiscal costs."


  8. I sort of wonder though what is with the English that they accept political guidance from Tabloids. I'm Australian, and we have tabloids, but not like UK tabloids. Australians are in general too skeptical and independent minded, they wouldn't put up with being told what to think. I suspect the Scots are like this also. Why are the English different?

  9. Oh Simon, I really wish you would stick to your area of expertise and avoid making cheap political points.
    The whole force of the establishment both at a national and international level was backing Remain. The right wing press in no way was a counterbalance to these huge forces.
    Can you imagine how strong the vote to leave would have been if there had been a more balanced debate?
    I refer any interested readers to the Treasury's disgraceful publication: The Immediate Effects of leaving the EU. This was far worse than any bus slogan!

  10. You’re right to highlight the difference a rabid and vicious press makes to a referendum vote. As you say, Scotland was partly sheltered from this. But maybe not that much. What may have counted more is the extent to which anti-EU feeling was magnified by politicians. The Scottish government and main opposition parties have generally been positive towards the EU, giving criticism where it is due, arguing for change but basically against a background of positive engagement.
    Since the days of Margaret Thatcher, the UK government has tended to go out of its way to emphasise the negative - ‘bossy Brussels’, ridiculing the way that other countries and cultures deal with the issues at stake, generally undermining the principles of international cooperation in Europe and talking up the United States and the Anglosphere. No wonder it was difficult for David Cameron to about-face during the referendum, after having rubbished the EU for years. Gordon Brown was hardly better, going to Brussels only to lecture Europeans on the superior Anglo-Saxon economic model, even as the collapse of the financial system was at hand.
    At a deeper level, this seems to reflect a Whitehall-Westminster culture that ‘we know best’, expressing puzzlement and disbelief that there could possibly be an alternative point of view. The Irish have had to suffer this kind of attitude for ages.
    I’m sure you are right that there is little difference between Scotland and England on a range of social and economic issues. But there is one thing where the gut feeling is not at all the same - experience within the UK has made most Scots realise that they are from a small country, and need to work with others to prosper and grow. But most English still think that they live in a big country and don’t understand the power that sharing sovereignty can bring.
    So why would Scots swap the UK for the EU ? Many don’t see why they should have to make the choice. But if pressed, they might feel that a small country within the EU has a seat at the table, a vote and a voice, the power to veto on important issues, and rules that are written down in a treaty. All things that they don’t have as a ‘devolved administration’ - not even the most centralising of French politicians could have invented such a condescending term…

  11. Indeed, it's probably a consequence of that propaganda that it is necessary for so eminent a professor to point out so obvious a fact. Namely, that a news source can influence its readers' opinions. And, if news sources combine to promote the same view point, this will affect the millions who read them, and as such influence the outcome of elections and referendums. I suspect this works best when the argument is about a future outcome, preferably about a unique outcome, as the propaganda will not be running against readers' own experiences. I thought, something that may support this last point, was how long it took the media to convince people they were actually 'better off', in the year before the last General Election.
    The 'Sun won it', another telling comment made by Citizen Murdock.

  12. Not all that macroeconomic.

  13. In other news, aren't we due for a recession about now...?


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