Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 16 May 2017

The media’s unbalanced referendum

We now have a number of studies of how the media as a whole treated the EU referendum.
  1. A short piece by Deacon et al from Loughborough in this volume.

The Reuters Institute study looked at the press, and after weighting for readership and visibility they found that pro-Leave articles outnumbered pro-Remain articles 68:32 (page 34). One interesting finding that I had not seen before is that voters generally split in a similar way to the balance of articles in the paper they read: the only notable exceptions were the Times (more pro-Leave articles but more pro-Remain voters) and the Mirror (more pro-Remain articles but roughly even voting split). Of course you can read this result two ways: voters were influenced by their paper or their paper reflected their reader’s views.

The King’s College study shows how the Leave campaign, through the newspapers that supported it, were able to reframe the debate on the economics of Brexit. An example that sticks in my memory was Obama’s intervention. I remember seeing an interview with a random voter asking what she thought of this, and she responded by saying how dare Obama interfere with our referendum and blackmail us over trade. It struck me as a very odd reaction at the time (particularly as Obama is popular in the UK), but of course she was simply parroting what she had read in her newspaper. The King's study clearly reveals how the Leave press used the techniques of propaganda to support their side.

The Cardiff study focused on the main news broadcasts. In contrast with the press, there was no bias in favour of Leave or Remain. However what they did find was that broadcasters essentially acted as mirrors for the two campaigns. The Remain campaign focused on Tory politicians, so the broadcasters did as well. As a result, Conservatives received much more coverage than politicians from other political parties. As the Loughborough study noted, this made the coverage ‘presidential’ in character. Journalists normally did not question statistics themselves, preferring to let the other side do any challenging. This also meant that the broadcasters focused on the details of the two campaigns, rather than providing the background information and independent assessment that many viewers clearly wanted. Rather than focus on their duty to inform, they played it safe by just letting the two campaigns do all the talking.

A consequence of the broadcast media largely providing a showcase for the politicians running the campaigns is the marginalisation of other groups, and in particular those who actually knew something about the issues being talked about. I’m not just talking about economics, but also law and international relations. The Remain campaign prefered to use international institutions (IMF, OECD etc) rather than local experts. The Leave campaign did use one academic, Patrick Minford (who figured in 90 of the articles examined by the King’s group), with the consequence that the academic economist that voters were most likely to have heard of during the campaign represented just 4% of the profession.

The danger of the broadcast media taking this approach is illustrated by the example of immigration and public services. The King’s study noted the following:
“The most consistent economic argument made by the Leave campaign – that immigration placed unsustainable pressure on public services – was frequently repeated in the editorials of some news outlets without being subject to the skeptical or forensic analysis applied to Remain’s economic arguments across the whole range of publications.”

Economists assume, for sound reasons, that in fact immigration benefits the public finances, which is one reason why the OBR thinks the deficit will be around £15 billion higher each year as a result of Brexit. So why did the Remain campaign not say this more loudly? The answer could well be because the campaign was headed by a government that had used immigration as a scapegoat for poor public services. This absence of a critique mattered a lot: at least one poll showed that the reason voters most often gave for limiting immigration was pressure on public services. Therefore by relying on the political campaigns, the broadcast media misled the public.

It is for this reason that I have argued that broadcasters should treat what an overwhelming majority of experts think are facts as facts, whatever politicians say. But I see no sign that broadcasters see the problem (with the exception of climate change), let alone have any inclination to deal with it. As far as economics is concerned, I fear the bodies that represent academic economists also want to avoid any fights. Which means that we are stuck with the status quo for some time.

I think this has a major implication for those like me who see Brexit as a huge mistake which people must be given the chance to reverse. The next few years are going to show that the many claims the Leave side made are completely false. The EU will ensure the UK is worse off as a result of leaving. Trade deals with other countries will not come to the rescue. There will be less, not more, money for public services and so on. The government’s response (unless May makes the most courageous U-turn ever) will be to wrap themselves in the flag and say that anyone who is critical is being unpatriotic, and with a large majority no effective opposition within the Conservative party will be possible. .

If Labour continues to support a Hard Brexit, all they can do is claim setbacks are the result of government incompetence. Here I disagree with Ian Dunt: criticism that takes Hard Brexit as given and just focuses on a claim that we could do the negotiation better will lose out to nationalist fervour. The reality is also that the LibDem voice is too weak, and will remain so even if they double their number of seats at the election. Given the way our media works, the only way you can constantly remind people that Brexit is a choice we could reverse is if Labour after the election adopts a much more critical position that involves support for a second referendum.


  1. I was expecting to see something about the behaviour of utility-maximising consumers and firms in individual markets, but then I realised I misread the title of the blog as "Mainly Micro" ...

  2. Typo: £15 should be £15 billion. If only it were a mere £15 (!)

  3. Simon, I agree that the priority must be reducing Tory influence, but, given that Labour have been and are so lukewarm on Europe, isn't it time to reward the Lib Dems' long-term and unique Europeanism where we can?

  4. you using the word "parroting" is exactly the kind of elitist thinking that causes problems. Just because they didn't think along the lines of what you think means that they are unthinking and are taken in by "propaganda". If you are supposed to be an example of "experts", then you can see why the ordinary citizen is very jaundiced towards the tribe of experts.

    I strongly suggest you explore your conscious and unconscious bias frameworks, dear professor. There are training courses for that. You may find it improves your analytical skills.

  5. "The King's study clearly reveals how the Remain press used the techniques of propaganda to support their side."

    Did you mean the Leave side?

  6. In all honesty there can be no truly unbiased process such as you imply here; any process of this sort has to have some sort of bias and to say that "we lost because of the media" really is a pretty weak argument at the end of the day. Searching for lack of bias in this sort of context is like looking for Plato's ideal bed.

    Even if we reran the whole show on lines which you imply and the result was still leave I doubt if you would accept that, citing some other form of bias.

    Considering all that has come out since the referendum I suspect this may be a surprise:

    You cannot seem to accept that this argument is far more widely drawn than you suppose. It is not merely about economics; it is about culture; it is about the future which no one can foresee with any degree of confidence and most "experts" would concede that and it is not just about the UK it is also about the direction that the EU is headed in and whether we should want that. To condense all this down to a combination of media bias and the disregard of experts is, ironically, to deny the issue the gravity that it merits.

  7. In regards to your last paragraph, it seems like Labour has adopted a rhetorical message of "Brexit will happen; Labour will make it less bad." This seems like the cousin of pre-Corbynite Labour's (rightly derided by yourself and others) insistence on an electoral message of of "Austerity will happen; Labour will make it less bad." It also certainly looks like it will be similarly effective.

  8. The King's study clearly reveals how the Remain press used the techniques of propaganda to support their side

    Remain press or Leave press?

  9. I have an issue with this sentence: "The EU will ensure the UK is worse off as a result of leaving."

    It is as though it was somehow dependent on the goodwill of the EU how the UK fared outside it. Surely, the exact details of the deal matter and there is room for discretion to be more or less harsh on some particular matter but the general framework is defined by the UK's self-imposed red lines. And those signal a clear worsening in trading conditions with a big and geographically close market.

    Moreover, the sentence sounds as an endorsement of the "if it goes wrong it's all EU's fault" narrative some Brexiteers have started to push.

    Of course, if the benchmark is the "have cake and eat it" option, then it can be seen as the EU's fault. In some universe, the poor Romanians could even pay farming subsidies to Welsh farmers in order for their country to have the privilege to trade with the UK without having FoM rights, but in that mindset everything is a punishment by the EU.

  10. "The King's study clearly reveals how the Remain press used the techniques of propaganda to support their side."

    Did you mean Leave press?

  11. The Labour Party is led (and will almost certainly still be led after the election) by a life long Eurosceptic. Why would it change its position ?

  12. Field Marshal Montgomery was once asked what his military maxim was , "don't march your land army on Moscow" was his reply, he could also have also added never go into any kind of alliance or share a platform with the Tories, you will lose out big time.
    The Liberals found this out after the first world war , Scottish Labour in 2014/15 after the indy ref1, the LibDems in 2015 after the coalition and Labour,Ukip, the LibDems after 2017 EU referendum.
    There is even a chance of the Tories winning seats in Scotland on the back of Brexit which 70% of Scotland voted against, I presume the voters thinking goes along the lines of this. The Government were against Brexit , spend huge amounts of my tax dollars funding their position, to save their party from imploding , but they are now they are the people to negotiate this move from a position of strength with a huge majority which I will give them. We will ignore the fact we have no idea what we are voting for or what deal we will get but you can bet money I Joe Public will lose out across the board.
    I'm lost and have yet to hear a decent explanation of what is going on here, but I can see in a few years a collection of PPE graduates getting PhDs on the back of this election.

  13. Is there a type here:
    "The King's study clearly reveals how the Remain press used the techniques of propaganda to support their side"

    Given the context of the paragraph, shouldn't that be "Leave press"?

  14. Corbyn had a real hard time separating out the "neoliberal" promotion elements of the EU (especially around opening up markets that before had nation-based protections, like fishing, and traditional government services like transit to for profit entrants) from the benefits, especially concerning the EU's place wrt trade.

  15. As you assert that Labour supports a "hard Brexit", I assume you have not read the manifesto, so here are a few extracts from the section on “Negotiating Brexit”:

    “We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union – which are essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain. Labour will always put jobs and the economy first.”

    “A Labour government will immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain and secure reciprocal rights for UK citizens who have chosen to make their lives in EU countries.”

    “Labour recognises that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ is the worst possible deal for Britain and that it would do damage to our economy and trade. We will reject ‘no deal’ as a viable option and if needs be negotiate transitional arrangements to avoid a 'cliff-edge’ for the UK economy.”

    “Labour will continue to work constructively with the EU and other European nations on issues such as climate change, refugee crises and counter-terrorism.”

    “We will drop the Conservatives’ Great Repeal Bill, replacing it with an EU Rights and Protections Bill that will ensure there is no detrimental change to workers’ rights, equality law, consumer rights or environmental protections as a result of Brexit.”

    Additionally, Labour wants to stay in Horizon 2020, Euratom, the European Medicines Agency, the Erasmus scheme, Eurojust, Europol, etc.

    Leave enthusiasts would not recognise this as a “hard Brexit”. Why do you?

    On the second referendum, I have been trying to find out from its advocates, ever since this was proposed, what exactly the alternatives in such a referendum would be, once article 50 had been triggered. I have never been given an answer. Perhaps you could explain.

    1. YES is take the deal. NO could be leave with no deal ; don't leave at all ; or send Theresa back to try again. Who would choose which of them it would be? Of course, you could always have the alternative vote.

  16. You may have evidence on this that you didn't have space to mention but how do you know that this randomly selected voter was "of course [...] simply parroting what she had read in her newspaper" rather than that she thought it independently herself.

    Without some evidence, that bit of your piece reads as if you are assuming what you want to prove - and being rather condescending.

  17. The Loughborough study also found that Tory papers made fewer favourable references to Jeremy Corbyn than Labour ones did. I thought it was Sybil Fawlty whose special subject was the bleeding obvious.


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