We now have a number of studies of how the media as a whole treated the EU referendum.
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.