Ideas on Europe

Tabloid Tales

Tabloid Tales

For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Dr Kathryn Simpson, Associate Professor in Politics & Economics of the European Union, Keele University.

Together with Nick Startin, whom we know well at Euradio, you have recently published a piece of research on “how the tabloid press shaped the Brexit vote” back in 2016.

That’s right. There has been a wealth of academic research attempting to explain the Brexit vote, with a lot of different approaches. What we were interested in was to find out to what extent did the UK’s tabloid press shape public opinion during the referendum and whether this did influence the outcome.

In Britain ‘hard’ euroscepticism stemming from the tabloid press has long been widespread. Since the Maastricht era, tabloid newspapers such as The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express have become renowned for portraying the EU in negative terms and as against the national interest. Some infamous headlines such as The Sun’s ‘Up Yours Delors’ front-page have become iconic reference points for British eurosceptics.

So how did you go about your research?

We analyse the final stages of the EU referendum campaign by focusing on the front pages of the five British daily tabloids – The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and the Daily Star – looking at the four weeks prior to the referendum, which coincided with the so-called ‘purdah’ period during which no official information is released any more.

We found that the tabloid press progressively centred on the theme of immigration to shape its eurosceptic narrative and set the agenda in the final stages of the campaign. Which is in line with other research that found ‘coverage of immigration more than tripled over the course of the campaign, rising faster than any other political issue’.

In terms of support for Brexit by readership, The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, with a combined readership of almost four million outnumbered the Remain supporting Daily Mirror by four to one. Scrutiny of the front pages of the five tabloids also illustrates how the three tabloids supporting Brexit devoted their front pages to Brexit far more frequently than either the Remain-supporting Daily Mirror or the neutral Daily Star.

So people were bombarded with Brexit-supporting front pages?

Yes, they were. The Daily Express and the Daily Mail devoted over three quarters of their front pages to the referendum. Overall, there were 48 pro-Brexit front pages, compared to the seven Remain or neutral front pages in the final stage before the referendum. And of these 48 front pages, 27 were directly (or indirectly) related to immigration. By contrast, the Remain-supporting Daily Mirror only started to illustrate its support for EU membership with front-page headlines in the final three days of the campaign.

Our analysis is reinforced by an IPSOS Mori opinion poll published on the day of the referendum which showed that ‘concern with immigration had risen by ten percentage points [to 48%] since May, when concern stood at 38%.’ Concern with immigration was particularly high – over 60% - ‘for Conservative supporters, those aged 65 and over and those from the socio-economic category C2, referring to qualified workers. All three of these demographics are core in terms of the readership of the British Tabloid Press.

But do people actually believe what they read in these newspapers?

It’s a long-standing debate, and we recognise this limitation of our conclusions. However, research in this area does reinforce our argument about the impact of the agenda-setting, anti-immigration, ‘bombardment approach’ on influencing tabloid readers. In a referendum, where one third of voters made up their mind which way to vote in the final stages of the campaign, such a highly polarized framing undoubtedly had an impact.

This post draws on the article ‘Tabloid Tales: how the British Press Shaped the Brexit Vote‘, co-authored with Dr Nick Startin, Associate Professor of International Relations, John Cabot University, Rome, and published in the Journal of Common Market Studies

A version of this blog was also published on the UK in a Changing Europe website.

Interview conducted Laurence Aubron