How important was the role of the media in deciding the outcome of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom?


During the Brexit referendum the media played an enormous role in the final vote, which was eventually revealed to be 52% in favour of leaving the European Union. Both TV and the press played a vital role in the outcome of this. It is important to note that most the main newspaper companies in the UK such as the Daily Star, The Sun, The Financial Times … etc are leaning to the right on the political spectrum. The majority of newspaper readers are also above the age of 30 which may be a reason to explain why so much of the older generations voted to leave the European union. TV programmes such as ‘Benefits Britain’ and ‘Benefits street’ can also be a factor which lead to the vote to leave as they angered and fuelled the opinions of right wing activists and leave voters who focused on immigrants who were claiming benefits in the United Kingdom. On one hand it is possible to say that the younger generation were more interested in consuming ‘Junk media’ such as Netflix and social media platforms rather than focusing on what the older generations were consuming such as relevant news papers and specifying their media consumption on tv programmes that are able to fuel their opinionated beliefs. However, it is fair to say that social media platforms were used to a large extent to fuel the beliefs of the younger generation who wanted to remain a part of the European Union. Also, a large amount of celebrities who work in the media industry spoke out for the urgency to have unity and encourage diversity, although this is not directly coming from a media organisation it still involves people who work in the industry using their fame and social platform to encourage beliefs and political agendas, thus encouraging and setting an example to their fans, surely this also earned votes for the remain campaign? Can this be classed as a factor for how the media played a role in the referendum?

Also, when researching this topic, it is important to understand what the role of the media was in Britain while the referendum was taking place. The most logical and rational answer for this would be to argue that the role of the media was to convey all the facts to the public on both sides in the most fair and honest way in order for the public to make the most educated and responsible vote according to their own personal beliefs. However, while this is the obvious role of the media there are a number of factors which can interfere with this, for example the need to have viewers and readers and their own political agenda, for example the guardian which is a left-wing tabloid or the Daily Mail which is a right-wing tabloid. These factors are just some of the examples that interfere with the medias true role. The media has changed greatly in recent years as author Richard Huggins points out in his book ‘New media and politics’ that ‘Whatever doubts persist about the life-enhancing qualities of the new technologies, there is no doubt that they have facilitated new various new media of political communication.’

To tackle this argument, it is first important to highlight the definition of Habermas Public Sphere, which can be defined in a number of ways. The public sphere which was first used by philosopher Jurgen Habermas effectively defines how the community discuss and converse ideas and agendas on a virtual or imaginative level, without necessarily having an identifiable space. This idea of the public sphere focuses on two aspects which are participatory democracy and the way in which public opinion results in political action. Habermas Public sphere was highly prominent during the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom.

In Stephen Colemans book ‘Democratic Citizenship’ he utilizes the quote of a British politician named Mr Hain who highlighted the fact that, ‘The public, and particularly young people, now have less faith than ever in parliamentary democracy. We who constitute the political class conduct politics in a way that turns off our voters, readers, listeners and viewers… too many people believe that government is something that is done to them.’ Here it can be seen that what Coleman is attempting to address in the opening lines of his book is that the media, current affairs and politics are portrayed in a way that does not interest young people. Instead it has been taken over by social media. While the older generations were reading about Nigel Farage’s plans to save money being put into Brussels and invest it instead into the NHS, young people were browsing Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and while they would have been circulating certain political agendas and political ideas the majority of what is being consumed could be described as ‘Junk media.’ This is an interesting point which has been highlighted by Coleman. The large media corporations have failed to create a thriving political sphere among potential young voters and people are becoming more disengaged than ever with current affairs. Instead people are taking to things that interest them and sharing their own experiences on social media outlets instead of looking at the bigger picture. This clearly exemplifies how the media arguably failed in creating a young public sphere of discussion during the Brexit referendum as it had a very small number of voters from the age of 18 to 24.

Moreover, when looking at the arguments put forward by Sarah Oates in her book ‘Introduction to media and politics.’ In this she states how, ‘If the mass media choose to “lead” their audience by attempting to challenge majority beliefs too vehemently, they run the risk of losing both the audience’s attention and its trust.’ This highlights my earlier argument that some media companies can not simply display all the boring facts as they still require views, readers and hits to keep their business profitable and running. This was certainly true of some media outlets and tabloids such as the Daily Mail and The Mail online which focused largely on breaking and shocking stories and events that were occurring during the Brexit negotiations. However, Oates then goes on to say, ‘In turn, the BBC continues to cover ceremonial state occasions such as the opening of Parliament at Westminster and the laying of wreaths for the war dead on Remembrance Day, notwithstanding their lack of dynamic viewing value.’ By looking into this it can be seen that the BBC do not have the concern of gaining or loosing viewers therefore they have more room to portray the basic facts and information (which is often a fairer and less biased form of news) that maybe not all viewers are totally interested in. In this case it can be seen that in actual fact the BBC and large corporations did produce fair coverage of both sides during the referendum and gave their viewers all fair information they needed in order for them to discuss the issue within their public sphere. Perhaps they were not showing the information and news in the most engaging manner but they still provided the basics for the public to discuss in their own spheres.
Furthermore, it is of popular belief that it is in fact the internet which is bringing in the newest forms of discussion for political agenda and is becoming aa new platform for the public sphere, some media outlets have focused on this and politicians such as Obama have used this platform for people to share and discuss political agendas. James Curran writes in his book ‘Media and democracy’ that ‘In the long term the internet may rejuvenate journalism, especially if it is accompanied by constructive public policies.’ This point was proven during the Brexit referendum and can be linked to Vyacheslav Polonski’s article on ‘Views from Oxford’ where he argues that ‘Remain lost the battle online long before it lost the political battle on the ground. The overwhelming Leave sentiment across all social networking platforms was consistent and undeniable, yet many Remain supporters chose to ignore the voice of the Internet as something that has no connection with the real political world.’ Here it is clear that where the main Media corporations failed to engage with potential voters it was social media platforms which hosted thriving discussions and the winning party, the leave campaign had clearly won the online political battle.

When looking at various media corporations it is also clear to see how they did in fact insight right wing ideologies and promoted fear mongering about what can be seen as the main issue in the public’s interest of Brexit which was immigration. In the magazine ‘Newstatesman’ journalist Katherine Fidler writes, ‘ Numerous leave supporting papers including the Daily Mail and Daily express initiated their own claims when it came to imminent immigration apocalypse, and many of these focused on the idea that they’re all criminals.’ While journalist Jane Martinson from he guardian has backed his up by explaining how the media painted a bleak picture of immigration before the Brexit vote in which she highlights, ‘Report into UK news media shows 79 of 99 front page stories about issue in run-up to EU referendum were published by leave-supporting outlets’ This statistic portrays just how influential the media was in deciding he outcome of the Brexit referendum which ended in a 52 percent vote of in favour to leave the European Union.

In conclusion, it can be said that the media was highly important in deciding the outcome of the Brexit referendum and it was equally influential in its ability to shape the discussion of the public sphere at the time in the UK which was largely through the internet and social media platforms. The tabloids and press in the UK clearly focused on immigration as a part of Brexit without focusing on the other economic, social and even environmental factors that came with leaving the European Union. However, the media are not solely to blame as it can be seen that television broadcasters such as the BBC who were able to portray all the arguments and factors that came with leaving the European Union without the worry of having to appeal to political agenda or securing a certain number of viewers in the name of profit. Therefore, perhaps it was the publics own fault for not engaging in other aspects of Brexit and being only interested in immigration that caused the outcome of the referendum. However, either way in indisputably definite to say that media play an incredibly important role in shaping politics and democratically formed ideas in the modern day western world. As writer Mathew Lynch states, ‘the media acts as an effective check on government power and influence over its citizens.’ I believe this statement to hold much credit and I believe that it is almost entirely the medias responsibility to deliver all the information in politics in order for the democratic society to form a judgement and vote their choice, which in this case was for the UK to leave the European Union.

Categories: Essays

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