Did the UK's newspapers swing it for Brexit?

After a hard-fought referendum, it is time to look again at Leveson’s modest proposals for press regulation in the United Kingdom.

Jonathan Heawood
28 June 2016
Front page of The Sun newspaper in March. The 'Queen backs Brexit' headline was inaccurate, the Independent Press Standards Orga

Front page of The Sun newspaper in March. The 'Queen backs Brexit' headline was inaccurate, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) ruled. Credit: The Sun/PA Wire/Press Association. All rights reserved.On the face of it, democracy is the ultimate self-regulatory system. Don’t like your government? Elect a new one. Don’t like the European Union? Vote to leave. The people have their say, and our institutions are forced to listen. But this does not mean that democracy is a free-for-all. Without rules, the odds would be stacked in favour of the most powerful players and the loudest voices. Freedom for the pike would be death for the minnows.

News publishers – both in print and online – undoubtedly have an influence on our democratic decision-making.

The rules of democracy are enforced – at least, in theory – by an array of regulators. Parties are legally obliged to register with the Electoral Commission. Donations above £7,500 must be declared. Campaign spending above £10,000 at referendums must be declared. Charities and other organisations are barred from political campaigning. Party political broadcasts are required to comply with the relevant provisions of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code. And broadcast journalists must follow Ofcom’s strict guidelines on impartiality.

One vital element of our democracy is conspicuous by its absence from this list: the press. And yet news publishers – both in print and online – undoubtedly have an influence on our democratic decision-making. In 1992, the Sun declared that it had won the general election for the Conservatives.

Twenty years later, the Sun’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, downplayed this boast, describing it to Lord Justice Leveson as ‘tasteless and wrong’. No wonder. Murdoch did not want Leveson to subject the press to the same social responsibilities as other elements of our democracy. ‘We don’t have that sort of power’, he protested, with characteristic humility.

But, at times, some newspapers just can’t help themselves. And so, in the last few days, we have seen the Express describe its campaign for Brexit as ‘the world’s most successful newspaper crusade’. And the Sun now claims that almost a third of Brexit voters were primarily influenced by the Sun’s coverage of the issue. And this is no mere assertion: they have commissioned research to support their claim that it was the Sun ‘wot swung it’. This polling apparently shows that 30 percent of Leave voters said they were primarily influenced by the Sun – more than were influenced by any other factor, including the official Leave campaign.

The Sun does not clarify which elements of their journalism constituted their ‘Brexit campaign’. Did it include their front-page claim that ‘Queen Backs Brexit’ (found to be inaccurate but still defiantly available on the Sun’s website)? Did it include their publication of a column by Katie Hopkins, in which she compared migrants to ‘cockroaches’ and described British towns as ‘festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers’? Did the Express’s ‘crusade’ include the inaccurate claims called out by the pro-EU group In Facts?

The public’s number one priority in press standards is accuracy. The public’s number one grievance about the press is ‘bias’.

To put it simply: did the Eurosceptic press swing the referendum on the basis of inaccurate and discriminatory journalism? And if so, are we content to put up with that?

The answer, from the public, is no. At IMPRESS, we have been asking the public what they think about our glorious fourth estate. What do they like about the press and what bothers them? We will be releasing the results of this survey shortly. In the meantime, some headline findings:

  • - The public’s number one priority in press standards is accuracy.

- The public’s number one grievance about the press is ‘bias’.

We were surprised by this emphasis on bias. Don’t people understand that press freedom means that newspapers should be free to take sides? Yes, they do. A majority of the public believe that news publications should be free to express an opinion. However, they do not believe that news publications should be free to ‘distort the facts’.

When asked whether they would prefer the press to be regulated by an independent body, the government or news publishers, the public overwhelmingly backed the independent body.

And funnily enough, this is exactly what Leveson recommended, after hearing evidence from Rupert Murdoch, Kelvin Mackenzie, and hundreds of other journalists, editors, publishers and other interested parties.

Did he say that, like political parties, news publishers should be forced to register with a statutory body? No. Did he tell news publishers to declare the financial value of their newspapers’ support for parties or policies? No. Did he prevent publishers from political campaigning? No. Did he say that political advertisements in newspapers should be regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority? No. Did he ask newspapers to provide impartial political coverage? No way!

In fact, Leveson’s proposals were modest, compared to the burdens that are placed on political parties, donors and other bodies such as trade unions. Leveson said that news publishers should follow standards like those in the existing industry Code of Practice – so long as those standards include a commitment to accuracy. He said that news publishers should be free to regulate themselves – so long as the regulator’s independence and effectiveness is occasionally reviewed by an external body. And he said that publishers which signed up to this system should be protected against the costs of libel litigation.

If anything, Leveson’s proposals could make for a more politically vigorous press – playing its unique role in our democratic system by holding the government, opposition and other parties to account. That’s why a growing number of smaller, independent publishers have joined IMPRESS. And perhaps that’s why the public are also on this side of the argument. And when the public speak, the press, perhaps, might consider listening.

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