Brexit: inequality, the media and the democratic deficit

When publics are abandoned, when their voices no longer matter and their identities are demolished through economic inequality, precarity and non-recognition, they lose faith in the political institutions that are supposed to represent them.

Natalie Fenton
30 June 2016

Flickr/Roebot. Some rights reserved.

Brexit has come as a shock to many people – including those who voted for it. It reveals the scars, we are told, of a deeply divided nation. An election like no other. But referenda are not normal elections. As a snap choice of this or that they bring to the fore fears and anxieties while offering solutions that are never as simple as either/or. To begin to explain what has happened we need to bring context and history to bear. One thing we have known for some time is that inequality has increased. As inequality has increased so social mobility has fallen. As the poor have got poorer so they have had less and less influence over policies and politicians and feel ever more cut adrift from politics, left without the dignity of being able to influence the making of their own history.

The last decade has also been marked by public manifestations of dissent – mass demonstrations against student fees, public sector strikes and riots, the Occupy movement  – protest is now more common than ever, but rarely taken notice of by those who govern. Functions of the state that once were public have been handed over to the private sector and then judged solely on economic grounds. Anti-trade union legislation has hollowed out the ability of workers to have any effective representation over falling wages and ever more insecure employment. Welfare services and public investments have been diminished while corporate prowess gains in cock-sure confidence through deregulation. In these policies, processes and practices neoliberalism has built a structure of feeling that people are dispensable, that publics don’t need to be listened to.

So the tag line for the Leave campaign – ‘Let's Take Back Control’ – speaks to a very real disaffection that this democracy doesn't work for the vast majority of its members. This is not a citizenry satisfied that they understand all of the issues they are voting on nor that when they do vote their views are taken heed of by their elected representatives. So for once this was an opportunity to take some power away from political elites and bureaucrats. Crouch has famously termed our current democratic decay as a continuing process of dissolution towards ‘post-democracy’, a state where ‘the forms of democracy remain fully in place’, yet ‘politics and government are increasingly slipping back into the control of privileged elites in the manner characteristic of pre-democratic times’ (2004: 6). Forgotten publics.

When publics are abandoned, when their voices no longer matter and their identities are demolished through economic inequality, precarity and non-recognition, they lose faith in the political institutions that are supposed to represent them. And they see a political system that is entangled with a neoliberal practice  - forms of power detached from authority and from responsibility to those left behind, particularly in periods of economic crisis. This liberal democracy depends on ‘the vote’ rather than the equitable distribution of economic and social resources, which is one of the reasons for disaffection. Throw in the increase in powers of supranational agencies like the European Commission and the European Central Bank over national economic policies such as budgets and wages and the consequences are toxic.

So it is possible to see the Brexit vote as a desperate plea for change; a bid to turn politics from something that is done to us into doing something for ourselves. Is it any surprise then, that in the pursuit of reassurance and solidarity in the face of economic insecurity, for some, life takes on a sinister and resentful white nationalism? This translates into ‘us’ against ‘them’ – a convenient xenophobic and often racist rhetoric that was spewed out by the three white men of Johnson, Gove and Farage all too willing to feed a tabloid frenzy. A climate of fear, insecurity and a lack of trust paves the way for a populist politics that poses simplistic solutions to complex problems. The more simplistic the solution, the more extravagant the promise; the more extravagant the promise the more myths must be peddled to make it credible.

British newspapers were overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit, with the Mail, Telegraph, Express and Star accounting for four times as many readers and anti-EU stories as their pro-remain rivals. A study from Loughborough University notes that when circulation is taken into account 18% of media coverage was pro-IN the EU and 82% was pro-OUT. The fact-checking pro-Remain website In Facts run by a group of editors, made complaints to IPSO against 20 pro-Brexit stories in the national press that are mostly concerned with inaccurate and distorted stories about the numbers of EU migrants coming to Britain and their impact on the UK. These startling misrepresentations often failed to distinguish between refugees and migrants, between European and non-European migrants and mostly never defined adequately what a migrant is except to treat them as ‘Other’. ‘Others’ who are then linked to criminality. To date only 6 of these false stories have so far been corrected – and even then the corrections are never given the same prominence as the original article – and consequently, the damage is never remedied.

The misleading headlines and sensationalist reporting are nothing new – this is a discourse that emanates from a longstanding eurosceptic press that has campaigned against Brussels for years. And while research tells us that the media’s influence resides in telling us what to think about rather than telling us what to think, we also know that most people consume news from sources that largely reinforce their views. This is made worse rather than better in the digital age as personalization of search and social media close off debate into networks that largely ‘think like us’.

When views go unchallenged they gain in popular credibility. This begins to explain research undertaken by Ipso Mori (2014) that mapped popular perceptions against reality. According to their survey the British public think that one in 5 British people are Muslim when in reality it is one in twenty and that 24% of the population are immigrants when the official figure is 13%. Since the vote to leave the EU there has been an upsurge of hate crime and racial abuse.

So, if you were ever in any doubt that media reform is needed in the UK to support something approximating democracy, the reporting of the Leave campaign surely gives you your answer. When newspapers revel in distortion and there is no regulator that is prepared to stop them, the consequences are socially and politically catastrophic. After the judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press chaired by Lord Justice Leveson there was a historic cross-party agreement to implement the Inquiry’s recommendations in the form of a Royal Charter. But the majority of national newspapers have refused to support it preferring instead to sign up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) that stands accused of failing to satisfy Leveson recommendations relating to independence from the industry, access to justice and complaints handling. IPSO are supposed to have investigative powers and where there is evidence of deliberate malpractice they say they will deploy expert investigators to call editors to account. But directly supporting a political campaign with distorted xenophobic reporting is unlikely to count as ‘deliberate’ even when Richard Desmond, the owner of the Daily Express, has donated £1m to UKIP. IPSO also has the powers to impose fines of up to £1m for systematic wrongdoing. One wonders how much it takes to see incitement to racial hatred as a wrongdoing?

The need for a ‘free press’ for democracy to flourish has a long history. Its centrality and importance has seen it enshrined in political constitutions and many human rights acts and declarations.  Such declarations have been translated into normative ‘ideals’ for media and public communication in fully functioning democracies: the need for a source of pluralist and ‘objective’ information available to all, to enable citizens to make informed choices and vote accordingly; an arena for public deliberation and debate on the issues and policies affecting wider society; it should act as a check on the activities of powerful institutions and individuals; and the means by which a pluralist range of citizens and interest groups may put forward their views. When 82% of the press reading public are faced with reporting that falls far short of these ideals; when these reports also influence other publishers (online and off-line) who take a cue from large, established news organizations; when Google’s algorithms favour dominant, mainstream news sources, then democracy is not best served.

The vote to leave the EU was not a direct result of pro-leave reporting in the majority of the news media. There are many other policies and politics including those of austerity that have led us to this point. But unless we fix the media’s democratic deficit through effective regulation for a free and accountable press alongside measures for remedying concentrated media power it is hard to see how any mechanism of democracy, including elections, can function well. And unless all our systems and institutions of public communication engage in open, deliberative and informed debate it is easy to see how hatred and intolerance can spread.


Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series.

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