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The press didn’t divide us – we were already divided…

Britain's divisions weren't invented by the media.

It couldn’t have been a more different atmosphere. Back in the heady consensus-driven days of the 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the ‘Common Market’, every single national newspaper urged a ‘yes’ vote with the exception of the Morning Star. Rupert Murdoch, the Mail’s Sir David English, prime minister Harold Wilson and former PM Edward Heath all scorned the arguments of left-wing proponents of a ‘no’ vote like Tony Benn and urged Britain to renew its ties to the rest of Europe. The result was a 2 to 1 ‘yes’ vote and relief for the political establishment.

Fast forward to June 24, 2016 and things are very different. The decision to leave the European Union is evidence that consensus has now officially broken down. ‘Today we wake to a deeply divided country’, cried Lib Dem leader Tim Farron on the morning of the referendum result while the Guardian commentator Jonathan Freedland suddenly noticed that, given the hugely different poll results between the biggest metropolitan centres and the rest, ‘England is exposed as a land divided’. Story after story now talks of ‘Divided Britain’: a land marked by a collapse in trust and working-class communities at war with the political ‘mainstream’.

We also have a divided press with the Sun, Mail, Express, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph on the ‘leave’ side with the Guardian, Observer, Times, Mail on Sunday and Mirror all lining up behind ‘remain’. True, if you weight their impact by partisanship and reach, there was an 82% circulation advantage for the ‘leave’ side but ‘Fleet Street’ (let alone individual newsrooms), as well as the country as a whole, would appear to be irredeemably divided.

This is all surface analysis. First, the press may have been divided on their specific attitude to ‘Brexit’ but they remain largely united on the bigger issues that surround the debate: on the desirability of immigration controls, austerity and ‘free markets’. Endorsements for either side emanated from a heady mixture of proprietorial influence, ideological fixations and material interests – not least the views of their readers. According to YouGov, over 70% of Sun, Express and Mail readers supported ‘Brexit’ in March 2016 before their papers formally endorsed one side while 91% of Guardian readers and 62% of Times readers were ‘remain’ supporters before the campaign officially started. Given the fragile state of news finances, it would be a bold editor who would go against the views of their readers.     

More fundamentally, Britain was divided long before the referendum campaign got going. The economic issues that were clearly at the heart of the ‘leave’ vote are, according to Larry Elliott writing on the morning after the vote, ‘deep-seated and of long standing.’ He concludes that the UK is a ‘country divided by wealth, geography and class.’ The tragedy is that the bulk of media attention during the referendum totally failed to do justice to these underlying questions of inequality, alienation and frustration with ‘official’ politics and focused instead on painting the vote in terms of a civil war inside the Conservative party.

The whole problem is that neither a press that is largely dominated by billionaire proprietors nor broadcasters that are all too often enmeshed with the elites themselves, are able to make sense of and to articulate the divisions that exist in our society. Of course, some titles – like the Express and the Mail­ – are obsessed with ramping up divisions by blaming immigrants for all social problems and adding to a poisonous atmosphere generated by politicians on both sides of the campaign. By and large, however, our media don’t ‘do division’ – at least not the divisions that are truly meaningful and that would require them to acknowledge the structural inequalities that permeate the UK.

The breakdown of consensus that we are now being assaulted with masks the existence of a more enduring consensus: the determination of Britain’s elites – including those inside the media – to maintain their power. True, they may have had very different perspectives on how EU membership would assist this, but their underlying devotion to ‘British interests’ and market fundamentalism goes beyond a tactical question of ‘remain’ or ‘leave’. This is what progressives from both ‘camps’ will have to continue to confront in the volatile days and months following the referendum.

About the author

Des Freedman (@lazebnicis Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of ‘The Contradictions of Media Power’ (2014) and co-author (with James Curran and Natalie Fenton) of ‘Misunderstanding the Internet’ (2nd edition, 2016).


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