Brexit: Did the UK news media do its job?

By Leigh Taylor

In the almost three and a half years since the British public voted to leave the European Union, the news media hasn’t been short of coverage from scandals to resignations to extension after extension. It can be argued the media has, in fact, acted as the main pillar in shaping the narrative of the referendum and the subsequent political turmoil that has ensued. But, with this great responsibility, is the news media performing its duties to the highest and most ethical standards, and do the general public feel they are well informed on the political implications of Brexit or is it merely being portrayed as a point-scoring pantomime?

Recent commentary from journalist, and Daily Mail commentator, Peter Oborne, writing on the OpenDemocracy website expresses his concern that the British media have found themselves feeding into a ‘fake news’ agenda, publishing statements from government and Downing Street ‘sources’ which have transpired to be of fabricated or dubious origins thus swaying the political narrative and consumed by the public on a daily basis.

Dr Imke Henkel, a former political correspondent and now senior lecturer in Journalism at University of Lincoln, feels that in regards to Brexit much of the public find themselves relying on the news media to a certain degree to educate them on unfamiliar issues, for better or worse:

“Brexit is one of the issues where I think of classic agenda-setting theory. I think it will play a huge role or actually can be applied because one of the findings is that the less people immediately experience, the more they have to rely on the media to get their information and how they think about issues. And because Brexit is so complex, it deals with very complicated economic and international issues that people have very little direct experience of.”

As Brexit continues to unfold and dominate the news media since the result in June 2016, Imke’s idea of agenda-setting impacting the public’s perception is echoed by Dr Margaret Hughes, senior lecturer in Journalism at University of the West of Scotland:

“We’ve had sections in the news media that have clearly had a political agenda. They have taken a pro-remain stance or pro-leave stance. I think that is where they’ve compromised themselves. An important responsibility of the news media in any democracy is how well they enable the citizens in that democracy to play their fullest part. I think when we hear lots of people say they don’t understand what they voted for, they now don’t understand the terms in which we’re leaving, I think that does prompt us to ask questions about how well the news media did its job.”

A further exploration into the relationship between the news media and coverage of Brexit has been found in a recent review by Ofcom, undertaken by Cardiff University’s Professor Stephen Cushion into the BBC, analysing the range and depth its news and current affairs coverage. It ponders the discovery that the BBC’s online news, when providing links to news and opinions, uses more from its own archive than elsewhere, creating an argument that it is not providing enough counter argument to its coverage of current affairs.

Elsewhere, the tabloid media are frequently criticised for their coverage on political affairs, with Imke expressing concern over the volume of misinformed stories being digested by audiences, especially in a growing digital age:

“There’s this kind of polarising approach to be violent and I think the media have something to answer for that, because media are very polarised and some were supporting violence and violent language, as well. Especially the tabloid media, The Daily Mail, Express, and the Sun where I think people were really offended. I’m currently writing a book about that and actually following it back to the 1990s when the media were also very often publishing what would now be called ‘fake news’ which would be better called disinformation as the notion of fake news has been now recognised by politicians.”

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