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Gilson: Did regional press cutbacks help trigger Brexit vote?

brexittrumpmediaFormer editors Neil Fowler and Tor Clark and academic John Mair have published a new book looking at media coverage of the EU referendum and Donald Trump’s US election win.

Yesterday HTFP carried an extract from Tor Clark arguing that the balanced coverage of the Brexit vote provided by regional media was drowned-out by partisan and inaccurate reporting from the nationals.

Today Mike Gilson, who edited five regional daily titles over the course of his regional press career, takes up the argument.

Mike poses the question whether the ‘democratic deficit’ resulting from local press cutbacks helped create the conditions for the Leave vote by allowing ‘fake news and spin’ to fill the void left by journalism.


You could tell which one was the sole Leave-supporting journalist in the newsroom. After a long night out in the counting halls most sat around in stunned silence or muttered in shocked tones. The Brexiteer, vocal in calling out his liberal colleagues before  the vote, now decided discretion was the better part of valour, only a semi embarrassed smile betraying him. He was on the victorious side.

Every single other journalist now in the newsroom in the early hours of June 24, 2016, including this editor, had simply not seen it coming. Had, if you like, underestimated the groundswell moving under our feet. Sure enough we were covering a patch, Brighton, which voted almost 70 per cent to Remain, but around us in the estates that border the city a bloody nose had been dealt.

We might have guessed Eastbourne would go. But more than 57 per cent to Leave? Worthing and Adur similar votes that outstripped national support for Brexit, fuelled, we now surmised, by those left behind by the sunny South Coast’s surface sense of well-being. And liberal Lewes, a narrow verdict for stay, those living outside the picture-postcard centre, the spiritual home of Thomas Paine, almost delivering one of the shocks of the night.

Beneath the tiredness another feeling stirred. How had we, those whose job it is to have our ear to the ground, guessed it so wrong?

There were two thoughts that followed. Had we enough troops these days to accurately reflect the sense of disillusion and disenfranchisement that was arising in the run up to the vote outside of ‘right-on’ Brighton city where our main business was done, our contacts largely made? And secondly had we simply been swamped by social media?

Our attempts to explain and spell out, report all sides, hold live debates, finally to gently ask our readers to err on the side of caution, refrain from a leap into the unknown been a pointless waste of time compared to the avalanche of self-affirming digital communications that we saw happening out there?

We still believed it would be trusted journalism, not rabid opinion, that people would in the end turn to help them decide. We doubt this now. On June 24 no-one had heard of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth society’ was only something written about in academic journals.

And perhaps other thoughts emerged only later. Had the absence of journalists in numbers in the crumbling towns and estates of England helped create a democratic deficit that, over the years, led to voices of anguish from those places going unheard? Was the vote to leave the EU an almost cathartic two fingers to the liberal establishment, which included journalism, staffed overwhelmingly as it is by those with the financial support needed nowadays to get into the trade and then survive on its meagre wages?

The sign of the monkey

Peter Barron is what many would call a proper editor. For 17 years he was, and in truth still is, the face of the Northern Echo. He didn’t just decide the splash every day, drive the news agenda and write leaders. He was a PR man, a revenue generator, a glad handler, a marketer and an evangelical for his title too. This job description is fast disappearing.

It was H’Angus the Monkey who first alerted Barron to the rise of an anti-establishment feeling in ‘left-behind’ Britain. In 2002 in Hartlepool Stuart Drummond standing as a joke candidate dressed as the local football team’s mascot and promising free bananas for all voters beat the establishment Labour candidate to become Mayor.

“Why on earth would they vote for a man in a monkey suit unless there was a deep dissatisfaction with mainstream politics?” says Barron.

So his newspaper learnt that lesson and factored it in to its reporting. But there’s a difference between an election for the Mayor of Hartlepool and leaving the country’s biggest trading partner for the unknown.

For the EU Referendum the lessons of Hartlepool would be acknowledged. The views of politicians would be respected but not given undue weight. For Barron it was North East business leaders, a large constituency for his newspaper, who he would turn his ear towards. And they were virtually unanimous. Flagship companies like Nissan and Hitachi were all expressing concern to him.

He had absolutely no qualms about pinning his newspaper’s colours to the mast in a regional industry whose leaders are generally loathe to express any political opinion at all.

“After the referendum was announced I decided the paper should come out in favour of Remain based on a business leaders over politicians philosophy,” he says.”Jobs and the economy were the biggest issues in the North East and we asked readers to listen more closely to the job creators than the politicians.”

In the end 57.3 per cent of voters in Darlington, core Northern Echo territory, voted to Leave but Barron is unrepentant, based on his understanding of his readership. There has been no backlash against the paper and recently, while filming a Brexit documentary for the BBC, he detected signs that opinion in the North East was swinging.

“The main theme that came out of talking to voters for the documentary was that they didn’t really understand the full implications of what they were voting for,” he says.

Barron would have been only too happy to stand by his decision at the Northern Echo and continue the debate as Britain moves towards divorce. He was shuffled towards the exit door a few months before the vote as the financial cuts sweeping the regional press became a torrent.

What steel in Sheffield?

Jarvis Cocker, lead singer of Pulp and probably one of Sheffield’s greatest imports after steel was shocked that his home city voted narrowly to Leave. “That wasn’t the outcome I expected,” he told The Observer recently. Nancy Fielder, editor of The Sheffield Star for a little more than a year, was not.

“It’s funny the BBC came on to us the following morning and were asking us to talk about the shock in Sheffield, but we didn’t feel that. Perhaps nationally but we definitely picked up the Leave mood in our city. There was real fear out there, people were scared about jobs and the future, whether those fears were justified around the EU is another matter,” she says.

Unlike Barron, Fielder is determinedly opposed to having the Star take a political stance on issues like Brexit and neither on the front page nor in its leader columns did the newspaper ever take a view.

“I don’t think that was our job,” she says.” Our job is simply to inform and educate. We did know though that to come down for Remain would have flown in the face of what a lot of our readers were thinking.”

She puts this understanding down to the structure of the Johnston Press-owned newspaper.  While she also edits the Doncaster Star, the weekly Sheffield Telegraph and two other weeklies, it is the seven communities journalists (another team fills the back of the newspapers) working across all those titles, she insists, who were out of the ground picking up the aforementioned fears of voters.

While Fielder maintains that her titles do have enough resources to cover what is a large multi-title patch, she does worry about diversity in the newsroom. Few reporters now can afford to enter journalism from what we used to call working-class estates when most newspaper groups now insist on a degree and a postgraduate qualification.

“I come from a working class area of Sheffield so I do bring in stories myself from those places but you do have to worry about that connection,” she says.

“There’s a real danger we will lose it if we don’t have people from those areas coming into newsrooms. Even older women who know the struggles of life are thin on the ground.”

She adds that in 17 years working across the region she’s only ever worked with two non-white journalists.

Dark messages from the Black Country

The messages being received from his readers were clear to editor of the Express and Star, Wolverhampton, Keith Harrison.

The Black Country was becoming disillusioned with high levels of EU immigration into its communities. That, and border control, were the issues picked up in the newsroom and through the title’s digital platforms.

For Harrison the support for these feelings led the newspaper into a subtle, rather than overt, support for Leave. Wolverhampton eventually voted 62.6 per cent Leave. Critics argued he was decidedly less subtle nor that balanced ahead of this year’s General Election when he told his readers that Theresa May would make a “far superior” Prime Minister than Jeremy Corbyn.

Despite that controversy, on Brexit, he was, he says, surprised to see some regional titles boldly declaring for one side or the other believing the risk of alienating some readers was too great.

“People trust their local newspaper, far more than a politicised national title,” he says, “But to win that trust, newspapers have to maintain high editorial standards without being drawn into political partisanship or tabloid name-calling.

“It has to be interesting. It has to be credible. But most importantly, it has to be right.”

Harrison bristles at suggestions the media should challenge readers’ views on immigration seeing a danger that the implication is they are ‘inherently wrong, at best, or racist, at worst’.

“I don’t think it is right for a newspaper to respond to people who are unhappy with their lot on a Wolverhampton council estate by telling them they are wrong,” he says. “There is a risk that this merely feeds into the disconnect felt between the populace and the ‘establishment’ that undoubtedly played a role in the Brexit result.”

Harrison does see dangers presented by lack of journalistic resources on the ground but believes social media must be harnessed by newspapers, to supplement reporting, rather than letting it fill the void left behind.

“Sometimes the best way to ‘speak truth unto power’ is to provide a platform and let people speak for themselves – no matter how unpalatable that may be to social norms elsewhere,” he says.

A lack of local and regional resources?

Sarah Kavanagh, campaigns officer for the National Union of Journalists, finds it hard to accept that regional titles now have the resources to properly represent the news and views of the communities they represent.

But she agrees journalism, particularly on a regional and local level, is struggling to represent huge swathes of the country because of a lack of diversity in newsrooms.

While she says it is too big a leap to blame this for any democratic deficit that might have led to Brexit she does have concerns that voices are now missing from mainstream media.

“If the media is seen as homogenous and not representative of anything other than the middle class then people will turn away from it,” she says, “If they can’t see themselves and their concerns and lives reflected in it they will conclude it is not for them and what fills the gap will often be fake news.

“I think the identity of the journalist must affect the questions they ask, the angles they report, the experience they bring to what they think is a story. Lack of diversity in the news room must have an impact on the breadth of coverage”

But even if this wasn’t so the wider concern for the NUJ is boots on the ground.

“The main players are still making profits but cutting back further and further. Journalists have no time to cover patches or even get out of the office. There are less publications and those still lucky enough to live in an area where there are still titles find smaller numbers of journalists trying to hit click targets and turn around press releases,” she says.

“How can journalists get close to communities? If you look at South London 12 journalists are producing news for 11 titles and eight websites. It’s unsustainable.”

A disconnect between the trade and its role

Today few give journalism an importance that its dwindling band of practitioners do. There is a disconnect between the trade itself and an understanding of the role it performs in democracies around the world. Digital technologies having opened up a closed shop for all to become involved, goes the theory.

To compound this sense of self-importance I choose an overblown historical metaphor to illustrate my own view of Brexit and journalism’s role in the debate.

For rather like Rome when the Visigoths and Vandals came calling in the 5th Century we were just too worn down by internal strife, indecision, shrinking resources and lack of leadership to do much about the seismic eruption the EU Referendum visited upon us. We simply did not have the troops on the ground nor the support of enough of the citizens to fight the battle against what we now know to be the ‘post truth’ society we were entering.

For years we had known we were at risk of irrelevancy as our business model was eroded by digital technology, the flight of advertising and failure to build subscription on the back of decent, revelatory journalism.

Brexit delivered a heavy blow, certainly to print journalism and its digital bolt-on. The rise of nationalism and the crumbling of post-war liberal consensus embodied by the European Union was fuelled by global capitalism and given impetus by the 2008 economic meltdown for which few responsible paid any penalty at all.

The lack of control over our lives and the ineffectual nature of governments in the face of these global forces inevitably brought a backlash, a protectionism, which traded on our forgetfulness about our history.

Genuine concerns about a deskilled society gave rise to fear and from fear it was an easy leap to hate. Foreigners, Muslims, Mexicans, the list is long and getting longer. Those who saw their chance to hark back to simpler days of British supremacy were quick to realise objective journalism would have to be bypassed if they were to reach their high-walled rose garden. That was the easy part. So powerful and woven into our lives was the white noise of social media and so denuded were parts of the media that it was a no contest.

But there is a simple question we must ask ourselves. Where do we get our information about the world, whether that be Syria or in the neighbourhood where we all live?

Journalists would deserve all the opprobrium they would get to claim the answer lies solely with them. But if we do not stake a genuine claim for a role in this process we will forfeit our right to relevancy.

For it is true the role of journalism, where not simply chasing clicks and car chase video, is to continue to speak truth unto power, to lift the rocks and find out what is underneath, to do all this for its citizens. For what is obvious is that when journalism is removed a void fills its place. For what else is fake news but the filling of that void with rumour, red herring, spin and mischief making?

Despite the noble efforts of Barron, Fielder and Harrison we saw this only too clearly in the run up to the Referendum. When they weren’t working around the clock to put objective questions to all sides of the debate journalists watched in awe as social media piled up Everests of clicks on the flimsiest of self-affirming half-truths.

And when they did bother to engage with us it was often a hundred of so Facebookers simply writing ‘Leave’ under our free-to-air stories.

In the days that followed the vote Brighton MP Caroline Lucas told The Argus how distraught she was by what had happened. It was a heartfelt lament. ‘Get over it you bitch’ was the first comment on our Facebook page, its poster, place of work and likes proudly identified, pictures of his family festooning his own page. The next ten comments congratulated him on this perspicacity.

Of course the blurring of fact and opinion is nothing new. Newspapers pioneered it. Hearst’s titles turned into a high art form. Some will say we are reaping what we sowed. But there is another side.

A decade ago newspapers, radio stations and local TV were the glue of social cohesion. Hardly a council decision was made nor a crime committed without citizens knowing about it from us. Leaders were held to account, views aired. In truth trainee journalists got bored doing stories about crumbling council house stock and jobless figures, about waiting lists and pelican crossing campaigns, but they were giving voice to the community and more often than not they got result or at the very least there was debate.

Of course this is still happening but in nowhere near the quantity and quality of a decade ago. Journalists often joke they got into the trade because they were poor at mathematics but even we can work out that the loss of 8,000 jobs since 2008 and the need to feed multi-platforms at the same time has seriously damaged the ability to properly rather than superficially cover the patch.

The democratic deficit caused by journalism’s crisis is not just a neat phrase. It is real and, for me, it played a part in the degradation of debate, whatever side you were on, that we saw in the run up to June 23 last year.

* Brexit, Trump and the Media Paperback, edited by Tor Clark, Neil Fowler and John Mair is published by Abramis academic publishing and is available on Amazon priced £19.95.

One comment

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  • July 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm
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    Mike is a fine editor but he forgot to mention the fact low newspapers sales meant few people read the balanced coverage of local papers ( well mostly balanced).
    His old paper, the Argus, nominally covered the whole of Sussex but in fact sells about 11,000, mostly in and around Brighton, with a freebie dished out once a week.
    At one time, according to previous HTFP writers, it sold well over 100,000.
    So however good and honest its journalism, and the Argus has over the years done its best with reduced staffing, its influence is a pale shadow of what it was, and that applies to just about every paper in the country. Digital hits have not replaced those lost sales.
    So not enough people received the often good unbiased reporting, sadly.

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