But with the benefit of hindsight, some regional political reporters regretted not having done more to challenge some of the Leave campaign’s wilder claims – such as the suggestion that an extra £350m a week could be spent on the NHS.
Former regional editors Neil Fowler and Tor Clark have teamed up with academic John Mair to produce a new book looking at media coverage of the referendum as well as Donald Trump’s US election victory and this year’s General Election.
Many journalists in the UK regional media approached the EU Referendum as they would have any other, and all previous, election campaigns, with impartiality and as much balance as possible. Some regional newspapers did, unusually for the local press, advise their readers how to vote on June 23, 2016, but for virtually all, the actual coverage of campaign was as even-handed as circumstances allowed.
This was in stark contrast to the UK national press, most of which had already loudly declared their hands and ran coverage supportive of their own agendas. National newspapers with combined circulation of roughly 4.8m supported Leave and those with a combined 1.8m readers backed Remain. The pro-Leave papers were more numerous and more strident.
But the Referendum didn’t turn out to be like any previous electoral contest, and though they could not have known it at start, by the end of the campaign and in hindsight, some local journalists may have wished they had approached the binary referendum differently to a multi-party election.
Leicestershire was a good example of the EU Referendum in the English regions. At its heart was the multi-cultural, metropolitan, two-university, urban Labour-voting city of Leicester, which narrowly voted Remain. Surrounding Red Leicester were some of the most quintessential English rural districts – Rutland, Charnwood, Bosworth – all of which voted clearly to Leave.
Leicestershire is well served by well-established journalism, trusted and respected by its residents. The Leicester Mercury newspaper is based in the city but serves the whole county. It was launched in the 1870s and has swallowed up or seen off all its rivals over the intervening 140-odd years. At its height, its circulation topped 150,000 copies a night. It now sells 25,000 copies every morning, but with another 60,000 readers online . It retains a dedicated political correspondent, Dan Martin, who has been covering that beat since 2012, but had previously spend a decade as a news reporter on the paper.
BBC Leicester was the UK’s first BBC local radio station in 1967 and so in 2017 is marking its pioneering achievements with a series of 50th anniversary celebrations. It too has a dedicated political reporter, in the form of experienced broadcaster Tim Parker, for the last five years.
Dan Martin is honest enough to admit, with hindsight, he might have covered the EU Referendum a little differently. But he clearly recalls at the time of the June poll, his paper’s approach – like that of most of the rest of the media – was simply to approach this campaign like any other campaign. The approach was valid because it had worked at all previous elections. It was only after the result that political journalists began to realise it wasn’t like a normal election campaign.
Indeed Martin is still an advocate for the usual ways of covering politics in the regional media – in contrast to most national newspapers – by offering both sides of an argument the chance to air their views and letting the reader decide. But looking back on the Brexit poll nine months later, he now realises the binary nature of the contest and the high stakes, made it a different kind of contest and perhaps required a different journalistic approach.
Tim Parker recalls how BBC Leicester took a typically BBC approach to the coverage, attempting to cover the issues that mattered to its listeners and always retain a balance. He notes how entrenched the views of committed voters were, but also how many voters, despite this were still making their minds up during the campaign.
Both Parker and Martin think the national press influenced the final result and while locally they tried to shine a light on issues that mattered in as balanced a way as was possible, the national press, largely just pushed for the outcome they wanted – and ultimately, perhaps surprisingly, achieved it.
Planning the coverage
Despite referenda being a relative rarity, both the Leicester Mercury and BBC Leicester approached the EU Referendum with confidence.
Martin recalled: “We were relaxed about it, our aim was to find a bit of balance. The Referendum was all-pervasive. Initially we did consider covering the campaign thematically but in the end we just let it develop rather than trying to force it in a particular direction. If something interesting was happening, we covered it. I still had my day job to do covering local politics, but increasingly that became all about Brexit too.”
Parker added: “The BBC tends to try to look at issues, translate it all and make it relevant to our audience. We had access to a major BBC document, which was the result of a lot of research into what the issues might be. We had a major briefing session with one of the leading editorial people behind the report, which explained the buzzwords and key issues. It was expected the top issues would include immigration, the economy, impact on other services, food and agriculture. The idea was to lead the agenda with these issues and get both sides’ views meshed into the coverage. On each issue, our aim was to seek the views of politicians, the public, academics and key people in each sector.
“We had gone into it with the kind of journalistic baggage you’d go into a normal election with but we were led by what our listeners were interested in.”
The Referendum campaign started normally enough for both Leicestershire’s main news organisations, but then it developed and morphed into something unique, which was initially like general election coverage, but eventually showed itself to be distinctly different.
Martin remembered: “At the start it was no different to normal election coverage. It started a little later than a normal election campaign, but when it did kick in it really took off because people understood it was a binary choice and the stakes were really high. We had the luxury of choosing what to cover. Because I was personally Remain, I was concerned my own views might creep in so I found myself pushing balance the other way.
“Coverage didn’t look balanced when we had a big political figure from one side visiting, so we had to work hard to make it look balanced, to find someone from the other side and get it in as soon as possible afterwards.
“I really enjoyed the campaign because people were so keen to talk to you. My phone was ringing all the time. It really invigorated you as a reporter. But people got tetchy more quickly. A lot of Leave supporters got very animated in the comments sections underneath my stories. They made accusations of bias which may have pushed me the other way to avoid those accusations because of my desire to remain balanced.”
Parker started to notice the differences early on. He said: “There is a clear roadmap with general elections, but there wasn’t a clear roadmap with this campaign. There was a national discussion but it didn’t seem to trickle down to where we were. It felt like we were sometimes having to drive the agenda, I felt I was often coordinating the coverage into what I wanted, to get different subjects covered rather than following any politician’s agenda which you do often do in general elections.
“Some organisations were very helpful. The NFU for example produced lots of useful information, but refused to be drawn into one campaign or the other because its members were evenly split. Plenty of high profile politicians visited our area, but when they did all they did was preach to the converted. I sometimes wished the Remainers would go to speak to people on the New Parks estate or the Leave politicians would go and talk at De Montfort University, where they would find more people opposed to their views, but they didn’t.”
The impact of the national press
Both the Leicester Mercury and BBC Leicester continually strive for balance and impartiality. They are both of course always accused of not achieving that goal by the partisan, but the audiences generally respect their neutral position and efforts to ensure it. But in the Referendum campaign, they were up against a national media which was arguably more biased than in normal election campaigns, and often led the news agenda with prominent stories, skewed to one side or another. The impact of national coverage on local voters was influential and not necessarily positive, the regional reporters agree.
Martin explained: “I tried not to read too much of the nationals’ coverage at the time. I tried to talk to local people and get their unfiltered thoughts. The Leicester Mercury didn’t take a line because we had an interim editor at the time who didn’t want to commit the paper to one side or another knowing he was going back to his other job afterwards. And that was a good thing anyway. If you pick one side in a 50/50 contest you are in danger of irking half your readers, which is why local papers generally don’t pick a side and why they shouldn’t in my view.
“We tried to be a temperate as possible and tried not to be too inflammatory, especially on subjects like immigration. Our coverage wasn’t bland but tried to avoid the worst excesses of the nationals. It was more measured, more factual, less agenda-driven than the nationals.
“The nationals are preaching to the converted. The nationals’ coverage tended to reinforce their readers’ prejudices. 50/50 voters would have found something I wrote more even-handed and useful than, say, something they read in the Express or The Guardian.
“Our approach was to honestly report what the campaigners said then find someone with a different view and report that. We reported what they said, presented the readers with facts and let readers decide how they felt. There was lots of scaremongering, sometimes more heat than light. We wanted to help people who weren’t sure.”
Parker recalls: “We tried to strip out all the hyperbole of the national press, which often led on the loudest politician. We tried to do what radio does best and explain to people in Leicestershire what the choice they were going to make would mean to them. But we couldn’t ignore the national agenda being set – that was the over-riding noise people were hearing.
“Many people had decided how they were voting, but probably not as many as in a general election. Of the undecided voters, I’d say 80 per cent were influenced by the media, many by the national papers. Those papers have massive resources and were driving for the hearts of voters, not their minds. That’s hard. On reflection, that was a very loud voice to counter.
“The BBC had to reflect what was being said elsewhere in the coverage, we couldn’t ignore the debates started by the national press. You can’t ignore great headlines like The Sun’s ‘Queen backs Brexit’.”
As with virtually all journalists, both Martin and Parker assumed Remain would win. The result surprised them both, but with hindsight they can see the signs were there during the campaign.
Martin said: “People were very keen to speak to us and get their message over. Pro-Leave readers were more vocal. I assumed the Remain supporters were just a quiet majority, but they turned out to be the minority.
“During the campaign I assumed people would to the ‘sensible’ thing, the ‘cowardly’ thing, the ‘safe option’ of what we already had, and vote Remain. I didn’t see the frustration of many. I think it just simmered away.”
Parker was genuinely surprised by how many voters hadn’t decided in the campaign, but felt the campaign didn’t do a lot to help them make rational choices.
He said: “There were many voters who had made up their minds, but probably assumed Remain would win. The biggest surprise was how many people realised they wanted to leave right at the end of the campaign, almost as they voted. Some even told me they would make up their mind at the polling station.”
The biggest issue in Brexit for so much of UK journalism remains around whether they should have approached this rare and unusual poll in a different way, especially given the outcome, a slap in the face for liberal, metropolitan, establishment Britain. Martin and Parker divide on this issue.
Martin says: “With hindsight, I should have spoken to more of our readers and fewer politicians and maybe I regret that I didn’t, but I didn’t like the shoutiness of some of the Leave campaigners. People didn’t necessarily use us or other media as much as they would have in a normal election. I think they paid more attention to what their friends and neighbours were saying.
“I think we achieved being scrupulously fair, what we didn’t achieve was to debunk some of the stranger claims, such as spending £350m a week on the NHS. We just reported it and thought readers would realise it was a bit of a fib and people would work it out.
“If I had my time again I would challenge politicians more on their claims. When I did do this I was accused of scaremongering and it could feel as if I was being partisan. They made their case and it was my job to find someone else to provide the balance.”
Parker was happy with the overall local coverage, but in a different world admits he might have at least had a go at greater interrogation of some of the more questionable arguments put forward.
He says: “In hindsight, I might have taken on some of the national arguments head-on, possibly using more fact checks. But fact checks were ignored by both sides. People would not change their minds. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have approached it differently.
“Some Brexit claims were just dismissed as silliness, for example the claim to spend £350m on the NHS. It was lazy national journalism and lazy politics, but the journalism was a lot less lazy than the politics. Both sides of the argument acted with swaggering arrogance. Even at national level there wasn’t much proper argument. Most debates were just shouting matches between the two sides who had already made up their minds.”
In the end…
So regional journalists, in this fairly representative area, approached the Referendum like a normal political campaign and found it was different. They justify their balanced and impartial approach to trying to serve their readers but are honest enough to admit some of the most spurious arguments perhaps ought to have had greater interrogation. They believe they served their own audience in the way they normally do, but both feel uncommitted voters were more plentiful than normal and were definitely swayed by the very partisan coverage of the national press, which they feel was very influential on the campaign itself and on voters’ final choices.
Whatever the regional media might do to retain their local reputation for balance and fairness, in the end, in a tight contest, the national press, with all its partiality and inaccuracy, can be – and perhaps was in this instance – the deciding factor in the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
* Brexit, Trump and the Media, edited by Tor Clark, Neil Fowler and John Mair, is published by Abramis academic publishing and is available on Amazon priced £19.95.