Three-D Issue 26: Brexit and the academy: the highs and lows of a seismic political event

photoDaniel Jackson
Bournemouth University

The Referendum campaign and the fallout of Brexit has been particularly disturbing for the university sector. During the campaign, with the Remain camp assembling a formidable army of academic experts from all sectors, we saw an alarming diminution in the role of expertise. This was captured now-famously by former Education minister, Leave campaigner and erstwhile political “suicide bomber” Michael Gove, who claimed that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. Whilst this statement may have been met with equal measures of anger and hilarity in the academy, it seems that there might have been something in Gove’s point. After all, the verdict delivered by the British public was in spite of the vast majority of experts’ arguments to the contrary.

For university students – who voted emphatically to remain – the outcome was a bitter pill to swallow. Brexit not only threatens important sources of funding, but is also a rejection of free movement – a principle that is embraced amongst the cosmopolitan, liberal university sector and enshrined in staff/ student mobility schemes such as Erasmus.

For media and communication scholars, the Referendum campaign was an opportunity to research some of the key questions in political communication, campaigning, media coverage of politics and the dynamics of public opinion. However, the speed at which the Referendum was called meant that there was little lead-up time for academics to secure external funding for research on the campaign.

An exception is the ESRC’s excellent UK in a Changing Europe scheme that whilst not funding out-and-out research, has been offering accelerated funding for public engagement and impact projects related to Britain and the EU. Indeed, its commissioning fund has a call open now (closing 4th August) though this round of funding would seem to favour political scientists and economists.

9781910042083Given the relatively short lead-up to the Referendum campaign, we embarked upon putting together a collection of immediate thoughts, reflections and early research insights about the Referendum campaign without knowing exactly what work was being done in this area. The resulting publication – EU Referendum Analysis 2016: Media, Voters and the Campaign – is, we hope, a reflection of the health and vibrancy of media and politics research in the UK as well as a testament to the willingness of scholars to embrace new publishing models that may not be REF-able, but help bring their work to new audiences.

In the rest of this article I will offer some reflections from having been immersed in this referendum project for the last two months, as well as pointing readers to some of the key findings and insights to emerge from early analysis of the campaign.

Following on from their perennial analysis of election news, Loughborough again led the way in the Referendum campaign with a comprehensive content analysis of broadcast and print news; an even more impressive achievement given the length of time they had to set the project up. Perhaps in light of the diminishing trust in opinion polls as indicators of who was ‘winning’ the campaign, Loughborough colleagues found their work gaining more traction than ever before in the mainstream media.

2016 also saw impressive content analyses of broadcast news by Stephen Cushion and Justin Lewis (Cardiff University), radio by Guy Starkey (Bournemouth University), the press by David Levy (Reuters Institute, University of Oxford) and newspaper editorials by Julie Firmstone (University of Leeds); each bringing a distinctive angle to their analysis. What all of this data told us was a) the UK press was largely in favour of Brexit, especially when readership was taken into account, b) the topical agenda was heavily focused towards the economy and immigration, to the detriment of many other issues that could have been covered, c) campaign coverage was highly ‘presidential’, focusing on the key campaign leaders – all men of course, and d) broadcast news went to great lengths to remain ‘balanced’ and ‘impartial’ but the resulting news output was highly problematic. Perhaps we know what to expect from our press by now, but this last point was particularly controversial given public trust in broadcasters such as the BBC, and is the subject of two withering critiques from Ivor Gaber and Steven Barnett which raise serious democratic questions, and I would urge you to read.

When it came to analysing political communication during the campaign, whilst there was no single, unified research study of different channels of communication, there were many smaller-scale projects that examined it from many angles. Here, we saw studies of the official press releases of the Leave and Remain campaigns (Paula Keaveney Edge Hill University), Referendum campaign broadcasts(Vincent Campbell, University of Leicester), the TV debates (Sylvia Shaw, Middlesex University) and rhetorical analyses of the campaign by Andrew Crines (University of Liverpool) and James Martin (Goldsmiths).

And then of course there is social media, where skilled researchers can often do large scale analyses in a relatively short time frame. This included analyses of Referendum hashtags by Clare Llewellyn and Laura Cram (University of Edinburgh), a semantic newtwork analysis by Vyacheslav Polonski (University of Oxford) as well as a more traditional content analysis of Referendum campaign tweets by Simon Usherwood and Katharine Wright (University of Surrey).

What these studies show empirically is what many had suspected during the campaign itself: that Leave was running the more effective campaign. Not only did they have more active and mobilised supporters and a more effective campaign team, but they also had the stronger messages. Here, the emotive appeals of Leave resonated with voters more than Remain’s appeals to rational choice (though still underpinned by an appeal towards fear of the unknown). Perhaps then, as Karin Wahl-Jorgensen (Cardiff University) implies, this referendum campaign will be remembered as further evidence of the emotionalisation of the public sphere.

Whilst Leave clearly ran the more effective campaign, few – including it seems many leave voters – would have predicted a victory for Leave. This points not only to an epic miscalculation on behalf of David Cameron in calling the Referendum, but also a more widespread misunderstanding of the UK electorate in 2016: a topic that has received a great deal of attention post-Brexit. The British Election Study team have been leading the study of electoral behavior for over 50 years, and again in 2016 Jane Green presents a must-read preliminary analysis of the failure of ‘Project Fear’ where it seems that essentially, concerns over migration trumped economic concerns in the minds of many voters.

But the Referendum revealed something much deeper than that: of a country with deep class, cultural and identity divisions that look likely to dominate the political landscape for the next decade to come. As Michael Skey (Loughborough University) and Russell Foster (Kings College London) argue, Brexit was a reassertion of nationalism that needs to be engaged with and understood by politicians and the media, not simply dismissed as xenophobia and at worst, racism. Brexit was also a rejection of the political status quo; a populist and anti-establishment surge that is engulfing many western democracies. This is a powerful sentiment; one better suited to the binary choice offered by a referendum rather than general election and one which John Fitzgibbon (Boston College) argues has changed our understanding of referendums.

Reflecting on the EU Referendum campaign, one can’t help be troubled by both the conduct of the campaign and what it revealed about our political culture. It seems entirely mundane to point out that politicians lied during the campaign, and deliberately misled the public in order to secure votes. Parts of our press, far from offering light through the white heat of the campaign, turned up their dials of partisanship. Broadcasters did their best to traverse this daily minefield of claim and counter-claim but were often hopelessly hamstrung by principles of balance, fairness and objectivity. In the end many voters expressed deep confusion and frustration with the quality of information they were receiving. Given the sheer volume of news coverage of the Referendum, this was a damning indictment on the state of journalism and political communication in our country.

Whilst these issues were foregrounded by the Referendum campaign, they are hardly new to those who study media and politics. But now we must not let these issues fall off the agenda. Publishing timely and accessible interventions such as our Referendum report helps establish academics as central to any efforts to reform our media and political communication environment. Alan Renwick (University College London) and colleagues convincingly call for a number of reforms to the conduct of future referendums. But as they recognise, such reforms transcend mere referendums and require a fundamental change in how we think about and structure our democracy. This is a challenge that we as media and communication scholars can make a powerful contribution to.

Posted by Einar Thorsen