Three-D Issue 28: Acrimony and division: conduct and coverage of EU Referendum campaign casts shadow on British politics

Writing in the midst of the 2017 election campaign, the EU Referendum can seem a long way in the past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with the exception of the pause in campaigning as a result of the tragedy of the terrorist attack in Manchester, the 2017 campaign – and the techniques employed by some of the parties – is more like an encore of 2015 (binary leadership comparisons, the spectre of ‘chaotic’ coalitions, endlessly inventive permutations of leaders’ debates). However, the conduct and outcome of the EU Referendum campaign loom large over the current debate. When the Prime Minister appeared on the Channel 4/Sky News show ‘The Battle for Number 10’ on Monday 29th May, she fielded questions from the audience about the veracity of claims made during the Referendum campaign, and received the biggest cheers – and jeers – when questioned on Brexit by Jeremy Paxman afterwards. The Brexit negotiations not only prompted the snap election call by May; they overshadow the policy platforms the parties are campaigning on.

The EU Referendum campaign was the most divisive in decades. Coverage was intense – the referendum was covered more prominently than most elections – overwhelmingly negative, and, thanks to the coverage of the issue of immigration in several newspapers, frequently unpleasant. The campaigns themselves, including the offshoot unofficial campaigns, notably Leave.EU, spent much of their time attacking opponents and rubbishing their statements and forecasts, rather than making positive claims about the benefits of remaining in or leaving the EU.

While the coverage of the campaign by certain media outlets raises some concerns, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the campaigners themselves. Accusations of dishonesty and many of the more inflammatory claims about immigration were uttered by senior political figures before being run by sympathetic news outlets. Though the UK’s partisan and competitive press is often fertile ground for political attacks and ostentatious claims by political figures, the stature of the sources making these claims (and the special circumstances of the referendum) meant that broadcasters also reported on the controversial statements and claims.

Above the partisan street-fighting, the outcome of the campaign raised some important strategic issues. Most notably, the Remain campaign were increasingly unable to make their agenda-setting advantage stick. Despite having the Prime Minister and Chancellor to make repeated claims about the economy, often backed up by respected think tanks or international organisations, the Leave campaign – with support from friends in the press – were able to turn this into a liability by framing the status quo position as one pushed by self-interested and vaguely-defined ‘elites’. In addition, accusations of dishonesty or bad faith on one side – guaranteed to make headlines when aimed at prominent politicians – were met with almost identical counter-claims on the other. This mutually-assured destruction of credibility was effective at trashing evidence-based claims, which the Remain side relied on far more than Leave.

Analysing the Referendum Campaign

I, with my colleague Martin Moore at the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power (CMCP) at King’s College London, conducted an analysis of several thousand news articles published during the 10-week referendum campaign, published last month in our report ‘UK media coverage of the 2016 EU Referendum campaign’. Having observed the campaign first hand, we developed some hypotheses about campaign conduct and coverage that we used to guide our exploration of the large corpus of news that we gathered over the course of the campaign.

Using a digital content analysis tool – Steno – we gathered over 350,000 news articles published online by 20 UK news outlets: the main PSB broadcasters (Sky, BBC, ITV, Channel 4), the sites of all national newspapers (excluding the i and Metro), news magazines the Spectator and New Statesman, and some digital-only publishers: Buzzfeed UK, Huffington Post UK and Vice UK. Of these articles, we used automated scripts to identify 14,779 articles that made one or more mention of the EU referendum, and tagged them on the basis of policy content using an adapted version of the Ipsos MORI Issues Index. In addition, we collected all newspaper front pages (and the online articles corresponding to the main stories on each front page), and used queries based on text strings in articles and headlines to identify those articles that mentioned the issues of sovereignty, accusations of dishonesty or scaremongering, and references to elites and ‘establishment’ figures. Having gathered quantitative data in each of these areas, we then conducted more in-depth content analysis to ascertain how the campaign was conducted and reported across the UK media.

The results showed us how the main issues of the campaign were covered, how the campaign was replete with accusations of dishonesty, bad faith and fearmongering, and how campaigners and the media were – deliberately or not – complicit in producing one of the most divisive and acrimonious campaigns in modern memory.

The Big Three Issues – Economy, Immigration and Sovereignty

G_Ramsay_MeCCSA_Image_1The economy was far and away the most commonly-referenced issue in coverage of the referendum. In total, 7,028 articles across all 20 outlets mentioned economic issues – just under half of all articles mentioning the referendum.

Specific arguments or claims about the economy were most often associated with reports or evidence provided by think tanks or international organisations, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies or the International Monetary Fund. In total, claims by these organisations featured in 437 articles. The most frequent specific economic claim was the Treasury Report – made in repeated speeches by then-Chancellor George Osborne for the Remain campaign – stating that UK households would be £4,300 worse off annually by 2030 if Britain were to leave (365 articles). The Leave campaign was far less likely to make detailed economic claims, and even its most famous, the claim that leaving the EU would free up £350m each week for the NHS, appeared in only 147 articles.

G_Ramsay_MeCCSA_Image_2The Leave campaign, as well as making fewer costed claims about the economic impact, spent much of their time on the issue rebutting claims by pro-Remain groups and organisations. 116 articles contained claims by Leave figures that economic forecasts (specifically, or in general) cannot be trusted. As the campaign went on, and the Leave campaign began to focus more consistently on immigration, the issues of immigration and the economy became more intertwined: by the final week of the campaign, 50% of articles mentioning the economy also mentioned immigration (up from around 30% in the first half of the campaign), and the most frequently-mentioned economic claim by the Leave campaign was that immigration was responsible for growing pressure on public services (234 articles).

G_Ramsay_MeCCSA_Image_3Immigration was mentioned in 4,383 articles in total, and was also covered with greater prominence by the British press – 99 front-page leads focused on immigration, compared with 43 on the economy, though the majority of these (78) were published in Leave-supporting newspapers. Weekly coverage of immigration increased by over four times during the ten-week campaign, from 205 articles in week one, to 948 in week ten. As well as the high volume of coverage, much of the focus on immigration by certain news organisations was extremely negative. Primarily in the websites of the Sun, Daily Express and Daily Mail (less frequently in other outlets) migrants were singled out for blame for an array of economic and social ills, from causing the housing crisis, to restricting school places for British children, to overwhelming the NHS, bringing diseases to Britain, importing terror and organised crime, threatening green belt land, causing traffic congestion, and many more problems besides. Of greater concern, the language used to describe immigrants by certain news outlets was dehumanising: metaphors denoting animals or insects (‘flocking’, ‘swarming’, ‘stampeding’), as water (‘flood’, ‘waves’, ‘deluge’), or as an invading force (‘storming’, ‘invading’, ‘over-running’).

Specific nationalities were also singled out for abuse. Where nationalities were mentioned in relation to migration to the UK, we recorded whether articles contained positive/supportive or negative/critical statements about the actual or potential effects of migration or migrants from certain countries. Migrants from Albania and Turkey (not members of the EU, but a significant focus of the Leave campaign and its literature and advertising) were most frequently subject to negative claims. Every one of the 90 articles making an evaluative statement about Albanian migrants (real or imagined) was negative. All but two of the articles expressing a view on Turkish migration contained only negative views.

Many of the reports on immigration were driven by statements from key figures in the Leave campaign – Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Christopher Grayling, Penny Mordaunt and Priti Patel, for example. However, during the campaign certain news outlets often initiated articles about immigration, often using crime and prison population statistics, or published feature articles about social problems in areas of high immigration. Certain commentators – Leo McKinstry in the Express, Trevor Kavanagh in the Sun also frequently published columns criticising immigration and immigrants.

Sovereignty, often attributed as one of the major driving forces behind the vote to leave the EU, was mentioned very frequently (in 1,924 articles), but very much as a secondary issue (usually alongside immigration or the economy) and only very rarely (in 6% of these articles) linked to actual legal sovereignty or law-making powers. In contrast, almost half of all articles mentioning sovereignty associated it with the Leave campaign’s ambiguous slogan of ‘taking back control.’

Acrimony and Division: Lies, Fear and a Shadowy Elite

Screen_Shot_2017-06-02_at_11.59.37The campaign was filled with accusations of dishonesty. Over the ten weeks leading up to polling day, 552 articles contained an accusation of lying. 464 contained the assertion that a campaign or individual was misleading, and 234 articles contained an assertion of dishonesty. The language of fear also permeated the debate. Each side – campaigns and partisan newspapers – frequently accused the other of scaremongering, and this tendency increased as polling day approached. The phrase ‘Project Fear’, appropriated from the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, was used in 739 articles and most commonly aimed at George Osborne and the economic arguments of the Remain campaign. Almost as many articles (737) contained an accusation of scaremongering.

Finally, the motives of campaigners (particularly on the Remain side) were called into question through the evocation of ‘Establishment’ or ‘Elite’ self-interest as driving the campaign to maintain the status quo. Again, these accusations grew substantially over the course of the campaign – by week ten 128 articles mentioned the ‘Establishment’ and 134 mentioned ‘Elites’, a six-fold and four-fold increase, respectively, since week one. As with immigration, these claims were initiated both by campaigners, and by predominantly Leave-supporting newspapers.


Acrimony, divisiveness partiality and accusations of dishonesty and scaremongering marked the conduct and coverage of the 2016 EU Referendum campaign. The implications of this will be felt in British politics for the foreseeable future. Some newspaper coverage on the issue since (‘Enemies of the people’ and ‘Crush the saboteurs’ are notorious headlines) has maintained the level of the 2017 general election campaign shows some of these same characteristics, though perhaps not at the same intensity (and British election campaigns throughout history have hardly been sedate affairs).

The strategic implications of the Brexit campaign are also instructive. Remain, the well-resourced favourite, had their advantage in setting the agenda and mobilising elite voices nullified by a combination of accusations of dishonesty and membership/allegiance to a self-interested elite. The Leave focus on immigration, with strong and consistent support from certain news outlets, combined with the Remain campaign’s sluggishness on engaging with an issue of high public concern, shaped the narrative as polling day approached. The utility of these approaches by Leave appears not to be in doubt, though they test the norms of open and informative campaigning in a democratic election. The aggressiveness and unpleasantness of immigration coverage by the press raises concerns about the fitness of the Editors’ Code by which they are regulated, which contains no restrictions on critical coverage of migrants or nationalities, as long as ethnicity, race or gender are not mentioned. In both the political and media spheres, the effects of the EU Referendum campaign will be felt for a long time.

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