It was billed as the Brexit election, but exiting the EU did not dominate the news agenda. According to one study, Brexit made up between 11.0% and 16.2% of all press and TV election news in the first three weeks of the campaign. As with the 2017 campaign, the parties quickly learnt they could not entirely control the media narrative.
However, the campaign revealed that the main parties – notably the Conservatives – have become increasingly cynical in their electioneering, sticking rigidly to pre-rehearsed soundbites and avoiding robust journalistic scrutiny. While they could not always determine what journalists talked about, much of the time politicians could influence the terms of the debate.
When a party did receive forensic journalistic analysis, it became a highly newsworthy story. For instance, when BBC journalist Andrew Neil interviewed the main party leaders – but notably not Boris Johnson who refused to be subject to his prime-time television scrutiny – it became a major talking point because he was able to authoritatively challenge the claims of politicians. But this level of scrutiny was the exception not the norm in most routine election reporting.
In coverage of Brexit, for example, there was little sustained analysis about the UK’s future relationship with the EU or other possible scenarios, from revoking article 50 to the type of options voters could be presented with in a second referendum.
The Conservative party’s relentless promise to ‘Get Brexit done’ exemplified the superficial nature of campaigning and the narrow terms they wanted to debate the issue. While many journalists frustratedly attempted to challenge the accuracy of this soundbite – since although the UK may formally leave the EU, it is highly likely that negotiations for a deal will last for years – the message still cut through to voters. After all, Conservative candidates ruthlessly repeated ‘Get Brexit done’ in all their media appearances, while the slogan was a visual backdrop in many campaign speeches and rallies.
Similar to the Leave’s campaign claim during the EU referendum to ‘Take back control’, the ‘Get Brexit done’ mantra was able to evade fact-checking scrutiny because it had a veneer of truth to it. And yet, focus group research revealed that when voters were told that Brexit was unlikely to be completed for years after the election, respondents were said to be ‘horrified’.
Since the level of political disinformation appears only likely to increase in future years, how can journalists effectively counter the questionable claims of parties? They could, for example, pre-record live interviews and fact-check before they are aired so voters receive real-time accuracy. They could resist repeating dubious party-political claims – from ‘getting Brexit done’ to suggesting Labour’s manifesto would cost £١.٢ trillion – so the core message would not be amplified even when a journalist was contesting it.
Over the next two years, Dr Maria Kyriakidou and I will be researching how political disinformation can be countered as part of a new AHRC research grant.
Stephen Cushion is a Professor at Cardiff University and co-author of Reporting Elections: Rethinking the logic of Campaign Coverage (2018, Polity).