It would have come as something of a surprise to a fair few of the Mail on Sunday’s readers when they opened their copy of the May 22 edition and found the headline “Brexiteers’ logic begins to crumble” over a story that said that the leave camp had failed to make its economic case properly. Or this one in the same edition: “Battered Out camp is on the back foot”, which highlighted the fact that so many important global figures have indicated Britain is much better off remaining in the EU.
When you compare that with the longstanding 24/7 eurosceptic stance of the paper’s stablemate, the Daily Mail, this can only be seen as remarkable and begs the question as to whether internal politics at the two papers is driving this division. We may never know.
Although the referendum campaign formally began more than a month ago it is only in the last two weeks that political debate has really turned to focus on the issue of the UK’s future in the European Union. Having drilled down into media coverage of the campaign we can make one main observation: the campaign has so far been dominated by the “boys in blue” – in other words, Conservative males.
Conservative politicians, and internal party rivalries, have dominated the campaign according to our analysis of media coverage since May 5, polling day for the recent elections. Tory spokespeople are dominant on both sides of the debate while the representatives of other parties have been receiving considerably less or no attention.
Three figures have come to the fore: David Cameron and two of his potential successors, Boris Johnson and George Osborne. It is ironic that these politicians have been trying to convince voters to leave or remain in the EU in recent weeks yet were reluctant to state their own position on the in/out question at the beginning of this year. The prime minister, the only one of the three to have taken a definitive position then, or so it seemed, had actually hedged his bets a little, saying he would campaign for Brexit if he didn’t get the reforms he wanted.
But the prominence of these leaders – and the media’s preoccupation with process stories surrounding the referendum’s conduct – reflect how this campaign is not only about UK involvement in the EU but also about the future of the present British government.
By contrast with these top Tories, longstanding leave/remain campaigners from other parties such as UKIP’s Nigel Farage and Labour’s Alan Johnson have been comparatively marginalised according to our figures. And, compared to Cameron and his putative successors, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s profile has been similarly modest during the debate.
But these male politicians have at least received some attention. Women representatives have been seldom heard, seen or reported in this stage of the campaign. Our analysis shows that men received 91% of the coverage in newspapers and 84% of the coverage on broadcast media:
According to our analysis of the 2015 general election, the most prominent female politician was SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, so her absence from the news reporting of the EU referendum that we consider here is quite striking. Moreover the dearth of coverage given to the SNP, now the third largest party in the House of Commons, reflects the marginalisation by the media of the constitutional implications of a vote for Brexit.
Other parties with parliamentary representatives such as the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid Cymru and those from Northern Ireland have barely registered in reporting. Trade unionists have been similarly marginalised although those speaking for business have had a small but significant presence.
The presence of business representatives reflects the prominence of the debate on trade and other economic topics in news coverage during this phase of the campaign. This is good for the remain camp as pro-EU strategists believe (and YouGov polling figures suggest) – the economy is central to its chances of winning the vote, particularly among undecided voters.
Economics received double the coverage afforded to immigration and border controls – another important dimension to the EU debate. This is bad news for the leave campaign given that leave spokespeople, backed up by polling evidence, have consistently highlighted immigration is a key issue in making the case for Brexit.
What the papers say
The results of analysis of whether news media organisations are supporting or opposing either side of the campaign are mixed. There are clearly differences between broadcasters, obliged to be impartial, and the partisan press. TV news coverage was more favourable to the remain campaign according to a range of measures.
But what is clear from both analysis of TV and press reporting of the debate is that this is still very much a story about the Conservative Party. Labour trail massively in the coverage so far, while the Lib Dems, UKIP, the SNP and other smaller parties have yet to find their voice.
But when you take an overall look at news coverage, including all actors in the debate: politicians, campaigners, business, academic experts and citizens, it’s clear that it is impossible, so far, to state with any confidence that either side is definitively winning the media war.
But there is a way to go. In the remaining time will a more varied range of speakers from the in/out campaigns be heard? Will women feature in any significant way? And will the SNP and UKIP, having emerged as major players in the 2015 general election, emerge to play a similarly prominent role in the referendum?
It will be intriguing to see if and when the media move on from their current preoccupation with the Conservatives’ leave and remain factions – each of which has, on its own, received greater coverage than all other party representatives put together.