Populist rhetoric and media misinformation in the 2016 UK Brexit referendum

Glenda Cooper

On 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom voted narrowly to leave the European Union. The result was a shock for many onlookers after a succession of polls which had predicted a small victory for Remain — those who backed keeping the status quo (What UK Thinks 2016a). Even the primary figures involved in the Leave campaign — Nigel Farage, the leader of the right-wing populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Boris Johnson, the Conservative politician who, as prime minister, would eventually go on to facilitate Britain’s exit — seemed surprised.

However, the Leave victory, narrow as it was, was not as surprising as politicians and pundits imagined. The debate over Europe followed decades of anti-European rhetoric from politicians on all sides, as well media organisations. The Leave campaign itself built on this and harnessed a message which incorporated classic populist tropes of appealing to ordinary people, criticising elites and ‘othering’ groups, most notably immigrants.

This chapter will look at the 2016 referendum through a populist and misinformation lens. While scholars agree that news media play a vital role in referendum campaigns, referendums are relatively underexamined compared to elections (Ridge-Newman 2018, 4). Yet referendums campaigns are often more important than election campaigns in determining outcome because of the short-term perceptions of the referendum question, the groups and individuals involved, and the public reaction to the campaign discourse (LeDuc 2002, 145). Populist approaches can therefore be very effective as the referendums are often outside traditional party issues. Research has commonly focused on whether the coverage of referendums is fair and balanced: for example, in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum (Robertson 2014; Tolson 2016). This chapter, however, argues that if news media follow the populist narrative, even while challenging and debunking misinformation, this can end up shaping public reaction.

Another problem is that if news media approach coverage of referendums and elections in the same way, the serious impact of the outcome can be lost. While elections have to be held at least every five years in the UK, for example, the 2016 Brexit1 referendum could not be similarly rerun.2 Yet many news media at least began by covering the referendum in the same way as they would an election — concentrating on inter-party strife and potential jockeying for power, particularly amongst the ruling Conservative party (so-called ‘blue-on-blue’ warfare) and treating many claims about the EU as they would promises made in party political manifestos.

The 2016 referendum was particularly unusual in that the result went contrary to the position that the three main parties (Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat) officially backed. While David Cameron had called the referendum to allow ‘the British people to have their say’ (BBC 2013), the Remain campaign led by the government did not manage to convince the public. Unlike the Leave campaign, Remain failed to coalesce around a clear, populist slogan or persuade key swing voters. This was reflected in the news coverage, which found the soundbites of the Leave campaign easier to turn into a story or a broadcast package. Even when challenging the Leave campaign narrative, this still gave publicity to the assertions.

Finally, this chapter focuses mainly on news media coverage of the Leave campaign. The role that social media played in the Brexit referendum, particularly the questions around bots and trolls, has been widely debated elsewhere and was undoubtedly influential (Fuchs 2018; Hall et al. 2018; Gorodnichenko 2018; Hanska and Bauchowitz 2017). This chapter, however, seeks to examine the lessons of news coverage in referendums, examining misinformation and populism.

The background to Brexit

The UK’s relationship with the EU, and Europe generally, had long been fractious. AntiEuropean discourse had been relatively unchallenged by the media and both main political parties for decades (Hensmans and van Bommel 2020), often as a balancing act to keep together the union of the four countries which make up the UK (Jones 1998). This led to a cultural anti-Europeanism — whether interpreted through nostalgia for the British Empire, the succession of wars dating back centuries against different European countries, or the idea of English exceptionalism (the narrative of Britain standing alone in the Second World War, for example). As the British empire crumbled and a globalised world advanced, an English populism hardened into Euroscepticism (Hensmans and van Bommel 2020).

The UK was not a founding member of the EU, or the European Communities as it was then called, but joined following a referendum held in 1975 in which 67.2 percent of the electorate voted in favour. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were conflict and uncertainty about the UK’s place in Europe. This encompassed both sides of the political divide — with Labour Party policy in 1983 being to leave the community, while rifts in the Conservative party deepened following the decision to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in October 1990 and Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as prime minister the following month. The ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, which furthered European integration in 1993 without a referendum, led to increasing Euroscepticism in the Conservative party and the formation of the right-wing UK Independence Party in 1993.

This conflict over the UK’s place in Europe was reflected in the media coverage. By the early 1990s, media coverage of the European Union was increasingly hostile in some quarters — for example, headlines such as The Sun’s 1990 ‘Up Yours, Delors’, a blast against Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission. A specific type of mythic storytelling also grew which relied on manipulation and distortion of tales about alleged EU regulation (Henkel 2018), a genre of reporting primarily created by The Telegraph's Brussels correspondent at the time, Boris Johnson (Gimson 2012; Purnell 2011). While supposed bans on prawn cocktail crisps, bent bananas, and crooked cucumbers made for amusing reading, the EU was sufficiently concerned to set up a website to try to counter these ‘Euromyths’3 which were perpetuated.

In the aftermath of the Maastricht Treaty and the BSE crisis, which saw Europe ban imports of British beef,4 Eurosceptic views on both left and right in the UK hardened and grew from 38 percent in 1993 to 63 percent in 2014 (Curtice and Evans 2015). Meanwhile, UKIP saw increasing success in European elections, moving from third place in the 2004 elections to first place in the 2014 elections with 27.5 percent of the vote (Deacon and Wring 2016) and then winning two national by-elections in 2014.

Faced with increased pressure within his own party and fears about the rise in UKIP’s vote share, the Conservative prime minister David Cameron offered an in-out referendum on a renegotiated package with the EU if the party won the 2015 election. At the time, the Conservatives were in coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats. Cameron’s surprise election victory in 2015 made the referendum inevitable, and he announced on 22 February 2016 that a referendum would be held on 23 June 2016.

Senior Conservative figures, in particular Boris Johnson, the MP and mayor of London, and Michael Gove, the justice secretary, chose to campaign aggressively for Leave, to Cameron s shock and dismay (Rayner 2019). On 24 June 2016, the electorate voted in favour of leaving’ in England and Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland’s populations had voted to Remain.6 But overall, the populist cry of ‘take back control’ had chimed with enough of the electorate for a Leave victory.

Linked to that slogan were three recurring messages, which were at best misleading and at worst disinformation and propaganda. But all three proved particularly potent in the run-up to the referendum and received widespread coverage via both legacy and social media. First was a battle bus slogan that linked Xj350 million sent to Brussels to funding for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), which was created by the official Vote Leave campaign. Second was the ‘Breaking Point’ poster, showing a long queue of migrants, which was created by the unofficial Leave.eu campaign. Third was messaging from both campaigns around the alleged imminent accession of Turkey to the EU. The success of all these tropes was embedded deeply in the history of UK populism, which had manifested itself as English exceptionalism and anti-European feeling for decades (Hensman and van Bommel 2020).

The power of this messaging was particularly important because of the volatility' of referendum campaigns. Unlike election campaigns, in which party identification and ideological orientations characteristically play a large part, in referendums, some voters may be driven by strongly held beliefs while others may be more susceptible to change (LeDuc 2002). As Zaller (1992) puts it, opinion formation in elections is a combination of information and predisposition. With Brexit there had clearly been both media and political agendas going back decades which were anti-Europe, but polls suggested that this was not a clear-cut outcome. This situation becomes even more acute during referendums, as LeDuc puts it:

When parties are internally divided, ideological alignments are unclear or an issue is new and unfamiliar to the mass public, voters might be expected to draw more of their information from the campaign discourse. Under these circumstances, the outcome of the contest becomes highly' unpredictable.

(LeDuc 2002, 713)

Dekavalla (2018), in her analysis of the 2014 Scottish referendum, refers to two common frames in which elections and referendums are constructed: the strategic game frame (politics as a competition focusing on opponents and win/lose metaphors) and the issue frame (policy' issues). While in the Brexit referendum, there was clearly' a strategic game frame, encouraged by Leave campaigners (who sought to portray' the Conservative politicians Johnson and Gove as an alternative government), the issue frame was also a vital part because of the policies Leave chose to focus on: the economy, the NHS, and immigration, which were also the three most referenced in the media coverage (Moore and Ramsay' 2017).

The information that was most successfully both communicated by politicians and replicated in the media appeared to be the Leave campaign’s populist appeals. Jagers and Walgrave s 2007 typology of populism suggests that populist parties make appeals across three broad areas. While the Leave/Remain campaigners were not a political party (Vote Leave, for example, included Boris Johnson and Michael Gove from the right-wing Conservatives and Gisela Stuart from the left-wing Labour party, while the Remain coalition had David Cameron and George Osborne from the Conservative government and Alan Johnson from Labour), as populist movements, their appeals can be seen in this light.

The first trope Jagers and Walgrave suggest is appeals made to ordinary people — using language such as ‘working people’ and ‘common sense’. The second is anti-elite appeals — most notoriously characterised in the Brexit campaign by Michael Gove’s pronouncement on Sky News that the British public ‘had had enough of experts’ but also by the way that Leave campaigners characterised the EU as unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats. The third is ‘other-ing’— language which divides people into in-groups and out-groups — to illustrate the difference between the ‘British’ and the ‘other’. In the case of Brexit, the appeal of the /(350 million pledge was characterised as the first trope — an appeal to working families and common sense — but was also explicitly linked in Vote Leave messaging to fears of ‘others’ filling up NHS waiting rooms. The second two not only used ‘othering’as a concept but suggested that the metropolitan elite had no idea of the problems caused by immigration.

Both official and unofficial Leave campaigns’ use of such populist messages have been characterised as ‘post-truth’ (Marshall and Drieschova 2019). Dominic Cummings, the architect of Vote Leave and later chief advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wrote a 19,800-word account of the Leave campaign, in which he talked of creating a succession of‘simple and psychologically compelling stories’ (Cummings 2017). The consumption of such narratives was not concerned with fact but with emotion. As Cummings himself pointed out, this approach was not only aimed at Leave voters but also Remainers:

Almost none of these [graduates] know more about what a Customs Unions is than a bricky in Darlington. They did not vote on the basis of thinking hard about the dynamics of EMU or about how Brussels will cope with issues like gene drives. Millions thought — there’s two gangs and I know which one I’m in.

(Cummings 2017)

The emotional appeals by Leave, however, were helped by the particular idiosyncrasies of the British media system. According to Hallin and Mancini’s (2004) definition of media systems, the UK falls into the North Atlantic/liberal model, categorised in particular by a professional model of broadcast governance and external pluralism: in the UK’s case, in the press. This resulted in public service broadcasting adhering to an objectivity norm, in which broadcast news, particularly the BBC, presented contentious claims, particularly by Vote Leave, as one side of an argument rather than analysing them (Gaber 2018, 1020).

At the same time, the majority of the press coverage was firmly Eurosceptic. Startin (2015) divided portrayals of the EU in the British press into Europositive, Euroambivalent, and Eurosceptic. He concluded that tabloids and midmarkets were mainly Eurosceptic, with The Mirror being the only one categorised as Euroambivalent. As for the quality press, the majority were both Europositive and Euroambivalent, apart from The Telegraph, which was labelled Eurosceptic. The result was highly polarised coverage, with pro-Remain papers emphasising pro-Remain campaigners and arguments, and pro-Leave papers emphasising the pro-Leave equivalents. While the break between quality and tabloid might seem to establish a balanced amount of coverage, researchers at Loughborough University found that by the time of the referendum, in aggregate terms, this produced a ‘coverage gap’ of 59 percent — 41 percent in favour of Leave campaigners. However, when these differences were weighted by circulation, the difference extended to 82 percent versus 18 percent (Deacon et al. 2016).

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