The UK media on Bremain vs. Brexit

Just as a remark in the beginning: No, I will not use this blog post for bashing my British colleagues and their reporting of the upcoming EU referendum. Sorry, I know that’s a spoiler. Instead, I want to do is to take a closer look at the role of the British media in this referendum and how far it differs from their German counterparts.

The keyword here is impartiality. Already in 2015, in the run-up to the general election, I realised that impartiality has a different meaning for British journalists than for German journalists. Weeks and weeks before the big decision, newspapers decided to endorse a party and one of the candidates for prime minister. All the big names took part in this: The Economist, the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Evening Standard as well as the Daily Mirror, the Sun and the Observer all published an endorsement. A strong tradition in the US, endorsements are not that typical in the German media landscape.

The referendum coverage now seems to follow the same logic. Although there haven’t been many official recommendations and endorsements of either Remain or Leave in the editorials yet, the editors have already made up their minds. According to a study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, the national newspapers are “heavily” skewed in favour of Brexit. Advocates for Brexit include the Daily Mail (highest number of pro-Leave articles), the Daily Express, the Daily Star, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph. Amongst the supporters of Remain are the Daily Mirror (highest number of pro-Remain articles), the Guardian and the Financial Times. Articles in the Times were evenly balanced with a slight preference for leave, the study found.

This is quite an interesting insight for me. Whereas I was taught during my journalistic training that your personal opinion did not matter unless you were writing a commentary or an opinion piece, British journalists seem to have been taught differently.”We have an issue in this country around the definition of impartiality”, said Carolyn Fairbairn, the head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)  and a former journalist, at a dinner at the British-German Association (BGA).

Although I am aware of the fact that objectivity and neutrality is more a great ideal in journalism than a depiction of reality, I still feel obliged to try to report in a balanced and even way. This approach has been helping my journalistic work a lot, especially in places like China where it’s easy to get things wrong because you only want to see certain parts of the truth whilst overlooking others.

The study had a second interesting finding. From the analysis of 928 articles between February and April, it concluded that although all papers published pieces that supported an opinion different to the one that the paper promoted, they did so to varying degrees. Out of the titles mentioned above, the proportion of pieces with a contrary opinion was the smallest in the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror. This is also something that I have been taught differently. Not only is it practice in German journalism not to take sides, but it is also not considered good conduct not to have the competing party have a say.

All that of course leaves the BBC in a toxic position. The public broadcaster is, different to the newspapers, obliged to strictly follow the principle of impartiality – a specification that sometimes makes the content a minor concern. “In broadcasting, this means if you have a Remain-voice for business, you also need a Leave-voice for business”, Carolyn Fairbairn explained.

During the last couple of months, the British Broadcasting Corporation has continuously come under fire from both sides for allegedly failing to provide balanced coverage of the referendum campaign.”The BBC is on tenterhooks”, Alex Spence commented, Politico’s media reporter. “Program editors are keeping track of interviews with In and Out supporters to make sure that they’re not giving one side more air time than the other”, he wrote. All BBC journalists underwent a one-hour online training course on the EU and its relationship to the UK.

I assume that the media war will increase, now that the referendum is only 18 days away and we have some high-profile TV debates in the pipeline. Will it matter? Probably yes, especially for those who are still undecided. For all the rest though, it might not make a difference. That’s at least the conclusion that I have drawn from the comments made earlier by Andre Spicer, Professor for Organizational Behaviour at Cass Business School.

According to him, people tend to make quick decisions about important issues on the basis of their past beliefs or the first pieces of information they are presented with. “We then search for information that justifies our decisions”, Spicer said. “Many members of the public have already made up their mind and now they are looking for information confirming their existing beliefs while ignoring any information that challenges them.”

So even if there is a surprise switch and a so far pro-Brexit paper supporting Remain now, it might not matter too much. That should teach us journalists a lesson.




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