The immediate reaction to the EU referendum result in three British national newspapers was negative towards Brexit, according to a study of their content.
It found that despite their differing stances prior to the vote, the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, were – at least in some measure – in agreement with the pro-remain Guardian.
Of the 489 articles about Brexit published in the three titles (and their Sunday equivalents) between 25 June and 1 July, 39% were negative towards the vote to leave the European Union while 27% were positive (and 34% were deemed neutral).
The studyâs author, Caroline Lees, remarked: âEven the Daily Mail and The Telegraph, which had enthusiastically backed the leave campaign before the vote, had a neutral, âpragmaticâ response.â
She believed âthe cautious coverage reflected that the vote to leave the UK was unexpected, even among pro-Brexit newspapers. It was not a time to âgloatâ, according to one pro-Brexit newspaper, but a time for âsober, responsibleâ reporting.â
She thought âcommercial priorities also influenced editorial decisions. Newspapers were reluctant to alienate readers who voted to remain at a time when the UK was deeply divided over the result.â
Her review of the output of the three papers is part of a wider study conducted by the European Journalism Observatory (EJO).*
Three issues were considered: Brexitâs British impact; its impact on the EU; and whether the EU was better off with, or without, Britain as a member. I am dealing here only with the first of those.
Most of the Brexit-related articles published in the three papers over the course of the seven days after the referendum concerned the impact of the leave vote on Britain. The Mail published 50 (30%) articles arguing Brexit would be âgood for Britainâ; the Telegraph published 52 (38%); and the Guardian published six (3%).
The Guardian published 113 articles (56%) arguing that Brexit would be bad for Britain. They contained headlines or phrases such as âthe pound will weakenâ, âinvestors will pull outâ, âbusinesses will leave the UKâ, âunemployment will riseâ, âracism will increaseâ, âdivisions in society will widenâ.â
Many articles in the Mail took a similar line, with 25 (19%) indicating that Brexit would be bad for Britain. And 18 articles (10%) in the Telegraph reflected that too.
Noting the Telegraphâs somewhat neutral coverage, Lees cited a source at the paper as saying it reflected an editorial decision to âproceed with caution… It would have been wrong to start gloating and saying âwe told you soâ. It was a momentous event and we had to treat it seriously.â The source continuedâ
âWe were pro-Brexit before the referendum but we were also pragmatic, we wanted to put both sides of the argument to our readers. The pragmatic attitude continued after the vote.
While the newspaper believed leaving the EU was best for Britain, the result had divided the nation and we felt strongly it had to come back together. The decision had been taken and we needed to make sure the next step was right.â
According to her Telegraph source, the paper felt it necessary âto carry [with us] the 48% of the population and the 30% of our subscribers, who were anti-Brexit.â
The study touches on the fact that anti-Brexit articles published after the referendum focused on the rise of racist attacks and abuse. It mentions a Guardian example, âA frenzy of hatred â how to understand Brexit racismâ.
In an aside, the study looked at complaints about the BBCâs coverage. Was it âtoo balancedâ? It refers to the belief of Ivor Gabor, professor of journalism at Sussex university, that the corporationâs coverage âwas stupefyingly predictableâ.
In his article, âBending over backwards, the BBC and the Brexit campaignâ, Gabor wrote: âA claim by the remain or leave campaign was automatically contradicted by a rebuttal from the other side. First, it made for tedious listening and viewing, second, it probably left much of the audience confused and third left them vulnerable to simplistic slogans.â
Finally, the study asked whether Britainâs newspapers are still influential. In answer, it quoted a New York Times article by Stig Abell, editor of the Times Literary Supplement (former managing editor of The Sun and former director of the Press Complaints Commission) as writing of Brexit coverage as the âfinal, Pyrrhic victory for British print journalismâ.
He also argued that âfiercely partisan, predominantly right-wing newspapersâ had both fed and responded to the anti-immigration and pro-nationalist mood in Britain in the run-up to the referendum.
*The EJO study is part of Will it kill us, or make us stronger? How Europeâs media covered Brexit. I reported on its findings of the Europe-wide coverage last month, European newspapers overwhelmingly critical of Brexit vote.