For many years, Britain’s tabloid press has nurtured Euroscepticism. Franco Zappettini (University of Liverpool) argues that during and since the EU referendum, this discourse has become explicitly populist, pitting ‘the people’ against their perceived enemies.
The role played by the British press – and in particular by the tabloids – in framing the debate both before and after the EU referendum needs more scrutiny. It is difficult to overstate the media’s ability to instigate public debates by setting the news agenda. While this can be a force for good when the ‘fourth estate’ performs its function of a democratic guardian in a pluralised public sphere, the media’s power can equally serve commercial logic and a newspaper’s own political and ideological agendas. So it is important to recognise that news is not simply circulated in and by the media, but that it can be actively framed through a newspaper’s ideological lens.
Brexit and the EU-UK relationship are a striking example of the role of the tabloids in constructing public perceptions. The British tabloid press has a long tradition of Eurosceptic and Europhobic editorial stances, including the promotion of various ‘crusades’ around different Euro-myths and infamous headlines such as the Sun’s ‘Up Yours Delors’. Overall, tabloids have been responsible for the trivialisation (some would call it ‘tabloidisation’) of European politics, a process that has led to the British written press being considered the least trusted in Europe. For years, titles such as the Daily Mail, the Sun and The Daily Express have been particularly active in portraying the UK as a victim of a Brussels ‘cosmopolitical’ conspiracy that, according to some stories, would result in the British Parliament being forced to ban traditional British kettles and lightbulbs, or British women being required to return old sex toys to comply with EU rules (the EU Commission’s myth-debunking website has a full list).
As most tabloids began their coverage of the Brexit campaign as prominent advocates of the Leave side (with the exception of the Labour-friendly Daily Mirror, the Mail on Sunday – which took the opposite stance to its daily sister publication – and the politically disengaged Daily Star) they could bank on having primed their audiences to effectively pre-legitimise Brexit. What we saw during the referendum campaign was a de facto consolidation of such populist discourses, as I argue in a paper that I recently presented at a LSE public event on populism. Here, I use the term populist (an otherwise much debated proposition between academics) in its basic meaning i.e. referring to the people. Of course, in most political discourses the term ‘people’ tends to be invariably invoked in semantically vague and rhetorical ways. But what makes a populist discourse different from a democratic one is that the former portrays the people in opposition to its imagined enemies and typically in exclusionary rather than inclusionary terms.
My study, based on a linguistic analysis of how the term ‘(the) people’ was used in a corpus of tabloids during the referendum campaign, suggests that the language of tabloids has been consistent with a populist view of the world in binary terms. Throughout the campaign, tabloids tended to portray the ‘British people’ (sometimes also qualified as ‘ordinary’ or ‘hard-working’ people) as a distinct group who were antagonised by other groups of ‘people’ who, in turn, were often characterised as either (EU) migrants and ‘free to move’ to the UK, or as ‘detached’ elites. The tabloid press further identified the latter as international (e.g. the EU, Brussels, Eurocrats, the International Monetary Fund, Barack Obama) or domestic (e.g. Westminster, ‘experts’ and Remainers) enemies of the ‘British people’.
These characterisations played a pivotal role in how tabloids were able to frame the debate over the Brexit referendum around typical populist dynamics. Notably, the coverage tapped into the politics of loss and resentment over migration, through arguments citing social pressure and resource sharing, but also about risk and security which, in some cases, lurched into explicit and xenophobic moral panic. For example, on 6 June 2016 the Daily Express reported Nigel Farage’s comment that mass sex attacks like those that had happened in Cologne would occur in the UK unless the country voted to leave.
Similarly, when pitting the ‘ordinary British people’ against the elites, the dominant dynamic in the corpus analysed was one of reaffirming a sense of national pride – akin to the defiant sovereignty that has characterised recent Euroscepticism across many democracies. The theme of standing up to the ‘bullying’ of the IMF, of Remainers David Cameron and George Osborne, or the EU’s ‘corrupt’ bureaucrats was common currency in many Daily Mail articles.
A key point worth making here is that tabloids did not simply act as communicative platforms by amplifying (or silencing) the main actors and arguments of the referendum campaign but, rather, they effectively (de)legitimised Brexit along a populist logic – as well as according to their own ideological agenda. Furthermore, this populist thrust was not limited to the Brexit campaign. As I have argued above, a large section of the British press has had a historical role in producing anti-EU propaganda based on spurious news and anti-foreign sentiment. Plenty of evidence suggests that this has not ceased with the referendum result but, in fact, that the populist thrust has steadily driven the post-referendum coverage of Brexit. Appeals to the ‘people’s will’ (and delegitimisation of supporters of softer or no Brexit as ‘enemies of the people’) have been key drivers of public and institutional discourses. As I argued in a talk given in Athens last summer, the longer-term coverage of European news in the tabloid press and the populist discursive articulation of Brexit have been instrumental in creating the chain of legitimation. It has institutionalised extreme Eurosceptic discourses that originally emerged on the fringe of the British political spectrum and now seem to be at the core of the implementation of Brexit.
Of course, the term ‘people’ has equally been appropriated by other actors to construct counter-discourses – for example around the ‘peoples’ vote’ referendum. At the moment, this seems to be the nodal point where the struggle over the Brexit debate is taking place.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It is based on ‘The tabloidization of the Brexit campaign: Power to the (British) people?’ presented at the public event ‘We, the people: Political, media and popular discourses of ‘us’ and ‘them’, held at the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics on 26-27 October 2018.
Dr Franco Zappettini is a Lecturer in Communication and Media at the University of Liverpool. His research focuses on the textual/discursive analysis of different forms of political and organisational communication including mediated forms of populism, in particular tabloid populism and Euroscepticism in the British press. Franco tweets @frazapuk