How did the country that produced the BBC and the Economist fail so spectacularly at journalism in the lead up to Brexit?
There is a conceit among many senior editors in the U.K. that Britain has “the best journalism in the world.” At its best, certainly, British journalism is very good indeed. From the sober analysis of the Financial Times and the Economist to the tub-thumping of the tabloid press to the BBC’s worldwide reputation for accuracy and impartiality, the British public has access to a healthy mixture of domestic, foreign, and investigative reporting. On many occasions, democracy has been well served by journalists here who make important stories accessible and hold power to account.
At its worst, however, journalism in Britain can be truly awful. Five years ago, much of the world was rightly shocked by revelations of phone-hacking on the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday tabloid News of the World. The subsequent judicial investigation into the culture, practice, and ethics of the press, led by Lord Justice Leveson, exposed the tasteless practices on which some British tabloids had come to rely: the invasions into personal privacy, the gross intrusions into private grief.
At the time, it seemed like a new low for the industry. If the Leveson inquiry revealed the tawdry side of the media business in the U.K., however, the Brexit campaign has featured a different kind of journalistic abuse: contempt for basic norms of truth and accuracy.
In the lead-up to the June 23 European Union referendum, British mainstream media failed spectacularly. Led, inevitably, by the viscerally anti-EU Daily Mail, Sun, Daily Express, and Telegraph papers, most of Britain’s national press indulged in little more than a catalog of distortions, half-truths, and outright lies. It was a ferocious propaganda campaign in which facts and sober analysis were sacrificed to the ideologically driven objectives of editors and their proprietors.
The interests of readers, much less the interests of British democracy, were barely considered. Three days after the vote, I spoke to a Labour Member of Parliament who represents a constituency in northern England with one of the lowest proportions of immigrants in the country. Despite this, a majority of her constituents had voted to leave the EU. Why? Mainly, she said, because they were convinced that waves of immigrants would soon overwhelm their communities, take their jobs, and undermine their way of life. They were particularly concerned about the looming massive influx of Muslims, given the imminent European debut of Turkey – a country that stands no chance of joining the EU in my lifetime, let alone in the next few years.
How did things get so bad? In part, you can blame the internet, which has gutted traditional business models of journalism around the world. British journalism has been particularly vulnerable: For historical and geographical reasons – partly due to early industrialization and partly due to efficient distribution networks in a small country – Britain has long enjoyed the largest national press in any mature democracy. Nine national newspapers (10, until March, when the Independent went online-only) still battle furiously for eyeballs. This is, in many ways, for the good. But this frantic competition for a diminishing pool of readers and shrinking ad revenue, particularly at the tabloid end of the market, partly explains why some publications have been willing to sacrifice basic journalistic norms of accuracy and respect for privacy.
But a second, equally powerful reason is unique to the United Kingdom — the passionate right-wing ideology that drives many of those newspapers. The country has a long history of explicit partisanship in its journalism. While there has always been a predominance of right-wing papers (at times, very right wing: the Daily Mail famously supported pro-Fascist groups during the 1930s), in the past, this was partly balanced by the mass circulation of the Mirror newspapers. But the Mirror’s decline has been precipitate; the Mail’s online dominance, on the other hand, driven by its embrace of celebrity news and pictures (mostly of young women in various states of undress), has enhanced its popular and political influence. Led by the Murdoch-owned Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the Telegraph, with the Times (also Murdoch-owned) in a supporting role, the partisan right now overwhelms the comparatively insignificant presence of the Daily Mirror and Guardian on the left, especially with the left-leaning Independent now relegated to an online-only presence. During the referendum campaign, this toxic combination of uncompromising devotion to a political cause and contempt for the truth played a major role in leading Britain down the Brexit road.