My post ‘The triumph of the tabloids’ is now easily my most read post in the four and a half years I have been writing a blog. I suspect that partly reflects readers from overseas trying to understand how on earth British voters could have chosen to do something so obviously harmful to the economy. I have subsequently been pleased to see others picking up the same idea: Maria Kyriakidou here and Charles Grant here. As Grant says, the tabloids “became propaganda sheets” for Leave. He goes on : “as I discovered while knocking on doors during the campaign, many Britons believe all sort of bizarre things about the EU that have no basis in fact, and the source of which is ultimately newspapers”. Of course the media cannot alone win a referendum like this, and Charles Grant also focuses on other factors, but in many of the accounts of how Brexit happened that I have read the media often does not figure at all. The idea that the media does not matter, or just reflects public opinion, is simply wrong.
Although the title of my post referred to the tabloid press, their success was only possible because the broadcast media failed to provide any antidote. I have written about this a lot during the campaign. One link that I did not mentioned is suggested by Grant. He writes
One of the BBC’s most senior journalists confessed to me, a few days before the referendum: “If we give a Leaver a hard time, we know that the Mail or the Sun may pick on us and that that is bad for our careers. But if we are tough on Remainers it might upset the Guardian and that doesn’t matter at all. This affects the way some colleagues handle interviews.”
He also notes that many journalists failed to contest falsehoods put forward by Leave politicians simply because they were not knowledgeable enough, a point I have made many times about political commentators knowledge of economics. This is so important, because if politicians quote ‘facts’ that are false and interviewers let them pass, you are bound to leave an impression among viewers that these facts are true. As any macroeconomist will tell you, people make decisions based on the information they have.
But it is not just the Brexit vote that the tabloids are partly responsible for. It is the racism and intolerance that they have helped legitimise. Of course politicians must take most responsibility for this, but the tabloids play an important role. This will only become worse as those who voted Leave become disillusioned that nothing has improved, and of course no tabloid will ever apologise for getting it wrong. They are the epitome of power without responsibility. And because of the power these newspapers have, politicians dare not criticise them for it. One did, and he paid a heavy price.