Brexit: Why Press Bias Is a Great British Tradition

Daily Mail Protest
Demonstrators protest outside the “Daily Mail” headquarters in London in October 2013. Newspaper partisanship can be controversial, but it is a great British tradition. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

To people not used to British newspapers they can sometimes feel a bit like that drunken, loud-mouthed guy in the bar who is anxious to tell you what he thinks and what you should think, too. But readers seem to like it. Whether they do what they are told is another matter.

The fact that the UK's biggest-selling tabloid The Sun has come out in favour of voting to leave the European Union at the referendum on June 23 is no surprise. It has been virulently Euroskeptic ever since Rupert Murdoch bought it nearly half a century ago. In that time it has backed the winners—including Labour's Tony Blair—in every U.K. General Election.

If you prefer a more pro-EU voice then feel free to read the more left-wing The Guardian or the tabloid Mirror. Most U.K. newspapers, including The Sun, not only feel it is allowed to express an opinion on the big issues of the day, it is passionately, aggressively partisan.

Press bias in the U.K. goes much further than in most other countries, it's a great British tradition. That bias is not just about leader or opinion columns, it extends into the way that news stories are selected and shaped.

Two different titles will treat the same story in different ways. So while the Daily Mail will see rising immigration as a threat to British identity, the Financial Times might well stress how it has helped the economy providing skilled workers and people prepared to do jobs in social care or services that Brits avoid.

This is partly a product of proprietors buying newspapers to exert influence. This goes back to Lords Beaverbrook and Northcliffe in the early 20th century. These press barons were often motivated by single issue causes rather than backing a political party.

The virulently anti-German, Lord Northcliffe used the Daily Mail to lobby for more battleships in the run up to the First World War and ended up as the wartime government's official minister for propaganda. He would have loved the way the Daily Mail has been bashing Brussels.

More recently Richard Desmond has turned the already right-wing Express into a mouthpiece for the populist U.K. Independence Party (UKIP).

It is also a good way to make your product stand out in the highly competitive U.K. national news market. Readers happily identify as liberal "Guardianistas" or followers of the Telegraph, "the house journal of the Conservative party." It does not stop those papers from attacking their own side, but readers know where they stand ideologically. The Independent, the one paper that sought a non-partisan, high-minded approach, has just stopped printing.

In other countries newspapers do have political affiliations. Some will be outspoken. Look at the way that the New York Daily News has backed Clinton and derided Trump and Sanders, for example. But it seems that some U.K. newspapers are more prepared to permeate their editorial with a slant and try deliberately to shift public opinion on specific causes.

In Britain the broadcasters are regulated to be "balanced," so overall there is diversity in the marketplace of ideas. But partly because they can be so outspoken, it often seems during a heated political campaign, such as the E.U. referendum, that it is the newspapers that shape the agenda.

In fact there is little hard research evidence that newspapers swing many votes in the short term. They and their enemies tend to exaggerate their influence. But in this referendum vote they might just have a significant effect. If the polling is to be believed then public sentiment is closely divided. Many people will only make up their mind in the last few days. Voters have to pick on an "in" or "out" option not a government, so perhaps their usual tribal loyalties will be weaker.

In that scenario the fact that British newspapers are overwhelmingly Euroskeptic may keep politicians like David Cameron, who leads the Remain campaign, awake at night.

Charlie Beckett is Director of the Polis Think Tank at the London School of Economics (LSE)