Brexit and the media: A Valentine's Special


By Niamh Rowe, Online Features Editor

On Tuesday a talk was held at the Watershed titled ‘Guardian Live in Bristol: Brexit and the media’. The talk invited the editor-in-chief of The Guardian Katherine Viner, journalist John Harris, co-founder of the Bristol Cable Adam Cantwell-Corn and operations manager for Ujima Radio LaToyah McAllister-Jones, to form a panel to discuss how the media has, and should, cover Brexit.

The talk sparked my interest enough to spend £5 on a ticket due to an irony that has bothered me for a while now. It seems ‘any press is Brexit press’ rings through Fleet Street yet arguably there is insufficient self-awareness amongst the media about its own integral role in shaping the outcome of Brexit, and current attitudes towards it. All we see across the news are the theatrics of the process of Brexit; John Bercow screaching ‘ORDER! ORDER!’ in the House of Commons has become our national anthem, and I’m finding myself referring to my flatmate as ‘the right honourable gentleman on my left’ when asking them to pass the salt. The ‘media’ and ‘Brexit’ now seem synonymous, yet despite how entwined these phenomena have become, there seems a sufficient lack of self-reflective discourse about how the media arguably controlled the Referendum outcome as much as the two campaigns did, highlighting the enormous ethical responsibility that the press holds. Since we can all place our vote of confidence for the motion that ‘Westminster has no idea what the hell is going on’, can we look to the media, to good journalism, to help us out of this mess? So yes, £5 seemed a small price to get some of these grievances answered.

A main point raised by the panel was that we’ve become lost in the theatrics of Parliament rather than focusing on the issues that caused Brexit. A tragic irony. The narrative of Brexit that many now accept is that the result showed us the extent to which the ‘cosmopolitan elite’ have pressed snooze on the other 51% of our country. We know this, yet it seems we have become so invested in the back-stop, what mildly-offensive slur Jezza has muttered under his breath and the nuances of which MP is voting what, for which vote, regarding whatever. Of course the politics of Brexit are important because the repercussions of each diplomatic move carries huge consequence, but we must ensure that we do not allow the narrative to be pulled too far from the actual issues that brought about this mess.

An agreement amongst the panel was the need to bring journalism back to the real stories of real people rather than just reducing them to figures on the latter pages of a broadsheet paper. How can we ‘report with communities, not on them’ was a very poignantly-put phrase by Harris. Harris has created an online video series with The Guardian named ‘Anywhere but Westminster’ that interviews normal people on each side of the debate for their opinions and concerns across the country, such as those actually living near the line that separates the Republic from Ireland, tech workers, immigrants from Europe, inner-city workers and people in the fishing industry, many who voted for Brexit, and will be the most affected by it. This distancing of the media away from Parliament is pivotal in reminding us that Brexit is merely a (wrong or right) answer to the injustices regarding the lack of representation in Parliament and declining jobs. An agreement amongst the panel seemed to be that journalism which is focused on real people’s testimonial stories has a greater chance of bridging the Brexit divide, as it harnesses the emotions of familial bonds and personal worries. To pardon the cliché, but universal experiences that unite us. I think Harris raised several revelatory points: Vote Leave enclaves aren’t just hopeless and left-behind towns that we can reduce to unemployment figures but also thriving communities.

He also challenged the narrative that the cosmopolitan-left (including myself) consistently tell ourselves: ‘those who voted leave were merely confusing immigration with hidden tax fraud committed by the TNCs’ etc. That is, the vote-leavers are just ‘confused’ and ‘uneducated’. Whilst this point does have traction, Harris, amongst other audience members, advocated that racism does exist in this country regardless of its reducible causes. In the words of Harris ‘the left has turned their eyes away from’ this uncomfortable truth. We need to start to face this unsettling reality rather than distracting ourselves with the intricacies of the process of Brexit in Parliament. It seems we have responded to a problem with an intermediary ‘advert’, the equivalent of the 3-minute interlude we are forced to engage with whilst our drama pauses on 4od, that the media has helped direct and perpetuate, because the performance of the calamities in Parliament are far easier to capitalise off and palette than the realities of racism and austerity. We need to click fast-forward and skip the ads, and resume with the actual truths at hand that Brexit is merely a symptom of.

A question I raised with the panel (a grievance equally applicable to this article, a metafictional irony I am both aware of and apologetic for) is how do we account for the largely-absent affordable and accessible left-wing tabloid media? How can we stop left-wing publications such as The Guardian merely ‘preaching to the choir’? That is, journalism that is researched and nuanced, in fidelity with the nuances of the world, this type of journalism costs, and is currently phrased in more inaccessible and sophisticated bombast than tabloids that carry short, snappy and emphatic headlines, and do not require membership fees, such as The Sun or The Daily Express. The panel seemed to discuss how to report on the communities who chose Brexit, but not much on how we can actually extend readership of left-wing media to these communities? If we learnt anything from Brexit it is the power of language, the ‘swarms’ of immigrants and the ‘taking back control’ that influenced people’s vote.

This need for emotive language is coupled with the era of social media that reduces our attention span, allowing click-bait headlines that simplify the world to sensationalised villains and heroes. How can we reconcile this with nuanced journalism that is affordable and still uses accessible, ‘snappy’ language? I felt this irony more-than-ever sat at a Guardian event that cost £5, a fee that many would not have the luxury to spend as arbitrarily as I did, amongst a crowd of well-meaning white middle-class intellectuals with thick-rimmed glasses and Bristol University students such as myself, talking about Brexit in jargon many would find isolating.

I am aware I am pointing to the problem rather than offering solutions, so I would suggest perhaps social media may be the way forward for creating a left-wing ‘tabloid culture’. Websites such as the left-wing Canary and Evolve Politics define themselves through activism as much as journalism, hence liberating them to use evocative language that puts the point across in a matter-of-fact way and creates proactive and ‘click-bait’ headlines.

Whilst I am not advocating this medium as our new oracle for political insight, as these sites are also guilty of spinning stories with misleading fake-news bias, arguably there is something to be learned in them. Left-wing articles that carry ‘a punch’ therefore generating wide-circulation around Facebook should be examined further, as there is no sign the culture of affordable and accessible –and misleading- right-wing tabloids, that played an integral role in forming Brexit attitudes, are dying out anytime soon. It seems the media needs to address the frustratingly short-lived way we now engage with news thanks both to social media, as much as headlines not dissimilar to ‘On the 29th of March rumour has it that Theresa May will disguise herself as a Muslim and attempt to bomb the Irish back-stop!’ that are permitted to parade around with legitimacy through the tabloid format. If we are to have a Second Referendum, it appears pivotal that the left can reconsider how to platform and engage with the 51% if they hope to alter the outcome.

Featured Image: Niamh Rowe

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Niamh Rowe

Deputy Features Online Editor 3nd year English and Philosophy