British newspapers attracted a lot of attention for their role in shaping and reflecting public opinion in the months before last year’s referendum vote to leave the European Union. But the long-term shifts in their editorial stances on EU membership, taking place over many years, are only now coming under scrutiny.
In fact, the newspaper campaign against the EU, with a steady increase in negative coverage of the monetary and economic alliance over four decades, began in the 1970s, according to a new study by researchers at Queen Mary University of London.
They analyzed 16,400 articles published in five periods over this period.
Between 1974 and 2013, the proportion of EU coverage with a negative stance in British newspapers increased from 24% to 45%, the researchers found, while the proportion of positive coverage shrank from 25% to 10% over the same period. Neutral or ambiguous coverage decreased from 51% to 45%.
In the case of the country’s biggest newspaper, the Daily Mail, the proportion of negative coverage jumped from under 25% to 85% over this period.
According to the researchers, much of the neutral and favorable coverage came from high-quality broadsheets like the The Times and The Financial Times, but these tended to present pro-EU content in dispassionate terms. Tabloids were far more ready to strike an emotional (but not necessarily rational) chord.
The tabloids’ attacks became particularly strident in the final months before the referendum, as noted in other research.
Researchers at Britain’s Loughborough University conducted a study of 1,127 articles about the referendum and related issues from early May to mid-June. When the circulation of newspapers publishing articles is taken into account, UK newspapers favored Brexit by a margin of 82% to 18% in this period.The huge skew was mostly the result of popular tabloids with large readerships – most notably The Sun, with a circulation of 1.7 million, Daily Mail, with a circulation of 1.5 million, and The Daily Telegraph, with a circ of half a million – declaring support for Leave.