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Main stream media’s crusade for Brexit did not end on June 23

Having secured their dream result in the vote to leave the EU, the Daily Mail and Daily Express were not happy to sit back and celebrate. - Credit: Archant

The Daily Express and Daily Mail battled hard to prise Britain from the EU – a year on they are still fighting

‘Thwart’ is not a headline word. It is ugly. It is quite hard to say. It isn’t a word people tend to use in general conversation. But in the months after the EU referendum it became a white-top tabloid favourite, invariably paired with the phrase ‘the will of the people’.

Having secured their dream result in the vote to leave the EU, the Daily Mail and Daily Express were not happy to sit back and celebrate. Rather, both seemed determined to continue the fight until any resistance movement had been pulverised.

If anything, the language became more aggressive once the ‘enemy’ was no longer the ‘undemocratic’ Eurocrats across the Channel, but people on these islands. To suggest that leaving the EU, the single market or the customs union might not be in the country’s best interests was to be denounced as ‘unpatriotic’ and labelled a ‘Remoaner’ (in the Express) or ‘Bremoaner’ (in the Mail). Such terms were not confined to opinion pieces, but spattered through news reports as though they were as valid a description as ‘carpenter’ or ‘estate agent’.

And the biggest sin anyone could commit was to seek to thwart the will of the people.

Both papers had supposedly been fighting for the primacy of British institutions – but not, it seemed, when it came to Brexit: the people had spoken and no member of either house of Parliament (whose sovereignty was the central issue of the June 23 vote) had any business asking awkward questions. So when a Guyana-born woman with a ‘gilded lifestyle’ went to court to argue that it was their duty to do just that, the white-tops were apoplectic.

Character assassins were set to work on Gina Miller, the financial adviser who led the legal challenge to Theresa May’s belief that she could start the process to leave the EU without consulting Parliament. But the real fury was aimed at the ‘out of touch’ judges who decided in her favour.

The court had been asked to rule on a constitutional issue rather than on the merits or otherwise of Brexit, but the papers saw the verdict as an impertinent interference. ‘Enemies of the people’ shouted the Mail from a wanted-poster style front page with photographs of the three guilty men; ‘We must get out of the EU’ screamed the Express against a Union Flag backdrop – a device it had used on polling day and again when the result was announced.

The story began: ‘Today this country faces a crisis as grave as anything since the dark days when Churchill vowed we would fight them on the beaches’ and ended ‘fight, fight, fight’. Inside a telephone poll asked ‘Is blocking Brexit a scandalous betrayal of the will of the people?’

The assault on the judiciary brought gasps from people on both sides of the Brexit argument, as did Lord Chancellor Elizabeth Truss’ failure to stand up for the judges. Asked her view, the Prime Minister – who had already announced that the Government would appeal – said: ‘I believe in the value of the independence of our judiciary. I also value the freedom of our press.’ Her response might be seen as an expected defence of two pillars of democracy, but the Mail took it as vindication and proclaimed: ‘May backs press in judges row’.

The report was accompanied by a pre-emptive strike on the Supreme Court judges who would hear the final appeal, headlined ‘And now here’s the next lot lining up to have a go …’

It noted that the panel included a judge who was ‘a Brussels man to his fingertips’, an ‘unashamed champion of the Human Rights Act’, and a third who was fluent in several languages.

There was more in similar vein the day before the hearing, which the Mail heralded with six pages of judge bashing. This time Guy Adams was charged with digging into the judges’ backgrounds, discovering that one was a progressive feminist, two liked classical music, and one had a string of racehorses. Another worked with English National Opera, whose chief executive had said she feared Brexit, while a guest conductor had called the Leave lobby ‘upsetting’.

The Attorney General’s argument made the lead for the paper, under the headline ‘Why judges were wrong’, but when Miller’s side came to put their case, reporting was restricted to a Quentin Letts sketch.

When MPs did finally get their chance to speak – and agreed that Theresa May should invoke Article 50 – the Mail was still on the alert for ‘dirty tricks from the 114 who, to their shame, voted against implementing the people’s will’.

The papers’ battle (or ‘crusade’ in the Express) to leave the EU began long before the last general election and David Cameron’s manifesto promise to give the public an in-out vote. It stepped up a gear once he was safely back in Downing Street, up again when he went off to Europe to try to persuade fellow leaders to toss him bargaining chips, and again when Boris Johnson and Michael Gove rewarded his efforts with the announcement that they were joining the other side. Both papers were in full flow by the time the official campaign started in April – and neither was in the mood to make any pretence at impartiality or even balance.

It is customary in covering elections for newspapers to set out the big issues and the rival arguments, to visit key constituencies to test the water and see what most concerned voters there. This campaign, however, was unique in that there were no manifestos, no policies to be argued, just predictions and speculation. It would still have been possible to visit areas that had benefited from EU investment as well as to consider the plight of communities that felt too many asylum-seekers had been ‘dumped’ on them. But that didn’t happen. Only statistics and opinions were reported. Nigel Farage was given free rein to roam across the Express, his face being out at readers almost daily.

If someone put forward an argument to leave the EU, the story would be given prominence and the person making the statement made to sound as authoritative as possible, as in ‘the head of one of Britain’s biggest …’ Any right of reply for the Remain side would be tagged at the bottom.

Arguments in favour of staying in the EU would be played down if possible, or if making them a page lead was unavoidable, they would be discredited at the outset with an intro such as: ‘Downing Street was accused of fearmongering when it said ‘A Vote Leave quote would be included in the first few paragraphs and a ‘fact box’ published alongside showing how whoever was speaking had been proved wrong in the past. The Governor of the Bank of England, the Treasury, the IMF, the CBI and assorted ‘experts’ were all given this treatment.

At the end of May, more than 300 Cambridge academics wrote a letter expressing concerns about the impact leaving the EU might have on universities and Stephen Hawking said that Britain needed to stay in to protect its economy, security and scientific research programmes. The Mail reported their view in a double-column story at the foot of a spread, with Hawking a blob paragraph at the end. A matching story to the left was entirely devoted to the opinion of one man, retired insurer Robert Hiscox, who accused No 10 of disseminating propaganda.

In the early days of the campaign the focus was on the economy, including George Osborne’s ‘Project Fear’ predictions and the red bus promise of £350m a week for the NHS. But Mediterranean boat tragedies and the sight of refugees trudging through southern Europe put migration centre stage and the pro-Brexit papers never looked back.

In a poll based on crystal ball gazing, there was only one certainty: for as long as Britain remained in the EU, it would have no power to deny admission to people from fellow member countries. But that wasn’t scary enough. Economic migrants from Albania buying dinghies on eBay to paddle to the UK, Syrians trying to escape their war-riven homeland, Somali rapists and murderers, Romanian chambermaids, Polish plumbers, asylum-seekers camped in the Calais Jungle while their applications were processed – plus the entire 79m population of Turkey – all apparently wanted to settle in Britain. All were lumped together to form one amorphous mass as a symbol of why Britain should vote Leave.

No mention was made of the contribution made to society of the immigrant workforce already here, nor was there acknowledgement that an illegal immigrant would still be illegal, in or out of the EU. Stories about the vast numbers of people born abroad now living in the UK failed to note that such stastics include sporting champions like Bradley Wiggins, Mo Farah and Chris Frome – and Brexit superstar Boris Johnson (born in the US).

An audit of immigration coverage by the SubScribe website found that during 2016, the two papers carried a total of 1,768 pages containing stories about ‘foreigners’, an average of three a day for the Mail and two for the Express (which has far fewer pages). The coverage, which was overwhelmingly negative, increased through the spring to a peak just before the referendum: the Mail gave over six pages to migration on the day before polling; the Express managed five.

Once the votes had been counted, interest in migration fell away sharply – until the autumn, when the Jungle was dismantled and the child migrants started arriving.

The Mail had shown its compassionate side in April when it had supported the Dubs scheme to offer 3,000 children a new start in Britain, with a spread on their plight and a full-page leader. But it changed its tune when the first arrivals were not the smudge-faced it had hoped for, but hulking youths whose ages were immediately questioned. When the Dubs scheme was halted in February, the Mail did not protest.

Dissent will not be tolerated

Over the year, the Express splashed on migration 72 times – compared with 56 for the Mail – with almost every story being presented as a reason to quit the EU. But this was only part of the picture, for there were a further 120 lead stories about the perils of remaining and the profits of leaving. An interesting aspect of this coverage was the fact that there were actually more anti-EU splashes in the six months after the referendum than there had been before.

These included reports of shameless attempts to block Brexit and frequent updates on how wonderful everything was going to be once the decree absolute had been issued. One, headlined ‘EU exit boosts house prices’, was a report of the state of the housing market in the three months from March to June. Clearly, an EU exit could not have influenced anything before voting had even taken place, and the press regulator ordered the Express to run a front-page correction – the second such humiliation in a week.

The Mail has a more diverse news agenda than its rival, so its front-page Brexit coverage was modest compared with the Express: 82 lead stories, with two-thirds of them about immigration. Of the rest (17 before the referendum, 10 after), most were personal attacks on David Cameron – the man whose 2015 election victory was hailed as a ‘vote for sanity’ and the Prime Minister who gave it the referendum it wanted.

If the Mail has kept its front-page powder relatively dry, it has been firing at will on the inside pages, complementing news stories with a barrage of opinion pieces. In the two weeks after May’s party conference announcement of her planned Article 50 timetable, the paper ran 11 leaders and six comment columns on Brexit, all but three of them attacking ‘Bremoaners’.

The zero-tolerance approach to dissent had been established within days of the referendum, and while both papers have loudly defended the press’s right to free speech, they seem reluctant to respect that right for others.

‘Bleeding heart luvvies’ who have been advised to shut up after speaking out for refugees include Amal and George Clooney, Gary Lineker, Lily Allen, Emma Thompson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Carey Mulligan and Juliet Stevenson – or, as Christopher Hart described them in the Mail, ‘the whole ghastly smug cosseted self-adoring crew’.

Remain MPs should also keep their heads down. When Parliament returned after May had spelt out her thoughts on Article 50 and the single market, there was a move for MPs to have a say on Britain’s strategy. At the same time, the CBI repeated its concerns about the economy and a Treasury briefing paper on the cost of Brexit was leaked. It was like lighting the blue touch paper.

‘Time to silence the EU whingers’, declared the lead story in the Express, while on the oped page, Chris Roycroft-Davis found the ‘rabble of MPs demanding a Commons vote’ guilty of ‘snake-like treachery that cannot go unpunished’. The sentence? ‘Clap them in the Tower of London. They want to imprison us against our will in the EU, so we should give them 28 days against their will to reflect on the true meaning of democracy.’

The Mail was sufficiently annoyed to run a full-page editorial, signposted on the front page in a double-depth puff above the masthead, and headlined: ‘Whingeing. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic. Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people.’

The leader began: ‘Waking up yesterday, it was as if Britain had been transported back to those febrile, fractious days in May and June, when the EU referendum campaign was being so ferociously contested.’

Indeed. The white-tops have been fighting for so long, they don’t seem able to stop.

• This is an extract from the book Brexit,Trump and the Media, edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, published by Abramis, Bury St Edmunds £19.95

• Liz Gerard worked in Fleet Street for more than 30 years, latterly as night editor of The Times. She now writes SubScribe, a blog about newspaper journalism, at

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