The role of newspapers in the EU referendum

What positions are newspapers taking on the referendum and what influence are they likely to have?

Over the past few days we have seen most of the main national newspapers declare their editorial stance on the EU referendum, but in an era where newspaper readership is falling, what influence might the positions taken by newspapers have on the result on Thursday?

Ahead of the last year’s general election I wrote about the tendency of newspapers to follow their readers in their political loyalties rather than lead them.  In deciding on their editorial stance on the referendum many newspapers have surveyed their own readers to ensure that they are aligned with them rather than risking alienating them. It is no surprise therefore that the News UK-owned The Times and The Sun have taken different positions on the referendum, given what recent polls have said about the attitude of their readers.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that newspapers’ editorial positions are simply based on data suggesting what their readers already think. Reports have suggested that there was a “heated and intense” debate at The Times’ editorial meetings about the position that the paper should take. Despite similar readerships, the line taken by The Times hasn’t been followed by The Sunday Times, which has taken a pro-Brexit editorial line.   The Mirror has taken a strongly pro-Remain line, despite the fact that polls suggest that there is a slight lead for leaving the EU amongst its readers.

The DMG Media group of newspapers have also seen a split between the Brexit supporting Daily Mail and the pro-Remain Mail on Sunday. This split is widely seen as reflecting the views of their editors, Paul Dacre for the daily title and Geordie Greig, who edits the Sunday paper.

While the personal views and calculations that go into newspapers agreeing their editorial approach might be of interest to media observers, the question is what influence these editorial allegiances will have on the final outcome of Thursday’s vote?

In order to understand what kinds of influence that different forms of communication might have on voters ahead of the referendum, Weber Shandwick undertook some  polling with Pureprofile asking  the public what kinds of communication is likely or unlikely to influence their views.


The results suggested that  newspapers were the fifth most influential source of influence with 44 percent of the public saying that newspapers would be likely to shape their views as opposed to 34 percent saying that they were unlikely to be influenced by them. As well as direct influence, we need to consider the power of newspapers to influence other sources of information. The next most influential source of information is online news reports with just over 51 percent of people saying that they would be influential and just 24 percent saying not. Newspapers are still a dominant source of online news content, with newspaper sites being amongst some of the most visited websites. The top source of influence was radio and TV reports with 62 percent of people saying that they are likely to influence their views and just 16 percent saying the opposite. The UK’s strict rules on broadcast impartiality mean that newspapers tend to have a significant influence on developing the news agenda which is then reflected in radio and TV news reports and discussions. The second most influential source of influence was seen as friends and family, whose views will be shaped by a mixture of personal experience and what they read see or hear in the media. TV debates which were seen as the third most influential source of information by voters, with 55 percent of the public saying that it might influence their views and these are therefore a powerful way for each of the campaigns to communicate directly  with the public unmediated by the media’s editorial views. The evidence suggests that overall the influence of newspapers during the referendum is most likely to have helped the Leave Campaign. In 1975 (the last time that the UK voted on its relationship with Europe) the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, had the support of all the main newspapers, with just the Morning Star and the Spectator Magazine urging its readers to support leave the European Community.  This time David Cameron and the Remain campaign faces opposition from the Sun and the Daily Mail, two of the biggest selling newspapers, as well as the Daily Telegraph – the biggest selling quality daily – and the Sunday Times and the Express Group of newspapers. Research undertaken by the University of Loughborough published earlier this month has suggested that there has been a 60 percent to 40 percent imbalance between articles supporting the Leave side of the argument as opposed to the Remain view point. Adjusted by circulation the imbalance is more significant with 80 percent of articles supporting Brexit and just 20 percent supportive of the UK’s membership of the EU. It is impossible to judge with any certainty if the volume of pro-Brexit news articles has helped the recent shifts in support for leaving the EU over recent weeks or recent stronger support for Remain from the Times and the Mail on Sunday has any impact in recent small shifts back to remain, give the multiple sources of influence on voters views. The one area where Remain does seem to be doing well is in the support of major regional newspapers. Trinity Mirror’s regional papers have normally avoided taking strong political stance, but the Manchester Evening News; Newcastle’s The Journal, Birmingham Mail, and Liverpool Echo have all made strong appeals to their readers to support staying in the EU. London’s Evening Standard has also been supportive of the Remain side reflecting the position of many in the capital.   While these newspapers don’t have the same sway as the nationals over the national debate, they are influential in the areas they cover and surveys have suggested that readers put far more trust in what they read in local papers. With just hours to go before the polls close, and with more than one in ten of voters telling pollsters that they where undecided in the final hours, what today’s newspapers are saying about the referendum could have a significant influence on the final result.