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Brexit: media influence and prejudices

European flagAs the UK’s EU referendum result plunges the country, and indeed the whole of Europe, into economic and political uncertainty, so far only one thing seems clear: the style of the Leave campaign, whose bare-faced lies were exceeded in shamelessness only by their use of immigrants as scapegoats for under-investment in public services, has fractured British society.

Divisions as deep and wide as the English Channel now lie between the well-educated and less well-educated, between the middle classes and the working classes (not to mention the unworking classes, a significant proportion of whom would be in employment if they had the immigrants’ work ethic). Market researchers Ipsos Mori reveal that 57% of ABC1s (graduates and white-collar workers) voted Remain.

We now know that voting also revealed divisions between rural areas, feeling left behind in the UK’s recent (if fragile) economic recovery, and metropolitan areas, which since the Industrial Revolution have always been more prosperous. It’s worth remembering here that the recent seven years of financial pain shared by both town and country was caused not by oversupply of immigrants to the labour market, but by the market-crash wreaked by those who might best be described with a rude word which rhymes with bankers.

Referendum voting unearthed divisions, too, between the young (who think of themselves as ‘European’) and the old (who don’t, and who unfortunately aren’t quite old enough to remember how the Brexiteer tactic of whipping-up xenophobia was effectively employed in the 1930s by a certain German Chancellor). The young, who grew up in a world where there was the opportunity to work, live and retire anywhere they liked in Europe, suddenly had that freedom taken away from them. Hence 73% of 18-24 year-olds and 62% of 25-34 year olds had backed Remain. And hence the headlines such as “Young screwed by older generations.”

Perhaps what’s more instructive for professional communicators – whether working in journalism, PR, or marketing communications (or, as in my case, in a mixture of these disciplines) – is which media channels influenced which voters. Before going to the polls, where did voters find the facts, half-truths, presumptions, prejudices and outright lies which helped determine which box they ticked? Independent market research in the last few days has thrown up some interesting statistics. An exclusive poll conducted by BMG Research for the Electoral Reform Society reports “striking demographic divides with regard to which sources of referendum information were considered most important.”

To spotlight the most marked of those demographic divides:

  1. 25% of over 65s viewed the Leave campaign as their most important source of information, compared to only 13% of 18-24 year olds. This suggests at least a quarter of old people had already made up their minds and were only open to information which supported their viewpoint
  2. Of those intending to vote for UKIP, an even greater proportion – 48% – indicated that the Leave campaign was their most important information source. This suggests almost half of UKIPers weren’t prepared to listen to, watch, or read anything which might challenge their prejudices
  3. The BBC was the most important source to 41% of over 65s and 24% of 18-24 year olds
  4. Newspapers most influenced 29% of over 65s but only 16% of 18-24 year olds
  5. Only 8% of over 65s viewed social media as their most important source of information, compared with 33% of 18-24 year olds

What conclusions can we draw from this? Nothing definitive, of course, from a snapshot with a focus as narrow as a political referendum. But there are some vivid brushstroke impressions here. The BBC, which restrains itself from the sensationalism of other news broadcasters dependent on big audiences for advertising revenue, still really matters, but the influence of this venerable institution is waning because of the expanding choice in news media. As the young generation replaces the old, the strength of newspapers as opinion-formers could be halved, or worse. And if you want to shift perceptions among the emerging generation of voters and consumers, ignore the growing power of social media at your peril!

Having touched on the emotive subject of immigration, I’d like to sign-off by making a personal confession. My surname shouldn’t really be Bingham. In the Royal Courts of Justice, London, in March 1930, my paternal grandfather Maurice changed his surname – my family’s surname – to Bingham by deed-poll because he couldn’t get employment with the surname Wolfsky. Little Englanders feared and resented foreigners.  Today, 86 years later, in a coffee shop in the Sussex seaside town of Hastings, I had a conversation with an intelligent, polite, well-dressed, work-hungry Polish man who is encountering exactly the same prejudice. And in the last few days people have started telling him, in public, he should “go home.” Regardless of which media influences which people, and how intelligent or otherwise the majority might be, is this the kind of world Brexit is bringing back?


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