The framing of the EU in the national press: How British newspapers’ coverage of the EU can fuel anti-EU sentiment

 

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The British people have been let down by parts of the print media. (Photo credit: IoannesM – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4428115)

When it comes to reporting on matters relating to the European Union and Britain’s relationship with it, a section of the British national press has consistently failed to provide objective journalism. Instead, owners and editors of these newspapers appear to have an agenda: to denigrate the EU at every available opportunity. The framing of the EU by the eurosceptic press may explain why many in Britain hold unfavourable views about the EU, which may, in turn, have influenced the outcome of last year’s Brexit referendum.

 

Eurosceptic national dailies and their Sunday versions; the Daily Mail, Sun, Times, Express, Star and Daily Telegraph account for 75 percent of newspapers sold, dwarfing the sales of the more pro-European Guardian and Independent. [1] Of the former group, the Sun and Star tabloids and the ‘mid-market’ Express and Mail are particularly hostile in their coverage of the European Union, readily adopting “language of conflict.” [2] Hawkins’ study into British print media discourses concerning the European Union found that the Union is commonly framed as a ‘foreign power’ and as a ‘bargaining forum.’ The former is reflected in papers’ labelling of the Commission as ‘imperial’ and former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing as ‘Emperor.’ [3] The latter part of the eurosceptic discourse depicts the EU as a forum where the UK’s interests are pitted against those of other member states. According to this narrative, Britain is marginalised; left on the periphery of Europe with little influence over decision-making while other EU member states, most notably France and Germany, control the direction of the Union and reap the main benefits of EU membership and further European integration.

The deploying of the terms ‘Brussels’ and ‘Europe’ to describe the EU in general terms further gives the impression of an entity that is remote, overbearing and sinister; an institution with an insatiable desire for more control. War metaphors similarly appear – words such as loss and surrender – in discourses surrounding new EU laws, treaties and directives, commonly associated with a loss of sovereignty in certain areas. [4] Similar conflict-related metaphors have likewise been adopted by such papers when Britain is perceived to have emerged victorious from EU negotiations. Examples of this were witnessed following talks over the European Treaty Bill in December 2011. The refusal from Prime Minister David Cameron to pledge support unless certain guarantees could be included into the Treaty concerning the City of London received glowing plaudits from the eurosceptic press. The Sun invoked Winston Churchill in praising Cameron for opposing ‘the bully-boys of Europe’ under the headline ‘Up Eurs’ while Trevor Kavanagh’s column applauded his ‘British bulldog spirit’ The Mail similarly spoke of ‘defiant’ Cameron standing up to the ‘Euro bullies’ chasing a ‘new EU power grab.’ In fact, anyone who has followed the coverage offered by the Sun, Star, Daily Mail and Express over the years will be aware that these papers consistently claim that the EU ‘inhibits’ Britain by imposing burdensome and senseless laws and regulations and by generally interfering in the country’s affairs. On the day after the triggering of Article 50 in March, the Mail’s front page was adorned with the word Freedom! Similarly, following the Brexit vote, the Sun claimed that the result meant that Britain will soon be “rising from the shackles.”

Alongside voicing strong opposition to the European Union through the use of negative terminology, eurosceptic papers have published stories and claims about the EU that are highly disputable or false. For instance, in 2012 the Daily Express claimed on its front page that ‘senior eurocrats’ were engaged in a plot to ‘scrap’ Britain (“Europe’s shady Berlin Group wants to wipe us off the map.”) This followed several similar previous claims in the paper and its Sunday edition. The Daily Telegraph also reported that the royal family’s coat of arms would be banned from the front of UK passports following decisions made by the EU Commission. Stories about supposed EU Commission efforts to ban straight or curved bananas, to force Britons to use only metric measurements and for Bombay mix to be renamed for ‘politically correct’ reasons have all previously attracted press attention. [5]

Interestingly, findings from recent research suggest that hostility towards the EU has hardened over time. In a study published earlier in the year, Copeland & Copsey investigated how the EU was reported in national newspapers analysing over 16,000 articles in five periods over the forty years. They found that negative coverage increased from 24 to 45 percent between 1974 and 2013 while positive coverage fell from 25 percent to just 10 percent over the same period of time. [6]

The entrenched euroscepticism found within a sizeable section of the British national press may be a source of feelings of suspicion, mistrust and sometimes open hostility to the European Union by fuelling eurosceptic attitudes among British voters. The more europhile papers the Independent, Mirror and Guardian are smaller in number and are outsold by their anti-EU counterparts by a considerable margin meaning that alternative views regarding Europe and counter arguments to those espoused by the Sun, Daily Mail et al. fail to reach voters to the same extent. Moreover, the broadly europhile papers do not make the case for Europe with the same fervour as those papers who readily attack Europe. [7] Although newspaper sales have declined and television and the internet provide alternative forms of media and opportunities to access information, the circulation of national daily newspapers remains high in Britain compared to other countries such as France where the sales of regional papers and magazines outstrip national titles. [8]

With these points in mind, it can be argued that the press has some impact on how British adults view the European Union and its various components such as the Commission, the Parliament and the European Court of Justice when they are routinely supplied with stories that portray it as domineering, controlling and a threat to British sovereignty and ways of life.

Determining the influence of the eurosceptic press on citizens’ attitudes is difficult, but if we are to gain a fuller understanding of why it is that many Britons hold negative views about the EU, one cannot ignore the role of the country’s print media. However, according to a September 2015 Eurobarometer survey, Britons are far more likely to distrust the printed press than their counterparts in other European countries. [9] Therefore, while we should not completely discount its influence, we should caution against potentially overstating the role of the anti-EU press in shaping attitudes towards the EU. We should also consider how the anti-EU press has framed the European Union and the debate around Britain’s membership of it, both before and after the referendum as well as in the days ahead.

 

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[1] C. Grant, ‘Why is Britain Eurosceptic?’ Centre for European Reform Essays http://cer-live.thomas-paterson.co.uk/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/pdf/2011/essay_eurosceptic_19dec08-1345.pdf
[2] B. Hawkins, ‘Nation, Separation and Threat: An Analysis of British Media Discourses on the European Union Treaty Reform Process,’ JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 50 (2012).
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] For further details about these bogus claims and others see ‘Guide to the Best Euromyths,’ BBC News, 23 March 2007. URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/6481969.stm
[6] P. Copeland & N. Copsey, Rethinking Britain and the European Union: Politicians, the Media and Public Opinion Reconsidered Journal of Common Market Studies 55 (2017).
[7] Comments made by Paul Copeland, co-author of the study cited above, in the following news story: S. Osborne, ‘Negative coverage of EU in UK newspapers nearly doubled in 40 years, study finds’ Independent, 5 March 2017. URL: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/european-union-brexit-negative-coverage-uk-newspapers-doubled-40-years-study-a7612711.html
[8] Grant, Why is Britain Eurosceptic? p. 3.
[9] C. Meyer, ‘EU referendum: British media coverage of Europe is letting voters down’ The Conversation, 12 April 2016. URL: https://theconversation.com/eu-referendum-british-media-coverage-of-europe-is-letting-voters-down-57685
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