The Failures of ‘Brexit’ Coverage

Today the UK is voting on whether to leave the European Union. Whether Britain stays or leaves, the media has failed — both in the external coverage and in the cases presented by the two campaigns. The obvious comparison is with the ongoing American presidential election, and while there are certainly issues with its coverage, it makes the British look amateurish.

The first issue is with the news coverage. Genuine facts have been hard to come by, and as with in the US, hugely misleading facts have gone mostly unquestioned. See for instance Boris Johnson’s bus, which has an objectively untrue statistic plastered on the side. Could it be that in pursuit of impartiality the media have forgotten that sometimes things are either true or false? Additionally, I expected the burden of proof to be on the ‘leave’ side, as they seek a change from the status quo, but instead a confused ‘stay’ campaign was also expected to make an equal case. The examples I have chosen for this have been from the ‘leave’ campaign, but ‘remain’ is not without its faults.

A main issue with ‘remain’ campaign is its public face: it was thought for a while that Corbyn might be up to the job, but in the end it fell to an under-enthusiastic Cameron. Whether out of fear for their political futures or some other reason, it took ‘remain’ a while to get over their initial disunity. The other side had a figureheads to choose from, but Johnson eventually took the position — ostensibly betting on a ‘Brexit’ win to catapult him to succeed Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party. However, Johnson is infamously unpredictable and known to say offensive things on occasion, and like clockwork Johnson attributed Obama’s urging to stay in the EU to his ‘part-Kenyan’ ancestry. Debates between these public faces have been few and late in the campaign, and neither side has managed to exceed the public’s modest expectations.

The branding of each campaign has also been lacking. There are at least two names for each of the sides, and I’ve had to choose what to call them. I’ve opted to use ‘remain’ for the side which aims to remain part of the EU, but I’ve also heard it called ‘stay’ as well, and even their website is inconsistent with both ‘in’ and ‘remain’ on the homepage. The other side switches between ‘leave’ and ‘exit’, but seems more resolute in their choice of verb. On the subject of websites, both have chosen needlessly contrived URLs which try to integrate some kind of slogan: strongerin.co.uk and the even worse voteleavetakecontrol.org. Both sides also leaned too heavily on social media and I can’t help but feel that American-style political rallies might have given either side that much needed momentum. The two sides also seem to have settled on an impromptu ‘red-blue’ agreement on branding colours, but these colours are already taken by the two major parties. This is especially problematic in this case because the ‘Brexit’ doesn’t break down by traditional party lines. There are plenty of other colours available, just look around you, so even this most basic of choices reveals a failure of imagination.

The lack of effective polling is another real problem, but it seems as though there is more effort to improve in this area then the others. Perhaps it gets more attention because of how far wrong they got the last big election in the UK, or because a quantitative problem is easier to see.

The likely excuse for the poor coverage is that Britain rarely has mass-elections on this scale: the general election has a running time limited to months, and has limits on TV broadcasting and spending. The US is the opposite extreme, where the election campaigns are over a year old now and the election is still over four months away, and across the nation TV sets will broadcast millions of hours of campaign ads. Not to mention the spending: in the last general election in the UK, the total spent by every campaign over the entire duration of the campaign was around £42 million. Hillary alone expects to spend over one billion by the time people cast their votes. This discrepancy, however, does not excuse the poor quality of coverage. Money isn’t required to cover an issue with enthusiasm or to effectively spread a message in the media today, and yet this issue which affects millions of people has been addressed largely with confusion and indifference.

For such an important issue, I am disappointed and concerned with how it has been presented to the public. For now, we can only wait and see how the people of Britain vote.

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