In the Lead up to the Referendum, the British Media Had a Pro-Remain Skew

Weighting the usage of news outlets by their skew for or against Leave versus Remain, the British media had a slight pro-Remain skew; this is probably a conservative estimate of the British media’s true pro-Remain skew

UPDATE: An alternative analysis is available here.

It is widely claimed that the British media is Eurosceptic, which presumably means that there is more negative coverage of the EU in the British media than positive coverage. (Note that this is different from the claim that the British media is more Eurosceptic than any other EU country’s media, which is almost certainly true.)

Those who argue that the British media is Eurosceptic invariably emphasise the coverage of the EU in three newspapers: the Sun, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Telegraph. And indeed, all three of these newspapers have been Eurosceptic for some time, and all three endorsed Leave during the referendum campaign. Moreover, they are the 1st, 2nd and 6th most read newspapers in the UK by circulation.

What this argument neglects, however, is that most people do not get their news primarily from these three newspapers. According to Ofcom’s annual report on the British media, by far and away the most popular news outlet is the BBC. For example, the chart below shows the top 20 news sources in England by reach. BBC One is number one, while the Daily Mail is only number ten (the rankings for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are highly similar; see pp. 87–90).

The fact that the BBC is the most popular news outlet matters because, according to a new report by Civitas, Eurosceptic views have been marginalised in the BBC’s news coverage since at least 1999. To quote the report:

pro-Brexit voices have been marginalised in the BBC’s coverage of EU issues for most of the past 20 years… For instance, of 4,275 guests talking about the EU on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme between 2005 and 2015, only 132 (3.2 per cent) were supporters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU

Left-wing Eurosceptic views have apparently been particularly marginalised:

There has also been more than a tendency to… downplay the significance of left-wing euroscepticism. In 274 hours of monitored BBC coverage of EU issues between 2002 and 2017, only 14 speakers (0.2 per cent of the total) were left-wing advocates of leaving the EU

Another thing the argument for the British media being Eurosceptic neglects is that, even within the print media, there are a number of relatively popular pro-EU titles, such as the London Evening Standard, the Mirror and the Guardian. Indeed, these are the 4th, 5th and 12th most read newspapers by circulation.

In order to estimate the overall skew of the British media for or against Leave versus Remain, I took figures on the usage of different news outlets from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016:

After averaging the values for ‘TV, radio and print’ and ‘online’ for each news outlet, I weighted each one by its skew for or against Leave versus Remain. brands that endorsed Remain were given a weight of ‘–1’, while brands that endorsed Leave were given a weight of ‘+1’. All other news outlets except the BBC were given a weight of ‘0’––i.e., were assumed to be impartial (I will come back to this assumption later).

The BBC was given a weight of ‘–0.24’. This figure was calculated as follows. According to the section of the Civitas report beginning on p. 37, ‘Phase Three: The 2016 referendum’, 64% of coverage on Newsnight was pro-Remain, while 60% of coverage on Newsbeat was pro-Remain. These two numbers were averaged, and the resulting number (0.62) was multiplied by 2 and then subtracted from 1, in order to put it on the same scale as the endorsements. In other words, the BBC was assumed to be –0.24 on a scale from –1 (endorsed Remain) to +1 (endorsed Leave).

Note that this is arguably a conservative estimate of the BBC’s pro-Remain skew. For example, the skews on the The World Tonight and The World This Weekend were both substantially greater than 62% pro-Remain (see pp. 38–39 of the report), as was the skew on the Today programme from 2005–2015. (And see other evidence cited in the report, as well as evidence cited elsewhere).

After weighting each news outlet’s usage value by its skew for or against Leave versus Remain, the resulting figures were summed, and then divided by the sum of the usage values. Results were as follows. Excluding the BBC, the British media had an extremely slight pro-Leave skew: 0.02 on the scale from –1 to +1. Including the BBC, however, the British media had a slight pro-Remain skew: –0.04 on the same scale.

There are two reasons why this is probably a conservative estimate of the British media’s true pro-Remain skew. First, as already noted, the weight given to the BBC of ‘–0.24’ is arguably a conservative estimate. Second, several of the other more popular news outlets (Huffington Post, Channel 4 and Buzzfeeed), were given a weight of ‘0’, despite the fact that they arguably had at least a slight pro-Remain skew.

I would be happy to share the spreadsheet showing my calculations to anyone interested. Please note that I’m not in favour of privatising the BBC.