June 25, 2016
Robert Colvile has written an excellent essay about the role of the media in the British referendum on membership in the European Union. The way he sees it, newspapers — the old media — were the clear winners.
Tabloids and broadsheets alike thundered their positions on the referendum on an almost daily basis. And most of them thundered in favour of leaving. Television, meanwhile, politely gave equal time to both sides. New media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter barely made a ripple.
As an aside, though, it’s sad to note that after the referendum, people in Britain suddenly started using Google to search the phrase: “What is the EU?” It makes you wonder if many them actually understood what they voted against.
Their next step is to search for information on how to get the heck out of England.
Getting back to newspapers — according to Colvile, the Leave campaign targeted the power of the press for a good reason.
The goal was not merely to shape the agenda, but to motivate the newspapers’ readerships which, while smaller than they once were, also are disproportionately important. The best predictors of support for Brexit were age, wealth and class: The older, poorer, and less educated you were, the more likely you were to vote to Leave. That made the Telegraph and Mail’s older audience (average ages 61 and 58 respectively as of 2014) invaluable—just like the Sun’s working-class one.
If that demographic seems eerily familiar, you’re probably thinking about Donald Trump supporters. In the U.S., though, there is a different dynamic with the media. News sites are desperate for clickbait and TV networks are desperate for ratings. That allows Trump to play them like a fiddle. Reporting his outrageous statements is good for business.
Canada seems like a modern oasis of calm by comparison. The old media tried hard to convince us to vote for the Conservatives in the last federal election, but newspapers here have become such a tepid force that they were largely ignored.
(How sad have Canadian newspapers become? The National Post botched its next-day coverage of the referendum with the headline: Polls Point to ‘Remain’. )
In contrast, Justin Trudeau was all over social media and won the hearts of a new generation. Voting among young Canadians increased by 18 per cent.
Still, regardless of the country, we ignore the discontent of the disfranchised at our peril. We need to build economies where all sectors of society benefit. If many people are left behind, if they don’t see any reason to buy into the future, then of course they’ll be tempted to tear it all down.