Many of today’s national newspaper front pages strike a triumphalist tone as the UK leaves the European Union tonight. And well they might.
The Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express have all been long-term, forthright backers of Brexit and my analysis suggests their influence could well have tipped the balance in the 2016 EU Referendum.
When historians come to write about what drove Britain’s decision to leave the EU they may well surmise that it was Fleet Street “wot won it” for the Leave side of the argument, to coin a phrase.
Today The Daily Express claimed victory in its long-running anti-EU campaign with a front page that says: ‘Yes, we did it!’
The Daily Telegraph charted its role campaigning for Brexit and celebrated the key part played by its star correspondent: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The Sun’s front page headline states: “Our time has come.” And the Daily Mail’s splash celebrates: “A new dawn for Britain.”
Brexit may go down in history as the last hurrah of Britain’s once dominant and highly partisan printed press in terms of having a decisive impact on a key national turning point
In the final month approaching the EU Referendum on 23 June 2016, The Sun, Telegraph, Mail and Express did not just campaign in their editorials for Brexit, but also strongly favoured Leave in their choice of coverage.
Because The Sun and Telegraph in particular have (and had) market-leading circulations, this all had the effect of giving UK national newspaper coverage a heavy slant in favour of Brexit.
Around 250m UK national newspapers were published in the month approaching the Brexit vote. Of these, around 90m carried front-page stories which favoured leave versus 30m which favoured remain and just under 140m where the front page favoured neither position.
The Daily Express was the most strident in its coverage with 26 out of 28 front pages in the month approaching the Brexit vote running positive stories for the Leave side of the argument.
When you look at the front-page stories which favoured Leave versus the front-page stories which favoured Remain in the last month of campaigning, the Daily Mail had a net front-page benefit for Leave of 19. For the Daily Telegraph it was 16 and for The Sun it was 15.
Together those four papers had a combined daily circulation at the time of 3.3m. According to the National Readership Survey they had a reach over the course of the month of 28m.
Compare this to the referendum result – 17.4m in favour of Leave versus 16.1m for Remain – and it is not hard to argue that the influence of Fleet Street may well have been decisive.
And let’s not forget that the influence of newspapers goes far beyond the actual readers. There is an amplification effect whereby sensational stories are repeated verbally and passed on via social media.
The only really staunchly pro-EU national newspaper in the run-up to the referendum was The Guardian which in print circulation terms was (and is) a minnow compared to the Brexit big four.