Media wars: UK press split 50-50 over Europe

Conflicting views: The division in Britain’s papers is also reflected in the latest polls.

Most of Britain’s newspapers have now recommended to their readers how to vote in the EU referendum. Like the public, they are evenly divided. Is this an indictment of British politics?

The Mirror praised continental European culture. The Mail warned a vote to leave would threaten supplies of coffee, wine, beans and bananas.

More than half of British newspapers’ coverage was favourable to European integration; only 21% was hostile. Around 45m readers were given the same message from every major newspaper: Britain should stay in the EEC (European Economic Community).

The consensus that surrounded the UK’s referendum on Europe in 1975 now seems remarkable. This Thursday’s vote on EU membership has divided the press evenly between Remain and Leave.

Most papers have lined up as expected. Every major left-leaning title backs a Remain vote, in line with the broad consensus among like-minded MPs. The Financial Times supports Remain, like most business leaders. The Daily Express, whose owner has donated money to anti-EU party UKIP, has launched a ‘crusade’ for a Leave vote.

Elsewhere, division is fierce. Papers’ editorial lines reflect their traditions, readers’ views and owners’ interests. But even papers with the same owners, and similar readerships, are now on opposite sides of a hugely significant national debate.

Stablemates The Times and The Sun openly disagree with each other. On the same day The Sun published a front-page cry for readers to ‘BeLEAVE in Britain’ in England and Wales, its Scottish edition’s leading article called a Leave campaign claim ‘utter rubbish’.

At the Times and Mail groups, the daily and Sunday papers are openly divided. This weekend the Mail on Sunday surprised many readers — and disappointed some of its own columnists — by endorsing Remain. ‘This is not the time to risk the peace and prosperity of our nation,’ it said.

The next morning, the Daily Mail asked: ‘Britain was a proud, independent trading nation for centuries before the EU was ever thought of. Is it really impossible that we could be one again?’

These differences are reflected among the public and Britain’s governing Conservative Party. What do they mean?

Divided we fall?

This is a civil war, say some. The UK is so divided that even close allies cannot agree on a defining political issue. In 1975, the country was willing to listen to reason. This time, the two sides are too convinced they are right — hence Remain’s scaremongering and Leave’s blithe dismissal of experts. What an indictment of British politics.

It shows neither side is really right, others respond. Division on such a complex question is unsurprising. Brussels is not perfect, but nor would a Leave vote solve all Britain’s problems. And the issues have become far more complicated since 1975, when Britain joined a smaller, less powerful organisation based mainly on economic cooperation.

You Decide

  1. Are your opinions influenced by those of major media organisations?
  2. Are the divisions in Britain’s press an indictment on the country’s political culture?


  1. Create your own newspaper front page, calling on voters to vote either Remain or Leave in Thursday’s referendum.
  2. Prepare a two-minute presentation on the history and political views of a major newspaper of your choice. Finish by explaining their view on the EU referendum. How surprised are you by their stance on this issue?

Some People Say...

“Opposing views are a sign of a healthy society.”

What do you think?

Q & A

The only media I read is The Day. Does the rest of it have any impact on me?
Many people around you read the papers, which often help them to form opinions. The ideas they hold, the way they vote and the view they have of your opinions and behaviour are all informed by the media they read and watch. And the press are likely to have an indirect impact on your own views, especially if you discuss world events with other people.
So can a newspaper change my mind?
They have some influence, but the answer to that is keenly contested. Some think papers can change the way people think by pushing a certain line. For example, they could put a minor story on the front page, or not print one which might be considered more important. But editors often say they just respond to their readers’ demands.

Word Watch

According to analysis of press coverage in the month before referendum day.
The papers’ combined circulation (the number distributed daily) was around 15m, but 45m people read them.
The Morning Star (a paper founded by Britain’s Communist Party) and the Spectator (a conservative magazine) were the only national titles to call for the UK to leave the EEC in 1975.
The ‘common market’ gave way to the European Community (EC) and the European Union (EU) which was formed, and introduced European citizenship, in 1993 and absorbed the EC in 2009.
Only 10 Labour MPs have backed Leave, while 218 support Remain. MPs from the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party (most of whom tend to back left-wing positions) have unanimously backed Remain.
Richard Desmond donated £1.3m to UKIP during last year’s general election campaign.
Papers owned by the same proprietor — in this case Rupert Murdoch, of News UK.
An average of recent polling data suggests the race is currently evenly matched, with 50% supporting each side.

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