The referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union was a battle of old against young. But it was also a battle of old media against new. And on both counts, the result was a smashing victory for the elder generation.
During the campaign, there was much talk about data-driven targeting, and relentless attempts at social media engagement. Politicians from Prime Minister David Cameron down trooped into the studio to talk to Jim Waterson of BuzzFeed News for an afternoon of Facebook Live interviews; the Leave and Remain camps were quick to boast of their skill at sending viral videos flying across the internet.
Yet it turned out that the endorsements the campaigns really needed were not likes and retweets, but those of old-fashioned beasts: the print media of Fleet Street, and in particular the fiery British tabloids. Not so much via unsigned leader columns, in which the papers set out their reasoning in august tones, as via sheer power at setting the agenda.
With television news programs obliged to adhere to strict neutrality guidelines—inviting on one talking head from Leave for every one from Remain, preventing their correspondents from offering anything but the most even-handed analysis—it was the newspapers that set the agenda. And what the most popular of them—the Mail and the Sun, but also the Express and the Telegraph —offered up was a steady diet of anti-European news, a drumbeat of stories about barmy Brussels and grasping Eurocrats.
This after decades of similar stories, which had ensured that even the official Remain campaign could not make a positive case for European membership, merely warn voters about why leaving would be worse.
Yes, Remain had the support of the elites. But on Fleet Street, it only had minority support. There were the Guardian and Mirror, both with far lower circulations than their right-wing rivals; the Financial Times, whose UK readership is influential but small; and the Mail on Sunday, which appeared to be acting to pique its daily sibling (the editors of the two titles are bitter rivals). Even the Times, which eventually came out for Remain, ran its fair share of what in Fleet Street is known as “knocking copy” critical of the European Union.
This was no accident. Paul Stephenson, the director of communications at pro-Brexit campaign group Vote Leave, was explicitly tasked with wooing the papers—with feeding them useful stories and making sure Leave came up with swift rebuttals to the bombardment of economic scare stories coming from Remain, and from Downing Street. For his work, he was considered one of the stars of the campaign.
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.
There are echoes here of what happened in at the general election in 2015. At the time, I was working at BuzzFeed, and we were suffused with excitement at the thought of this being the first election driven and determined by social media. Labour leader Ed Miliband, long dismissed as geeky, awkward and unelectable, was rising in the polls despite a savage bombardment from the Tory press. We even discovered the “Milifandom,” a group of teenage girls who semi-ironically decided that Miliband was actually really hot: They became the stars of the campaign.
After a visit to our team in London, Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, declared the election a contest not just between Cameron and Miliband, but old media and new. Cue election night, and the discovery that old newspaper-readers vote and young Twitter-users don’t.
None of this is to say that the balance between new and old isn’t tipping. The campaigns during the referendum were operating under a series of handicaps, such as the need to build infrastructure from scratch and strict spending restrictions, which meant that they could not assemble the kind of digital infrastructure they might have wished. Even so, Leave.EU, one of the two rival anti-EU campaigns, ran a fascinating program of social media recruitment, signing up 767,787 people on Facebook by targeting them with advertisements fine-tuned to their psychological profiles.
If there is a lesson for other countries in all this—especially for the US, with its own election approaching—it is not so much about the specifics of the British media landscape as about the broad shape of the campaign. The Leave team settled on their key messages, precision-tooled to cut through to voters, very early on: Britain was sending Europe £350 million a week; we could use that money to support the National Health Service; and there were too many immigrants coming in, with the prospect of more to come from Turkey.
Many commentators, fact-checkers, and interviewers (myself included) pointed out that the budget figure was wildly exaggerated, and that Turkey (helpfully shown on a map that also highlighted its neighbors Iraq and Syria) was decades away from EU membership, over which we would in any event have a veto. But it didn’t matter. In press releases, online advertisements and, especially, TV debates (generally considered to be rowdy score draws), the Brexit team stuck doggedly to their line. Attempts to debunk the claims may simply have rammed them into voters’ heads—or led them to conclude that both sides were lying so they might as well ignore the economic warnings, too.
The lesson, in other words, is that whether you’re using new media or old, it is easier than ever to articulate your own version of the truth, especially if it plays on the fears of the kinds of voters at whom the university-educated sophisticates in the big cities sneer. Print newspapers may be dying. But in their backing for Brexit, they have won one last victory over the young social-media users who have abandoned them.