Spotlight Populism: Step back, reflect and ask

There were many factors that facilitated the rise of populism in Britain, but the media has taken much of the blame.

Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom's Independence Party Foto: ap

Britain’s rising populism reached a rapid crescendo around the EU referendum in June. Following a campaign in which legitimate concerns mixed freely with poor information and outright lies – most infamously, the Leave campaign’s empty promise that exiting the EU would allow the government to spend £350 million more a week on the UK’s national health service – 52% of the population voted out. Chief among their concerns were immigration, sovereignty and the perceived power of the liberal elite; Brexit was seen as an opportunity to seize back control. Yet many people felt that rarely in UK politics has campaigning been so divisive, disingenuous and personality-driven.

There were many factors that facilitated the rise of this movement, but the media has taken much of the blame. Many of the UK’s most popular newspapers campaigned against EU membership, often using misleading information and provocative headlines. This was the culmination of many years of negative reporting on the EU: false and exaggerated reports have become so commonplace in the British media since the 1990s that the EU now runs its own “Euromyths“ blog to debunk the stories.

In recent years, this has escalated into some truly vicious journalism on issues relating to immigration and the EU. In April 2015, for example, The Sun newspaper published a column by Katie Hopkins – a reality TV star turned commentator – in which she described migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean as “cockroaches“ and suggested they should be turned away by gunboats. More recently, after the High Court ruled that under British law the government cannot trigger Article 50 to leave the EU without parliamentary approval, The Daily Mail printed photographs of the three judges who made the decision on its frontpage under the headline: “Enemies of the People“.

There remains a big question over how far the media is able to influence, rather than simply reflect, these populist sentiments. Not all publications have behaved in this way and the efforts made by some to reveal inaccuracies during the referendum campaign were often ignored. With so many other sources of information now available, the media may be complicit in populist fervour – it may exacerbate the problem and stoke divisions – but it is unlikely to be the root cause.

In December 2016 the European Academy Berlin invited 20 journalists from Southern Europe to visit Berlin. taz was part of their official tour programme. The meeting quickly turned into a talk about our shared need for international cooperation, aiming to find a media counterbalance to current crises in Europe. To start with, we decided on a question that concerns us all: How will we survive populism in Europe?

The role of media

Nonetheless, this kind of behaviour by the media does play a role. Importantly, it helps to set the tone of the debate. The established media is often regarded as a marker of what is considered mainstream and acceptable, and what is not. Looking at the headlines, those parameters have been blown wide open in recent times.

It is also part of a wider context in which the public has lost trust in mainstream media, seeing it as biased, unreliable and inextricably tied to the same establishment it is supposed to critique. Surveys show that there is less trust in the press in Britain than almost anywhere else in Europe.

It is healthy for the media to be scrutinized and questioned by its readers, forcing it to improve. But when people feel they cannot believe what they read in the newspapers, they turn to other – often less reliable – sources instead; a problem that has been exacerbated by the rise of unregulated news sources online. The proliferation of fake news stories surrounding this year’s US presidential campaign is a case in point. This, in turn, undermines the media’s ability to act as a “fourth estate“ – it cannot hold authorities to account if the public does not believe what it reports.

Auf Einladung der Europäischen Akademie Berlin besuchten 20 JournalistInnen aus Südeuropa im Dezember 2016 Berlin und die taz. Schnell wurde deutlich, wie groß das gemeinsame Bedürfnis nach internationalen Kooperationen ist, einem Medien-Gegengewicht zu den aktuellen Krisen in Europa. Wir haben uns zum Auftakt für eine Frage entschieden, die uns alle gleichermaßen umtreibt: Wie überleben wir den Populismus in Europa?

Newspapers in the UK are regulated by a code of ethics that includes accuracy and fairness in reporting, but we should resist calls for greater regulation that could have the effect of restricting freedom of expression. Instead, the quality media must take steps to win back some of the trust that has been lost and work hard to re-engage readers. There is a demand for reliable, high-quality journalism that is open about its interests, honest about its cause and serious about the facts. Newspapers need to ensure greater transparency in their reporting; to tackle concerns about their editorial independence; and to re-prioritise factual accuracy, which has been eroded by digital competition and a lack of financial resources.

A reliable and responsible media is crucial to the democratic system. It may not be the root cause of populism, but it is clear that it has become part of the problem. As journalists we need to step back, reflect and ask what we can do.

Jessica Abrahams is a British journalist and writer for Prospect magazine, and has contributed to publications including The Guardian and The Telegraph. She was based at taz in 2016 as a fellow of the International Journalists' Programme.

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