The power of the press in typecasting the British
By Carmen Cuesta Roca
The news of a potential British exit from the EU has occupied the media since 2010. British opposition to EU membership reportedly peaked to 56% (The Guardian) in November 2012, but in January 2013, a poll by YouGov, the international marketing research firm showed that it had lowered to 40%. In April 2013, opposition remained at 35-43% (YouGov). Yet despite this, the British front pages and computer screens are laden with headlines such as the Financial Times’ “Britain is hurtling along the road to a European exit”. Well, is it?
At the moment, that’s beside the point. The referendum will not be held until 2017, if at all. The question of the result of the referendum cannot be answered until it actually takes place, let alone 3 years prior to such a referendum, which will only take place if Conservatives win the 2015 General Election.
Despite this, there is a lot of discussion in the media of a British exit. At the European Youth Media Conferences, held the 15th-17th October at the European Parliament in Brussels, the topic of a British exit from the EU was touched upon several times during panel discussions. MEP and UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall blamed the EU for Britain’s immigration problems stating, “we cannot control our own borders”. In reference to the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, the MEP claimed, the “EEC of 1995 is not what the EU is now.”
This is just one man’s opinion, but what happens when the press produces opinions on such matters, potentially affecting political outcomes? The press can be extremely powerful in shaping public opinion, as demonstrated by The Sun’s headline in April 1992, “It’s The Sun Wot Won It”. Can we soon expect the headline, “If EU wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”?
Just this summer The Mail released the headline “I was born a British citizen, and want to die as one. But unless our gutless leaders stand up to Brussels, I won’t be able to”. The article was about stamping British birth certificates with the EU flag, but in light of all the debate over EU membership, it might have had more influence on opinion towards the EU than intended.
However, for Gareth Harding, director of the Missouri School of Journalism’s Brussels Program, the British are too “pragmatic” to succumb to the influence of the press, despite his belief that it is “two thirds of the media who will be the main opposition” to EU membership. The problem may lie outside of Britain. Mr Harding believes that the European press will approach the subject of a British exit with a “usual sense of misunderstanding about Britain, who the British are […] and why we’re not like most other European countries”.
With this lack of understanding, the European press is in danger of reproducing stereotypes about Britain, especially as the decision on British membership to the EU draws closer. This sense of advanced Schadenfreude shapes European opinion on Britain everyday and is not necessarily accurate.
The truth is that disaffection with the EU is by no means confined to the U.K. Support for the EU in France, is actually lower than in Britain, according to a survey carried out by Pew Research Centre.
Pursuant to the Treaty on European Union, member states of the EU share a “society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail”. Yet stereotypes, admittedly not always serious ones, permeate the union on all levels. The problem arises when these stereotypes transform into prejudices. If the European press is not careful, there is the possibility that discussion of Britain’s potential exit from the EU will be represented in such a way that will further alienate the little island.