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25.05.2016

Brexit poll puts British press freedom to the test

by Jane Whyatt
Campaigners for Britain to remain in the EU at the upcoming referendum are citing press and media freedom as an important factor.

Posters attacking the multi-national media owner Rupert Murdoch have appeared, claiming “Rupert Murdoch can buy the British government. But not a union of 28 countries”.

‘No Man Is An Island’ EU Campaign Between Bridges – Wolfgang Tillmans

This refers to the widely-held belief that popular newspapers owned by Murdoch’s News UK company can swing enough votes to influence the outcome of an election or referendum. The posters imply that Murdoch uses the power of his national newspapers (Sun, Times and Sunday Times) and his TV networks (Sky News, Sports, Arts and Atlantic) to back politicians who will serve his business interests.

Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has close associates in News UK. His former PR manager Andy Coulson was the editor of the News of the World before joining Cameron’s election campaign team. He has served an eighteen month jail sentence after being found guilty in the phone hacking and bribery scandal which led to the closure of his newspaper.

Another News UK editor, Rebekah Brooks, is a friend and neighbour of the Camerons. She was also tried in the hacking scandal and acquitted of all charges of intercepting communications, corrupt payments and perverting the course of justice. The court heard in evidence that she frequently sent friendly SMS messages to the Prime Minister and that she and her husband often invited the Camerons to dinner parties and other social events.

However it is not the case that Rupert Murdoch influences his editors to back only right-wing or Conservative politicians. The 1997 Labour party election victory followed a private visit by Labour leader Tony Blair to Rupert Murdoch and editorial support for the Labour party in the Murdoch papers. Later Blair became godfather to Murdoch’s daughter.

But at an earlier election, when the Conservatives beat Labour against all expectations in 1992, Murdoch’s flagship newspaper The Sun proclaimed on page 1 “It was the Sun wot won it” . The Sun had attacked the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s economic competence with the headline: “If Labour wins, will the last business to leave Britain please turn out the lights”

Quotes from Rupert Murdoch on the subject of Europe clearly indicate that he is anti-EU. In February Antony Hilton wrote in the London Evening Standard  ”I once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. “That’s easy,” he replied. “When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.”

That was some years ago but things have not changed that much. Size matters. Individual countries buckle but the EU is big enough to resist. British politicians have to fawn to foreign businessmen so they will invest here. The much-maligned bureaucrats in Brussels can afford to be much tougher — as Honeywell, Microsoft and Murdoch have found in the past and as Google is finding now.  That, indeed, is one of the few real certainties in an EU debate which is largely fact-free.“

However it seems that Murdoch considers himself to be close to the traditional free spirit of Britain’s press. He chose the journalists’ church - St Bride’s in London’s Fleet Street -as the venue for his wedding when he married Jerry Hall, the ex-wife of Rolling Stone Mick Jagger in Spring 2016.

Brexit study Study by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University shows that most other national newspapers are emphatically pro-Brexit

In Murdoch newspapers, coverage of the EU referendum campaign has been largely in favour of leaving in the Sun, with more balanced coverage in the Times. A study by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University shows that most other national newspapers are emphatically pro-Brexit, with only the Guardian, Daily Mirror and Financial Times giving positive coverage to the Remain campaign.

Media commentator Professor Roy Greenslade, a former editor of the Daily Mirror, wrote in the Guardian newspaper “a large slice of the press continues to churn our pro-Brexit propaganda”

And the Guardian has enlisted actor Patrick Stewart to boost its pro-EU message in comic video. It is modelled on the scene in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ movie when Jesus and his disciples debate the question “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Stewart plays the British Prime Minister at a Cabinet meeting, asking ”What has the European Convention on Human Rights ever done for us …?” and shouting and swearing when he receives a chorus of positive answers in appreciation of the ECHR.

This video is posted on a newspaper website and therefore not covered by the strict rules that TV and radio must obey in the run-up to an election or referendum. Broadcasters are obliged to observe a period of  ‘purdah’ during which all political coverage that is relevant to the vote must be impartial, fair and balanced. The BBC sets its own rules and all other broadcasters are governed by Ofcom’s regulations.

So whatever the newspapers say, the British public can rely on balanced coverage from all TV and radio outlets.

Britain is reckoned to be ‘Free’ Freedom House World Press Freedom Index 2015 but dropped four places to number 38 in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index 2016.

At the 1975 referendum on continued membership of the European Economic Community (EEC, forerunner of the EU) Britons voted by a large majority (67%) to stay in.

The 2016 vote takes place on June 23rd and expatriate Brits who have lived in the UK during the past fifteen years have until 7th June to register for a postal or proxy vote.



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