UK: Killing of MP splits BREXIT debate in media

by Jane Whyatt
Britain’s media are a battleground after the fatal shooting of Labour MP Jo Cox last week. An anti-immigration fanatic is accused of shooting and stabbing her to death. The murder darkened the mood of the referendum campaign. Pro- and anti-EU media accuse each other of lies, propaganda and making political capital out of personal tragedy.

Forty-one-year-old Jo Cox MP was shot and stabbed on the steps of the library where she had been meeting constituents at a weekly surgery. The man charged with her murder has appeared in court. Asked to confirm his name, he answered: “Death to all traitors and freedom for Britain.”

Ms Cox was a former humanitarian aid worker at Oxfam. She was elected in 2015 to serve an ethnically mixed community in the North of England. On the left of the Opposition Labour party, she had campaigned on behalf of Syrian child refugees and voted against the British bombing of Syria.

Her death marked a turning point in the referendum campaign. It was announced at 1400 on June 16th. A ComRes survey shows that public opinion switched almost instantly from mostly in favour of withdrawal (called “Brexit”) to mostly in favour of remaining in the EU.
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Up to that point the British media had overwhelmingly backed Brexit, as research from Oxford University proved.

Newspaper proprietors influence the coverage, according to Professor Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster. He comments that the owner of Britain’s biggest multi-media empire, Rupert Murdoch, has a history of instructing his editors to back his own commercial interests.

Rupert Murdoch enjoys wielding political power in Britain and profiting from the commercial favours that come with it. Asked at one point why he was so opposed to the European Union, he replied: “That’s easy. When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice”

, explains Barnett.  

“He has consistently used his tabloid titles in Britain - the Sun and the News of the World until its 2011 closure, now the Sun and Sunday Sun - to promote his political and corporate agenda. His editors are left in no doubt that, in both news and comment pages, they are expected to run stories and editorials which are hostile to the publicly funded BBC, to the communications regulator Ofcom and to the European Union - all institutions which he regards as obstructions to the further expansion of his own highly profitable media empire.”

“Whether or not his newspapers influence voters is uncertain and unproven. It is undoubtedly true, however, that his newspapers influence policymakers and politicians, and play an important role in setting the news agenda”, Barnett continues.

Murdoch’s Sun is still backing Brexit. But his broadsheet title The Times has now come out in favour of the REMAIN campaign. The right-wing, anti-immigration Mail on Sunday has also switched to REMAIN.

At the same time a leading Conservative LEAVE supporter, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, has defected. She told the Telegraph that the Justice Secretary was “peddling lies” about the likelihood of Turkey joining the EU and sending hundreds of thousands of migrants to UK. And she tweeted that she ”wouldn’t get on a night bus” with anti-EU campaigners.

TV and radio broadcast journalists are bound by strict rules of impartiality governed by the Ofcom regulator and BBC Editorial guidelines. They are obliged by law to represent both sides fairly. But in the print and online media, the line up today is (to name a few):

BREXIT: Daily Mail, Express, Sun, Sun on Sunday, Telegraph
REMAIN: Guardian, Times, Mirror, Financial Times, Observer, Economist
Opinion polls and betting shops show that the nation is still evenly divided. The only poll that really counts, the referendum itself, takes place on June 23rd.

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