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Letters to the Editor during the U.K. EU Referendum

The next speakers at Future of Journalism 2017 are Iñaki Garcia-Blanco and Lucy Bennett, whose focus is also on the Brexit referendum. There is a long history of anti-European discourse in British politics, and the EU has been framed by the British press in a negative light; eventually this resulted in the 2016 EU referendum, with fault lines running right through the major British parties.

The eventual victory of the Leave camp has been widely described as a victory for populism, and as a sign of how popular discontent can result in unexpected electoral results. Iñaki and Lucy examine this with attention to letters to the editor in mainstream news: these ostensibly present the views of the public, but are also selected by newspaper editors, and thereby validated as legitimate opinions that other citizens may choose to hold.

The study examined some 1,400 letters from news outlets across the U.K. political spectrum, also representing a variety of stances on the referendum. Pro-Leave papers predominantly selected Leave letters; pro-Remain papers largely selected a greater number of Remain letters, but here the Independent and Daily Mirror exactly balanced the number of letters from both perspectives. In Leave papers, therefore, Leave was constructed as the only legitimate voting choice; in Remain papers, readers were exposed more equally to both narratives, establishing an equivalency of both choices.

Top themes of the letters in Leave papers included the actions of U.K. politicians' actions (on the Remain side), the scare tactics of Remain campaigners, the need to 'take the country back', and the need for voters to have a say. These, then, predominantly address the campaigning process, not the political issues themselves. Some such issues, when they were addressed, especially included immigration and the freedom to move, as well as terrorism and the impact of EU regulations.

In Remain papers, seven of the top themes similarly dealt with the politicking rather than the key issues. Here, too, the actions of politicians as well as U.K. party politics featured strongly, and where issues were addressed there was an equivocal treatment of the benefits of leaving as well as remaining in the EU. Terrorism and security were also prominently addressed. The economic impact of leaving the EU – one of the major Remain arguments – were not featured particularly strongly. Overall, letters in Remain papers took a more rational than emotional approach to the referendum question.

Overall, then, leave newspapers published a greater number of letters overall; letters on both sides focussed more on politicians and campaigns than issues; the economic case featured only sparingly.