Chatham House: Independent thinking on international affairs

International Affairs

The UK media and 'Europe': from permissive consensus to destructive dissent

Oliver Daddow, November 2012

This article examines the nature and impact of changing media coverage of European integration in Britain from accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 to the present day. It does so through a consideration of the causes behind the collapse of the 'permissive consensus' on European affairs, which since the time of the 1975 referendum has given way to a form of 'destructive dissent' across vast swaths of the written and broadcast media, particularly noticeable in the UK tabloids.

The collapse in media support for the EU project has been expressed in a number of ways, some of them bordering on the nationalist and/or xenophobic, and opportunities for the expression of such views have merely been increased by the EU's own efforts to deepen integration in the face of widespread popular distrust of both national politicians and supranational constitution building. The article alights on the 'Rupert Murdoch effect' as a core explanation for this general shift in attitudes, as market leader on Euroscepticism expressed in agenda-setting outlets such as the Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times. The newspaper mogul’s commercial interests in promoting deregulated media markets have kept him closely watchful of European affairs in Britain, and he has proved particularly willing to back leaders and parties he believes will be most conducive to the furtherance of these interests.

The article suggests that Murdoch led the way in creating a climate of fear around European matters that severely tested the leadership qualities of even notionally pro-European prime ministers on this vexed question in British politics. Newspapers might not be able to tell people what to think, but they can affect what they think about, and News International, with willing support from ideological Eurosceptics across the top-selling UK tabloid and broadsheets, has proved effective at keeping the British public in a permanent state of 'war' with the EU since the 1980s.

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