EU Referendum reporting: personality politics instead of on-the-ground research

I was getting British media requests this morning faster that you could say Brexit. They wanted soundbites or pars of quote on how journalists could have got it so spectacularly wrong over the referendum result.

They were predicting a win for Remain well into the wee hours based on optimistic city predictions and dodgy data. But by 5am a very different reality was on the breakfast table.

Who was most shocked? Well certainly the Leave lot, who evidently thought they never stood a chance judging by the rictus smiles and awkward shuffling as microphones were thrust in their faces.  But it was the London-based mainstream media themselves who were suddenly scrambling to make sense of a result they were clearly unprepared for.

At the time of writing, the prominent headlines centre on political leaders – who’ll succeed Cameron, will Corbyn go next, will Sturgeon call a referendum. Oh, and of course up pops Trump. The UK financial markets get a far lower billing.

The press for the most part did not actually listen to the people in the run-up. The polls, the markets – they were completely off kilter. Few journalists went out and immersed themselves amongst the actual populace outside the London bubble. If they had, they’d have seen this a mile off. In fact the only prominent journalist who predicted the outcome with confidence was The Guardian’s John Harris. He’s been touring the UK with a video camera and notebook talking to people.

Instead, the press lazily soaked up and pumped out the usual personality politics and alarmist headlines about immigration. And with depleted local press no longer with the resource to act as a parish pump, there was little other content to inform the nationals. All news is local, even when we’re taking about global financial markets. But who has the time and money to sit in the pubs, cafes and community centres and town halls now?

Media audiences mainly saw the diarised, stage-managed press conferences, boat races and battle buses because journalists weren’t doing a crucial thing: turning 360 degrees and witnessing the reader/viewer reaction to this charade, which was to tune out from Westminster. With few alternatives to turn to locally anymore for rich debate, the result is little surprise.

Those early morning media requests were very telling. With too few resources to report the facts about the EU referendum result, or find local stringers to file resonant reaction, they turn to opinion (and in my case that would be white, middle-aged and middle class of course..) and they go inward: media examining other media.

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