The Media Column: Brexit is causing an identity crisis for the British media

The media will take into account the views of their powerful owners. But they will also weigh the instincts of their audience – and that’s where some intriguing dichotomies arise

Now that a Daily Telegraph columnist, Boris Johnson, has pitted himself against a former ITV PR man, David Cameron, the media can narrate the EU referendum in the personalised language it loves: a story of jealousy, ambition and betrayal.

Whatever the public’s ultimate engagement with the historic vote on 23 June, we can be sure that the Fourth Estate will cover the In/Out story with greater relish than if it had been a contest between Mr Cameron and Nigel Farage, who was the Prime Minister’s preferred adversary. Of course it doesn’t mean we will have a better debate on the detail of the relative merits of Brussels or Brexit.

Both Johnson and Cameron have a deep instinctive understanding of the workings of the media and its influence in determining elections. We can be sure that, before Boris put his career on the line by becoming the new figurehead of the Leave campaign, the former editor of The Spectator made careful calculations as to which newspapers would join his line of battle.

The problem for him is that this campaign is not like a general election; so much about it is counter-intuitive. Mr Cameron finds himself in the same camp as almost the whole of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. He will hope for a more sympathetic press in the next four months from liberal pro-EU titles, notably The Guardian and The Independent, than might normally be the case. The Financial Times, apparently reflecting the pro-Brussels views of the Square Mile, has also backed the Remain campaign, as has the Daily Mirror.

But when it comes to the so-called Tory press, the picture is almost as complex as on the Conservative benches in Westminster. It would be naïve to think that these titles will be immune, on an issue of such economic significance, to the views of their powerful owners. But they will also weigh the instincts of their readerships – and that’s where some intriguing dichotomies arise.

Johnson cannot be certain of the support of his own paper. For although the core of Telegraph readers are – like the Tory grassroots the Mayor of London courts – profoundly Eurosceptic, the paper’s owners Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, and Sir David’s son Aidan, chairman of Telegraph Media Group, are sympathetic to the concerns of business that Brexit would have detrimental consequences for the economy.

Such agonising is reflected in the paper’s pages, with the Business section leading on Friday with the warnings from Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, that Brexit would be “negative on all fronts”, while an op-ed piece from deputy editor Allister Heath celebrated the idea of quitting the EU, saying it would be a “catalyst” for “constitutional revolution”.

At the London Bridge headquarters of News UK, things are even more knotty. A recent Sunday Times editorial on the referendum was a model of equanimity. Professing no allegiance, it placed itself outside either spin operation as it promised to “interrogate the evidence behind the propaganda”.

The Times has been similarly Sphinx-like in declaring its affiliation, although its publication of a pro-EU letter from  36 FTSE 100 chief executives has given comfort to Downing Street.

Rupert Murdoch, who owns these papers, has been less equivocal, tweeting criticisms of Mr Cameron’s “non-deal” EU reforms and applauding his friend Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, for his “principles” in backing Brexit. Murdoch’s tabloid, The Sun, is vehemently anti-Brussels, telling the Prime Minister this week: “People can see for themselves Mr Cameron. There is no reformed EU.”

Its hostility to Europe is matched by the Daily Express, whose owner Richard Desmond backed Mr Farage’s Ukip editorially and financially at the general election. The Ukip leader is desperate to be a visible champion of the Leave campaign and, even if strategists would like him to take a step back, he will never be short of offers of airtime from television producers. Nonetheless, Express columnist and spy author, Frederick Forsyth, feeds the conspiracy theory that a pro-Europe “establishment” is dominating the media. “You can see them in every paper, every TV debate”, he complained.

The Daily Mail does not seem to share that view. In an extraordinary leader last Thursday it embraced the BBC for its “even-handed coverage” of the referendum. “They’re doing a grand job,” it declared, acknowledging that “these are words you might not expect in the Mail”. In British media terms, this was a coupling as unlikely as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and coincided with one of the broadcaster’s darkest moments; publication of Dame Janet Smith’s report on the BBC’s complicity in the crimes of Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall.

BBC News might be disconcerted by this endorsement of its journalism by the Mail. It normally cites criticism from the paper, along with similar gripes from the political left, as evidence of its neutrality. Unlike newspapers, broadcast news organisations are forbidden by Ofcom rules from cheerleading for either side. But they – and the BBC in particular – will not be able to avoid social media accusations of bias, justified or not. The Scottish referendum campaign showed how these polarising constitutional issues have the potential to damage the BBC’s reputation and the final weeks of this two-horse EU race will be a supreme test for its newsroom.

The Mail has no such worries; its very essence is its sharply defined ideology. And the paper’s historic distrust of Europe dovetails conveniently with its dislike of the Prime Minister, who it subjects to relentless personal attacks. Stories that support the Remain campaign are reported in the Mail with disdain, accompanied by a campaigning “Planet Fear” red stamp logo. “Now HSBC ‘talks down the pound’,” it noted this week with audible exasperation. “PM’s new scare: the cost of your holiday will rise”, was another story given the “Planet Fear” treatment.

It was reputedly the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, wife of Mr Gove, who gave her husband the line that the EU “is an analogue union in a digital age”. The Leave campaign will need this suggestion that it is internet savvy, given the presentational PR problems arising from having competing campaigns (Vote Leave, Leave.EU, and umbrella group Grassroots Out) and a phalanx of leaders (Johnson, Farage, Gove).

It can count on the Mail’s backing, but not necessarily that of the Mail on Sunday, which revealed Johnson’s “secret dinner” with Brexit ally Gove and appears closer to the thinking of the chairman of the Daily Mail and General Trust, Jonathan Harmsworth, fourth Viscount Rothermere, who is regarded as pro-European. In a leader article, the MoS talked of “equally matched sides” each with “strong arguments and persuasive spokesmen and women”. It concluded: “Let the great debate begin.”

The campaign will surely get nastier in the weeks ahead but, for a few months at least, there is a different order in the politics of the British press.