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Was it The Sun wot won Brexit?

A taxi promoting the Liverpudlian boycott of The Sun newspaper. Credit: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty

A taxi promoting the Liverpudlian boycott of The Sun newspaper. Credit: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty

August 28, 2019   5 mins

How much do the media shape our political attitudes? It’s a vexed and ongoing question, and it bleeds into every area of our national conversation. Accusations of BBC bias (in both directions), or complaints about the Right-wing press; these things wouldn’t be a problem if we didn’t think that those outlets, to some non-negligible degree, influenced the way we think as a society.

The trouble is that it’s very hard to study. If you see that readers of Right-wing papers are more likely to vote for Right-wing parties, you can’t conclude that the one causes the other; it could just be that people who vote for Right-wing parties enjoy reading that they’re right to do so.

That’s why there’s been some excitement about a new report, not yet published or peer-reviewed but available in preprint form. Its authors saw the opportunity for a natural experiment: the impact of Merseyside’s post-Hillsborough boycott of The Sun on Eurosceptic attitudes in the region.

In 1989, 95 Liverpool FC fans were killed in Britain’s worst football stadium disaster; a 96th, Tony Bland, died four years later, having been in a coma caused by brain damage from the crush. The Sun blamed the disaster on the Liverpool fans themselves, accusing them of urinating on police and picking the pockets of the dead, under a banner headline of “THE TRUTH”.

It has since been shown that none of this was true and that the disaster was the result of failings by the police and other emergency services. Liverpudlians, appalled by the Sun’s coverage, boycotted the newspaper – not just Liverpool fans, but their Evertonian rivals and the rest of the city, too.

The authors of this new study reasoned that, since the boycott was mainly in the Merseyside area and the rest of the country was largely untouched by it, they could see the impact of the Sun’s Eurosceptic campaigning on attitudes to Europe. They looked at responses to the statement “Britain should continue its EC/EU membership” in the British Social Attitudes surveys between 1983 and 2004, and compared those in the 15 Merseyside constituencies to the rest of the country.

The study says that Sun readership on Merseyside post-Hillsborough fell from around 55,000 daily sales to about 12,000, although that is an estimate because News International did not release regional figures. It sounds believable to me, though: I went to university in Liverpool and most newsagents didn’t stock it; you’d see “don’t buy The S*n” written on walls or the backs of replica football tops. It was very much despised there, and understandably so.

But the study then goes on to say that the boycott led to an “8 percentage-points to a 15 percentage-points decrease in Euroscepticism” in Merseyside. And this is what caused the excitement. The authors argue, and the papers have reported, that this shows how sustained media campaigns have major impacts on public opinion.

I am pretty sceptical. For one thing, when you look in the paper at the graph of attitudes towards Europe on Merseyside, Euroscepticism was declining pre-1989, and it continued to decline post-1989. There doesn’t seem to be a noticeable change at or shortly after 1989 itself; it levels off in the 1990s. The “control” group – a “synthetic Merseyside”, or conglomeration of other English areas weighted for similarity to the Liverpool area – also declines in Euroscepticism, just rather more slowly, and then increases for a bit in the early 1990s. Eyeballing it, at least, it doesn’t scream “Hillsborough did this” to me; it looks like some longer-term trend.

I’m also intrigued to note that, in the actual 2016 referendum, Liverpool (the city, not Merseyside) voted 58.2% Remain. Manchester, just up the road and (they’ll both hate me for saying this, but) relatively similar economically and culturally, voted 60.4% Remain. If somewhere between 8 and 15% of that Liverpool vote is due to the boycott, what drove the Manchester Remain vote? After all, they still read The Sun there. Alternatively, you could just say that most big cities tended, outside the North-East, to vote Remain. Or you could point out that both are big university towns, and that young people tend to be less Eurosceptic.

For another thing, the effect seems enormous. Let’s assume that the sales figures were correct, and that it did indeed drop from 55,000 daily readers to 12,000. If all 43,000 daily readers who stopped taking The Sun immediately became Europhiles overnight that would represent about 3% of the total population of Merseyside.

If we only look at the population of Liverpool itself – around the 450,000 mark – it’s about 10%, but the study does say it’s looking at Merseyside sales. And, still, it would need pretty much every single former Sun reader to have started as a Eurosceptic and become a Europhile for the 8 to 15% figure to make sense.

This doesn’t mean it’s not true. You could tell some complex story about knock-on effects: several people reading the same newspaper, or the Eurosceptic at the pub suddenly going quiet and no longer spreading the word to his or her friends. But I am sceptical.

Of course, we still need to explain why Merseyside started out as more Eurosceptic than the country at large and ended up less. I could reach for my favourite explanation, which is “a lot of this stuff is essentially random and any explanation will be post-hoc storytelling”. But I think I might indulge in some post-hoc storytelling of my own, actually.

Liverpool is, traditionally, a hugely Labour city; of the 15 Merseyside constituencies, 12 are held by Labour, and two by former Labour MPs who have left the party since 2017; the seaside area of Southport, which is well to the north of the city, is the only one held by a Tory.

Liverpool seriously hates the Tories and it especially hates Margaret Thatcher. In the 1975 referendum, the Conservative party – led by Thatcher – largely backed a Yes vote to join the EU; the governing Labour party, led by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, was split. Wilson backed Yes but (as in the 2016 referendum) Cabinet collective responsibility was put aside and several ministers campaigned for No.

In general, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Labour was the more Eurosceptic of the two main parties. And, in Liverpool in particular, the Labour council was heavily influenced by Derek Hatton of the Militant Tendency, who voted No in 1975. It was only in 1983 that Neil Kinnock made Labour explicitly pro-Europe, but Militant and Bennite Labourites still fought back (Denis Healey and others formed the Labour Against The Euro group as late as 2002, although that was specifically against joining the single currency). Meanwhile, Tory Eurosceptics became ever more vocal over the same period.

I can’t find a way of plotting levels of Labour Euroscepticism, but you could easily tell a story in which Liverpool’s wariness of European integration decreases at the same rate that Labour’s does, until around the John Major period when Conservatives were tearing themselves apart over Europe. At this point, even the previously Europhile Thatcher has swapped teams.

Suddenly, if you’re a Labour-voting Liverpudlian, you see that the hated Tories are associated with the anti-Europe side and Labour with the pro. So you answer the polling question accordingly.

Is that really what happened? Maybe? It’s a just-so story I came up with a few minutes ago. All we really know is that Merseyside shed its Euroscepticism more quickly than the rest of the country. That’s hardly surprising, in itself – it’s an ethnically diverse, cosmopolitan port city, it has three universities, it’s proudly Left-wing; I’m not sure there’s anything to explain.

But we like explanations, and we particularly like explanations that provide us with a clear antagonist who we can blame. After all, if the boycott made Liverpool pro-Europe, then The Sun made the rest of the country anti-Europe, and we can blame it for the referendum result. And in these Brexit-riven days, people will cling to this, even though the study doesn’t prove it was The Sun wot dun it.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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