Ingram Pinn illustration

Dog bites man is not a story, runs the Fleet Street adage; only a surprise such as “man bites dog” is a story. If anyone thought Fleet Street — as the UK’s national newspapers are collectively known — had lost its influence, think again. It is smaller, weaker and less profitable than before, but it still bites.

That the campaign leading up to the UK referendum on EU membership has played to Fleet Street’s strength comes as no surprise. A showdown among the EU, the sceptical British press and a divided Conservative party has been brewing since The Sun’s brash “Up Yours Delors” headline about Jacques Delors, the federalist former European Commission president, a quarter-century ago.

Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid backed a referendum in 1990, and will finally
get one on Thursday. Much else has changed: the internet has grown and Fleet Street has shrunk. The Sun sold 3.6m copies daily in the early 1990s but now sells less than half of that. The Daily Express, a relentless anti-EU tabloid, has a circulation of 410,000, a 10th of its 20th century peak of 4m.

The internet has taken a bite out of the business. The Independent closed its print edition this year and Guardian Media Group, owner of the Guardian and Observer (both strongly pro-Remain) made operating losses of £58.6m in the year to March. It is improbable that Fleet Street can last another quarter century.

Despite this, UK newspapers — the print entities more than online editions — have made their views known viscerally. Tabloid front page stories have included The Sun’s “Let Us In Before You Vote Out” on Tuesday (about disruptive migrants in Calais) and the Daily Mail’s “We’re From Europe — Let Us In” last week (a false headline about Kuwaiti and Iraqi migrants).

Fleet Street’s residual skill is agenda-setting. Television has wider news reach: two-thirds of people in the UK get news from the BBC at least once a week while The Sun in print reaches only 14 per cent, according to a study. But the stories that newspapers select and the opinions they express resonate.

The heaviest contribution of Leave-supporting papers has been to focus relentlessly on immigration and free movement of labour in the EU, the topic that creates most angst among Leave voters. Papers that back remaining in the EU, including The Guardian and the Financial Times, have given more space to economics articles and comment about the financial risks of leaving.

The more emotional the climate — tragically culminating in the killing last week of Jo Cox, the opposition Labour party MP — the better it suits papers, especially tabloids. They cannot match the immediacy of digital news and social media but they do connect with readers’ opinions and feelings. Straight news would not engage a dwindling audience to come back and buy the following day.

But Fleet Street’s strength reveals its weakness. “We don’t stoke the fears. The fears are there,” Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, assured The Guardian this week about the Mail’s immigration stories. That is endlessly debatable, but it raises a separate question: where is “there”?

“There” is an older, poorer, less educated segment of the population — the manual workers, casual employees, pensioners and unemployed who feel squeezed and betrayed by immigration and the EU. This group of people, known to UK opinion pollsters as C2DEs will probably back Leave, while A and B executives and managers, and C1 office workers, support Remain.

The divides between old and young, and higher and lower income groups, inform every editorial stance. The Sun’s print readership is young (58 per cent below the age of 55) but 67 per cent C2DE. The Daily Mail’s is 64 per cent ABC1 (more than half of that C1), but ageing: 69 per cent of readers are 55 and over. Both readerships lean toward Leave; so do their titles.

The letters are used to classify social groups but are primarily advertising categories: they come from the papers’ National Readership Survey. This is the problem. To marketers, brand aware and affluent ABC1s are the most attractive consumers; Ds and Es, particularly the old, are often treated as “wastage”, in the industry’s derisive term.

Tabloids once compensated for the demographic weakness of their readerships with volume: they did not have an alluring profile but there was plenty for consumer advertisers. They are much less useful as volume declines, which is one reason why print advertising has fallen sharply this year.

Through this lens, the campaign shows how good tabloids are at reaching people who many advertisers do not value. It also made backing Remain a natural stance for The Guardian (83 per cent ABC1, 59 per cent younger than 55) and The Times (88 per cent ABC1, 45 per cent younger than 55).

The demographic tensions led to some publishers splitting their Leave-Remain votes. Mr Murdoch’s News Corp hedged its position between The Times and The Sun, and the Mail on Sunday defied the Daily Mail by supporting Remain. The vote could settle another ambiguity: will this be Fleet Street’s last gasp or its last bite?

Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article