What do British newspaper readers think about Brexit?
The various Brexit allegiances of Britain’s newspapers are clear. But what do their readers think? Heinz Brandenburg analyses data from the British Election Study Internet Panel to find out how intransigent – or open to compromise – their readers are, and how readerships have shifted since Brexit.
Plenty of research has gone into how Brexit has been playing havoc with the British party system, both in terms of party unity and discipline and public attachments to parties and voting intentions. Less attention has been paid to another set of quasi-institutional actors who are also in the business of shaping and representing public opinion – the British press. Notoriously partisan but intermittently quite capable of shifting allegiance and persuading their readers to come along, how have British newspapers been affected by the emergence of this all-engulfing new issue, which is cutting across traditional partisan divides?
It will take a much larger project to look at the supply side – to study directly and in detail how the papers have responded, reported and taken sides on the issue. However, data from the British Election Study Internet Panel (BESIP) enables us to investigate the demand side – how readers of major papers divide on the Leave/Remain issue and its more recent permutations (no-deal, the Withdrawal Agreement, Remain), and also how defections from and to papers relate to the Brexit issue and reshape the preference distributions among readerships.
Switching papers since Brexit
Defections are an important and largely neglected issue. We tend to assume that newspaper readership is more or less constant, and in fact the BESIP did not include a readership question during their first nine waves (2014–16).
They instead added a readership variable from existing YouGov panel participant profiles. When the first actual readership question fielded during wave 10 (Nov/Dec 2016) allowed us to check, it became clear that the participant profiles contained outdated information for about 30% of respondents. Since then BESIP has fielded this question three more times, in the pre- and post-election waves 2017 (waves 11 and 13), and now again in their most recent wave (wave 15) fielded in March this year and just published.
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