by Zoe Pace
June 2016 was both the culmination and catalyst surrounding the lengthy debate around the future of the United Kingdom, and its relationship with the EU. The Brexit public debate came to dominate the news-media discourse for four years and the majority of my undergraduate study. This is because the outcome of Britain’s second referendum on its membership with the European Union (EU) signified Britain’s position as anti-immigration, anti-establishment and Eurosceptic.
Despite popular media rhetoric, the UK wanting to leave the EU was not surprising. Firstly, there has been an air of consistent Euroscepticism ever since Britain joined the EU in 1973. Secondly, many political actors in Britain’s governing Conservative Party were fiercely opposed to the ideological and economic structures of the EU. Consequently, Eurosceptic messages have featured in the mainstream media. Thirdly, though banal, referendums on European integration are generally unpredictable. Namely, voters have often rejected proposals put forth by the government regarding European integration, despite the widespread consensus among mainstream political parties. Lastly, in a time of political uncertainty, populist methods of campaigning have historically thrived. As citizens are fuelled by worries about immigration, lack of economic opportunities and divisions amongst social classes. To contend that Brexit is purely a product of conservative propaganda would be reactionary. Comparatively, Brexit represents the rational result of an uncertain and unstable political environment.
“The problem with Brexit is not Brexit itself; it is how Brexit happened”
My concern with Brexit, however, is not the implications it will cause for the EU. More precisely, I am concerned with what Brexit means for truth and journalistic impartiality. False claims like the UK would take back £350 million a week once it had left the EU. Or that, two-thirds of British jobs in manufacturing are dependent on demand from Europe, fuelled the very foundations of the Leave campaign. A study from Kings College London found that the public has varying understandings of the ‘truth’ and what constituted real facts during the campaign.
What concerns me about Brexit is what generally worries me about the post-modern era. That is, how citizens and politicians conceptualise ‘truth.’ The democratic crisis in Europe cannot be solely be attributed to the failure of a democratic system but conversely, how the media enacts within that system. I remain a fervent believer that this is a key and distinctive feature of our contemporary society. To contend this, one must only look to Donald Trump’s battle with “fake news”, big tech’s credibility crisis and denials of genocide. The problem with Brexit is not Brexit itself; it is how Brexit happened.
Had the values of truth and objectivity been sustained throughout the campaign, would we even be Brexiting?
I do not have the academic or political agency to deliver solutions to the world’s post-truth crisis. However, I can say that if we want to transform the way we comprehend democracy, then we must seek legislative change. Legislative and regulatory change which protects the public from misinformation. Though there are regulations in place, they are not working. Thus, my reflection on Brexit, beyond its multiple implications, is that we should look towards building a sustainable, healthy and ethical media system which promotes only the highest professional standards of editorial integrity. Had the values of truth and objectivity been sustained throughout the campaign, would we even be Brexiting?