Why Is the British Press So Overwhelmingly Pro-Brexit?

A look at the media moguls who run 'papers hell bent on leaving the EU.

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07 June 2016, 12:00am

Rupert Murdoch, owner of News International, at his recent wedding to Jerry Hall (Photo by Arthur Edwards/The Sun / PA Wire)

It is the 6th of June, 1975. Donny Osmond is on the radio. There's probably an Austin Allegro driving up a street somewhere. From the newsstands, every paper, from the Telegraph to the Mirror, sings two letters with one voice: "IN". So you head up the road, pop your "IN" ballot in the Euro referendum box. Someone probably mentions the brand new sitcom The Good Life in the queue. You look down at your platform boots. Etc. Etc.

Forty years ago, all British newspapers bar The Daily Worker backed us joining what's now the EU. That was the "Establishment" view then, and it still is – from the CBI to the IFS. Yet, despite recent polls suggesting an 8 percent slant towards Remain, today's press-pack remains massively skewed in favour of Leave.

That's more than just a hunch. Last week, Oxford's Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism surveyed 928 articles published across the last two months, and found that 45 percent were pro-Leave, 27 percent were for Remain and the rest were too nuanced to count. That's almost 2:1 against. The two largest selling broadsheets, the biggest tabloid and biggest mid-market all seem wedged in the Brexit camp.

Not only do our papers no longer reflect us; they also don't reflect the Establishment. And in part, that's because the Establishment who run our newspapers are obsessed with the idea of themselves as outsiders.

The ideal that ties together Telegraph owners The Barclay Brothers; Express and Daily Star boss Richard Desmond; and Rupert Murdoch is a vision of themselves as ultimate renegades, who were able to take on the stuffed shirts precisely because they were leaner and hungrier and more ruthless. And that vision – underwritten by the Thatcherite core value that the barrow boys shall inherit the earth – is now wagging the political dog.

DIRTY DES

These are men who feel the Establishment is laughing at them. And sometimes, they're right. Certainly, no one wears his shoulder-chips more like epaulettes than Richard "Dirty" Desmond, a Finchley lad who lived with his mum in a grotty flat after his dad went deaf and then bankrupt. Desmond's whole life – his rapacious pursuit of profits at the expense of his staff ( Express journalists recently wrote to MPs, asking to help them secure their first raise in eight years) – could be read as an attempt to get back at the middle classes who scorned the once-prosperous Desmond family after they fell on hard times.

November 2000: Richard Desmond of the Northern & Shell company at West Ferry Printers, on the Isle of Dogs, in London, watches his latest acquisition the Daily Express come off the presses(Photo by Andrew Stuart / PA Archive)

And he was furious when, after a decade of greasing palms in Labour and the Tories, both decided not to grant him either a knighthood or a peerage. The fallout from that colossal sulk was partly why he ended up giving a million pounds to UKIP just before the 2015 General Election.

"As Groucho Marx said, I don't want to join any club that would have me as a member," he told his own Express at the time. "I always have challenged the establishment and I want to continue to challenge it. I'm giving this money because I believe – as Emerson, Lake and Palmer might put it – UKIP's political outlook is a 'fanfare for the common man'."

Why the Establishment won't bow to a supercool prog fan like Des is a mystery, but as mysterious as that is, scratch a little deeper and Desmond's anti-EU certainty turns into just a very convenient cudgel. When he went on The Wright Stuff to punt his Pollyanna-ish autobiography, he admitted that he had no proper reasons beyond a basic unease. "But we need a referendum," he resolved. "I don't know if we should be in [the EU] or not, but I don't like being controlled by Brussels and these faceless people."

Of course, as the man who once taunted Telegraph Group directors about a potential German takeover by goose-stepping around the boardroom screeching "All Germans are Nazis!", maybe it's best we all take him as far away from Europe as we possibly can.

THE MURDOCH EMPIRE

Despite being born to great wealth, the son of Sir Keith Murdoch, the not-Sir Rupert, always had a romantic vision of himself as tearing up the sort of stuffy toffs who rejected him as a not-quite-U Aussie at Oxford. Long before Australia was a land of flat whites and the world's most overzealous health 'n' safety culture, he was the gauche foreign carpetbagger who swooped in on The Times, the Establishment's crown jewel, and brutally sacked all the venerable old windbags who'd carved out years of long-luncheons editing page 53 of the Society section. Murdoch had to make all kinds of promises to the government of the day just to be considered a fit and proper person to buy the paper at all (most of which he soon broke), and it rankled.

"With Murdoch, it's ideological," argues Charlie Beckett, director of the media think-tank POLIS. "He believes that a European Union is a stitch up. It's not particularly self-interested, but he is interested in how the EU is there to regard these things." Murdoch's a small state kinda guy. And if nothing else, the EU is just more state.

Then there's the increasing encroachment of EU legislation onto his business interests. Telecoms regulation is light touch right now. But still, does he really want to risk any more of it?

More importantly, while the EU may spend ages propping up farmers, it's never been shy about cutting corporate monopolies down to size. In the past, Europe's antitrust commissioner has beaten back Microsoft, Google and, just the other week, quashed a proposed UK merger between 3 and O2. Were Murdoch to expand his German or Italian TV interests, they could easily quash him too.

And if they did? Not even he is big enough to stop them. Anthony Hilton at the Evening Standard once asked the News UK boss why he was anti-EU. "'That's easy,' [Murdoch] replied. 'When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.'"

Paul Dacre (Photo by Ben Birchall / PA Archive)

THE MAIL

By contrast, Jonathan Harmsworth, the fourth Lord Rothermere, is the last of the ultimate insiders. The Mail titles have been in his family for a hundred years. Rothermere 4 is apparently a quite shy, well-mannered man who has developed enough self-awareness to realise that he may not be best placed to understand the hard-edged lives of the commuting software salesmen and provincial estate agents who make up the Mail's core audience. He's hands-off, preferring to let editor Paul Dacre run things. Dacre is Fleet Street's longest-serving editor by a mile, and for good reason. Despite his £2.5 million a year pay-packet, he channels the target demographic like a particularly sour race-baiting medium. Which is why, despite his own long-rumoured yearning to Remain, Rothermere 4 has gone against his own wishes to let Dacre go with his Leave gut.

Multi-millionaires Sir David Barclay (left) and his twin brother Sir Frederick after receiving their knighthoods from the Queen at Buckingham Palace (Photo by: Michael Stephens / PA Archive)

THE MYSTERIOUS BARCLAY BROTHERS

That mysterious tension between the editor, the proprietor and the audience is at its most cryptic when it comes to The Barclay Brothers, who make up the fourth quadrant of the Brexiteer press barons. They own the Spectator and the Telegraph titles, but from the moment they entered the media biz – on the back of mega-profits made from the London hospitality trade – the twins Sir David and Sir Frederick have been pathological about not becoming the story themselves.

The pair, who were regularly prefixed by the word "Weirdo" whenever their names came up in Private Eye, live together on their own private island, Brecqhou, next to Sark, in the Channel.

They certainly have enough experience in electoral manipulation. In 2008, the 600 people who live on Sark voted against the Barclays' chosen candidates for the island's governing council. Cue: a mega-tantrum in which the Barclays sacked vast numbers of workers at the hotels on Sark they owned.

Like Desmond, they're pugilists, hard-ballers from humble stock: Hammersmith boys done good; eight siblings, started out running a tobacconists, then painting and decorating, before converting old boarding houses into hotels, eventually working their way up to owning The Ritz. Yet compared to their predecessor, Conrad Black, they've been hands-off when it comes to The Telegraph. In fact, no one even knows their exact position because they never talk to the press, and they're fiendish about their personal privacy. It's assumed to be "Out" simply because of the right-wing titles, plus their devotion to Mrs Thatcher (let's not forget her deathbed was The Ritz). Between a private island and a fleet of pricey lawyers, the Barclays have walled-off their silence with unnerving efficiency.

And besides, as former City University Head of Journalism George Brock points out, their hands would be largely tied by a position they've inherited – 60 percent of Telegraph readers are pro-Brexit, YouGov recently claimed. "I think people always exaggerated the extent to which newspaper proprietors could help or damage them," he suggests. "Secondly, post-Leveson, proprietors are even more cautious about being seen to intervene. I would have said proprietors are damned if they do and if they don't."

We certainly like to believe that there's a clunking fist of the barons just above us, marauding our democracy. Yet maybe it's not quite that. During the Leveson Inquiry, John Major gave damning testimony about how much pressure Rupert Murdoch had put him under, across a number of personal meetings, to change his position on Europe. Yet when it came to the 1997 General Election, in reality Murdoch's four papers threw their weight in three different directions. Commerce and consistency trumped all thoughts of vengeance. So it may prove this time.

@gavhaynes

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