In November 2016, The Daily Mail ran a cover story with the now infamous title “Enemies of the People” attacking the three judges of the High Court of England and Wales who had ruled that the UK Government needed Parliament’s consent to give notice of Brexit. Debates on sovereignty were not only reflected on the pages of the print media but were often also steered by them as political players with their own agenda. This paper explores how the topic of sovereignty was represented by the British media using a qualitative content analysis of the most shared online articles on Brexit and a narrower subset of editorials in right-wing and left-wing newspapers. The paper shows that the left–right divide mattered greatly for how sovereignty was portrayed in pro-Leave media, but not at all in the pro-Remain media. While in the period before the referendum coverage of Brexit was marked by a conflict between national and supranational sovereignty, after the referendum the conflict between popular and parliamentary sovereignty became more prominent. Changes in the frames deployed over time suggest that newspapers instrumentalized some concepts of sovereignty to promote their agenda. Finally, the fact that some positions (such as the left-wing pro-Leave defence of democratic sovereignty) were almost absent in media discourse had important consequences for the public debate on the topic.
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Among the most useful lists was research by YouGov on How left or right-wing are UK’s newspapers? (Smith 2017), the Huffpost list on newspapers’ positions in the EU referendum (Ridley 2016) and a Dabbling with Data blog on the issue. To identify pro-Leave left media I counted on expert advice and triangulated their suggestions with Alexa data on popularity rankings and information on the circulation of papers (Statista 2019). Moreover, I conducted several pilot analyses, downloading articles by different media and reading through them in order to have an additional insight into the positioning of particular media.
Of course, it can be argued that economically liberal newspapers such as the Financial Times are more centrist than right-wing. Yet, with any dichotomous classification, choices have to be made and considering the FT’s past support for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s policies, as well as their, albeit reluctant, support for Theresa May in the 2017 election, the year after the referendum, it made more sense to classify the newspaper as right- rather than left-wing.
This is a Boolean Search for all articles that contain the word Brexit AND either sovereign/sovereignty or control.
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Rone, J. “Enemies of the people”? Diverging discourses on sovereignty in media coverage of Brexit. Br Polit (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-021-00157-9