If it's the press wot won Brexit, now's the time to show responsibility
A view from Gideon Spanier

If it's the press wot won Brexit, now's the time to show responsibility

Britain's popular press can claim the Brexit result as a major victory because newspaper titles have shown they retain much of their power to set the agenda in the smartphone age.

More than half the national newspapers, including the two top-sellers, The Sun and Daily Mail, and the Express and Star titles, the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph, backed Vote Leave and hammered the message over weeks, not just one day.

It did not just reflect the views of mighty media owners and editors such as Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre. They were in tune with their readers.

Internal research by some of these titles showed a high proportion of readers backed Brexit. In the case of the Daily Mail, there was said to be an 80:20 split among readers in favour of Leave in the weeks leading up to the referendum – a powerful indicator that Middle England was likely to vote to quit and a justification for its strong editorial line.

There are several reasons why Britain’s news brands have retained, and might even have increased, their influence – despite the slump in print circulation, pressure on editorial budgets, and rise of social media and other new communications.

First, newspaper editors, reporters and columnists are skilled at articulating and framing the debate with unashamedly opinionated editorial coverage, while TV and radio broadcasters are constrained by Ofcom impartiality rules.

Think of The Sun’s "Independence Day" headline, with an image of a bright, new dawn, and the Daily Mail’s "Nailed: Four Big EU Lies" splash that were published on the morning of the referendum. Some other titles that sat on the fence, notably the Daily Telegraph, still had an anti-EU tone. Its print edition on referendum day had a double-page spread on Boris Johnson, the Leave talisman and its star columnist, at the front and relegated David Cameron to further back.

Second, readers trust newspapers to distil an argument, provide them with detailed information and offer an editorial view – even if it is strongly biased. The Times, which backed Remain, has seen its circulation jump by as much as 14% in recent weeks. Other titles have seen increases too.

Further proof of newspapers’ role as a trusted medium was a surge in political advertising in print in the final week before the vote, which was worth close to £1 million across the industry, according to one ad sales chief. It meant the Daily Mirror had a pro-Remain editorial line but was still happy to take full-page ads for the Leave campaign.

Third, online and social media has amplified the power of news brands dramatically. Whether for or against the EU, nearly every newspaper’s front-page endorsement trended on social media.

Daily, pro-Brexit coverage in MailOnline, the most popular online newspaper in Britain, was arguably as important as the Mail on Sunday’s print edition backing Remain.

The fall-out for the news industry is likely to be mixed. Our appetite for news and information is going to surge in the weeks and months because of the political and economic turmoil for a generation and that ought to be good for circulation and readership. Newspapers will up their print runs.

But the fear is ad revenues across all of UK media will take a big hit as businesses delay investment decisions. Zenith forecast ahead of the vote that Brexit could result in a £70 million annual drop in ad revenues but that looks modest. Newspapers had already had to contend with a double-digit percentage fall in print ad revenues since the start of the year.

So, in the heat of victory, pro-Brexit proprietors and editors should think carefully about how they shape their editorial coverage and tone now that the nationalist genie has been unleashed, with unknown financial and political consequences.

This is likely to be the most extraordinary news story of our generation. Media owners must show responsibility in the way they cover. There will be tumultuous times ahead.