With the United Kingdom set to leave the European Union later this month, international news organisations have been trying to keep audiences informed on the situation since the EU referendum result in 2016.
While Brexit coverage has remained in large demand in recent years, it has been far from smooth sailing for news outlets outside the UK to keep up, according to panellists at the Brexit and the media conference (10 October 2019), organised by The UK in a Changing Europe and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
Supply and demand for Brexit coverage
For American audiences, there has been an undeniable comparison between the political and constitutional ramifications of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, according to Mark Landler, London bureau chief for the New York Times.
Brexit has been like holding up a mirror, he explained, though this has not always been the case. The complexity of the initial withdrawal negotiation period proved tricky for American audiences to understand, but Brexit has now gathered momentum stateside since the appointment of Boris Johnson as UK Prime Minister.
"Britain now has a Prime Minister who’s testing all sorts of conventions and rules, who sometimes uses language that sounds eerily familiar to American ears, pushing boundaries; all of this is extremely familiar to Americans and hence interesting to them."
It is not only America that is closely following the latest developments in Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, with French audiences keen to stay in the loop.
Eric Albert, city correspondent at Le Monde, said that it is rare that for a UK story to bring such interest to its readers. The evidence of this is in the comment section, but the tone has changed considerably over the last three years.
"There were a strain of comments during the referendum saying 'We don’t quite like the EU, Brexit is a good idea'.
"Those comments are gone and now the comments that are left are ‘Could we get rid of Britain as quick as possible?' and 'Why have they shot themselves in the foot?'," he said.
Frustration with British coverage of Brexit
Stefanie Bolzen, correspondent in London for Die Welt, expressed her frustration with the British press, claiming that their approach to covering Brexit and holding ministers to account has been lacklustre.
"So much of what MPs say without any substance is not questioned. Sometimes I find it jaw-dropping," she said.
British media used to be very quick, aggressive and to the point but now they are keen to use leaks, and not think about substance in the story, says @StefanieBolzen #MediaBrexit pic.twitter.com/BulWo9dOhL— The UK in a Changing Europe (@UKandEU) October 10, 2019
These stories are frequently based on leaks and reports which often turn out not to be true, according to Jakub Krupa, former UK correspondent for the Polish Press Agency. Audiences in EU member states are not interested in Brexit debate clearly not meant for them, he added.
"A lot of Brexit debate in the UK is purely for domestic consumption and these are things that do not cause any reaction in member states."
Barriers to inside information
Access to officials and politicians has been a consistent problem for international news outlets, the panel agreed. The lack of communication between the UK government and foreign correspondents has caused news organisations to depend on British colleagues to understand the latest developments.
"It has improved a lot in the last two years, but it took until at least a year after the referendum to have some kind of interaction," Albert said.
.@MarkLandler says when you have no access you default to the local media or you can write a less informed version of the news. And that is a poor way to cover a political issue. @nytimes #MediaBrexit pic.twitter.com/2EdphuGjb6— The UK in a Changing Europe (@UKandEU) October 10, 2019
Impact on both sides
According to a report published last year by the RISJ, coverage in most European countries, except for Ireland, has viewed Brexit as more of a problem for the UK than EU’s member states.
But there will be an impact on both sides of the English Channel, said Albert, who claimed the current economic situation in the UK is also not as dire as it is made out to be.
"Being a European, the bias is to write something negative and it’s hard to argue that it’s going well frankly. It’s natural to darken the picture, but we need to be careful about that."
Brexit is not a global story
The global impacts of Brexit are also exaggerated, said Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ). He explained that elsewhere in the world, Brexit is a regional story, similar to India’s recent election.
As a key example, he pointed to a story published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Brexit titled ‘Deal or no deal, Brexit will not affect the Philippines’.
"We really need to recognise that a lot of the world doesn’t care about this issue that we are all so interested in," he said.
Save the date: our Newsrewired conference takes place on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets
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