In this post Ailsa McNeil presents the findings of an analysis of newspaper coverage of the High Court and Supreme Court rulings in the Article 50 case. It shows that whilst the High Court judges faced an onslaught of criticism from Brexit-supporting newspapers the reaction to the Supreme Court judgement was more measured. Two factors can explain this: the fact the prospect of parliament delaying the triggering of Article 50 appeared remote by the time the Supreme Court delivered their verdict and the widespread condemnation of some of the coverage of the High Court judgement.
The reaction from some newspapers to November’s High Court ruling provoked almost as much controversy as the decision itself. The judges, branded ‘Enemies of the people’ (Daily Mail, 4 Nov 2016), faced an onslaught of criticism, which knew no bounds. The attacks were personal, vicious and an affront to the rule of law. Although the coverage of the Supreme Court decision was less hostile, some newspapers continued to admonish the judiciary.
We analysed the editorials published on the day following the decisions, 4 November 2016 and 25 January 2017 respectively, in five broadsheets (The Guardian, The Independent, The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Times) and five tabloids (The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror, The Sun, The Daily Star and The Daily Express). Where the publication lacked an opinion piece, we used the closest equivalent, usually written by the political editor.
For each, we considered several questions: whether the article was critical or supportive of the judgement; whether it condemned the judges, or if the commentary was likely to decrease trust in the judiciary. Finally, we asked if the editorial breached the Attorney General’s guidelines for contempt of court.
Of the editorials that were critical of the High Court ruling, two published articles that spoke about the judges in terms that we considered would decrease a readers trust in the judiciary. The Daily Mail was quick to question the independence of the ‘unelected’ High Court judges. The article made several statements which suggested the decision was not made impartially. This tone was echoed in the Daily Express. Explicit criticism of the courts, with judges being criticised as out of touch, or too lenient in their sentencing, is not unusual. However, the severity of the criticism this time was unprecedented, as was the outrage that the media coverage generated amongst defenders of judicial independence and the rule of law.
Broadly, we found that the media response that followed the second ruling was less fierce than after the first. The tabloids, which had (with the exception of the Daily Mirror) been brazen in their attacks on the judiciary in November, were less critical of the judicial branch in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. The Daily Mail, which came close to breaching the Attorney General’s guidelines for contempt of court after the High Court ruling, was more reserved following the defeat of the government’s appeal. Similarly, the Daily Telegraph, whose front page following the High Court judgement had screamed ‘The judges versus the people’, opted for far more neutral coverage. But the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express found other ways to channel their hostility, denouncing the cost of the proceedings and the claimant who brought them, Gina Miller.
The response of the tabloid press to the Supreme Court verdict was tempered by two factors. First, by January it had become clear that parliament was unlikely to delay or block the triggering of Article 50. In December the House of Commons had passed a motion in support of the government’s timetable by a significant margin. So the sectors of the press that took issue with the legal action were less concerned that Brexit would be halted or delayed by the need for legislation. This was reflected in their coverage, which was markedly more mild.
Secondly, the media’s treatment of the High Court judges provoked widespread outrage, which transcended party lines. Many politicians (though not, at least initially, the Justice Secretary Liz Truss), lawyers and academics condemned the behaviour of some media outlets in the strongest terms. IPSO, the press standards regulator, received more than one thousand complaints about the Daily Mail’s ‘Enemies of the people’ front page.
Also modifying her reaction in response to public opinion, Liz Truss was quick to defend the judiciary following the Supreme Court verdict. In accordance with her statutory obligation, moments after the UKSC judgement the Ministry of Justice issued a statement in support of the judiciary.
Our investigation also showed that the furore surrounding the press’s response to the November verdict had an impact on all of the newspapers, even those that had expressed support for the judgement in the first instance. Indeed, all five publications that were in favour of the High Court’s decision (The Guardian, The Independent, The Financial Times, The Times and The Daily Mirror) rallied round the judges and offered their support with increased fervour following the Supreme Court ruling. The Guardian and Financial Times in particular were keen to highlight the importance of the judiciary as a check on the power of government. The Financial Times called the judgement a ‘triumph for Britain’s judicial system’.
However, these valiant attempts to combat the tone set by the tabloid newspapers may have limited effect. After all, we consume media that confirms our own beliefs; if the referendum result has taught us anything, it is that a large number of us reside in cosy echo chambers, rarely venturing outside to brave opinions different from our own.
About the author
Ailsa McNeil was a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit from October 2016 to January 2017.