Miller and the media: Supreme Court judgement generates more measured response

img_4218In 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.

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The constitution of democracy and the pretensions of the plebiscite

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Albert Weale writes that the Article 50 case raised questions about which form of democracy can claim legitimacy –  the constitutional democracy established in the UK or the plebiscitary democracy now favoured by many Brexiteers. He discusses these two models and concludes that the only meaningful interpretation of democracy is the constitutional one. In this context the outcome did not represent the judges against the people, as some newspaper headlines suggested, but the judges for the people.

When the UK’s High Court rendered its decision on whether the government could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty under the royal prerogative to initiate the UK leaving the European Union, it released a storm of abuse against the judiciary in the press and among cabinet ministers. ‘Enemies of the people’ snorted the Daily Mail; ‘The judges versus the people’ growled the Daily Telegraph. These were the crudest examples. Yet, for all that, they are representative of the Brexiteers’ critique. Had not the people spoken on 23 June and decided the issue by a majority in a referendum? How then, it was urged, could a group of unelected judges interpose themselves between the will of the people and the realisation of that will in policy?

For anyone who bothered to follow the issues in detail and read the judgement, the reality was, of course, quite otherwise. That the claim of the plaintiffs could properly go before the courts was agreed as much on the government side as on the plaintiffs’ side. Indeed, it is easy to see the government welcoming the challenge in order to secure legitimation for its pretension to executive authority by a court judgement in its favour. The case was not about whether Brexit should happen but how it should happen.

There are legal arguments claiming that the High Court was wrong to suppose that triggering Article 50 will alter the rights that citizens enjoy under the law of the land. Those arguments make much of the distinction between the European Communities Act as a conduit or vehicle of rights as distinct from being a source of rights. Those arguments will be for the Supreme Court to decide. But what is certainly prompted by the reactions to the judgement is a broader question of constitutional politics. As well as questions of constitutional law, there are important questions of constitutional and democratic theory. For what is at issue in the controversy was which form of democracy could claim legitimacy – the constitutional democracy established in the UK or the plebiscitary democracy that Brexiteers now favour.

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