The day after the House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected Prime Minister May’s Brexit bill, I was in Brussels at an event that had been scheduled long before we knew there’d be this historic vote the night before.
Yet there we were celebrating the 20th birthday of the Media Diversity Institute, an that was the brainchild of Milica Pesic, a Serbian TV journalist who’d fled Belgrade after she’d begun worrying about her own safety and security because of her vocal opposition to the propaganda and vicious nationalism being broadcast by her employer.
20 years later, Pesic still is the executive director and thanks in large part to her tenacity and boundless energy, MDI has not only survived but expanded its reach well beyond Europe.
Yet what was on my mind in Brussels in light of our Brexit crisis and the astonishing political paralysis that has gripped Westminster was the role of journalism and media in providing a tipping point in the 2016 referendum and its shocking victory for the leave forces.
Did the lies and distortions appearing on the front pages of leading right-wing papers in London, especially in the tabloids, influence enough Brits to vote yes to account for the 4 point margin of victory? If you don’t think so, reflect on what Jane Martinson of The Guardian ( and now an academic at City University) found when she examined the coverage.
I also looked again at some of the glaring examples of outright lies and deception that less educated Brits who favour tabloids such as The Sun, The Star, and The Express – not to mention the more upmarket and the most manipulative of them all- The Daily Mail- were splashing on their front pages. There were pictures of desperate refugees trying to come ashore but in the tabs’ telling they were European migrants and prospective terrorists threatening the safety and security of communities throughout the U.K.
Then there were the repeated claims that nearly 80 million Turks would be able to enter Britain as Turkey would soon become part of the EU. Boris Johnson now says he made no such statements yet he is in Trump-like denial about what he’d said in the course of the referendum campaign to spread that falsehood. Rudimentary fact-checking by many papers including The Times revealed his “false claims.”

Then of course the biggest canard of all that the Channel 4 drama about Leave campaign strategist Dominic Cummins, played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch highlighted: how £350 million would no longer be sent to the EU each week but instead be invested in the NHS.  The ” Leave” press never missed an opportunity to show the bus and repeat the dubious claim.

All of this coverage, all of these editorial decisions were made by editors privileged to work in the mother country of English language journalism, the envy of the global media world. Yet they might as well have been working for the state controlled media or broadcasters and newspapers owned by the cronies of the leaders of illiberal or autocratic government leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary.

Twenty years on, the Media Diversity Institute is targeting hateful trolls online, especially those posted on Twitter and aimed at trying to incite public opinion against migrants and asylum seekers. It is a pity that this project that seeks to name and shame these twitter hate mongers didn’t exist during the Brexit Referendum campaign