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Redefinitions of Britain and Britishness in Media Texts

Mariana S. Sargsyan et Evgeniia V. Zimina
p. 157-175

Résumé

In the 21st century, the role of the media has become crucial in the social and political life of countries. Cardinal ideological shifts and the transformation of existing systems happen under the influence of a wide range of journalistic techniques and means employed by newspapers to influence processes and shape public opinion. This phenomenon can be observed in the UK media landscape at the background of the recent political processes in the context of the Independence Referendum of 2014 (Indyref) and the recently sparked discourse on Second Independence Referendum (Indyref 2). All of the processes have received huge media coverage in that playing a decisive role in the outcome of the processes. No less significant is the impact that newspapers made on the transformations and new interpretations of cultural unity under the umbrella of British identity. Persuasion, psycholinguistic impact, warnings and harsh language were widely used by politicians and columnists to manipulate and facilitate awareness and lead to a desired shift in the system of values, beliefs and social and political attitudes. Thus, the study of Brexit and Indyref related headlines is crucial to understand not only the political situation in the country but estimate its implications in a. wider context.

The object of the study covers headlines retrieved from the UK mainstream press. Methods of description and content analysis are used combined with linguistic analysis that enables us to come to comprehensive conclusions on the role of the press in the recent political processes and their implications in the UK. The period covers the years from 2014 to 2019. The chronological order of the analysis enables to follow the evolution of journalist techniques in the newspapers’ attempts to adjust their role with the rise of political crisis in the UK.

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Introduction

1This paper considers the specificities of the Scottish and English press coverage on the examples of Indyref 2014 and the recently sparked discourse on Indyref 2 at the background of the EU membership referendum in 2016 (Brexit referendum, as it is unofficially called). All of the issues have received huge media coverage across the UK, particularly in Scotland. The media discourse and, generally, the role of media cannot be underestimated in shaping public opinion and envisioning the country’s future. This is understandable especially if we refer to the main aim of mass communication, i.e. persuasion or psycholinguistic impact, which aims to influence people not in a passive way, but urge them to struggle, assess the significance of events and underlying motives and lead them to a more or less conscious choice from a number of possibilities. This purpose of media is well taken into account by politicians on the one hand and news makers, on the other, in order to manipulate and facilitate awareness and lead to a desired shift in the system of recipient’s values, beliefs and social and political attitudes. Thus, the study of the linguistic materialization of Brexit and Indyref related issues in newspapers is crucial to understand not only the political situation in the country but to estimate how the political processes and heated debates have influenced the public opinion.

Indyref 2014

2From the outset, it is worth mentioning that the media coverage in Scotland on Indyref 2014 and later on Brexit can be largely opposed to each other in terms of the language. On the other hand, since 2016 the language of media coverage on Brexit and Indyref 2 has become more aggressive day by day in the light of the fear, uncertainty and the exacerbation of the issues on national benefit. Therefore, what we are particularly interested in, in this part of the research, is to show the dynamics of the rhetoric on the major political events from the inside of Scotland and England.

3The Scottish headlines covering the period 2013-2014 can hardly be described as a discourse on national values and issues of identity1. A large number of data taken from the Scottish press demonstrates that the whole discourse built by both the supporters and opponents of the Independence was more about the economic benefit and losses, the future of the economy within the UK and advantages of remaining within the EU. The data also demonstrates that the Scottish press in this period did not show any definite endorsement for either side, except for the Herald on Sunday, which launched its front page on 4 May 2014 in support of the Yes campaign.

4The Scottish National Party (SNP) built its campaign of the Yes Vote by appealing to the uniqueness of the opportunity for Scotland to “fulfill its hopes and dreams”2. The campaign was not a harsh one and in terms of the language, the whole process was quite neutral and moderate. The most widely used technique was overstatement, which the Better Together campaign used to undermine the SNP’s vision on Independence (“Nessie is more real than SNP’s economic claims3 , “SNP independence vision a ‘pale imitation of past’ 4 or ‘by 2070, Scots independence as likely as putting astronauts on Mars5, “Scots independence white paper ‘just wish list’ 6, “SNP independence white paper ‘a work of fiction’7. We may conclude that the headlines above aimed at demonstrating the unrealistic nature of the Yes campaign and the SNP’s shortsighted vision. This strategy verbalized through the rhetoric figure worked and fulfilled its purpose taking into account the results.

  • i https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/

5Another aspect of the 2014 Referendum is that the issue of nationhood was majorly exploited by the supporters of the No vote. It is interesting to note the opposition of the concepts patriotism and nationalism in Jim Murphys message under headline “Patriotism not nationalism is basis for independence No vote” headline8. Patriotism and nationalism, sometimes erroneously considered synonyms, have different connotationsi. Patriotism involves a more positive connotation, as it is based on the idea of unity with those who share those feelings. Thus, for a patriot, the issue of a referendum should be a decision of ‘head and heart.’ In contrast, nationalism denotes “a nation's wish and attempt to be politically independentibid and is based on the belief that one’s country is superior to all the others. Thus, we may safely conclude that two opposite feelings are put at the heart of the Yes and Better Together campaigns. The headline and the message stress the ‘separatist’ nature of the Yes campaign, blame the SNP for ‘a cold analysis of nation’s financial balance sheet’ibid and undermine the SNP’s political stance.

6The shared British identity was also made a point of reference, which is observed under the headline ‘Talk up benefits of Union’. 9 The Scottish Tory leader urged that Anti-independence campaigners must “hammer homethe benefits of the Union to both Scotland and the UK”. Further he appeals to the people of Scotland, reminding them about the shared past, the dark days when they had to stand together, finally stresses the real strength of the union which is stronger than a mere political deal.

7What we might conclude from the discussed headlines is that the strategy of the Better Together campaign was well balanced and moderate and was backed by almost all the Scottish newspapers. However, although the language of the campaign was not acid and the two sides of the campaign did not get involved in firing back at each other, the stressing of the unrealistic nature of the campaign managed to spread uncertainty and fear for the future of the country. The role of the media in the outcome is crucial, as almost none of the newspapers supported the idea of independence.

Indyref in English Newspapers

8The reaction of English newspapers to the referendum campaign in Scotland varied significantly both in accordance with political preferences of the newspaper and the time remaining before the voting took place. Most English media showed a certain amount of scepticism when the referendum was first announced, and were inclined to treat the idea as a joke. However, as the voting time was nearing, the tone of media materials changed. Some papers, regardless of their political views, were urging Scotland to reject the referendum. The Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Sunday Mirror capitalized on the concepts of the successful past (The Battle for Britain was a popular slogan during WWII and was borrowed by the Sunday Times to express the attitude to the referendum). The Telegraph's opinion was based on the words of Lord Dannatt, the ex-army head, who stressed that Scotland and England had fought together in WWII.

9Some newspapers expressed concerns that a smaller country would be unable to solve global problems effectively, environmental issues being one of them.

10The Star and the Sunday Times on the contrary, emphasized the importance of the referendum as a manifestation of the country's democracy and the sign of political awakening in Scotland.

11The only exception was the Sun with two different leading articles – one for the English edition, the other – for Scottish, with the English version being sceptical about the referendum, and the Scottish – relatively neutral.

12To summarize, we can safely say that the majority of English papers supported the Better Together slogan.

Brexit in English Newspapers

13A seemingly quiet political life after Indyref 2014 was soon disrupted by the decision of David Cameron to hold a referendum to define whether the UK should remain member of the European Union. Before discussing the way Brexit is reflected by the language, we will give a brief overview of Brexit as such to make certain linguistic nuances clearer.

14Brexit is an extremely complex political and economic process that caused tension between previously tolerant groups of population. This paper does not aim to analyse the political and social causes of Brexit. Now it would be too premature to speak about the consequences of Brexit and, indeed, it is not the subject theme of our research. However, we may safely say that no matter the outcome, Brexit has been one of the most serious challenges to the UK as a nation. For example, it triggered speculations on another Scottish independence referendum (Scotland is an ardent Remainer) and raised concerns about free movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Besides, some controversial decisions made by the current PM, Boris Johnson, have already caused splits in the political forces that had seemed monolithic and unanimous before. The Conservative party saw a most serious split when its 21 members refused to support Johnson in his decision on the no-deal Brexit.

15Therefore, it is little wonder that such a complicated and a controversial process gave boost to the appearance of new words or re-consideration of the already existing lexis. Some words acquired new, Brexit-related meanings.

16First, we have to say that some Brexit vocabulary, used to describe the process itself, can hardly be regarded as new. These vocabulary items, neutral in tone, have existed for many years in EEC/EU documentation and have been, until recently, of interest to political analysts, economists, and EU officials. However, during the Brexit campaign these words came under media attention and became known to the public, as they were used to explain the procedures involved in Brexit. Such words and phrases include, for instance, free market, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, Common Travel Area10, Customs Union, the European Communities Act (and, indeed, many other titles of EU acts), the Four Freedoms, hard/soft border, member states, opt-outs, the qualified majority votes, and many others, used to describe how the EU works.

  • ii https://public.oed.com/blog/brexit-and-the-oed/

17More emotionally colourful words denote realia that emerged during the Brexit process: the Brexit bus, Three Baskets, Brexchosis ibid, Europhobia, Europhilia, cakeism. The Oxford English Dictionary has already registered Brexit itself and a number of similar coinages: Bregret, Brexodus, Grexit, remaniac, demographical villain.ii

18Some well-known words have developed entirely new meanings, now related to Brexit: snowflake, cherry picking.

19British media have been playing a significant role in both coinage and dissemination of new words. As television in the UK is considered the least biased mass medium 11, it is newspapers and their online versions that compete for their influence on public opinion on Brexit and the current political deadlock. The role of e-media should be mentioned, too. Sky News and Vice News used YouTube to upload short videos where members of the public were asked how they were planning to vote. The polls were accompanied with images of activists handing out flyers with Leave or Remain materials respectively by using the KISS strategy (Keep it simple, stupid)12. Leavers effectively influenced blue collars from provincial towns or rural places and made them feel that they were able to take control and win the war against liberal citizens.

20National identity was at the core of the KISS strategy, as a result of which the UKIP and its leader, N. Farage, gained popularity by showing YouTube videos of the Second World War, the Falkland War, images of the Royal family, football, cricket, rural landscapes etc. According to Lambert, 60% of the Leavers identified themselves as English, not British or European13.

21English newspapers played a significant role in the outcome of the referendum. However, it would be an oversimplification to say that a particular newspaper reflects opinions by a particular political party as it was at the beginning of the referendum campaign. By analysing the headlines that the beginning of 2016, it is possible to say that The Daily Express and the Sun were the most ardent supporters of the Leave campaign, whereas The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Independent expressed the Remain position. The Daily Mail stayed neutral. These data support the observations made by Wright14. At the same time, it is obvious that both sides used similar speech strategies to promote their point of view. It should be mentioned that from the very beginning of the referendum campaign English newspapers divided members of the communication process into 'us' and 'them', i.e. people who shared the same opinion about Brexit and who opposed this position. Newspaper headlines, for example, used speech strategies aimed not only to prove the correctness and viability of their own point of view, but also to discredit those whose opinions differ. We can distinguish four main tactics: insult, sarcasm, accusation, and threat. Therefore, such headlines as NHS worker wipes the floor with Cameron in EU debate and orders him to do his part 15 and EU referendum live: Cameron warns of economic timebomb16 were common for both Leavers and Remainers. Such words as threat, ban, accuse, crime, risks, limbo found a stable place on newspaper pages.

22Both sides equally used precedent names (i.e. names reflecting cultural peculiarities of the nation and serving as landmarks to distinguish between “us” and “them”17. This device draws parallels between political opponents and precedent names in order to make unfavourable comparisons, e.g. Want to know what real racism is? Ask Donald Trump, not Brexiteers18 or Brexit campaign resonates with Catalan separatists 19. In the second example, the comparison is made doubly strong due to separatists, the word with a negative connotation.

23The Leave newspapers made immigration policy a scapegoat, distracting public attention from more serious economic problems. Migrants take our jobs: Britons losing out to foreign workers20 is just one example of populist headlines.

24After the results of the referendums were announced and the initial emotional reaction subsided, the focus shifted onto the explanation of the procedures the UK and the EU had to follow to start – and finish! – the process. The emotional reactions were expressed rather by readers in their comments than newspapers themselves, as it was clear that Brexit was a new unavoidable reality. The tone of newspaper headlines was slightly emotional, e.g., UK votes to leave EU after dramatic night divides nation21. The Sun and the Daily Mail reacted as See EU later! 22 and We're Out! 23 respectively; The FT took a business-like tone Tory Brexiters urge Cameron to stay regardless of vote results 24. It can be safely said that newspapers in the continental part of Europe expressed more concern and anxiety than English papers. Some exceptions could be noticed, however: No second chance for Britain: Germany's threat to UKYou'll never be allowed back in EU or Don't mention the B-word! or Pity the Brexpats! Ibid demonstrate the same strategies we have mentioned before. However, the necessity to inform the public of the coming changes made many printed media use a calmer tone. Therefore, soon the technical exit-related language replaced emotions to prepare the nation for the near future.

25However, as the talks on Brexit showed a lack of progress in reaching a deal with the UK and the situation became complicated due to the inability of May's government to suggest a suitable solution, the tone of most newspapers started to change. The political loyalty previously seen in British printed media was replaced with the desire to publish the hot news first regardless of the party membership of the person who made the news. The language of certain politicians as well as journalists became stronger and more aggressive. September 2019 saw the unprecedented rise in aggression in political speeches multiplied by mass media. The Prime Minister's use of such lexis as surrender, traitor, attack, and other examples of inflammatory language resulted in accusations of raising the level of violence not only in print, but also in real life. His mention of Mrs Cox25 and subsequent threats to female politicians all over the country marked the British political landscape with heavy scars. Many newspapers (local and national) report cases of violence in connection with Johnson’s rhetoric, although in our opinion the connection has to be proved by qualified doctors or police investigators, not journalists. Almost all the printed and e- media also reported the use of the word humbug the PM resorted to when he was asked to comment on the fears expressed by female MPs, although Johnson said later his words were misinterpreted. This is one typical feature of the current situation: media are accused of misinterpreting certain words or quoting only phrases taken out of the context, which is a biased approach to news presentation and a threat to objectivity. The language situation resulted in Parliament's decision on using moderate language. Now the tension is escalating and on October 2, 2019 The Independent wrote that the EU ‘shot down’ Johnson's plans, whereas Johnson is reported to have used the vocabulary as vote out of the jungle26. The rhetoric similar to this is multiplied by mass media and the verbal aggression gains momentum. It is now demonstrated not only by politicians. Mass media seem to collect stories related to Brexit to escalate the tension. The Independent reported that Brexit referendum triggered man's acute psychosis, doctor says27. Business pages of English newspapers take a more serious (or less sensational) tone, but the choice of words is no less alarming. The Metro news has published the list of companies that have collapsed or suffered since Brexit28. The avalanche of similar articles resulted from the collapse of Thomas Cook and although it is clear that the company went bankrupt not only because of Brexit, its name is usually mentioned when the economic issues of Brexit are discussed. Ironically, it was Thomas Cook that started to use the terms Brexit-guaranteed and Brexit Price Guarantee on their Client support website.

26Mass media's language has become more insulting and acid. Brexit has infected British politics from top to bottom 29, PM whipping up riot fears to avoid Brexit extension 30, Civil war over Brexit 31, emergency meeting, loom, terrible week, terminal decline (independent) are several examples to name but a few.

27Readers' comments on Facebook pages of the said newspapers are also characterized by increasing aggression. Clowns, morons, die in the ditch are a few examples of violent words, which may be a sign of rising tempers, dissatisfaction, and frustration.

28The previously popular slogans (Make Britain great again) are now used ironically: e.g., The Economist accompanies the slogan with a picture of Boris Johnson riding the Brexit Bus down the roller coaster into nothingness.iii

29Tony Thorne, a visiting linguistics consultant at King’s College London, insists that British people cannot keep up with the growth of Brexitspeak32. The allusion to Orwell demonstrates the state of the current political language in the UK – Mr Thorne calls it ‘the toxic terminology of populism’ people find difficult to follow.

Brexit in Scottish newspapers

30The Scottish coverage of Brexit has also undergone serious changes. The changing reality and the prospect of leaving the EU shook the atmosphere and renewed the discourse on Scotland’s Independence. In the Referendum of 2016, the majority of Britain’s regions of England and Wales voted to leave the EU, whereas the majority of Scotland with 62 percent voted to remain in the EU. On 24 June 2016, The Courier launched the headline “N. Sturgeon says new independence referendum now ‘highly likely’ 33 marking the return of the issue of the Scottish Independence back to SNP’s agenda. This time the agenda was largely backed by the majority of the Scottish newspapers, particularly The National, launched in the November of 2014, after the Independence referendum.

31In contrast to London-based newspapers, where Brexit was presented as an opportunity to take back the control of the borders and a lifetime opportunity for regaining UK’s sovereignty, the majority of the Scottish newspapers – who endorsed the Remain Campaign – regarded Brexit as a threat to Scotland’s socioeconomic welfare and the future of the country as a part of the European community. The latter can be observed in the following headlines: Brexit poses risk to higher education 34; Remain Brexit would put Scotland in “very, very difficult position” with no best scenario35; Remain campaigners warn of ‘devastating’ impact of Brexit 36.

32Brexit has made the prospects of the second Scottish independence referendum more realistic. Some headlines point at SNP’s aspiration to take advantage of the UK Government’s impasse over Brexit especially when it has become clear that No Deal Brexit may become a reality. Sturgeon claimed that the Scottish Parliament has been “side-lined during Brexit negotiations” and that “the case for independence has grown stronger every day” 37.

33The No Deal scenario has been crucial in changing public opinion towards the new independence referendum. This was the push for getting on the side of the Brexit opponents even the No voters of Indyref 1. Three separate polls made on the week of the Brexit referendum in Scotland showed that the majority of Scots would vote in favour of independence from the UK, with about 50 per cent in favour of independence, and 9 per cent undecided38. The idea that the number of supporters of the Scottish Independence is growing is suggested by another headline “The reality is kicking in” – Brexit voters starting to feel “Bregret” informing about the dissatisfaction and big regret of Brexit voters39.

34The headlines that circulated in the Scottish national and local press in 2016 indicate the rapid development of the events and demonstrate the aspiration to bring the issue of Independence back to Scotland’s political agenda. In comparison with the coverage of 2013-2014, a gradual increase of tension and emotiveness is obvious due to the Brexit-triggered shift in the language. Fight, counterblast, blast, gun fired, major push, boost, etc. have become one of the frequently repeated elements of the press coverage, each carrying out its function in directing the readers to create a certain view of the reality.

35Unlike Indyref 1, the issues on identity take larger space in the press coverage from 2015 to 2019. What becomes evident is that the discourse is more focused on the concept of unity with Europe and the wish of Scots to be identified as Europeans. This was complemented with a large variety of alarming headlines and leads on the economic losses that the exit from the EU might entail. SNP MEP Alyn Smith’s emotional speech in the European Parliament and his appeal to support Scotland hit the headlines on 28 June 2016: Scotland did not let you down; do not let Scotland down 40.

36Smith makes it clear that Scotland is interested in continuing its membership to the EU. He mentions that he is ‘proudly Scottish and proudly European’ and actually voices the attitude of those who have voted against Brexit. For Scotland and for all those who voted against Brexit to be a part of the EU means being “internationalist, cooperative, ecological, fair, Europeanibid.

37It is understandable that being a part of Europe is important not only for ensuring balance in socioeconomic conditions, but for providing a firm ground to associate themselves as bearers of “European values” for those 40 percent of Scots who consider themselves to be Scottish not British and for the 29 percent of those Scots who consider themselves more Scottish than British41. The disappointment of the 62 per cent of Scottish voters with the Referendum results gave SNP the support to voice Scotland’s interests in continuing relationship with Europe and propose a framework for ensuring Scotland’s place in the European Single Market. Scotland’s Brexit plan was not acceptable for Westminster. The clash over the issue triggered a more aggressive rhetoric on both sides, which became largely reflected in the newspapers and gave an upsurge of harsh speech.

38The headlines covering the period from 2016 to 2017 (The Press and Journal, the Courier (Dundee), The Herald, The Scottish Sun, The Scotsman, The Scottish Express) demonstrate the negatively charged discourse full of mutual accusations, warnings, and sarcasm. That the confrontation and the war of words was to be tough with the elements of a duel can be judged by “The gloves are off: May v. Sturgeon’ 42 and many other headlines.

39Even a cursory glance at how the UK and particularly the Scottish press has been leading the discourse on Brexit since 2016, makes is clear that political correctness has become alien to these debates. Consequently, the newspapers while reflecting the atmosphere resort to a more aggressive and blustering language. After PM T. May’s resignation, verbal abuse, harsh rhetoric, offensive language, mutual insults have dominated in the Scottish press with the increase of the uncertainty and fear and with the speedier efforts of SNP to take control over the situation and put Scoexit into action.

40Another peculiarity of the press coverage of 2019 is that the latter has shifted from an institutional discourse to the domain of personal insults, which is an unprecedented phenomenon and raises concerns over the boundaries of the freedom of speech and hate speech. A number of headlines suggest that the discourse on political issues and the clashes of viewpoints have turned into a stream of invective and vulgar speech, which is evidenced by the readers’ comments as well. The police found it important to interfere and urge politicians and public figures to use ‘temperate and responsible language’ when debating Brexit43.

Conclusion

41What can be inferred from the data collected is that the discourse on the issue of the Scottish independence has undergone significant shift during the period 2014-2019. Brexit was a huge trigger to renew the discourse on independence. After the Referendum of 2016 the discourse entered a completely new phase and new level, which is marked by harsh rhetoric due to the increasing confrontation between Scotland and England.

42The change from moderate to harsh rhetoric is obvious judging by the language of both the English and Scottish press coverage. The obvious similarity lies in the use of increasingly aggressive and emotionally coloured lexis with a general shift away from political correctness. The general election announced by the Conservative Party is yet again changing the tone of both English and Scottish papers, making it more sarcastic and aggressive. Another peculiarity of the press coverage since 2016 is that the institutional discourse was overtaken by the discourse at personal level, which is indicative of a significant decline in the language culture of political debates and consequently the press.

43The differences between the English and Scottish newspapers reflect the different interpretation of the concept of independence. While England is torn between outright nationalism and the loyalty to the EU, the new initiative of the Scottish Parliament to hold another referendum is causing despair in many Scottish residents. The notion of British identity was replaced by European identity, as more and more people in Scotland tend to identify themselves as Europeans.

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Note de fin

i https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/

ii https://public.oed.com/blog/brexit-and-the-oed/

iii https://twitter.com/theeconomist/status/1154780972191277060)

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Référence papier

Mariana S. Sargsyan et Evgeniia V. Zimina, « Redefinitions of Britain and Britishness in Media Texts »Observatoire de la société britannique, 28 | 2022, 157-175.

Référence électronique

Mariana S. Sargsyan et Evgeniia V. Zimina, « Redefinitions of Britain and Britishness in Media Texts »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 février 2023, consulté le 30 mai 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/5699 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.5699

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Auteurs

Mariana S. Sargsyan

Yerevan State University, Armenia

Evgeniia V. Zimina

Kostroma State University, Russia

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