EU Referendum

EU referendum rivals woo UK press barons

There are four prizes for the Leave and Remain campaigns to fight over: the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and The Times.

Those titles have mostly lambasted David Cameron’s renegotiation but could yet swing behind Remain. “They’re leaving it very late,” said Roy Greenslade, a media commentator. “They’ve marched their readers in one direction; it would be difficult to march them in the other.”

The Guardian, The Independent, the Daily Mirror and the Financial Times have signalled they will back Yes. The Daily Express, owned by Richard Desmond, a UK Independence party donor, will urge its readers to vote No (although judging by an online poll in which 92 per cent voted for that option, they may need little encouragement).

Mr Cameron’s media team is resigned to losing The Sun, not least because of its strongly Eurosceptic readership, but it is hopeful that The Times, its sister paper, will support the Remain campaign.

Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of both titles, has used Twitter to encourage ministers to back Brexit. “Cameron’s deal with EU a nothing. How can sensible Cabinet colleagues accept this?” he wrote last week, in what was widely seen as a message to Michael Gove, the justice secretary, who is yet to declare his stance.

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Other proprietors may push their titles the other way. Jonathan Harmsworth, fourth Viscount Rothermere, chairman of the parent company of the Daily Mail, is “instinctively very pro-European,” says one person who knows him. Aidan Barclay, chairman of the parent company of The Daily Telegraph, is seen as close to bankers and businesspeople, who tend to favour EU membership.

Downing Street has been putting a great deal of effort into wooing the Telegraph, hoping at the very least to neutralise the criticisms of a paper read by many Conservative and Ukip supporters.

Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons, was persuaded by Mr Cameron that he need not quit the cabinet to make public his hostility to the EU. Instead Mr Grayling was persuaded to vent his frustration in a carefully constructed article in The Daily Telegraph, signed off by Number 10.

The prime minister also used the Telegraph to air his much-criticised contention that a Brexit vote would lead to refugees leaving Calais and setting up camp in Kent instead. This love from Number 10 seems to have been reciprocated. Among all the Tory papers, the Telegraph was the least outspoken in its criticism of Mr Cameron’s EU deal.

On the eve of May’s general election, the paper sent out an email urging readers to vote Conservative, bringing upon itself a fine from the Information Commissioner.

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LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 09: A general view of the front pages of British national newspapers on December 9, 2015 in London, England. The British press reacted to comments by Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, that the Metropolitan Police are scared to patrol certain Muslim areas of London. An online petition to ban Trump from entering Britain has garnered more than the 100,000 signatures required to force a House of Commons debate. (Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)

National media groups re-evaluate their business model and ways to promote content

The Daily Mail, meanwhile, has been withering in its attack on Mr Cameron’s draft EU deal, attempting to shame cabinet critics into speaking out under the front-page banner headline: “Who will speak for England?” However, the newspaper has shied away from an unequivocal recommendation to its readers that Britain would be better off out of the EU.

“There was a leader where we suggested we supported a British exit, but that was a mistake,” reveals one Daily Mail veteran. “There was a bit of a kerfuffle — that wasn’t supposed to be the position.”

One possibility is that the Mail backs the Remain campaign reluctantly, framing its stance with wording such as “with a heavy heart”. Another is that the Mail on Sunday, its sister paper, takes a pro-Europe stance.

Editors have to balance two other considerations: which side will win, and which coverage will boost sales. “The Mail and The Sun would hate to lose,” said Mr Greenslade. Newspapers would “look beyond” the short-term sales boost that a Eurosceptic stance might generate, he said. “Do they really think they’re going to benefit from not being part of the EU?”

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