The Year in Brexit as Seen Through British Tabloids

 In U.S.
If Britain’s biggest right-wing tabloids spent the first half of 2016 pushing hard for the idea of Brexit, 2017 was the first full year they had to cover the reality of it. It was a period that kicked off negotiations between the U.K. and the EU over the terms of their divorce, and one that included a surprise snap election in which Prime Minister Theresa May lost her majority in parliament after gambling she could expand it.

It was also a year of stalling, confusion, and bureaucratic jockeying in Brussels. Whereas advocating for Brexit offered opportunities for sensational headlines about “The Deadly Cost of Our Open Borders” or pun-inflected appeals to patriotism like “BeLEAVE in Britain,” the negotiations themselves have presented different challenges. What, after all, is sensational about the U.K. and EU’s modest goal this year to achieve “sufficient progress” on certain issues for the next round of talks to start?

It’s an important problem for tabloids like The Sun, The Daily Mail, and The Daily Express, which are among the most widely-circulating newspapers in Britain, and whose audience has a great deal of overlap with Brexit voters. “In Britain after the so-called Brexit vote, the power of the tabloids is evident,” wrote Katrin Bennhold in The New York Times in May. “Their readers, many of them over 50, working class and outside London, look strikingly like the voters who were crucial to the outcome of last year’s referendum on membership in the European Union. It is these citizens of Brexitland the tabloids purport to represent. … [T]hey see themselves as Middle England’s embassies in London.”

And part of that job, in what the British journalist Charlie Beckett has described as the tabloids’ “populist, partisan” approach to the news, is finding drama. So when some Conservative lawmakers considered voting against setting a certain date for the U.K.’s exit, The Daily Mail found the high stakes in this seemingly procedural question: “DON’T BETRAY YOUR VOTERS!” The genuine surprise of Theresa May losing her parliamentary majority in Parliament prompted The Sun to declare “MAYHEM” (Get it? Because Theresa May?) If the tabloids represent an extreme version of the tendency, the rest of the British media is not immune from it. “The media … tends to assume that what we’re doing now is the most exciting, the most difficult, and the most contentious thing we’re going to be doing,” Anand Menon, the director of U.K. in a Changing Europe, an independent research institute, told me last week. “But it isn’t.” The hard part of Brexit negotiations has barely begun.

So how did the pro-Brexit press cover the story it tried so hard to bring about? Here’s a sampling of the year in British tabloids and beyond.

* * *

Six months into her stint as prime minister, and seven months after her country’s fateful decision to leave the European Union, Theresa May marked the new year with a speech at London’s Lancaster House, in which she famously declared that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.” And while the prospect of a “no-deal Brexit” may no longer be as popular as when May first said the now-ubiquitous phrase (a September poll found that 34 percent of people polled support walking away from the EU without an agreement if necessary), the speech offered an image of a U.K. that was ready for a fight. The pro-Brexit Daily Mail was ready to essentially declare May a new Margaret Thatcher:

But it wasn’t until a Wednesday afternoon in March that the U.K.’s plan to leave the EU was officially set into motion. At 12:30 p.m. on March 29, the British government sent a hand-delivered letter to European Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels notifying him of the U.K.’s intention to leave the bloc and formally beginning the process of talks over its exit. “Brexit Day,” as it would come to be remembered, was highly-anticipated by those backing the campaign to leave the EU and much-dreaded by those who supported efforts for the U.K. to remain. For the center-right Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet that supported Brexit, it was “magnificent”:

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