EU Referendum

EU referendum: What's most likely to sway your vote?

Sun front page
Image caption The Sun makes its views on the EU referendum clear: "We must set ourselves free from dictatorial Brussels," it urges voters in a front page editorial

The Sun newspaper - which has a reputation for backing winners in elections - has come out in support of Brexit. But do newspapers really have any influence over how people will vote - and if not, what could sway voters' final choice in the EU referendum?


"It's The Sun Wot Won It" bragged the now-notorious headline.

The year was 1992, and John Major had won a narrow - and unexpected - victory in the general election for the Conservatives.

The Sun, which had waged a vitriolic campaign against his Labour rival Neil Kinnock, claimed the glory. When the paper switched sides and backed Labour's Tony Blair in 1997, it was again seen as a key moment.

But with fewer people buying a daily print newspaper, does an endorsement from the Sun, or any other title, really woo voters?

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Tom Felle, a lecturer in journalism at City University, believes the Sun may historically have been good at reading the mood of the country and backing a winner - but he questions whether it ever had the power to sway opinion.

"'It's The Sun Wot Won It' is a great headline, but I'm not sure the Sun's influence is as big as it would like to think," he says.

"In the case of the EU referendum, I think a lot of its readers are probably already decided."

Appearing before the Leveson Inquiry, Rupert Murdoch - whose News UK company publishes the Sun and the Times - himself admitted the "Wot Won It" headline was "tasteless and wrong", adding: "We just don't have that kind of power."

When asked what sway the paper had over the upcoming referendum, the Sun's associate editor Trevor Kavanagh told the BBC Mr Murdoch's view was "correct". He added: "We can only say what we believe. A lot of readers do believe what we say."

In fact, it's as likely that the Sun echoes its readers as influences them, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde John Curtice says - pointing out that the paper recently did a poll of its own readers.

Image caption The UK and Scottish editions of the Sun backed opposing sides on the general election - both were winners

"It did that in 1997, it did it again in 2010," he says. "In a declining industry, where it's trying to hang on to readers, it cannot afford to back something at odds with what readers think."

Indeed, the Sun and the Scottish Sun notably endorsed rival parties in the lead-up to the 2015 general election.

As yet, the Scottish Sun and the Times have not announced whether they are backing a side on Brexit - although there has been an assertion from ITV's Robert Peston that the Times is planning to oppose its sister paper and come out in support of Remain.

"The Times has not declared yet," is all the paper will say on the record.

"On the other hand," Mr Felle adds, "I think it's fair to say the media sets the agenda, so what the newspapers are talking about is what people are talking about in the pubs."

10 most influential newspapers in the 2015 General Election
The Daily Mail 30%
The Guardian 21%
The Times 20%
The Daily Telegraph 16%
The Sun 15%
Metro 10%
The Daily Mirror 9%
The Independent 9%
The Daily Express 9%
Local newspapers 7%

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On one point, Tom Felle says, evidence is clear: "Television remains absolutely number one for influence."

After last year's general election, 62% of people said TV coverage had been most powerful in helping them form their opinion, according to research carried out by Panelbase.

The live debates were deemed the most powerful of all TV coverage, with 38% of the 3,019 people surveyed saying they were swayed by what they saw.

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By comparison, 25% said they were influenced by newspapers, 17% said websites, 14% said radio, and 14% cited speaking to friends and family.

Perhaps surprisingly, least influential were social media and magazines, with Facebook at 7%, followed by Twitter at 4% and magazines at 2%, according to the poll.

Social media

Despite that, there is little doubt campaign strategists consider social media to be crucial.

Both sides in the EU referendum have poured resources into advertising on Facebook, according to the Financial Times. And in the 2015 general election, the Conservatives spent £1.2m on Facebook ads - more than it spent on posters.

The appeal for political parties is clear - they can directly target voters from particular demographics with personalised campaign messages.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Twitter created an emoji to encourage people to register to vote

On the other hand, any potential to influence the electorate may well be offset by the "echo chamber" effect of social media sites such as Facebook, where users' own curation of friends and pages, as well as the sites' algorithms, make it more likely that people simply see more of what they already like and believe.

Professor Matt Goodwin, a senior visiting fellow at Chatham House, says social media is "often hailed as being more influential than it is".

"It's not the reason people change their minds. It's not a mobilisation of the undecided."

Friends and family

If you are still trying to decide which box to tick on 23 June, chances are the topic has come up around the dinner table.

Sixty-one per cent of us have discussed the EU referendum with family, and 54% have discussed it with friends, an Opinium survey in May for the Observer suggests.

In the past, Labour, Conservative and Liberal loyalties were passed down through a family's generations.

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Media captionThe Ganger family in Cambridgeshire is divided by EU Referendum vote

Prof Goodwin agrees that families can still play a big role in bringing people into political tribes and passing down values.

Research done in 2010 suggested family ties and peer pressure were a decisive factor in how people voted - particularly among 18 to 24-year-olds.

But Europe is an issue that cuts across traditional party lines - and evidence suggests a clear generational divide, he says.

"Older people are tending to line up behind Brexit, younger people are tending to line up behind Remain. I expect on that basis there are quite a few divided families."

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Politicians and polls

Of course, there have been plenty of opinion polls published which attempt to predict which way the vote will go - as well as unofficial predictions from the bookies.

Many are wary of such projections after they failed to come close to predicting the outcome of last year's general election.

In the aftermath of Scotland's 2014 independence referendum, former First Minister Alex Salmond told the Herald that a poll which put the Yes camp in the lead published one week before the vote "was a poll too soon".

It shocked the No camp to "pull out all the stops", and lost his side the referendum, Mr Salmond said.

But does a sudden swing in the polls really push voters one way or another?

"Indirectly it could have an impact, in the sense that if you are a Leave campaigner you are going to redouble efforts," Prof Curtice says.

"On the other side of the coin, if the polls tell people its close, they are perhaps more likely to turn out and vote."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Both the Leave and Remain camps are trying to mobilise voters on core issues - the economy and immigration - Prof Curtice says

As to whether people are more likely to want to back a winner or root for the underdog based on what the polls says, research is inconclusive, Prof Curtice says.

Prof Goodwin agrees that polls are less pivotal than most politicians and journalists might like to think: "Most people don't notice polls at all. Most voters don't read a newspaper every day or talk about politics every day."

And while high profile politicians or party allegiance may have nudged people either way, he adds: "I'm not entirely convinced that the campaigns have had much influence."

Everything else...

So what other forces may be at work on polling day? There are long-held theories (largely debunked) that bad weather deters Labour-aligned voters from turning out. Or that voting behaviour can be affected simply by your mood on the day.

And of course, three of the UK's four nations have football teams currently competing in Euro 2016. Could that play a role?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Will a good performance by the home nations make people feel glad to be part of Europe?

Charlie Whelan, who served as the press man for Gordon Brown when he was Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, told the BBC they always avoided any political event clashing with a major football tie.

"You want to control the news agenda as much as you can," Mr Whelan says.

"If you have no idea what's going to happen on any given day, the agenda is set by 22 guys kicking round a football."

"If England, Wales or Northern Ireland have won their group, then it will make people feel good about being part of Europe," argues Mark Perryman, founder of the company Football Philosophy.

"If they come home early, people will ask, 'Do we really want to be part of this continent?'"

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Do fair weather voters really exist?

Image copyright PA
Image caption Bad weather on polling day is thought to affect turnout - but does it affect the result?

But Prof Goodwin dismisses all such theories as ridiculous.

"Ultimately, most people already have an idea as to how they are going to vote, and that's based on deeply held values and beliefs."

First and foremost in people's minds are two key issues, he says - the economy and immigration.

"What the campaigns are competing to do is mobilise those issues."

With nine days left to go, both camps will be working hard to win the argument until the last ballot is cast.

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