The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom. 

Before Brexit, I never saw the UK as patriotic. We were proud to be British, yes, in terms of our impact on global culture – British music, British telly, British icons, even our internet meme culture was quintessentially ours – but proud of what our country did in the past and how we’ve made an effort to build on from that in the present? Never. I’ve always been too aware of our role in the empire and how we treated those that arrived on our shores afterwards, to feel anything remotely patriotic. 

But when 52% of my country voted to leave the European Union based on a campaign that fiercely promised to ‘take back control of Britain’ and liberate it from the oppressive chicken coop prison” of the EU, I realized people in the UK were a lot more patriotic than I originally thought.

Along with racially fuelled anti-migrant propaganda, some groups from the Vote Leave campaign ran the rhetoric of ‘Make Britain Great Again’ – an inflammatory slogan that mirrored Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign; a crusade similarly based on bigotry and nationalism.

‘Make Britain Great Again’ wanted to take Britain back to its supposed post-war “glory days”; the time shortly after we had won the war, but also the time when being gay was illegal, there was no anti-discrimination legislation to prevent landlords from refusing to accept tenants of color, and despite all the work by those fighting for women’s suffrage in the war, women were once again being shoehorned into the feminine ideal of the “the perfect mother and housewife”. Ah yes, the good old days.

And a large part of the Vote Leave campaign was run through British tabloids. Popular newspapers like The Sun and The Daily Mail, openly backed the decision to leave the EU, running so-called patriotic front-page news stories that encouraged readers to leave the ‘increasingly greedy, wasteful, bullying, and breathtakingly incompetent’ European Union, and vote leave for ‘our chance to make Britain even greater.’

And it worked. Statistics show that the newspapers with the highest proportion of leave voters were right-wing British tabloids; by these British tabloids openly backing the Vote Leave campaign – and endorsing the idea that Britain was better at a time when minorities had fewer rights – they allowed this harmful way of thinking to become acceptable once again.

If the 2016 Brexit referendum shattered the glass of an already cracked Britain, the British tabloids were the rocks that finally smashed it into pieces. They showed many bigoted Brits, who claim to have felt silenced in the past, that if the country’s press could openly racially discriminate, so could they. And then in 2020, the pandemic hit. And later on in the year, Covid-19 vaccinations came – along with anti-vaccination rhetoric. 

If the 2016 Brexit referendum shattered the glass of an already cracked Britain, the British tabloids were the rocks that finally smashed it into pieces.

I can’t generalize for all readers of the British tabloids – nor would I want to – but many would say that there is perhaps a correlation between those that had their views on the reasons to leave the EU swayed by these papers and those that began to engage with the idea that Covid-19 vaccinations were unsafe. I’ve read enough tabloid newspapers to know that they are perfectly okay with twisting the truth, but when the government backs the science, it’s a lot more difficult to twist hard facts.

So instead, these tabloids are repackaging the Leave campaign’s vision of Britain’s so-called post-war “golden era,” to convince anti-vaxxers of the importance of Covid-19 vaccinations.

Indeed, The Sun’s ‘Jabs Army’ campaign – backed by prime-minister, Boris Johnson, himself – not only includes a heart-shaped logo complete with a union jack, but also makes use of war jargon such as ‘sign up’ and ‘vaccination volunteer force’; phrases that allude to the compulsory conscription and drafting in of soldiers, and the general post-war celebratory mood of the country coming together for the greater good.

And this isn’t the first time in the pandemic these tabloids have used Britain’s obsession with the war to tell their readers what to think; The Daily Mail devoted a whole column to Captain Tom Moore, the late army veteran who raised almost £33 million for the NHS by walking 100 laps around his garden before he turned 100.

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Of course, what Captain Tom did was great, but the tabloids spent longer writing about the fact that it was a war veteran funding the NHS, and not that our shambles of a government had left our National Health Service in such a state that it even needed this funding in the first place.   

While I’ve got my own issues with British tabloids, I am definitely not against them running a pro-vaccination campaign – if it means the country is able to get immunized quicker, then I certainly don’t see it as an issue.

But I do worry that by these tabloids using the Brexit utopian dream of a post-war “glory days” Britain as a means to an end for vaccinations, it could quickly become the much more permanent end vision of Britain, that these readers have long been hoping for.  

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  • Tilly Brogan

    Part-writer, part-booktuber, Tilly is an Editorial Fellow at The Tempest. She loves writing about current affairs and women’s rights, but also passionately defends YA books and considers herself a regular in most YA fandoms. She can pluck her eyebrows without wincing and sink enough vodka shots to raise the Titanic.