“The facts don’t work”: the EU referendum campaign and the journalistic construction of ‘post-truth politics’

Collins, Jeremy (2018) “The facts don’t work”: the EU referendum campaign and the journalistic construction of ‘post-truth politics’. Discourse, Context & Media, 253. ISSN 2211-6958


Arron Banks, the entrepreneur and largest donor to the Brexit campaign for the UK to leave the EU, has acknowledged in a newspaper interview that the successful campaign was predicated on generating an emotional response because ‘facts don’t work’ (Booth et al., 2016). The assertions made by the campaign – such as the £350M per week cost of EU membership which could instead be spent on the National Health Service – have been identified by commentators such as NYU professor of journalism Jay Rosen as ‘post-factual’ (Rosen, 2016).

‘Post-truth politics’ has been characterised as being recently imported to the UK from the United States (where it was found most recently in the campaigning of Donald Trump), and is understood as being in opposition both to Habermasian conceptions of the public sphere and to journalistic notions of objectivity.

However, it can be challenged on the basis that political communications, in the form of spin, propaganda, rhetoric and public relations has always included such techniques (Negrine, 2008: 13). In this view, ‘post-truth politics’ is less a distortion of ‘true’ political activity, and more a discursive construction in the debates around the legitimacy and limits of political speech.

In this context, this paper will seek to understand how British media have constructed the notions of truth, fact and the ‘post-factual’ during the referendum campaign, by analysing a number of key contested issues in the referendum debates, with a particular focus on the ‘fact-check’ websites and blogs which emerged in order to address what media channels presented as a distorted and unenlightening political process.

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