Prisoners and researchers debate media role in Brexit

By Morwenna Bennallick, and Mark and Edward from HMP Swaleswide 

"It’s good to know other people’s perspectives. People you wouldn’t normally think have those sorts of educated opinions do have them! It makes you go - wow."

Every month, a group of researchers from Royal Holloway University and prisoners from HMP Swaleside use academic research as a springboard to discuss topical issues.  

The group was set up to support an ‘academic space’ within the prison with the aim of developing critical discussion between prisoners and PhD researchers. It is grounded within values of equality and co-production. Decisions on topics, activities and structure are made democratically.

In October, the group met to discuss the role the media played in the lead up to the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Prior to the meeting, each member read from a research paper by Maxwell McCombs: ‘The Agenda-Setting Role of the Mass Media in the Shaping of Public Opinion’. The paper attempts to address the issues surrounding the media’s influence in setting public agendas, and the power it has to focus public attention on a select few key issues.

Before discussion got underway the group formulated a set of rules to ensure group cohesion and to cultivate an atmosphere conducive to fruitful conversation. These included no cross talk; being respectful of the views and opinions of the rest of the group and giving everyone the chance to say their part.

Group 1

In this group the conversation kicked off with Kiran making the point that when the media push a political agenda, that they tend to side with the dominant force. Growing up in India, this was a major tactic deployed to win over the public, he said. The information the media would give out would lean more to one side, misinforming the public. The group believed this also happened in the UK.  

However, Ellie made the point that from her experience, the media can also do the opposite. While politicians may agree with issues she has campaigned for in the past, the media can plant fear in politicians and discourage them from acting for fear of negative treatment from the tabloids.

Another influence the group spoke about briefly is how the media can criminalise a person. For example, a potential jury member may see a public story indicating someone is guilty before trial and  be swayed before any evidence has been heard.

The discussion then moved onto Brexit and the group agreed that the media focussed most of their attention on subjects such as the NHS and immigration. The group believed this was due to the fact that these are highly emotional subjects and more likely to make people act. They lead to racially motivated debates and were considered the main reasons that people voted to leave the EU.  

The group said people generally read what they tend to agree with, and this has the effect of validating existing beliefs and views. So if someone had an issue with immigration (and one group member made the point that immigration seems to be more of an issue in areas that don’t have many immigrants), they will tend to engage with media that show negative images of immigrants, thus ‘confirming’ their beliefs. 

Group 2

During the discussion of what role the media played in the lead up to Brexit, the group coined three ‘key strategies’ employed by the media organisations in their attempts to influence the public’s perceptions.

The strategies are:

1. Explicit Agenda Setting

Who holds the power in the media organisations? When there are a few people who own so many of the newspapers and media outlets, these individuals can decide what gets published and when, according to their own interests. 

2. Implicit agenda setting

This term was used to describe the fact that the public does not hear about the majority of what happens in the world. For example there was live streaming of planes crashing into the World Trade Centre in the US, yet the public is less aware of the oppression and daily hardships of less developed, less “politically close” countries.

3. Institutional agenda setting

This term was used to suggest that the media have a role to play in creating norms within an institution. As an example, racism is generally condemned in the media. However, when it suited the agenda (eg. Brexit) some media organisations were prepared to provide a platform for its propagation.

Critically thinking about the group

One group member said: 

“The critical reading group has already been better than I expected. I was invited into the group by some guys I already knew. I was teasing them about going, but they knew I liked to read so they said I should come along. I’m glad I did! On the wings, you’re used to conversations about dumb things. Here, we are talking about meaningful things. Stuff that makes you think.

“It’s good to know other people’s perspectives. People you wouldn’t normally think have those sorts of educated opinions do have them! It makes you go - wow.

“It’s made me think about myself too. When somebody said that people use the media to validate their opinion, I realised that’s what I’ve done. Not just about Brexit, but that’s how I use the news.

“It’s also been good to talk to people about reading. I’ve always liked reading but sometimes it doesn’t go in. I thought: “Am I dumb?” But now I know that other people (including university researchers) get that too.”

The critical reading group is held on the last week of the month at HMP Swaleside. If you are interested in finding out more or in holding a similar group within your institution please contact Morwenna Bennallick.