The Scottish referendum – did it unite the Guardian and the Mail?

The Guardian and the Mail are very different newspapers. The Guardian is a left-leaning liberal broadsheet while the Mail is a more popular right-leaning ‘middle-market’ newspaper. Generally, they can be relied on to disagree with one another on a range of social, economic and political issues. However, both newspapers supported the recent “No” campaign during the Scottish Independence referendum, which raises a few interesting questions – how did their discourse around Scottish independence contrast? Did they use similar arguments and language, or did they still manage to retain their individual identities?

To explore these questions, we built corpora of the Mail and Guardian (and their Sunday editions) from 18 June 2014 until 18 September 2014 (the three months leading up to the referendum on Scottish independence) by collecting all articles which contained the term Scottish directly followed by independence, referendum, vote or poll.

We then examined the keywords which emerged when each corpus of articles was compared against the 1 million word BE06 Corpus of general British English. A keyword is simply a word which occurs much more often in a corpus when compared against a larger reference corpus. Corpus tools (we used Antconc) can quickly calculate keywords by conducting statistical tests on all the words in the corpus. We looked at the strongest (in terms of statistical saliency) 100 or so keywords for each corpus, and then compared the two sets of keywords to see which occurred just in the Guardian or just in the Mail, but also which were shared by both. The table below shows the keywords that were found.

Guardian Keywords Keywords in both newspapers Mail Keywords
austerity, Britain, Brown, campaigners, Carrell, country, devolution, EU, festival, Holyrood, ISIS, nation, nationalism, north, oil, political, politicians, politics, polling, polls, powers, Saturday, says, secretary, Severin, voted, votes, voting, weather, YouGov Alex, Alistair, all, August, bank, BBC, better, border, Cameron, campaign, currency, Darling, David, debate, Ed, Edinburgh, election, former, Games, Glasgow, has, independence, independent, July, Labour, leader, London, Miliband, minister, MPs, nationalists, No, party, poll, prime, pro, referendum, Salmond, Scotland, Scots, Scottish, September, SNP, tax, Thursday, Together, Tory, UK, undecided, union, vote, voters, Westminster, will, would, Yes Balmoral, border, cabinet, CBI, chairman, crisis, investors, James, Kingdom, MP, PM, prince, Queen, said, shares, sterling, Tories, Tuesday, twitter, uncertainty, United, warned, week, year,

 

This table isn’t really an analysis though – we need to explore the keywords in more detail by reading the articles that each keyword appears in and getting a sense for how and why they were used. This is achieved by looking at concordance lines, although we can also expand each line to read the entire article. Here are some of our preliminary findings.

The Mail was much more concerned than the Guardian about how the vote would impact on the Royal Family, with its keywords including Prince, Queen and Balmoral. Much is made of the queen’s ‘neutrality’, her relationship with David Cameron, her ‘soft power’ in influencing the vote, her carefully calculated comments, and characteristically, what she is wearing (“a turquoise outfit and hat” in one article). The Queen is also described as receiving daily updates from Balmoral.

The Mail also refers to the keyword uncertainty a lot more than the Guardian, particularly appearing concerned about how the progress of the campaign is bad for markets, investors, businesses and pension holders who don’t like uncertainty e.g. “uncertainty is the enemy of investment’. The use of the Mail keyword crisis also pins the Scottish vote to the idea of a crisis – the vote could trigger an “EMU-style currency crisis within the UK” but there could also be a “leadership crisis” for both Labour and the Conservatives. Another somewhat worrying Mail keyword is warned, with the Mail reporting various people and businesses (Stagecoach, Paul Krugman, Goldman Sachs, Standard Life, John Major, Mark Carney, Doug Flint) issuing warnings about a range of dire consequences that could occur if Scotland gains independence.

Perhaps surprisingly, twitter is a keyword for the Mail, which is interesting given the editor of the Mail, Paul Dacre’s dismissal of the ‘firestorm’ of tweets around a previous Mail article by Jan Moir which attracted the highest number of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission ever back in 2009. But the Mail now seems to have accepted the importance of Twitter and views tweets as newsworthy. To wit, it reports on Rupert Murdoch’s twitter behaviour, as well as tweets from people who disliked the Better Together advertising campaign #PatronisingBTLady. The Mail is especially disapproving of “tartan trolls” who use Twitter to attack celebrities like JK Rowling who endorse the Yes vote.

How about the Guardian? One keyword it used was nationalism, which at first glance may appear that the Guardian wished to critique the “Yes” voters as nationalists. However, there were cases were writers like Billy Bragg and George Monbiot argued that the label of nationalism was unfairly used to obscure ‘self determination’. One journalist approvingly refers to the lack of ‘braveheart nationalism’ in the campaign, although other journalists do attribute nationalism to some Scottish people, but this is felt to be due to London being out of touch and inward looking. Nationalism either doesn’t exist in the campaign, or when it does, can be excused.

Another Guardian keyword is austerity, with some journalists citing views that the current government’s austerity program being blamed as helping the yes camp. This could be an opportunity for the Guardian to blame the government’s economic policy for breaking up the union, but generally this is not done and instead, it is argued that a Yes vote would not end austerity, but merely impose it from Holyrood rather than Westminster.

Unlike the Mail, the Guardian doesn’t spend as much time reporting the warnings of ‘financial experts’, although the keyword oil was interesting, occurring with reference to North Sea Oil reserves and revenues. In a number of articles, the Guardian foregrounds claims by Sir Ian Wood that Alex Salmond has exaggerated North Sea Oil reserves by up to 60%. In terms of perspectivation, Sir Ian Wood’s position is given precedence over Salmond’s e.g. Wood is described as ‘one of the most influential figures in the Scottish oil industry’ and other people are described as quoting his position too. A woman who claims that the No campaigners have ‘downplayed the amount of oil we have left’ is subtly positioned as greedy: ‘It was “our oil”, she said…’ and thus her argument is weakened somewhat. At the end of the same article, another opinion, given by a local Lib Dem chairman who is described as a ‘marine engineer’ appears to be given more precedence: he says ‘Nobody knows how much oil is there’. The Guardian may not know how much oil there is, but it manages to do a good job of casting enough seeds of doubt to make us think that neither does Alex Salmond.

Finally, both newspapers had Yes as a keyword. How did they represent the yes campaigners? The Guardian made reference to yes voters who are starry-eyed, fierce, enterprising, determined, hardline, vocal and proud. It has very little to say about the no voters, indicating a somewhat subtle sense that the yes voters are a little pushy in their sentiments. The Mail doesn’t mention characteristics of the yes voters much, although it does refer to Alex Salmond as shouty and describes the no campaign as floundering and lacklustre.

So, while both newspapers generally supported Scotland staying within the UK, they each did it by using different strategies and in a way which helped them to maintain their own identities, reflecting the concerns and interests of their readers. From this admittedly preliminary analysis it is difficult to make a confident conclusion but the Guardian did appear to make more of an effort to allow a range of positions to be represented, and was somewhat more subtle in its disapproval of the ‘yes’ campaign. The two newspapers did have different strategies on what they said about each other in respect to the campaigning. The Mail barely mentioned the Guardian, only referring a couple of times to a Guardian poll that put Alistair Darling as scoring a victory over Alex Salmond during a two hour debate. The Guardian was more critical of the Mail, however, using the campaigning to get in a few digs at the Mail. One writer sneeringly referred to ‘the Daily Mail’s insistence that anyone who wants to see a fairer society must be a Stalinist’ And another Guardian columnist expressed surprise that ‘I’m on the same side as the Daily Mail too! Which appears to be taking a short break from convincing us the UK has gone down the tubes to press home a slightly perplexing message of: hey, please don’t break up this wonderful hideous slutty drunken immoral country where women, gays and foreigners don’t know their place!’

Now the vote is over, the two newspapers can get back in their respective bunkers.

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CASS co-investigator Paul Baker is a Professor of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University. His research interests corpus linguistics, language and gender/sexual identities and critical discourse analysis.