January was a huge news month and one that underscored how unusual the domination of Brexit over public discourse has been in the past couple of years.
Populus’s weekly polling series tracks the stories the public are noticing and it shows a state of affairs we haven’t seen since 2018: a country absorbed by several stories mostly unrelated to politics – and completely unrelated to Brexit.
The biggest story of the month as far as the public is concerned was the spread of coronavirus through China, which 55 per cent recalled as their most noticed piece of news. That roughly matches the level of interest paid to the outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2014 (50 per cent)
Donald Trump’s relations with the Middle East have attracted attention several times during the course of his presidency, but never more than last month, when a share of 51 per cent recalled the killing of Iran’s General Soleimani.
If that sounds a little low for an event that seemed to threaten international stability, it is because several other major stories were competing for attention at the same time. The Australian bushfires destroyed lives and homes and proved the most memorable story for as many as 20 per cent, but they royal family became even bigger news for the British public. For two straight weeks the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to relinquish royal duties was the country’s most-noticed story (38 and 24 per cent).
Meanwhile, the UK left the EU. The withdrawal deal was signed and sealed, but only 17 per cent closely followed the formalities. The average level of attention paid to Brexit throughout January was the lowest for eighteen months.
The politically engaged are also watching the early stages of the Labour leadership contest, but the wider public are not: no more than 2 per cent remembered it above other stories.
This, and not the past eighteen months, is the usual state of affairs. Stories about politicians, deals and trade relationships don’t normally stand out among everything else. Those hoping for public scrutiny over the implementation of Brexit equal to that which preceded it may end up disappointed.
Populus interviews a nationally representative sample of at least 2,000 British adults every week, and asks what news story they have noticed the most. The question is open-ended and participants can name any story.
Will Clothier is a Consultant at Populus
Will is a Consultant at Populus where he has delivered stakeholder research projects for household names across a range of sectors including sport, telecoms, culture, food, and leisure – advising clients on the views of politicians, journalists, and industry leaders. Recent stakeholder clients include the Premier League and BT.He researches public opinion quantitatively and qualitatively for political organisations, government departments, and businesses. Recently he has analysed public attitudes towards ‘populist’ economic policies post-Brexit, and the political attitudes of voters in different parts of the country. He works within Populus’s Reputation and Strategy division, having joined the company as a Research Executive. He graduated from Durham University with a first class degree in English Literature and holds the Market Research Society Advanced Certificate with a double merit.