Right-wing and Left-wing Temporal Narratives, Frames and Argumentation in Brexit Journalism
By Marko Joensuu
Before the Brexit referendum in June 2016, the official Vote Leave campaign focused its message on “taking back control”, whereas Britain Stronger in Europe was built around the core message of Britain being “better together” in the EU. From a narrative perspective, Vote Leave pitched Britain as the protagonist retaking control over the story whereas the Remain campaign’s Britain remained a member of an ensemble cast. From a temporal perspective, taking back control was a powerful frame, asserting future re-mastery on the world currently out of control. Contesting this simple albeit abstract frame reasserting sovereignty was cumbersome, as it entailed explaining the complexity of global economic flows, and every counterargument served to reinforce the frame.
The Brexit vote has often been portrayed as a failure of journalism to confront right-wing populism and nationalism, but the ingenuity of Vote Leave was also connecting with much deeper anxiety that many people feel about the lack of control in their lives. Some of the criticism of Brexit journalism is certainly justified, not least as even over three years after the referendum British journalists still seem to know little about the inner workings of the EU. But when it comes to the press, it predominantly supported Vote Leave, especially when it comes to the editorial policy, and often actively embraced right-wing populism and nationalism.
Around 41% of the press articles focusing on the referendum before it were pro Leave and 27% pro Remain, marking a dominant pro Brexit bias. Six out of nine newspapers had this dominance of pro Leave articles, with the strongest positions in the Daily Express, followed by the Daily Mail and The Sun. The Daily Mirror had the highest share of articles, followed by The Guardian and the Financial Times. All newspapers, whether predominantly pro Leave or pro Remain, included some articles from another point of view, but this proportion was smallest in the pro Leave Daily Express. After factoring in the reach of different newspapers, the pro Brexit bias was further accentuated, with 48% of all referendum focused articles pro Leave and just 22% Remain. Most newspapers adopted a clear position on the referendum in the last week of the campaign, with the Leave campaign supported by all the Conservative-leaning press other than The Times. (Levy et al 2016, 5) This reflected the clear Tory support for Leave across the whole UK.
The call to reclaim sovereignty by leaving the EU used the alleged democratic deficit of the EU as an argument, and in their campaign Vote Leave piled up all democratic deficit it could find and placed it at the doorstep of the EU, framing the EU as a fundamentally undemocratic union.
But this perceived crisis of democracy extends beyond the EU into the whole Western political system. This crisis of democracy, according to Davis, consists of the weakening of state institutions’ ability to enact policy or to operate accountably due to globalisation and financialization, the development of large, complex policy areas and risks beyond the understanding of most leaders, the breakdown of faith in political institutions, experts and elites, ideologically fragmented parties, cultural identity and nationalist challenges to traditional left-right politics, rapidly growing but unstable new parties, interest groups and social movements, hollowed-out legacy news media operations, unaccountable and untraceable news and information flows across social media networks, information overload and difficulties to establish what is true, unaligned and very volatile electorates, fragmented and polarised audiences and a growing divide between the public and private politics. (Davis 2019, 7-9)
Whether you define these symptoms as a crisis of democracy or not, it seems clear that the political system in many Western democracies is undergoing a change which also concerns political communication. In this political milieu of scepticism, the Remain campaign’s appeal to economics was refuted by politicising expert opinions and presenting alternative cause and effect scenarios by alternative economists, which reflects the challenges the neoliberal economic narrative is facing because of the failure of neoliberal economic policies. As long as the Leave campaign was able to parade, by utilising the confrontational debate format of many TV news programmes, an alternative view by another expert, whether they were experts or not, all economic analysis became an opinion.
Seaton (2016, 1) makes the connection between the referendum being won in the regions and the fact that local reporting has been withering away for decades with three quarters of regional paper offices having been closed since 1999.
The old ecology of reporting that could travel from regions to national centres has decayed irreparably and no alternative system has been developed. This has left the regions at the mercy of the tabloid press and social media news sharing, which in the absence of local news creation is likely to push predominantly national and global stories and perspectives.
The vanishing of regional press might have been a contributing factor to factory workers in Sunderland voting to leave the EU even when their jobs have been largely depending on the integration of the supply chain within the EU.
But Vote Leave wasn’t only a right-wing endeavour, as it had strong support in parts of the Labour Party; the referendum brought together a diverse coalition of people who voted leave but have radically differing visions on the future of Britain.
Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK Permanent Representative to the EU, outlined the post-Brexit problem: “Eurosceptics, despite the narcissism of small differences, could always hold together when we were in the EU. Because they did not have to define a post Brexit destination or, crucially, an exit route and method. They could unify around the need to escape the integrationist maw, and decide that they could cross the bridge of what to do next, in the unlikely event that they succeeded in getting an in-out referendum.” Vote Leave deliberately avoided proposing any concrete plans and focused the entire campaign on what it didn’t want. The last thing Vote Leave wanted to do was to set out a proposed destination with a route map. (Rogers 2019, 8-10)
In time of writing, the demand for a destination and narrative resolution has become so loud that even the economically destructive no-deal Brexit is approved by many as a viable option, even if this option was discounted before the referendum.
Wilson (2017, 545) observes similarities between the Trump presidential and Leave campaigns, which both seem to conform to a definition of right-wing populism as the mobilisation of the people against an elite. But perceiving the Leave campaign exclusively as right-wing populism might be simplistic.
Until the early 1990s, when the global communist project collapsed, the left/right dichotomy dominated our political thinking. Since then, the left/right dichotomy has remained, but it has become more cultural than economic in nature with the Left now also called interchangeably the Liberal Left or the Progressives. It is only after the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the Momentum protest movement that more public conversation within the Labour Party the in Britain has begun to return to the redistribution of wealth and more socialist definitions of the nation’s problems.
The Eurosceptic position in Britain has many layers and variations, as The Telegraph’s referral (15 May 2016) to the EU as the “Fourth Reich” demonstrates. Loosely connected to this framing is the semi-religious idea about the EU as the revived Roman Empire (Knowles 2018, 3), which has some resonance on the British Isles where Hadrian’s Wall still marks the place of resistance where the reach of the Roman Empire ended.
But these historical or religious reference points have long since become disconnected from the actual historical and religious narratives and reconfigured to serve in a populist mix of arguments.
The left and right of populism
Brubaker sees populism as a contested concept that lumps together “disparate political projects with disparate social bases and modes of action”, and referring to left-wing, right-wing and hybrid movements that combine elements both from the left and right. Populist movements claim to speak on behalf of the little people, and they portray themselves anti-elitist. Brukaker resorts to treating populism as a “discursive and stylistic repertoire” to preserve its analytical value. (2017, 358-360)
One of the popular phrases repeated endlessly by the Brexit-supporting press is “the will of the people”, and it has been used to support hard and no-deal Brexits.
Freezing the will of the people into one decision can itself endanger democracy. According to Salzborn, (2017, 12) democracy is based on the contradiction of promising a stability of its freedom-based system which exists because of its citizens’ “inconsistent preferences”, and it can “legitimize its continued existence only through its instability.”
Hence a democratic system can rarely decide something once and for all, but by its nature it must be asking the same questions again, as many times as the democratic system decides to ask them, as the inconsistent preferences of citizens keep on changing their balances. Obviously, measuring these changes causes some practical difficulties, and because of this, most democratic systems are representative rather than direct.
Breeze, reading the Daily Mail reporting on when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of giving MPs a say over triggering Article 50—the legal mechanism taking the UK out of the EU—shows how reporting follows the typical populist discourse with seeing people as a homogenous, unified entity and the will of the people as an absolute category. Breeze sees a persistence of class struggle in the representations but combined with nationalism, populism and Euroscepticism. (Breeze 2018, 64-66) From the framing analysis perspective, the same article in this middle-market paper carries both left and right-wing frames within the same narrative with no apparent pointing out of contradictions.
But not all populism is the same. March researched the party-political manifestos in the UK between 1999 and 2015 and came up with some interesting observations. First, the right-wing and left-wing versions of populism are different with the underlying ideology more important than populism per se in explaining their essence, and that is why March perceives populism as more than a discourse. (2017, 284)
Many theorists see right-wing populism as primarily exclusionary and left-wing populism as primarily inclusionary with right-wing populism focusing more on ethnic identity. The discourse of the mainstream parties has also become more populist and anti-elitist in response to the populist challenge, but the emphasis on popular sovereignty remains low. March perceives the communication by mainstream parties more as demoticism: closeness to ordinary people without the antagonistic tendencies of populism. In left-wing populism people haven’t fully replaced class. And when it comes to the EU, left-wing populism is not anti-Europe but primarily rejects the way the current EU works as the globalisation project of economic liberalism. (2017, 285-286, 290, 294-295)
So, the right-wing and the left-wing Eurosceptics both voted to leave the EU but for quite different reasons.
The right-wing Brexit
Public discourse in Britain has for decades separated Britain from Europe and left it without a continent. (Freeden 2017, 1) It is this conceptual drifting away from Europe that gave Vote Leave an advantage, as for many Brits, Europe is something that is happening across the Channel on the Continent. Vote Leave was a cross-party campaign, but it seems to have promoted predominantly right-wing frames.
Vote Leave utilised three frames: getting my/our country back, (self-governing, democratic, independent), undemocratic EU/dysfunctional super-state, and taking control of our own destiny and regaining national sovereignty. (Khabaz 2018, 502-504)
Churchill had hoped that the British foreign policy could be based on at the intersection of three overlapping circles—relationships with the United States, the Commonwealth and Europe, (Wilson 2017, 551) and the Brexit project can be seen as an attempt to rebalance these relationships.
During the referendum campaign the Old Commonwealth or White Dominions and the rest of the Commonwealth were presented to different target groups—with ethnic minority British citizens being sold a more encompassing vision. Although both the UKIP and Conservative Party focused on the white Commonwealth, Vote Leave also targeted ethnic minority British with a vision of easier immigration from the Commonwealth. (Namusoke 2016, 464. 465, 466) This would have resonated with them, as it has become quite difficult to immigrate to Britain from the former colonies, which in the past had a lot easier entry to the UK.
But when the dream about the ‘Empire 2.0’ properly emerges, Africa, Caribbean, Asia and most of the Pacific are dropped out. (Ballantyne 2018, 384) This is because most Brexiteers have no genuine interest in easing immigration from Africa or Asia.
So, primarily, the Brexit project would mean a reconfiguration of relationships with stronger links to the USA and the Anglo-Saxon world. The idea that the UK’s geopolitical and economic future lies not with the EU but with the Anglosphere—Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States—figures prominently with Britain reimagined as an oceanic world island connected with the liberal market economies of the English-speaking world—a dream that is suggested to have been set aside when Britain joined the EEC in the 1970s. This is depicted to be necessary because of the Asian growth and slowing European economies. The frame of Global Britain has been firmly linked with the Anglosphere. (Kenny & Pierce 2019, 7-8)
The discursive dimensions of the Leave campaign brought together two contradictory but interlocking visions. The first was a deep nostalgia for the empire, which excluded the legacies of colonialism and racism, and English national feeling that was no longer recognizably British. And speaking of Global Britain invoked the warm collective memories of a lost world. (Virdee & McGeever 2017, 1803-1805)
We can already see that the right-wing Brexit is not a coherent project, but a loose group of contesting and contradictory Brexit projects, some of which do have distinctly racial undertones.
Leave campaigners understood that because the history of immigration had been thoroughly racialized over time, a reservoir of latent racism could be activated by appropriately coded language about immigration with broader narrative that postulated the Leave campaign as the last authentic representatives of the British people. (Virdee & McGeever 2017, 1807-1808)
The Englishness of the Leave vote was evident with 87% of Leave votes cast in England. Englishness was arguably submerged within the British imperial project during the 18th and 19th centuries. (Virdee & McGeever 2017, 1809) From the narrative perspective the Leave vote can be seen as the English people searching for their lost narratives.
Narrative and narrativity can be perceived as concepts of social epistemology and social ontology. It is through narrativity that we come to know, understand and make sense of the social world and constitute our social identities. These narrative identities are rarely of our own making. Social life is stories and narrative is an ontological condition of social life. Stories guide action; people construct identities by locating themselves or by being located within a repertoire of emplotted stories. People are guided less by the interests we impute to them than by the structural and cultural relationships in which they are embedded and by the stories through which they constitute their identities. (Somers 1994, 606, 614, 624)
The answer to the question “Who am I?” is a story. In Paul Ricouer’s (1990c, 246-247) thinking this narrative identity, “constitutive of self-constancy, can include change, mutability, within the cohesion of one lifetime”, and it can be applied to both an individual and a community. So, a narrative identity can encompass both constancy and change.
In a YouGov poll in June 2019, when asked whether they would rather avert Brexit if it would lead to Scotland or Northern Ireland breaking away from the UK, respectively 63% and 59% of Conservative Party members would have been willing to pay for Brexit with the breakup of the United Kingdom.
Englishness is only one of the lost narratives. But at the core of the Brexit project seems to be the search for the lost identity of Englishness as an Anglo-Saxon people. But it is good to remember that there might be not just a singular lost narrative identity for the English people.
Just as it is possible to compose several plots on the same incidents, so it is also possible to weave different, even opposing plots about our lives, as one part of the narrative draws from facts, but the fictional component “draws it towards those imaginative variations that destabilize narrative identity”. (Ricouer 1990c, 248-249)
The left-wing Brexit
The Eurosceptics in the Left make a rather different case against the EU. The Left hypothesis about the EU democratic deficit is connected to the model of participatory democracy. It argues that there is a democratic deficit in the EU because its politics is dominated by business lobbies and because EU competencies are confined to market creation policies. According to this understanding, political representation of working classes will fail because they are underrepresented. What reinforces the EU democratic deficit is that voters are poorly informed on EU policies and cannot properly select or scrutinise EU representatives. (Sorace 2018, 5)
The Euroscepticism of the Left is not a new position. For example, in 1975 Labour Party members voted 2 to 1 to leave the EEC at their conference, and in 1983 Labour advocated withdrawal from the EU. (Ballantyne 2018, 381)
According to Lapavitsas, (2019, 113) the Greek economic crisis gives clear evidence of the hollowing out of democracy in the EU. Lapavitsas criticises the EU for the lack of demos, as European class divisions are presented on national level rather than on the level of the whole union, with conflict lines in the European Parliament between countries rather than between social groups. In Lapavitsas’s view the European Court of Justice has gradually elevated itself into the enforcer of neoliberal transformation with the crisis in the Eurozone leading to supranational EU institutions acquiring further powers to impose neoliberal reforms. Going back to the Marxist theory, Lapavitsas points out that, for Marx and Engels, working class was national. In his view, the illusions of democracy, egalitarianism and social liberalism conceal the fundamental relations of capitalism and the power of capital in the EU, and the Left’s attachment to the EU as an inherently progressive development integrates it into the neoliberal structures of the EU. According to Lapavitsas, the reformation of the EU must start with dismantling the EMU. In his view, the EU can’t be reformed from within, but it needs to be broken up before it can be put back together again. (Lapavitsas 2019, 114-117, 121, 128-129, 132)
We can see how the global collapse of socialism has led to the Left embracing of progressive values at the expense of the former emphasis on resisting capitalism. But perhaps the democratic deficit of the EU is overstated.
Sorace analysed 55,000 written questions to the European Parliament during the 2009-2014 term of the European Parliament and came up with the conclusion that the data highlighted a strong tendency for the political parties to cluster around the position of an average European voter, at the expense of their average supporter. The democratic deficit according to her is pluralism deficit, as the European Parliament seems to follow majoritarian norms. Sorace discovered that the average position of European voters (slightly left of centre) was over-represented by parties serving in the 7th European Parliament. The clustering seems to be mostly at the expense of right-wingers. She hypothesizes that this pull away from the average party voter might be caused by the consensual nature of decision-making. (Sorace 2018, 3, 14, 17)
The problem behind the alleged democratic deficit of the EU is that it seems a necessary outcome of protecting the sovereignty of nations: any direct EU-wide democratic voting would reduce the sovereignty of nations decisively and move the EU one step closer to being a super-state. It is difficult to think about governing models that would be able to deliver fully on both. So, the EU operates as a centrist organisation, and it has been ill-prepared to respond to the new dichotomy of populism/elitism.
The Euroscepticism in the Left maintains progressive nature of today’s Left but aims to reconnect it with socialist economics.
The thinking and the rationale behind left-wing Euroscepticism is not something that has been widely publicised in the media. The liberal and left-leaning papers have largely opposed Brexit, and it has not been useful for the right-wing press to present any of the Left as a champion of Brexit, especially as it seeks to travel in the opposite direction. But the right-wing press utilised some of the frames that would have most logically been connected with left-wing Brexit.
I am bringing framing analysis, narrative theory and Douglas Walton’s argumentation theory together to analyse temporality in journalistic texts.
It was the sociologist Erving Goffman who has been credited for coining the term “frame analysis”. According to Goffman (1974, 38), we can hardly glance at anything without applying a primary framework, thereby forming conjectures as to what happened before and expectations of what is likely to happen.
This psychological process of framing is fundamental to our mental processing and to our understanding, but also to our communication.
According to Entman, frames diagnose problems and causes, make moral judgments and suggest remedies. A frame selects aspects of a perceived reality and makes it more salient. Frames reside in at least four locations of the communication process: the communicator, the text, the receiver and the culture. Most frames are defined by what they omit as well as what they include. Often, potential counter-frames are excluded from the text. When it comes to journalism, journalists may follow the rules of objective reporting and yet convey a dominant framing of the news text. (Entman 1993, 52-56)
The dominant framing, unless contested, can often be taken for granted and perceived as a true account of reality.
Bruggerman has provided a useful summary of common understanding of frames. They are “patterns of interpretation” and bridging concepts between cognition and culture. The origin of frame research is both in psychology (frames in thought) and sociology (frames in communication). Journalists both send and set frames. The main distinction in journalistic framing studies is between generic and issue-specific frames, but they are complementary layers of framing. Journalistic framing practices are in the continuum between frame setting and frame sending. Journalistic sent frames can be consonant with the journalists’ views, an interpretation, framed frames, or conduit accounts—not providing interpretation or reframing any advocacy frames. Journalists utilise the frame repository in their given culture, and frames compete with and can contradict each other. There can be individualistic framing within a newsroom framing policy, beat frames, and framing communities linked to certain actors. There are issue cultures established in past debates and audience frames linked to specific media outlets and wider national issue cultures and even wider transnational issue cultures, which all affect framing. (Bruggerman 2014, 61-69)
According to Caciotare et al., there is considerable disagreement over what constitutes framing, which has led to different operationalisations of the concept. There is a divide between equivalence framing, a form of framing that involves manipulating the presentation of logically equivalent information, and emphasis framing that involves manipulating the content of communication. Framing has come to cover a wide range of persuasive effects. (2016, 8-9)
Frames are important, as they are basic elements of interpreting events and reality. On epistemological level they imply a connection to reality whilst acknowledging that our perception of reality is problematic and mediated.
Frames within narratives
Tenenboim-Weinblatt et al. see narratives as conceptually different from frames and more accommodating. Frames are central organising ideas that provide selective interpretations; narratives can include a wide range of voices, events and viewpoints. In their view frames do not have the temporal qualities that are at the core of narratives, which can be understood “discursive representations of time-ordered sequences of events.” Frames function within a restricted time span, focusing on events which need to be coherently framed. Narratives can be viewed as “higher discursive constructs” that contain and connect specific frames. They can include “past-oriented attribution of responsibility” and “future-oriented treatment recommendation.” (2016, 152-153)
On its own, a frame lacks the dialogical element that a narrative possesses. Frames do have a temporal dimension, because we process them in the context of our memories and expectations, but in the text it is largely activated through the narrative.
Framing has theoretically often been stretched so far that it has taken on the function of the narrative. For example, Musolff who tracked the transformation of the common use of the slogan “Britain at the heart of Europe” in British media and politics from a positive metaphor to a negative one, eventually being seen as being at the heart of a dying body, writes that one of the chief framing devices is the use of metaphorical “scenarios”, which are “evaluative mini-narratives”. (Musolff 2017, 641, 643, 648) This is quite close to using the concept of a framing device as a substitute for narrative.
Lück et al. analyse news narratives from three perspectives: the degree of narrativity, the type of story, and the constellation of narrative roles such as victims, villains and heroes. Their degree of narrativity refers to issues such as sequence-of-events plot vs. inverted pyramid style of the classical news story. The four narrative elements—dramatization, emotionalization, personalization and fictionalization—can be more or less distinctive, they can feature sequential paragraphs presenting the action and motives of an actor, but otherwise follow the inverted pyramid style. (2018, 1637)
Some of the research of journalistic narratives appears to perceive them with classic three-act structure that has a clear beginning, middle and ending. But perhaps we need to take a lot broader view of the journalistic narrative.
Films, for example, can utilise structures that show the ending of the story first and then how we got there, and narrative structures such as multiple timelines and real time structures, hyperlink structures, and reverse, non-linear and circular structures. (Miyamoto 2018).
So, judging the degree of narrativity based on conformity to a three-act structure doesn’t necessarily give us an accurate assessment, as fiction narratives can fragment and split time in different ways. Narrative orders time but it doesn’t have to consist of time-ordered sequences as such; time can be ordered according to different principles.
A degree of narrativity might not be a particularly useful concept, as it doesn’t necessarily mean that an inverted pyramid style had a lesser degree of narrativity than the three-act plot, only that it is a different type of narrative. At their core, narratives involve events, actors and time with all of them somehow being linked to each other.
The study of international politics has begun to pay more attention to temporality. According to Fazendeiro, temporality influences everything, including the construction of sovereignty. Narratives are means by which to assess events, including responsibility of certain actors. Depending on the temporal approach, a narrative is prejudiced towards a certain kind of continuity that shapes the way in which events are understood. Fazendeiro identifies three types of temporal prejudices that underscore different types of continuity and change: teleological continuity, continuity through cycles of change, and radical possibilities of change. Narratives based on teleological continuity are comprised of temporal path-dependency, “underestimating the capacity of an event to break away from a preconceived aim”. They are “aware of the path in which history is heading” and can push for change quicker than it is expected and criticise those who delay it. In narratives based on cyclical continuity of the international system the great powers always act in the way they do and will repeat themselves. (Fazendeiro 2019, 162, 163, 165-166, 178) For example, in the narrative by Brexiteers Germany can’t help but reassert its dominion, no matter how weak it might look in any given moment hence there will inevitably be the Fourth Reich.
The Leave campaign was mainly based on the third option of narrative temporality: radical possibilities of change. That is why it has used revolutionary concepts and frames borrowed from socialism, even when the people driving this revolution have been mostly conservative. In these kinds of narratives utopias become possible. On the other hand, the Remain campaign was mainly based on teleological continuity.
But linearity can indicate both continuity and discontinuity at the same time, as when heroic national narratives produce discrete succession and time as continuous and linear. (Hom 2018, 312)
Another dynamic to look at is whether the models of explanation are based on a unique story or structural constraints. An article in The Spectator of 11 August 2018 asks in headline: “Why is it that so many leading Brexiteers studied history?” It makes a big difference whether the models of explanation come from social sciences or from history, as social sciences search for regularities whereas history is looking for uniqueness.
The EU as a project is a rule-based system and can be seen as an attempt to build an optimised system to enable freedom. In the hard Brexiteer understanding this emphasis on structure leads to the slavery of a superstate; this is a collision between two different worldviews based on structural explanations and individual responsibility.
Ricouer, writing about the nature of the historical present, seeks to preserve the free act within a system. He places the free act as an initiative between the horizon of expectation and the space of experience (which includes the present moment and what remains of the past in the present moment) where it has the power to affect the system through interference. (Ricouer 1990c, 230-232) It is this intersection where some sort of balance between the power of structure and the freedom of individual can perhaps be discovered.
Ricouer’s understanding of narrative
News focuses on what has just happened and is anchored mostly in simple past tense, which describes completed past action. Even when there is a projection of future, it is mostly anchored on a comment given in the immediate past. This makes Paul Ricoeur’s thorough analysis of historical and fictional narratives useful in our study of journalistic temporalities, as both history and fiction as writing have been predominantly anchored in the past by the usage of this simple past tense.
According to Ricouer (1990b, 62), the system of tenses itself, which varies depending on language, cannot be derived from the phenomenological experience of time and from its “intuitive distinction” between present, past and future.
Many narrative studies come exclusively from the study of fiction, which, in the context of journalism, disconnects the narrative approach from any ideal of factuality or objectivity. But it is important for any theory about journalism to be somehow connected to reality even when any epistemological claims it makes might be problematic. Ricouer’s three-volume Time and Narrative book series gives us a thorough exploration of narrative temporality in fiction and history.
Narrativity begins with the simplest of sentences already being “a miniature drama implying a process, actors, and circumstances.” (Ricouer 1990a, 45) Hence narrativity is an integral part of language itself.
In Ricouer’s understanding, we find ourselves at a present moment in a space of experience, which encompasses us being affected by the past, situated toward our horizon of expectation, unable to see the present moment but only able to act in it. (Ricouer 1990c, 208-209, 231) This is consistent with how Goffman understands the primary frames function in our mind, forming conjectures as to what happened before and expectations of what is likely to happen. So, the frame does have a temporal dimension through how it is formed by applying experience and future projecting.
We find it impossible to define the present moment itself before it has become past, but our primary framework will borrow from the past to project into future. Hence even live journalism is unable to capture the present moment, as defining it involves seeing it, but it is even at its fastest only able to bring us closer to our present but still keeping us in our immediate past. Live news might anticipate what is about to happen within the horizon of expectation, but it is only able to report about the immediate past. The present moment is reserved for action; it can involve the awareness of the present moment but not any conceptualisation of it.
Starting his exploration of narratives from Aristoteles, Ricouer notes that it is the unexpected changes of fortune—the discordant incidents—that the plot tends to make necessary and probable. To make a plot is to make intelligible rise from the accidental and necessary from the episodic with the internal connection of the plot remaining logical rather than chronological. (Ricouer 1990a, 41, 44)
This logical connection within the plot works to reconfigure time and to impute an appearance of causation between events. Hence beneath the account of even random-looking series of events lies a structure that makes an implied argument about causation through selecting the events accounted in the narrative.
The power of a narrative lies on the fact that the plot is the synthesis of the heterogeneous. (Ricouer 1990a, 89) But it is the narrative structure—the way these heterogeneous elements are put together that begins to impose new meanings on these elements. This ability to bring diverse elements into the narrative means that it can pick up any frames even when these frames might not be logically consistent with each other. For example, after the collapse of communism many frames originally created within the Marxist framework have now become disconnected from their origin and reconnected to the populist narrative and effectively given a new meaning. This is possible because narrative doesn’t bring any conceptual discordances to the fore but seeks to move the story forward. We can often see the plot holes in the Hollywood blockbuster, but it is the narrative itself that seeks to conceal those gaps. In a narrative, conceptually contradictory elements can appear consistent as long as they make sense according to the narrative logic.
Hence a concept such as “the will of the people” has been reconfigured by Brexiteers through a new populist narrative in a way that is contradictory to its original definition, but it is the Brexiteer narrative that keeps on concealing the contradiction.
In Ricouer’s view historical understanding comes down to comprehending a complete event by seeing things together in a total judgment. (Ricouer 1990a, 156)
This understanding touches on one of the central challenges that journalists face: rarely has the story a journalist is covering reached its completion, yet from a narrative perspective it must be told as if it had already been completed even when it is left open-ended. This is because the journalistic narrative is anchored in the simple past tense, and it is written from the perspective of it already having happened even when it hasn’t yet, as to narrate the journalist must make some sort of conjecture about the future, as otherwise he or she won’t be able to narrate, as a narrative always has a direction. But even the open-ended narrative can still predict the future, as the narrative direction will imply the direction of causation into the untold story of future.
Looking at the limitations of historical explanation, Ricouer views causal analysis as a response to the question why with the answer because. History as a discipline is not capable of all-sufficient but only of necessary explanations. It is unable to map out all the causes but able to eliminate non-causes. Imputation of a cause to an event isn’t derived from an application of a causal law. Historical explanations of differences stem from judgment rather than deduction. Historians defend their conclusions by bringing in new details in support of their thesis. This doesn’t consist of placing a case under a law but in gathering scattered factors and weighing their respective importance. (Ricouer 1990a, 125-127)
It is the ability to bring together heterogeneous elements that the narrative possesses that enables historical explanations. Journalistic explanations aren’t dissimilar to historical explanations, as they also draw from the heterogeneity of sources.
Physical sciences subsume facts under laws. History integrates them into plots. History explains by emplotment, and it is emplotment that qualifies an event as historical. Also, history seeks to authenticate the narrative. (Ricouer 1990a, 164, 169, 176)
This applies to journalistic narratives. This emplotment creates an argument by explanation hence even a most fact-driven and unopinionated journalistic narrative structures the facts into arguments through emplotment.
According to Ricouer, conceptualisation, search for objectivity and critical re-examination mark the three steps that make explanations in history autonomous from “self-explanatory character” of narratives. Historians aren’t simply narrators—they give reasons why they consider a particular factor rather than another one to be a necessary cause of events. Boundaries between argument and plot in history are blurred. History combines explanation by emplotment with explanation by argument. (Ricouer 1990a, 164, 166-167, 177, 186)
In a similar way, journalistic narrative explains and argues through emplotment and incorporates the authentication of the narrative. But journalism doesn’t simply tell about the immediate past. It also projects into the future.
Psychologically, future events are more emotionally arousing than the equivalent past ones. People report feeling more intense emotional reactions to the same event when they imagine experiencing it in the future than remembering it in the past. This is because future seems more controllable than the past and events that can be controlled arouse effective responses that allow us to exert control over events. Future is also more uncertain than the past, and for negative events, uncertainty can intensify unpleasantness. Evaluations of events in future tend to be less constrained by reality and hence more extreme than evaluations of events in the past. Whether real or imagined events, it seems that future looms emotionally larger than the past. (Caruso 2010, 610-611)
But when it comes to the past, there was a time when it was still future, and when it comes to the temporality and causality of the past, the task of the historian is directed at not so much at tracing the broad outlines of history but restoring to past the uncertainty of the future to break the retrospective illusion of fatality. (Ricouer 1990a, 188) But in writing history and news, the coincidental can easily become inevitable.
Regarding the future, to pronounce on the future is to “extrapolate from the configurations and concatenations of the past in the direction of what is still to come.” This prophesying is talking about future “in terms appropriate to the past”. (Ricouer 1990a, 144) But this is the dilemma where the journalists often find themselves: having to write about the future as if it had already taken place through extrapolating in the direction of what is still to come, or by conjecturing a future and then writing backwards from there. Either way, narrative begins to create certainties and causation over its projections.
Frames, narratives and arguments
It is time to begin to bring our thoughts regarding frames, narrative, and temporality together with Douglas Walton’s argumentation theory. Our starting point for finding the common ground between these three approaches must be their dialectical nature.
According to Ricouer, there is dialectic between our horizon of expectation and our space of experience. (Ricouer 1990c, 226) This is the dialectic of the present moment, which on the psychological level is part of producing the basic frames. And as we saw earlier, from a temporal perspective, Goffman understands frames to behave rather differently than narratives but yet having a dialectical temporal nature, although he might not use the word dialectical himself.
Dramatically relevant events unfold over time and involve suspense, awaiting an outcome, but when it comes to frames, time often seems to “drop out or collapse”, because the same designation can cover a long or short period of some activity and developments within can be discounted. (Goffman 1974, 46)
But if we open the collapsed frames, we will rediscover the compressed horizon of expectation and our space of experience. This is because the opening of them will process the frames within this dialectic between expectation and experience. And it is the narrative that will reopen the compressed frames and also reconfigure them.
When it comes to historical narrative, Ricouer perceives it as the dialectic between the Same, the Other and the Analogous—or reenactment, differentiation and metaphorization. (Ricouer 1990c, 228) This dialectic produces temporal arguments through emplotment and practical reasoning.
Douglas Walton’s argumentation theory, which is the third plank of this approach, perceives argumentation fundamentally as dialectic in nature with rhetoric inventing the arguments and dialectic evaluating them critically but with rhetoric and dialectic utilising similar underlying structures, which are in dialogue format. (Walton 2007, 2-4)
For Walton, dialectic is based on informal or applied logic and, unlike rhetoric, considers different sides of an argument. He sees media argumentation as monological in nature, and he solves this apparent lack of dialectic by saying that a media argument presenter is in fact simulating a dialectical argument when he uses simulative reasoning to anticipate objections to the argument. The presenter chains arguments together and uses audience commitments as premises. He chooses an argumentation scheme or a chain of argumentation and applies it from the premises to the conclusion via a rhetorical trajectory. (Walton 2007, 15, 17, 348-349)
But when it comes to journalistic texts, their dialogical nature can be pushed beyond them being anticipatory and invisible simulations. A dialogue-based argumentation scheme resembles the way journalists compile texts or reports from different sources. In the news, the simulated, invisible argumentation schemes become visible through the journalistic use of sources. This dialogical approach creates a powerful analytical tool for journalistic research with two clear benefits. First, the dialectical aspect enables perceiving the journalistic use of sources as part of an argument, because a media text can be defined as a dialectical process of simulated truth-seeking. Second, the commitment to reason beyond a journalistic conversation as a genre within the theory’s aspect of informal logic retains is rootedness in truth-seeking, which is still an important journalistic ideal.
In political journalism, this dialogical attempt at discovering truth is reflected in trying to hear different sides of a debate. Journalistic text is interplay between narrative and argument with argument dominating the narrative as the central organising principle. But journalistic texts need to borrow temporality from the narrative, as temporal arguments rely strongly on narrative temporality. Before the invention of clickbait, journalistic narratives were structured to prove and move forward arguments which were placed as headlines. But the proving of the argument can proceed through either emplotment or explicit argumentation. In a news story the emplotment appears often as the stronger element whereas in the editorial articles the explicit argumentation comes to the fore.
According to Tenenboim et al. (2016, 153), narratives link frames into a chain of connected events.
Connected with emplotment, these frames serve to support the reasoning driving the emplotment, and following Entman’s definition, frames themselves can be perceived as compressed arguments. So, both narratives and frames can be easily integrated into an implicit argumentation structure; it is approaching them as arguments that will make this implicit structure explicit. It is also possible to have a look at the text as a frame constellation, and a frame constellation also functions as an implicit argument chain.
Frames, narratives and dialectic argumentation all make truth claims regarding reality but their theoretical foundation acknowledges that they all might have merely a fleeting but yet actual connection with reality and truth. They can all be integrated into a theory where objectivity is an unattainable but desirable ideal because they share similar epistemological perspective.
The argumentative emphasis of frames is on how things are whereas narratives make arguments regarding how things happened.
In my research, I will approach journalism as practical reasoning that happens through dialectical narrative which incorporates frames as arguments. Journalistic argumentation utilises narrative elements and frames as raw material in temporal arguments about the past, future and present. And it is the narrative that gathers the facts and frames into implicit arguments, which explicit arguments can utilise as their proofs.
The compressed temporal dimension of frames is activated and reopened through the narrative. Frames are rooted in one temporal point, but they can project into future or recollect the past with the aid of the narrative.
Narrative liberates the argument from the confines of informal logic and enables it to operate freely, drawing from wherever it can find resources to derive most strength. But this argument is often concealed under a narratively constructed reality that utilises frames, which creates an appearance of factuality. Yet this appearance of factuality isn’t fully disconnected from objective reality. It is an appearance, but it isn’t an illusion.
Analysing two news stories
I will look at how the narrative elements and frames work together in an argument structure in two news articles.
Backstop isn’t a red line for Brussels any more
The first one was selected from The Times issue of Wednesday 28 August, 2019, which I picked up at the airport, so it is a moderately random sample.
“Backstop isn’t a red line for Brussels any more, says PM”, the headline tells.
Paragraph 1 reports that PM Boris Johnson believes that the EU “no longer” sees the Irish backstop as “sacrosanct”, “amid growing momentum” for a “potential” to sector-by-sector Brexit deal. These expressions work to frame our future expectations, especially as there will be only a limited level of frame contestation in the story.
This is a beginning of a dialogical argument built by using sources. At this point we don’t know how committed the journalistic narrator is to this argument, but this headline and Paragraph 1 project a possible future with discontinuity from the present moment.
Then the journalistic narrator (byline gives us the names of two authors) begins to investigate the validity of this argument and its implications.
Paragraph 2 tells that any agreement could lead to a showdown with hardline Brexiteers, according to No 10 (statement given yesterday).
The latter part of the second paragraph tells that “a number of so-called Spartans” want further changes to the withdrawal agreement. “A number of so-called Spartans” is a framing device that presents the hardliners in a sympathetic light as a sort of disciplined unit: being hardline might be a good thing. It also connects this group to the ancient origins of democracy.
The first paragraph and the second paragraph form the basic temporality of this article by selecting actions from two temporal points: PM’s comment and the anticipated response to it make this into a future-oriented story, which will seek to map out different obstacles and objections to PM’s argument to overcome them.
(temporal anchor) Immediate past — Immediate future (temporal projection)
Here are also the beginnings of a conflict framing, which has been created by the dialogical use of sources, as the narrator begins to test the PM’s argument with counterarguments.
Paragraph 3 contains PM’s spokesman’s direct quote about PM having been clear about the changes related to backstop. Here the narrator overcomes the anticipated objection (counterargument) through another dialogical argument by PM’s spokesman.
Paragraph 4 gives an indirect quote by diplomatic sources: plan for backstop alternative was taking shape after Mr Johnson’s recent meetings with European leaders. This quote serves to validate the headline. From a temporal perspective, the past is being used to justify a future prediction.
Paragraph 5 reports that the ideas are said to have been well received by Merkel. Again, the immediate past and an authoritative source are being used to validate the headline and the future projection.
The basic argument seems to follow the same temporal structure of validating a future projection by events in the immediate past consistently through the whole article.
Paragraph 6 states that same sources said Merkel and Johnson discussed ideas involving specific sectors. Again, the immediate past and an authoritative source are being used to validate the headline and the future projection.
Paragraph 7 quotes (indirectly) government sources which say that since Mr Johnson’s visit to France and Germany and last week’s G7 meeting there has been a shift in the EU’s language on Brexit. Here the narrator uses a past event again to validate the headline and the tentative future projection.
Paragraph 8 says that according to the same sources an upcoming meeting with the Irish prime minister is described as crucial. Here the narrator maps out potential future obstacles.
Paragraph 9 says that according to the same sources UK is demanding movement from Brussels before handing over detailed plans. Again, the narrator maps out potential future obstacles, which serve as counterarguments.
The dialectical nature of a journalistic narrative is evident in the process of simulated truth-seeking that goes through opposing viewpoints and objections to assess the argument of the headline.
Paragraph 10 says that Mr Johnson urged Juncker to reopen negotiations (“last night”).
Again, the narrator is using an immediate past event to highlight the biggest obstacle: this future is still conjectural at some level, but Mr Johnson is working to overcome the biggest counterargument that the EU might not want to reopen negotiations. We can see how the supporting argument takes a narrative form but is, in essence, an argument based on instrumental practical reasoning, where it is PM and the narrator who are giving us an action plan to reach the potential future. Again, this action plan is anchored in the immediate past. It is clear that this isn’t just reporting, but the narrator is actively building a potential future and solving problems on its way by utilising instrumental practical reasoning.
Paragraph 11 is background commentary about how this potential sector-by-sector approach would work based on diplomatic sources. Again, this paragraph serves to support the feasibility of a potential future.
Paragraph 12 says that some elements of this are understood to have been discussed on the margins of a Brussels Brexit working group of EU diplomats in August, including keeping some products under the EU regulation. This paragraph reveals that it might be the narrator who is the one trying to build the argument for this potential future, as it shows that the support for this potential future is not yet beyond the level of an informal conversation.
Paragraph 13 says that No 10 would not be drawn on the idea.
Paragraph 14 says that (last night—immediate past) Tony Smith, one of the architects of a Brexit plan praised by Johnson called on the EU to consider a sector-by-sector approach.
Again, this is an argument based on instrumental practical reasoning, setting a goal and then outlining the actions to reach this goal.
Paragraph 15 says that (yesterday) Mr Johnson spoke to the Dutch Prime Minister and that Mr Rutte later said that the EU remained open to concrete proposals.
Again, this narrative argument serves to support the feasibility of a potential future.
Paragraph 16 says that Mr Johnson told Juncker in their telephone call (last night) that Britain would leave the EU without the deal unless backstop was abolished.
Again, this is an argument (based on demonstrating Johnson’s instrumental practical reasoning) on how Johnson has set a goal and then outlining the actions he has made to reach this goal.
Paragraph 17 states that Downing Street confirmed that during a phone call on Tuesday evening that PM told Juncker that UK would be leaving the EU on October 31 “whatever the cirumstances” and that “we absolutely want to do so with a deal”.
Paragraph 18 quotes the No 10 spokesman who said that PM was clear that unless the withdrawal agreement reopened and the backstop reopened, there is no prospect of that deal.
The open-ended nature of this narrative is nearly the opposite of the headline in tone, as it outlines a pessimistic potential outcome. What happens after a deal or no-deal Brexit is not something that the narrator is pondering in this story: it remains the great unknown.
Through the article, the journalistic narrator creates a temporal device from the line between the immediate present and potential near future (which the narrator has created) to give direction for a projection of a long-term plan for one kind of Brexit. This is not an arbitrary selection but a deliberate construction, and the narrator gathers a great number of witnesses to support it or at least not to object to it.
The narration is anchored firmly in the immediate past (yesterday), but in fact, most of the article is future-oriented with any factual reporting about past events mainly providing the basis for future projections. The narrative uses instrumental practical reasoning to support this argument for a particular version of Brexit. There is no formal closing of the argument but an open-ended ending, which can give an impression that the narrator isn’t making an argument at all.
In Walton’s argumentation theory the argument maker uses audience commitments as premises, and with the readership of The Times split between Leave and Remain supporters, the narrator aims at the middle ground with the headline that implies that the current PM is actively working toward a deal rather than toward a no-deal Brexit, and that the deal would be possible without a backstop. Hence the headline functions both as the premise and conclusion with the argumentation scheme carefully built by the narrator by using many sources and instrumental practical reasoning to prove the readership that a Brexit with a pragmatic deal could be possible. Calling the Brexit hardliners “Spartans” is a compliment frame that resonates with the commitments of hardline Brexiteers and is utilised to persuade them to stay on the journey with Boris.
The temporality of the whole narrative is built around the needs of the argument, and the narrative moves from one point of time to another and to different temporal perspectives based on the needs of the argument.
Corbyn suggests UK could be better off after Brexit if deal is right
But where will we look for the left-wing view that supports Brexit? With Mirror and The Guardian opposing Brexit there is a shortage of articles supporting a left-wing Brexit. They have been written but they aren’t that frequent. So, I have picked an individual story in The Guardian that reports on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalent support of Brexit.
On Sunday 22 September 2019 The Guardian’s political editor Heather Stewart published an article online with the headline of “Corbyn suggests UK could be better off after Brexit if deal is right” as part of the updates from the Labour party conference.
Immediately, the subhead contests the headline by stating that “Labour leader risks infuriating activists and MPs as he plays down splits at party conference”.
In comparison to the article about Boris Johnson in The Times, which seeks to support his argument, this article starts with a frame/narrative contestation. It seems that this story is immediately framed as a conflict narrative, as Corbyn’s long-term future prediction is immediately contested by a potential conflict in near future.
This is framed as a “live update” from the Labour conference. Live emphasises “nowness”, although the article itself isn’t live as such but nearly live. It is the Labour conference that is going live.
Paragraph 1 states that: “Corbyn has suggested a Labour Brexit deal could be preferable to remaining in the EU, putting himself on a collision course with activists and MPs pushing for the party to campaign for remain.”
This article anchors the narrative in the immediate past and connects it with a collision in the immediate future in a conflict over the foreseeable and distant future.
It immediately tells us that it is a narrative about a present-day conflict that will affect the long-term future.
Corby’s prediction is about the long-term future, but reporting of the statement itself is anchored in the immediate past and immediately challenged by a forecast about the immediate future.
The first paragraph and the second paragraph form the basic temporality of this article by selecting actions from two temporal points: Corbyn’s comment and the anticipated response to it make this into a future-oriented story.
(temporal anchor) Immediate past — Immediate future (temporal projection)
Paragraph 2 states that Corbyn seeks to play down Labour divisions in ‘The Andrew Marr Show’ before the contentious debate on Brexit at party conference.
It continues the theme of an immediate future conflict and validates this prediction with a narrative about the immediate past. It is becoming evident that the central argument of the journalistic narrative might be that there is a conflict about the future in the Labour Party.
Paragraph 3 quotes Corbyn when asked if it was in Britain’s long-term interests to remain in the EU responding that the long-term interests for remaining outside depend on the agreement Britain might have outside the EU.
Again, the narrative is anchored in the immediate past, and it accentuates the conflict frame subtly by the way the question presumably by Andrew Marr has been asked on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show: Corbyn seems to say that Britain might be better off outside the EU. But this is a conflict that has been brought into being by the direct question of the journalist Andrew Marr, so it is not quite clear how committed Corbyn himself is to an idea about Britain outside the EU. Here the narrator works to strengthen the conflict frame introduced by another journalist.
Paragraph 4 predicts that Corbyn’s suggestion that Labour negotiating an exit deal could be preferable to EU membership will infuriate anti-Brexit activists.
This is a conflict frame, created by using the immediate past together with an immediate future prediction.
Paragraph 5 quotes Corbyn explaining that his credible option is based on five pillars.
Paragraph 5 begins to defuse the conflict frame created by the headline and the subhead by beginning to quote Corbyn who is clearly seeking a compromise rather than a conflict.
Paragraph 6 quotes Corbyn saying that if EU27 agree to those demands “that would be a credible offer to put before the British people.”
This introduces a midrange future into the story through Corbyn laying out at least one step of his action plan. This midrange future offered by Corbyn, which is in partial contradiction to the conflict frame, is not of huge interest to the narrator who seems more concerned of the immediate future.
Paragraph 7 explains that more than 90 local Labour parties have submitted motions on Brexit to the conference, mostly to remain (due to be hammered into a composite at a late-night meeting on Sunday, later on the same day).
This brings a scheduled and not predicted event into the story. Up to now, no future events have been scheduled but only predicted.
Paragraph 8 explains that the national executive committee is threatening to pre-empt those discussions by tabling its own policy statement—a draft suggests decision will be deferred whether to support remain until a Labour government has negotiated a Brexit deal.
Paragraphs 7 & 8 create a mini-narrative within the narrative by zooming into the details of a potential future conflict event within the Labour Party.
Paragraph 9 quotes Corbyn saying that Labour will put forward remain and hopefully reform options. So, at this stage it becomes clear that Corbyn’s position might not be as pro-Brexit as the headline seems to say but more part of a political communication strategy. It becomes unclear whether the conflict between Corbyn and the activists is real or not.
Paragraph 10 quotes Corbyn saying that the vast majority of Labour supporters voted remain, but a significant minority voted other way and that Labour should understand why people voted leave.
Paragraph 11 tells that Corbyn admits plans to ditch the deputy leader role were under that discussion but that he was unaware that a “particular motion” would be launched on Friday night.
Paragraph 12 quotes Corbyn saying that he had not been aware of particular motion being moved on deputy leader but that he had proposed having two deputy leaders in the future to “reflect gender and ethnic balance in our society.”
Here we can see the progressive and liberal elements of the Labour platform expressed by Corbyn with no challenge, presumably as they are perceived to be the readers’ firm commitments.
Paragraph 13 explains that the attempt to abolish Watson’s post was launched by Jon Lansman and supported by 16 other members of the party’s NEC.
Paragraph 14 explains that Corbyn confirms that Fisher, his policy chief was preparing to quit by the end of the year after his leaked memo claiming that the highest ranks of the party were engaged in “class war”.
Here we can see how the frame of the class struggle has become a negative frame even within parts of the Labour Party and in The Guardian.
Paragraph 15 quotes Corbyn saying that he has discussed the memo with Fisher and saying that “I think he said that because he was extremely distressed at that point about whatever was going on, discussions within the office, in that moment.”
Paragraph 16 explains that Fisher was central figure in the 2017 election manifesto. The Guardian understands that he has been warning that trying to appeal to both leave and remain is beginning to damage the party’s electoral standing.
Paragraph 17 quotes Corbyn saying that he will take the party to general election to end austerity and if elected he would serve a full term as prime minister.
Paragraphs 10-17 quote Corbyn as he explains the minute details linked to the appeal to demolish deputy leader’s post within the Labour Party but end with Corbyn’s aspirational statement about becoming Prime Minister.
What is interesting is that the conflict frame that was introduced in the headline and subhead is painstakingly defused in the second part of the story by Corbyn who clearly isn’t seeking a conflict but attempting to keep the party together.
So, the ending of the article contradicts the headline to some degree, and it also leaves the narrative open-ended, as the conflict frame is not resolved.
It is also evident that part of the Left itself has become uncomfortable with the concept of the class war, and that it is perceived as some sort of relic from a bygone era by The Guardian narrator.
With The Guardian, most readers support Remain, and the use of the conflict frame created by subhead, which conflicts with the headline, can be explained by the narrator simulating reader commitments and using them as a premise to his argument; as Corbyn’s Brexit stance is perceived as ambivalent, the narrator creates an immediate conflict frame to demonstrate the readers that The Guardian is not supporting Corbyn’s ideas.
Again, the temporality of the narrative is built around the needs of the argument, and the narrative moves from temporal point to another and to different temporal perspectives based on the needs of the argument.
Both stories are open-ended. Once the basic temporal strategy has been selected, it is followed rather consistently, although from the narrative perspective, The Guardian’s story is more inconsistent. The question remains whether the contradiction between the conflict frame and Corbyn’s defusing of the conflict within The Guardian’s story is partially a result of the fast speed of producing these kinds of near-live articles.
The writers of The Times article have had more time to smooth out any bumps in their narrative trajectory. But more time to write doesn’t necessarily lead to more objective journalism but often to smoother narratives, which might work to conceal any unintended but real contradictions. The contradiction between The Guardian’s conflict framing of the story and what Corbyn actually said perhaps reveals a different aspect of the process of political communication which The Times narrative seeks to conceal; this is the role of the journalist in constructing the frames and narratives.
What is interesting is that neither paper is particularly interested in what other parties have to say about the situation. That makes sense in The Guardian’s article, as it is about the Labour conference, but surely Prime Minister’s Brexit plan has other opponents than the Spartans. But it seems that the writers of The Times article are rather sympathetic of Boris’s attempt, and they have no need to add any more conflict in the story but seek to keep Boris as the main driver of the action with obstructions that he is able to overcome by persuading his opponents.
The main bulk of The Guardian article makes Corbyn as the main driver of action, but this is after the initial conflict framing, which has been introduced to contest the idea of a left-wing Brexit. In the absence of opposing sources, it is the narrator that, more transparently than usual in a news story (the story is not framed as an opinion), creates the conflict frame by inventing a dialogical argument by projecting a future reaction on behalf of Labour activists and MPs.
Journalistic interventions in conflict framing are often linked to journalistic routines. It is routine to involve politicians with opposing viewpoints to bring a sense of objectivity into the story. Pitting political actors from the opposition against government actors is not deemed interesting by many journalists, but conflicts that might change the course of the party are found interesting. (Bartholome, Lecherer & Vreese 2015, 447, 451, 452)
So, in the absence of dialogue from sources that is usually used to bring an appearance of objectivity, perhaps because there has been no time to consult any other sources, the narrator in The Guardian works to bring the dialectical counterargument through narration to add another point of view, so the conflict frame seems to some degree to be the narrator’s creation.
In both of these stories, the discordance between the main argumentation scheme and the end of the article works to create the narrative open-endedness that we often associate with the news story: this story is continuing and it might take different twists and turns than presented in the future projections made in this journalistic narrative. This works to create a narrative appearance of news in the flow of time with stories developing with no resolution.
But this narrative open-endedness also works to conceal the argumentative nature of the news narrative. From the perspective of the argumentation scheme, what we usually perceive as the background info and other general info presented in the end of a news story in line with the inverted pyramid model, is in fact information that doesn’t easily fit into the main argumentation scheme.
But what is interesting is that although both articles initially seem like reporting about the past, they both consist mainly of future projections either by the sources or by the narrator.
It is also interesting to see that in both stories the temporalities mostly follow the needs of the argument with narrative temporality firmly subservient to the argument. So, the foundational organising principle for temporalities is the argumentation scheme.
Temporally they are similar, but The Guardian introduces a more midrange future, which is probably based on the fact that any Brexit plan by Corbyn could realistically only be introduced in the midrange future that can happen only if the current PM has failed. In The Times article, the midrange future is the great unknown where the narrator won’t venture to go, as that would mean that Boris Johnson would have failed to deliver a deal or a no-deal by 31 October 2019.
More analysis of news articles is needed to see how common this kind of temporal future-oriented structure that is firmly anchored in the immediate past might be, and what other types of temporalities we might discover.
On theoretical level, it seems quite easy to discern the argumentation structure and the basic temporalities, but drawing a clear distinction between frames and narratives might not be as effortless, although, in my view, both are needed to explain the temporalities. So, there is a need to develop a clearer understanding regarding frames within the narrative and an argumentation scheme. In this analysis I have only picked up a handful of frames that clearly seek to define reality in a way that would not be considered neutral by all audiences. Clearly the frames have more scope than that. But with these two stories it seems that after the initial framing in the beginning of the articles the framing in the articles seems to reflect the basic narrative and argumentative structure quite consistently. Granting narrative its proper place seems to reduce the need for a broader operationalisation of frames.
I will need to do further work to clarify the definition and role of frames within narrative argumentation. But perhaps time-related words such as “yesterday”, “last night”, “live” and so on could be seen as temporal framing devices that make us approach the different parts of the narrative in different ways, as they don’t by themselves operate in the level of arguments or narrative. But testing the basic theoretical model with actual news is definitely helping me to discover weaknesses of the model and areas for development.
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