On News Corp’s yacht in Cannes, shock at the Brexit result but no apologies

Flying the flags in Cannes.
Flying the flags in Cannes.
Image: Quartz/Zachary M. Seward
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Cannes, France

Three hours after it became clear that Britain would leave the European Union, executives from News Corp gathered to discuss the result on their yacht here in Cannes, France, in the shadow of the Daily Mail’s even larger yacht.

It felt like a metaphor, but it wasn’t.

“I think it’s a massive feather in the cap for the power of the press,” said David Dinsmore, the chief operating officer of News Corp UK and former editor of The Sun, which campaigned strongly in favor of leaving the EU by stoking fears of rising immigration and an undemocratic Brussels-based bureaucracy controlled by Germany.

The scene on News Corp’s yacht Panthalassa, which it had chartered for parties during the Cannes Lions advertising festival, seemed to perfectly capture the paradoxes of British politics at the moment. These were the very elites whom voters had just thrown overboard (“This is what we in Britain would call a peasants’ revolt,” said William Lewis, publisher of the Wall Street Journal), but there wasn’t much self-reflection on board. Though everyone was suitably shocked by the vote, no one was particularly sorry about the role of the press in bringing about the result.

“When I was going over the list of positives this morning, it was that the popular press makes a huge impact on Britain,” Dinsmore said. Though News Corp’s The Times came out in favor of remaining in the EU, The Sun is the most widely circulated newspaper in the UK. It mocked proponents of remain and blared front-page headlines like “We’ll Get Stuffed by Turkey,” referring to migrants from the country. As Dinsmore observed, ”The consistent voice for Brexit was the Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph, and they are the largest circulations in the country.”

Just a few steps down the dock, workers were deconstructing the Daily Mail’s set-up, which included two yachts, a large concert stage, and a rotating logo that loomed over Port of Cannes. The newspaper, which claims to be the most popular news website in the word, hosted a slew of celebrities during Cannes Lions, which is a glitzy annual gathering for people who work in advertising and related fields. The Mail spent an estimated $8 million on its festivities.

Most people partying on the Mail’s yacht no doubt favored remaining in the EU, but it wasn’t much discussed on board or elsewhere in Cannes this week. No one brought up Mail headlines like, “Greediest Snouts in the E.U. Trough.”

(Both the Mail and News Corp yachts, incidentally, were flying the flag of the Isle of Man, a self-governing dependent of Great Britain that is not a member of the EU. Yachts in Europe often register there because of lower costs and more favorable tax treatment.)

Back on the News Corp boat, the panel paused to listen to prime minister David Cameron’s reaction to the referendum over a loudspeaker. There were gasps when Cameron said he would step down in three months. Lewis called it “one of the greatest political failures in British politics in the last 100 years,” and discussion turned to who might replace him.

“We saw Boris a few weeks ago,” Dinsmore said, referring to former London mayor Boris Johnson, who was a key campaigner for leaving the EU, “and I got the distinct impression he didn’t believe a word of what he was saying.”

As the French say, touché.