A campaign which saw the Mirror and Express team up ended this weekend when about 1,600 “polarised” readers met up in pairs to talk Brexit, Donald Trump and climate change.
The Britain Talks campaign aimed to “bring the nation back together” by getting members of the public to step out of their bubbles and speak to people with political views differing from their own.
The newspapers took advantage of their split political views and also used the extensive regional network of publisher Reach to engage with people across the country.
The newsbrands’ websites began to ask readers to answer a survey embedded within online stories two months ago.
They were prompted to answer “yes” or “no” to a handful of political statements starting with “Britain is better off outside Europe”, after which they were matched with someone who answered differently on at least one of the key questions and who lived nearby.
In total 4,166 signed up to take part with about 1,600 of those eventually sorted into suitable pairs.
The pairs were matched using technology shared by My Country Talks, which pioneered the project with German news website Zeit Online in 2017 when 500 pairs met up to talk politics.
The participants met up this weekend across the UK, including in London, Edinburgh, Stoke, Huddersfield and Brecon, to coincide with the third anniversary of Brexit and the Great Get Together event in memory of murdered MP Jo Cox.
Ros Wynne-Jones, the Mirror’s Real Britain columnist who spearheaded the project, told Press Gazette it had been a “great journalistic experience” which gave her hope for the future.
She said: “The fact that 4,000 people wanted to take part in such a polarised time in our politics has given me hope just that people would be open enough and willing to take that risk.
“I feel like we are all quite shattered but it’s been an amazing thing to do and there’s not a lot of hope out there in the political world at the moment so being able to do something positive has felt like a great journalistic experience.”
A team of eight reporters from the Mirror and Express joined some of the pairs who met up to find out how the exercise unfolded.
Two of the hardest aspects, Wynne-Jones said, was being able to match people up due to the wide geographical spread involved, and persuading some of the pairs to be accompanied by journalists.
“We did find it hard to get people to do it in public because I think a lot of people felt it might go wrong and to agree to do that with a reporter and photographer there is definitely not easy,” Wynne-Jones said.
She added: “From a newspaper perspective as well it was really interesting to work with our colleagues at the Express and the regionals because it meant we had to cross our own divides.”
Wynne-Jones, whose Wigan Pier Project for the Mirror was highly commended at the British Journalism Awards in December, was matched up with a Conservative-supporting City banker who had similar views on Brexit but a different stance on immigration.
She said: “It isn’t an easy thing to ask people to do so you have to take the challenge yourself.
“I found I was quite nervous actually. We were definitely different people but we are both Remainers – we didn’t just match people on Brexit – but we had different views on immigration.”
The Mirror featured four pages on what happened at some of the meetings in yesterday’s paper, while the Express had a double page spread. More is set to be published online and in print this week, including in Wynne-Jones’ column on Friday.
One conversation between People’s Vote campaigner and an ardent Brexiteer in Edinburgh featured cries of “cobblers” and “bollocks” but ended with the joke that “no milkshakes were thrown” in reference to the recent spate of drinks being thrown at right-wing figures like Tommy Robinson.
Other pairs agreed that politicians had failed them or that they were similar after all when they looked at the “bigger picture”, with some even agreeing to meet up again.
Wynne-Jones and the team will now share what they learned from the exercise at an event with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Reuniting Britain post-Brexit in Westminster on 15 July.
Picture: Andy Commins/Reach