Richard North, 28/12/2016  

Throughout my career I've done some serious, research-led journalism but, as an outsider, whenever I've submitted a story I've been put through the mill to prove every point – quite often being asked to provide corroborative evidence as well.

I have no problems with that approach - it's how it should be. So, when I see low-grade claims masquerading as "research" in the newspapers, I find it offensive.

And leaping into that category is a trivial piece of dross produced by Change Britain - work so dire that when the former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, Jonathan Portes, says, "it isn't research, it's junk", we have no hesitation agreeing with him.

Change Britain, chaired by Gisela Stuart MP, comprises the dregs of the Vote Leave conglomerate, left over after the referendum. Backed by the likes of Michael Gove, they are seeking to define the Brexit settlement, but largely campaigning for what has been termed a "hard Brexit", which will maximise the political and economic damage done by our withdrawal from the EU.

These are the people, we recall, who deliberately set their faces against a Brexit plan, arguing that this should be left to government. But, having done next to no work on the issue, they are now in the post-referendum period, planting stories with a willing and gullible media which should not, in the ordinary course of events, qualify even as toilet paper.

Predictably, this is the sort of dross which makes the front page of the Express, then to be tweeted gleefully by fellow travellers who believe anything they get from that source.

But what marks this out is the implied (or actual) rejection of massive and sustained criticism of the Vote Leave stratagem of highlighting supposed savings of £350 million a week from leaving the EU. Instead of stepping back from this figure, the same people are contemptuously upping the ante, claiming not £350 but £450 million a week "savings".

The figure, of course, is moonshine. Equivalent to £24 billion a year, we see allocated a saving of £10.4 billion from no longer having to contribute to the EU budget, £1.2 billion from "scrapping burdensome Single Market rules" and a gain of £12.3 billion from increased exports arising from our leaving the customs union.

In terms of savings, however, the three categories cannot be compared. The first is a potential saving to the exchequer, the second – if realised – accrues to business and the third isn't a saving at all but a measure of increased export sales.

As Jonathan Portes therefore says: "Adding increased exports and reduced government expenditure is literally meaningless. The results mean nothing". One of our commenters suggests it is a methodological error so crass that a ten-year-old could spot it.

There can be little dispute that no great expertise is needed to identify the flaws in this tawdry work. It should be well within the capability of a newspaper editor, and easily discernible by the supposed researchers for Change Britain. That they haven't even bothered to offer credible work to the media says much for the drop in standards in what was once Fleet Street.

There is something especially intriguing about the second category, though, offering £1.2 billion savings from "burdensome regulation". It is based on the list produced by Open Europe, from which this group thought that £33.3 billion a realistic figure that could be saved by leaving the EU.

The £1.2 billion has been whittled down from the larger figure because, Change Britain argue, may laws would be kept because they stem from international agreements, while others reflect the UK's political priorities. Yet that minimal sum still includes a figure for the Motor Vehicles (EC Type Approval) (Amendment) Regulations 2008, even though it is acknowledged that these stem from UNECE.

Discounting this figure, all we have on offer is less than £1 billion regulatory saving from leaving the Single Market – a trivial sum compared with the potential risks. Equally fragile is the £10.4 billion EU budget saving, with Change Britain obstinately refusing to concede that we may well be struggling to make any savings at all.

Yet, if any newspapers want research, they can have Monograph 3 which sets out the possibilities in some detail. Change Britain - and the newspapers which publish its work – are ignoring reality.

However, this is all part of a parcel of propaganda that had Change Britain claiming in late November that, over the course of three years from 2020, the UK stands to save £31.9 billion from not making EU transfers.

What they've effectively done now is fold in the pitiful sum from regulatory savings and their £12-plus billion supposedly accrued from increased exports, gained from leaving the customs union. In this, they've added their ignorance to the collective, falling for the false assumption that membership of the customs union necessarily stops the UK making independent trade deals.

However, for the Express - as is so often the case – the litany of error does not stop there. In a separate piece, it gives space to John Mills to argue against the "Norway option" as a transitional deal.

After Norwegian voters rejected membership in 1972 he says, "Norway finished up with transitional arrangements that in the end got turned into the EEA in 1994 - more than 20 years after their referendum. And they're still there". He adds: "The EEA was really a stepping-stone to full membership, which hasn’t happened between 1972 and 2016, over 40 years".

The point here is that Mills has fallen for the Lilley canard, asserting that the EEA was a halfway house to membership – something easily disproved by reference to the historical background. Furthermore, we know that Mills has been told his assertion is false - but he chooses to believe Lilley's falsehoods. 

I was thus intrigued to read yesterday a scientific paper courtesy of another of our commenters, which offered evidence from observation of brain activity that ".... when people are confronted with challenges to their deeply held [political] beliefs, they preferentially engage brain structures known to support stimulus-independent, internally directed cognition".

"Defending one's beliefs against challenging evidence is a form of internally directed cognition", these researchers found, "involving both disconnection from the externally presented evidence and a search through memory for relevant counterarguments".

In other words, once people have settled on their political beliefs, they shut off external stimuli and rely on an internal stock of arguments to validate them. This, effectively, is a description of the "bubble effect" which we encounter so often and explains the determination of so many people to shut out information that does not reinforce their beliefs.

Nothing we can do directly can alter this. Our own experience shows us that to attempt to change the minds of people such as John Mills was ultimately sterile, while the media is largely beyond salvation.

That apart, we can assume that the rational element of the "leaver" majority, which favours a measured Brexit, together with those "remainers" prepared to work towards the same end, actually comprise the majority of the electorate.

By contrast. the dinosaurs of Change Britain and their fellow travellers most likely comprise a minority and one which may well be shrinking as the realities of Brexit sink in. We can thus afford to ignore the noise makers and push our own positive agenda.

The media may ignore it, but then the public can ignore the media and its diet of junk - as it is increasingly doing. They - as do we - have better things to do with their time.

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