Richard North, 16/01/2018  
 


A year or more after we started writing about problems associated with customs checks at the borders, post-Brexit, we finally see in the Herald Scotland an article about customs arrangements when we leave the EU. The story in the paper is couched in terms of one of Scotland's more important industries – whisky production – about which we hear specific concerns from a leading distiller.

This leading distiller is Martin Leonard, managing director of Airdrie-based Inver House Distillers and he fears that the new customs system will be ill-equipped to deal with the huge increase in workload the UK's exit from the EU is expected to bring. We do not need to explore in any detail the nature of these concerns. The reason for us looking at the article at all is to note how the media is finally catching up with the issues, just as they cease to have any relevance to the debate.

The earlier concern was that, when we left at the end of March 2019, the customs service (HMRC) would not have the software and systems in place to handle the huge increase in workload that is expected. However, with Mrs May's commitment to a transitional process – which will give us at least 21 months of the status quo - we are no longer faced with a "sudden death" scenario once the Article 50 negotiations are complete. All being well (for the government), HMRC will have that extra time in which to prepare.

The point thus to make is that this newspaper is trailing badly behind when it comes to reporting the actual situation – something we see elsewhere. The Telegraph, for instance, is offering a travesty of a story on radioactive isotopes, based on an equally illiterate report to a select committee.

Neither bears much relation to reality, as explained on this blogpost last July. Yet that is all the newspaper can manage when it comes to informing its readers.

However, when it comes to recounting the latest twists and turns of the Ukip leader, who has split with girlfriend over racist messages about Meghan Markle, the papers leave no stones unturned. There is no limit to the amount of detail that they will entertain and the speed of their reporting despite the total irrelevance of Ukip.

What is equally relevant is what the newspapers leave out. A classic example is this, where the Tories recently tried to claim credit for reducing credit card charges when, in fact, the initiative had come from the European Union. Meanwhile, The Guardian has discovered the term of "third country" and is taking it out for a spin while having little conceptual understanding of it.

Another example is the recent news on the epidemic of fly-tipping where The Times manages to omit that much of the problem arises from EU legislation and the insistence on phasing out landfill in favour of more costly methods of disposal. The result has been a massive increase in charges which, entirely predictably, had led fly-tipping reaching an eight-year high last year with more than a million incidents in England.

This is an absolutely classic omission which typifies the fourteen years of this blog, where we have routinely noted the media's inability to report on the EU. We have watched as it has hollowed itself out, asset stripping and delegating the serious work to juniors, casually dispensing with its institutional knowledge. Its contemptible ineptitude is far from a new development. We no longer hold any expectations of it. There is no longer a distinction between broadsheet and tabloid.

We also find that television media is in a similar state of disrepair with the likes of Andrew Neil and Robert Peston, they who are paid extraordinary sums to know what is happening, and indeed influence events, still cannot come to terms with the most basic terminology. It strikes us that these people are no longer in the business of reporting news or informing. Rather they are there to produce content for its own sake.

The sole intent now seems to be the production of what is loosely called "clickbait", published solely for the purpose of starting conversations and generating readers, but not with any intent of leading the debate.

Largely, the media are simply adding to the noise. There is no obligation to bring clarity or to set standards for public discourse. And without a media capable of living up to its obligations, and a public broadcaster joining them in the race to the bottom, there is no possibility of an informed electorate nor a worthwhile dialogue between the governors and the governed.

Despite all that, though, there are occasional flashes of usefulness, as with this report in the Independent. The paper has found video footage of a Sky News broadcast from three years ago which has Alexander (aka Boris) Johnson categorically stating he would vote to stay in the Single Market.

When asked whether he would vote to leave or remain in the European Union in the event of a referendum, Johnson says he was "in favour" of staying in a Single EU trading bloc. He wanted, he says, to ensure good trade links with "our European friends and partners".

This not only contradicts his recent stance on the issue during the referendum campaign but also his comments reported recently in the wake of Farage's effluvia, where we informed us that staying in the Single Market was akin to staying in the EU.

This is wholly indicative of the almost complete inability of both politicians and media to deal rationally with the argument over the Single Market. Even in this report, we find the Independent blithely informing us that Norway "has access to the single market but must accept all the regulations of the bloc, including free movement of people into the country".

Such a level of commentary, bluntly, is pathetic – so basic and trivial that it hardly qualifies as an adult contribution. Time after time, though, we get this type of remark uncritically repeated, representing the basic knowledge level of the media. Any subtlety or detail is totally beyond the legacy media journalists.

On the back of all this, we get a report from Lord Ashcroft on the views of his latest focus groups.

Of the 31 weeks since the general election, he muses, much has happened in politics but little of it could be said to have lifted the spirits. Even then, the opposition has failed to open up the clear lead they might have expected over what has often seemed a hapless governing party, and surveys show the Tory ratings to be all but unchanged since polling day.

What we get for many is a Brexit were the story had just become "background noise". Says one respondent: "You kind of zone out of it. It's been going on for nearly two years". Another says, "I'm bored with it. I'm bored to the back teeth so I switch off. You've just got to hope they know what they're doing".

Unfortunately, says Ashcroft, evidence that the government does indeed know what it's doing seemed thin on the ground, and many of his respondents agreed. "It seems a bit shambolic", says one. "A bit patchy, a bit sketchy", says another. And then, on the generality of the news, we get: "Apart from Brexit, all I've heard recently is that the NHS is on its arse, the police service is on its arse, and the exchange rate when you go on holiday is on its arse too".

Our readers, however, don't need a focus group to convey the utter sense of boredom and frustration that pervades the study of politics. Day after day, it's been felt keenly on this blog, sapping our enthusiasm and our ability to stay on top of issues.

To ignore it though would be to distort the record. When the story of Brexit comes to be told, we must convey how the politicians and the media between them managed to turn the most interesting and important issue of the day into an exercise in applied tedium, with the media in particular creating a desert of information.

That media desert is part of the story and one, more than anything, that will probably determine the popular response to the Brexit outcome.






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