Richard North, 18/05/2018  
 


I've got to the stage now where I'm drastically limiting my access to UK media websites. I've completely stopped watching television news and current affairs output and I can't remember when I last listened to the radio. Even in the car, I prefer silence.

The atmosphere is akin to the leaden stillness just before a thunderstorm, when the heaviness of the air is stifling. Everything is on hold, waiting for the absurd political charade to end and the Brexit crisis to break.

And crisis there must be. We cannot continue like this, with the cabinet indulging in endless arguments about fantasy solutions to problems ministers scarcely seem to understand, against a backdrop of idiot politicians who's only contribution to the debate is to share their ignorance and add to the confusion, all egged on by the clamour of white noise from a media which has long demonstrated its almost total inability to report Brexit coherently.

Interestingly, I'm far from alone in deserting the media. Newspaper circulation figures just released present a picture of unremitting gloom, with all but one of the national titles showing a year-on-year decline.

Particularly prominent in the list is the Telegraph. For technical reasons it is showing a drop of 19 percent – nearly a fifth of its entire readership – bringing its average daily circulation to 377,159. This is a newspaper which, as recently as 2002, topped a million copies a day.

Its sister paper, The Sunday Telegraph, which in 1980 topped a million copies for each day sold, crawls in under the wire with a current average of 298,720, down nearly 18 percent on the year. And, although online figures are not published, even these are said to be declining.

It is a truism in the industry, however, that when the political temperature rises (as during general election campaigns), daily sales also rise. With Brexit verging on crisis, the temperature could hardly be higher. But, if people want information on the issue, they are not turning to the legacy media for it. And, if my attitude is any guide, a goodly number who visit their websites are only there to mock, or to remind themselves of how ghastly the coverage is.

That is not to say that the media are entirely useless, but mainly they act as a noticeboard, warning us of developments that need investigation. With stories showing up on a heavily customised Google News, the displayed links, augmented by Twitter and with the invaluable help of readers on this blog's comment facility, we are able to keep track of the ongoing saga, with a modicum of efficiency.

One thing is for certain, we would not have been able to perform as well without access to the Irish media which, despite its limitations, is streets ahead of its UK counterparts. Thus we have the Irish Times from yesterday warning us that patience is running out on the other side of the Irish Sea, with foreign minister Simon Coveney telling his fellow politicians that it would be far better to have a crisis next month, at the June European Council, rather than leave it to October for the big bust-up which, we all know, must come sooner or later.

Coveney, though, is actually striking an optimistic note, arguing that it would be better to address the issues of contention now, which would "give time for any damage to be repaired". On the face of that, it would seem that he still believes that the situation is reparable – something about which I would not be so sure.

That comment came ahead of a meeting between Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar and Theresa May at the margins of an EU western Balkans summit in Sofia, Bulgaria. The meeting, though, does not seem to have produced much for public consumption, other than a picture of stilted figures smiling for the camera (above).

The exact "take" on the meeting, however, rather depends on the media source from which you care to take your opinions. The Irish Post, for instance, offers the line that Leo Varadkar is warning that there is a "serious" chance that the UK will crash out of the EU without a Brexit deal.

This is the man being quoted before the meeting took place though. After the meeting, we have the village idiots' journal, the Express, wibbling about Mrs May giving Varadkar "fresh insight" into what it dignified with the title of "Britain's Brexit strategy".

Varadkar was treated to "new thinking" from British negotiators and the suggestion that they could even offer "new customs proposals" within the next two weeks. This allowed the paper to headline: "Varadkar hints May is ready to accept FULL ALIGNMENT to EU on customs".

A day before this fluff hit the web, we had Denis Staunton, London editor of the Irish Times offer his analysis, telling us that the internal debate (in Whitehall) over customs "bears little relation to existing negotiations with EU".

Much of his piece though attends to the sort of court gossip that journalists seem to find so fascinating, but which bores the average reader witless, contributing exactly nothing to our understanding of the issues.

For all that, Staunton does manage to point out the simple truth that seems to be evading the bulk of UK commenters – that "remaining in the customs union but leaving the single market will not allow for frictionless trade because border checks would still be required to deal with issues such as phytosanitary standards".

Here we have an interesting test. Very often, when a journalist is halfway there (beyond the stage of calling Spitfires "jet" fighters), but hasn't really mastered the subject, he will refer to "phytosanitary standards", not realising that the full group embraces the rather more clumsy "sanitary and phytosanitary standards", the one applying to animals and products of animal origin, the other to plants and products of plant origin.

For this, though, though Mr Staunton has an "elegant solution". He would have us extend the proposed backstop - which would allow Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and parts of the single market after Brexit - to the whole of the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, we are told, Brussels "will resist such a move", on the basis that Northern Ireland is only being allowed to cherry-pick the single market because of its special circumstances. The UK as a whole would be expected to adopt the whole of the Single Market, or nothing.

All this depends, of course, on which bits of the Single Market is being considered, but even Staunton fails to understand that there is far more to the Single Market than simply regulatory alignment. But then, anyone who suggests that suggests, as he does, that the EU enjoys "seamless trade" with Switzerland, really hasn't got a grip. Denis has been in London too long. He needs to come home.

Despite that, if we stay in London (spiritually), one can hardly avoid bumping into the Guardian, which has Mrs May denying the claims made in yesterday's Telegraph that she is preparing for Britain to remain in the customs union after 2021. We are not climbing down, she says. The UK will be leaving the customs union, we are leaving the EU. Of course, she adds, "we will be negotiating future customs arrangements with the European Union".

But what really keeps the paper hard in the fray is a trenchant editorial. Like Varadkar – and so many of us – it is losing patience, remarking that there was a time, perhaps, when the government's ineptitude over Brexit was almost funny. But, it observes, there is nothing funny about it now. It continues:
For 15 months Theresa May has groped her way towards an approach that could reconcile her party's Europe-loathers with her party's Europe-pragmatists. All too predictably, none of her efforts have succeeded. Mrs May now has a month before the June European council at which the UK and the EU are due to review progress. She has five months before some kind of deal is struck. Progress? Deal? These words have lost all meaning. Getting two pandas to mate in captivity turns out to be a cinch compared with getting the Conservative party to agree what it wants.
Lefty rhetoric aside, the tone of this piece is getting perilously close to real journalism – not at all what we expect from the legacy media. But then, if one ignores the entire Guardian commentariat, we might have to concede that, occasionally, the paper stumbles on old-fashioned journalistic values, even if it is only as a last resort.

It's current offering is enough to underscore what has been blindingly obvious for some long time – that Brexit has become so much of a plaything between warring Tory tribes, that the protagonists have completely lost their (always slender) grip on reality, and have launched into stratospheric fantasy. Having exceeded escape velocity, there is no certainty that they can ever get back down to earth.

The same, however, goes for the media. Shorn of the high-flown headline rhetoric, The Times report of the Varadkar-May meeting differs little in substance to that of the Express. Supposedly, a "breakthough" is in the air.

Giving the game away, though, Varadkar says of May's "new thinking", "We haven't been able to get any detail". Clearly, May is no Thatcher, a prime minister who was always conscious of the fact that the devil was in the detail. And it is the detail in Brexit that we have always lacked.

Without this detail, we have nowhere to go. There is nothing yet to relieve that leaden feeling of an overcharged atmosphere. But when the fight finally comes, it will be a relief.






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