Richard North, 04/08/2018  

In March 2009, the outgoing chairman of the then Press Complaints Commission observed that there had been a decline in the standard of online journalism.

With journalists and other editorial staff being shed by the bucket-load, he was concerned that the cutbacks were having an effect on journalism standards and warned that sacrificing editorial standards in the pursuit of profit was like "selling the family jewellery".

He went on to suggests that the pressure of time and the 24-hour news cycle may have led media sources to put up stories which had not been thoroughly vetted, and warned that newspaper groups needed to find a business model which reconciled high standards with profitability.

One wonders what Sir Christopher would have then made of this story had it been presented to him. Had the identity of the subject been withheld from him, would he have complained that the story had been published without having been thoroughly vetted?

The subject of the story is, of course, the same Sir Christopher Meyer, with the Express headlining: "Former UK ambassador sparks Remainer fury after making THIS claim about no deal Brexit".

The paper then itself indulges in its own claim, declaring that: "One of Britain's most respected former diplomats has exploded the Remainer myth that the UK would suffer shortages if it fails to get a deal with the EU. Sir Christopher Meyer, the former ambassador to the US, pointed out that international law 'mandates' the seamless movement of goods at borders".

This was via a tweet, when Sir Christopher wrote:
What's this tosh about giant lorry parks after 'no-deal' Brexit? The WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (ratified by 136, including EU, states in 2017) mandates seamless, hi-tech practices at the border. The World Bank reported in 2016 that 98% of border traffic went unchecked.
But this was not his first interjection on the subject. The "former UK ambassador" had a few days previously tweeted that: "With the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, the WCO Standards Framework, the EU's Single Administrative Document/Authorised Economic Operators schemes, there is no reason for supply chain or any other interruption in trade post-Brexit.

That was on 29 July and when it was pointed out that he was a diplomat and not a trade negotiator or representative, he retorted that he had "specialised in trade policy in Brussels and DC" and immediately blocked the challenger.

And, after hundreds of comments, mostly hostile, he concluded:
You know when you've got the other side on the run. They take refuge in abuse. Trying to get people to grasp that there is merit in the WTO Brexit option is like trying to persuade the 17th century Inquisition that the Earth rotates around the Sun.
I guess that answers my query as to whether the Sir Christopher Meyer of 2009 would have agreed with the Sir Christopher Meyer of today. But then, who are we, the lesser mortals, to argue with this great man?

Sir Christopher John Rome Meyer, KCMG (born 22 February 1944) is a former British Ambassador to the United States (1997–2003), former Ambassador to Germany (1997) and the former chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (2003–2009). In 1998, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II appointed him Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG).

He is a non-executive director of the Arbuthnot Banking Group. He is also Chairman of the Advisory Board of Pagefield and an Honorary Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge University. He is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspapermakers and a Freeman of the City of London. On 3 April 2012 he was appointed Court Assistant honoris causa by the Company. Since 2013 Meyer has been a Senior Associate Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute. Meyer was named in 2010 the Morehead-Cain Alumni Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of North Carolina.

On the basis of pure prestige, this man cannot possibly be wrong – about anything. The only trouble is that on the effect of the WTO trade facilitation agreement, to use his own word, he is talking "tosh".

The easiest way to demonstrate this is simply to read the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) - all 32 pages of it – as some responders have patiently asked Sir Christopher to do.

It's not a particularly difficult document to read, and the intent is clear. It purpose, in accordance with the label on the tin, is to facilitate trade, largely by simplifying administrative procedures. It does not pretend to be a customs code, or the basis for one.

By way of background, the TFA is primarily intended for developing and less developed countries (LDCs) illustrated here, where efficiencies in the physical infrastructure have not been matched improvements in the administrative infrastructure.

An example is given of a container from Nairobi to Amsterdam which required 200 documents before it could be released. Twenty four different organisations were involved and the whole trip took 34 days. For ten of those days, the container was just sitting, waiting for rubber stamps.

Essentially, European systems already comply with the basic provisions of the TFA, or are on their way to so doing. The biggest impact is in terms of aid funding, where the UK has been particularly active.

Then to suggest that the TFA is or could become the enforceable legal framework for the UK's border controls – recognised and actioned by its trading partners – is absurd. It is so far from reality as to be just silly. Nor will the AEO system help – especially as mutual recognition will lapse with a "no deal" Brexit, and the WCO framework is just that – a framework. It has no effect until implemented in the form of a customs code.

If you want to see what a working customs code looks like, you can go here to the law that the UK currently implements – the Union Customs Code (UCC). Comprising multiple documents, with the law alone amounting to over 1,300 pages, to suggest that a 32-page TFA is in any way a replacement does not even get close to reality.

Furthermore, this code does not deal with the sanitary and phytosanitary controls (the so-called official controls) which must be dealt with separately.

Yet the idea that the TFA could be a substitute comes from a man who claims to have "specialised in trade policy in Brussels and DC". One can only think that we are dealing with a Fachidiot, a German word for which there is no English equivalent. Broadly, it means a narrowly specialised person accomplished in his own field but a blithering idiot outside it.

But even that does not adequately describe Sir Christopher. Within his self-declared specialist field, he is displaying an astounding ignorance of how border control works, and is making completely unsustainable claims. And there is no limit to what he will argue, asserting that our single biggest national trading and investment partner is the US., yet we don't have a Free Trade Agreement with it – thus supposedly legitimising his claim that we can trade with the EU on WTO terms.

Once again, we see the same basic logical flaw that, because the US does not have a formal FTA with the EU, that it lacks any trade agreements. But, as the EU treaty database shows, there are 38 EU-US "trade deals", of which at least 20 are bilateral. There are in fact, no major economies which trade with the EU solely on the basis of WTO rules.

But simply to rehearse the same old arguments isn't the point. Meyer's assertion, in addition to its Express coverage took 1,797 retweets of Twitter and 2,802 "likes". This is a classic example of the lie getting halfway round the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

Furthermore, when prestige is the driver, truth does not have the same reach. It moulders on in obscurity while the lies grab the headlines.

Thus, on such contentious issues, where so much depends on the outcome of accurate information being available and understood, the current system of disseminating information and arguing through issues is no longer working.

The 2009 version of Sir Christopher had it right, that newspaper groups need to find a business model which reconciles high standards with profitability. But that pre-supposes there are people in the employ of the media who know what they are talking about – which is rarely the case.

Perhaps we need to take this out of the hands of the media altogether, and look at other mechanisms – which also need to cover social media. Either way, there is every indication that, with people like today's Sir Christopher around, truth needs a lot of help getting it pants on.

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