Richard North, 25/08/2018  

Before writing yesterday's article on Mr Raabs "technical notices", I made a point of not reviewing the legacy media coverage on them. My limit was briefly to skim a couple of pieces and to pluck a headline from the Mail, and only after I had written the bulk of my analysis.

In my view, it is important to do this when analysing events. Otherwise there is a risk you will end up analysing the media coverage, or being so heavily influenced by it that your thinking is no longer original.

You see this in the legacy media. They all have televisions blaring in their newsrooms, tuned to the news channels. They are tapped in to the agencies – which are reporting what others are saying – and they all devour reports in the print media. It is no coincidence that so many stories look the same - the media are feeding off each other.

Such was the case with the reporting on the Raab initiative. Rather than go full-frontal on an evaluation of the notices, many newspapers chose instead to focus on Chancellor Philip Hammond's letter to the chair of the Treasury Committee.

This referred to his department's "Cross-Whitehall Briefing", produced in January 2018. It estimated that borrowing would be around £80 billion a year higher under a no deal/WTO scenario by 2033-34, in the absence of mitigating adjustments to spending and/or taxation, relative to a status quo baseline.

Although there was nothing new to add to this estimate, the Telegraph chose to feature this in its lead, front-page story in its print edition, with the headline "Hammond under fire for no-deal warning". And the online edition headline was more pointed, carrying the legend: "Philip Hammond accused of undermining Brexit strategy with warning about leaving with no deal".

The Times front page lead chose: "Brexit splits in cabinet laid bare by Hammond", having the Chancellor attacking "colleagues' no deal optimism". And, conveying a similar theme, the Express carried a banner front-page headline, in capitals, demanding: "What does Hammond think he's playing at", with the strap line, "Chancellor warns 'No Deal' could crash economy just hours after Brexit Secretary calmed fears…".

Its online headline was, if anything, more strident, with: "TORY SPLIT: Hammond sparks civil war with shock no deal Brexit warning", the strap telling us: "PHILIP Hammond was firmly rebuked by Downing Street tonight after reigniting the Tory feud over Europe with a warning that a 'no deal' Brexit would deal a shattering blow to the economy".

The Daily Mail front page was just as personal, headlining (again in capitals): Eeyore Hammond launches project fear (Pt2)", this taking place "as Chancellor claims 'no deal' Brexit could wipe 10% off national income". Carrying the flag for the broadcast media, the BBC website carried: "Conservative anger at Philip Hammond's 'dodgy project fear'".

Not to be outdone, even the Guardian pitched in with its own version: "Brexit: Philip Hammond's £80bn no-deal warning exposes Tory rift", running the strap line, "Leavers react as chancellor points to risks after Dominic Raab struck positive note".

What we have here, therefore, is yet another weary example of biff-bam, personality politics. The reporting on what was essentially the technical issue of what happens to the UK in a "no deal" Brexit is turned into a soap opera, where adversaries are lined up to play their parts in an ongoing human drama.

The approach typifies the failure of the legacy media to address the technicalities of Brexit and thereby the failure to keep the public informed of the consequences of certain policy options. Information takes second place to conflict and confusion, as any attempt to clarify or instruct is abandoned.

Such has been the fate of Brexit since the referendum and, before that, the campaign itself – the reporting of which was more about the personalities than it was the issues. And if we are now suffering from an information deficit, neither the media nor the population at large seems to have learnt any lessons from it.

Yet, there can be no question that a "no deal" Brexit, occurring without any form of mitigation, will be catastrophic. Thus, although Dominic Raab is attempting to reassure us that the Government is aiming to ensure the "smooth, continued, functioning of business" in the event of the talks in Brussels collapsing, the most likely outcome is chaos and economic disaster.

If one then takes it from Raab's presentation that there is a positive aspect to a "no deal" scenario – as the Guardian implies (along with others), then the only conclusion to be drawn is that the secretary of state is seeking to mislead. There is no rational expectation that crashing out of the EU can be managed, or that businesses or the public at large can protect themselves from the fallout.

Actually, we're dealing with something which is more than just implied. The Guardian records that Raab "struck a determinedly optimistic note, as he launched 24 'technical notices". Rather than addressing the sober reality of an impending economic collapse, the paper itself is suggesting that the worst we face is that "UK citizens living in the EU could lose access to payments and pensions from UK banks, and that credit card payments to the EU could become more expensive".

For sure, we also get Polly Toynbee railing against the prospect. Her column embraces the headline: "Raab offers us cotton wool on no-deal Brexit. The reality is hair-raising", going on to assert that, "the detail in the government's technical notices is alarming yet Brexiters are still blind to the dangers ahead".

But, against this, we have the contrast of the leader in The Times. It would have it that, "It is by now well-established that the collapse of negotiations on Britain's withdrawal from the European Union would lead to trade reverting to World Trade Organisation rules", then coming up with the staggeringly bland: "More detailed implications, however, are less well known".

Falling into the Raab trap, it then tells us we "could learn of likely immediate disruption to processes as diverse as credit card systems and the import of Danish sperm", but the paper then concludes: "A no-deal Brexit is not the apocalypse, but it is clearly and undeniably bad for Britain".

If that is the take-away perception, then Raab has undeniably succeeded. No one could ever get away with the idea that a "no deal" scenario was without adverse consequences, but he has managed to downplay expectations to the extent that Armageddon has been demoted to the status of a delayed train on the journey to work.

If The Times stands for bland, though, no uncertainty is permitted in the Telegraph. "Scaremongering about Brexit is dangerous", it storms, with the blame lying not only with "Project Fear" but also with "a government that has failed to defend its own policies or assert its confidence in them". It is the Government's job, of course, to prepare for all eventualities, the paper concedes, but the most it will concede of a "no-deal" Brexit is that it "would be an almighty task".

Shorn of factual information – of the type which is readily available in the Commission's Notices to Stakeholders, any view on the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit takes on the mantle of a lifestyle choice. There are no certainties, just opinions, because – as The Times so blandly puts it, the "more detailed implications" of crashing out of the EU "are less well known".

Yet, more than two years after the referendum, how can it possibly be that a major national newspaper is calmly recording of a situation that has the potential to destroy our economy (and much else), that the detailed implications are less well known? Does this not speak of a massive failure on the part of the legacy media – a failure to inform?

In this huge information vacuum, where facts have no value, accuracy is afforded no premium, and the opinions of noisemakers are awarded the status of fact, nothing is ever resolved. The debate takes on a life of its own, with the biff-bam personality politics becoming an end in themselves.

In that scenario, where information has become infotainment, facts would actually spoil the fun, not least because such things are alien to the most prominent of the noisemakers.

Thus, it is entirely open to adopt whichever view that might suit on the consequences of a "no deal". There will always be something in the media to support whatever shade of opinion is chosen, often simultaneously – except, of course, the fact-driven reality.

Reality will be kept firmly at bay – until it is discovered by the media after the event, whence they will preen at their own cleverness at finding out what the more sanguine of us have known for years. Until then, politics is just a wonderful game for the clever-dicks. Cassandras are not invited.

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