Richard North, 15/09/2018  

There is an odd feature which emerges when reading internet-based news. In the traditional news cycle, you would get news reports and then, only days later, could you read credible rebuttals which effectively killed the original stories. Yet, on the internet, such is the speed with which initial reports are posted, with the rebuttals coming just as fast, that we're seeing the laggards still putting up the original story long after it is dead and buried.

This seems to have been happening with the latest adventures of Midair Bacon, aka Dominic Raab or, occasionally, Rabid Manioc. The sequence starts with a Reuters report published yesterday declaring: "Britain and EU 'closing in' on a Brexit agreement, Raab says".

Initially, Midair Bacon was scheduled to be in Brussels talking to Michel Barnier but, for reasons unspecified, this did not go ahead. Instead, the pair discussed matters by telephone for about 30 minutes, following which the Reuters report had Raab say:
While there remain some substantive differences we need to resolve, it is clear our teams are closing in on workable solutions to the outstanding issues in the Withdrawal Agreement, and are having productive discussions in the right spirit on the future relationship.
The pair were reported to have reiterated their willingness "to devote the necessary time and energy to bring these negotiations to a successful conclusion", and both have agreed to take stock again following the Salzburg informal European Council.

This report was then picked up by numerous media organs, and was popping up all day in different guises on Google News and, even as I write in the wee small hours of this morning, it is still being repeated, the latest iteration via Hellenic Shipping News.

Around 4pm yesterday, though, the Guardian - which is occasionally a trusted source and is without paywall restrictions – came up with the headline: "EU diplomats reject Raab claim that Brexit talks are 'closing in' on deal".

The Secretary's comments on negotiations over the Irish border problem, it appears, are seen as "optimistic", thus surprising EU officials and diplomats. In reality, EU diplomats suggest that there was a "complete impasse" on the most difficult issue of finding a solution to the Irish border question.

This was essentially confirmed by a tweet from Michel Barnier, which had been posted about 3pm yesterday. It declared:
Useful dialogue w/ @DominicRaab this morning on the progress our teams have made this week on the #Brexit WA. But substantive differences remain on the Protocol for IE/NI, governance and GIs. We are also continuing our discussions to find common ground on the future relationship.
With a reasonable level of confidence, one can now take it that the original claim, made in the name of Raab, does not accurately represent the current state of the negotiations. So, despite the continuing reports, the situation has not changed, and we are exactly where we were – and have been since the beginning of the negotiations.

This episode, therefore, provides an adequate illustration of the febrile nature of the media, and a warning against relying on any single report or source. As far as is possible one needs to "triangulate" – cross-referring to multiple sources - and to get as close to primary source as possible, maintaining a high level of healthy scepticism at all times.

That much can be said of the multiple reports, popping up for over a week now, suggesting that the European Council was going to consider giving Barnier a new (or modified) mandate at the Salzburg meeting. One doesn't even need a rebuttal here: to anyone with a knowledge of EU procedures, such a development looks improbable, and we have not been alone in considering many of the reports "overblown".

Once again though, the Guardian comes to the rescue, putting the story further to bed. Under the headline, "EU leaders will not give Michel Barnier new Brexit instructions", we get confirmation of our suspicions from "a senior diplomat".

This is one of those anonymous sources and it is not possible either to refer to a primary source or to triangulate. But the report has the ring of truth, something the previous reports lack – having also been based on anonymous sources. Despite the prevalence of the claims, not a single named official or politician have put their names to it.

The "scuttlebutt" – as American servicemen used to call it – stems from an almost obsessive determination on the part of UK politicians, encouraged by sections of the media, to believe that they can bypass Michel Barnier, as the official negotiator, and appeal above his head directly to Member States.

The current narrative rests on the idea that the Member States will take a direct part in the negotiations at Salzburg next week, allowing Mrs May to hijack the European Council and thrash out the deal that has so far evaded the "inflexible" M. Barnier.

We had a not-dissimilar dynamic played out prior to the Gothenburg informal Council, with exaggerated expectations, brought to a fever-pitch by the media before the event – only to be deflated afterwards, in a massive anti-climax.

Then, of course, Barnier was in the process of formally proposing new guidelines – which had been signalled well in advance. But now, in an inversion of the usual procedure, we are led to expect that the European Council itself will, effectively, impose a new mandate on Barnier, more favourable to the UK.

Winding down the expectations for Salzburg, all that is going is happen there is that Mrs May will be allowed to give a short presentation to the other Heads of State and Government during lunch on the first day.

Taking a precedent from the previous occasion in Gothenburg, there will be no questions or discussion at the time. Only on the next day, when Mrs May has left, will the EU-27 consider whether to agree a special meeting of the European Council in November.

If there are any new guidelines required, it will be up to M. Barnier himself to make formal proposals – and none are expected. One of those ever-helpful anonymous diplomats tells the Guardian: "I don't see a situation where Michel Barnier says 'I'm fine with the mandate’ and the heads of state give him another one. If we should give additional guidance, and that is a big if, it would only be done in concerted discussion with the Commission".

This, of course, means that the considerable effort expended by the UK government in touring the capitals of Europe, schmoozing other Member State leaders, has been a complete waste of time and effort. It has achieved nothing constructive and, if anything, has irritated other Members, who have long been telling the UK that such approaches are futile.

It might have helped if the media had been more forthcoming in pointing this out, but most of the legacy media has been quite happy to go along with the theatre, and take the UK initiatives at face value, as if they had any relevance to the talks.

In the meantime, though, the UK media has other fish to fry. To its delight and preference, the domestic political agenda has re-asserted itself, with Emily Thornberry all but ruling out Labour backing a Chequers-style Brexit deal. According to The Times, the shadow foreign secretary savaged Theresa May’s attempts to find a compromise with the EU, saying a workable deal was "just not going to happen".

We can add to that the intervention by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney who has warned that house prices would fall by 35 percent over three years after a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

He has also voiced the opinion that Brexit had been bad for wage growth. It has had an "additional dampening effect" by causing uncertainty and putting businesses off investing in technology that could improve productivity.

Whether right or wrong, that gave the media quite enough Brexit fuel for yesterday, with the 28 "technical notices" having slid almost completely off the agenda. Far too complicated for the average hack, editors must have been delighted to have had plenty of alternative news.

The one thing of which we can be assured, however, is that they are not going to tell us anything worthwhile about the Brexit negotiations and the current state of play. If we want to obtain the detail there, we have to do it ourselves.

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