Richard North, 18/11/2019  
 


I may have mentioned before how awful Andrew Marr is, but in yesterday's performance he excelled himself.

Interviewing foreign secretary Dominic Raab, he finally arrived at a point where one of the most important issues of the current Brexit debate happened to come up. "Could we leave without a deal?", Marr asks, to which Raab responds: "I think it's – no, it's not what we’re going to do".

An enterprising journalist, one might have thought, would have followed this up, asking how a new Johnson government intended to negotiate a deal in the eleven months ending on the last day of December 2020.

But this is Andrew Marr we're dealing with: "No? Okay, alright that's clear", he says. And just so that there is no misunderstanding, Raab adds: "I don't think it's remotely likely". And to that, the grand inquisitor simply remarks: "We'll move on to another subject then…".

Oddly enough, this isn't the first time Marr has addressed the issue of a trade deal, as one might expect. Back in February 2016, Marr interviewed David Cameron, when he asked about the possibility of the UK negotiating a Canada-style deal. Said Cameron, in this pre-referendum period:
Well, it hasn't been finished. It's been going for seven years … If we leave, seven years potentially of uncertainty. And at the end of that process you still can't be certain that our businesses will have full access to the market, so it could cost jobs, it could mean businesses, overseas businesses not investing in Britain. It would be a step into the dark, a real risk and uncertainty, and that's just the last thing we need in our country right now.
As he had failed to do so many times before, Marr didn't follow through, but the point had been made. And, in January 2017, there was an opportunity to revisit this issue, when Mrs May was a guest on the Marr show. It was then that the "no deal" rhetoric had been introduced by May but, when she was probed on whether she would walk away from a bad deal, she said:
…I have every expectation that we will be able to achieve a very good trade deal with the European Union. I think that, not just because it’s going to be good for the UK, but also it’s going to be good for the European Union too. So I want a trade deal with the EU which ensures that our companies have the best possible access to and opportunity to operate within the European single market in goods and services.
Needless to say, Marr didn't follow through on that either. As I remarked at the time - when we all thought that the deal would be negotiated within the two-year period – he could have asked how the prime minister intended to negotiate the deal in the time, when her predecessor had described it as a "leap in the dark".

Not unsurprisingly, I headed my blogpost at the time: "the uselessness of Marr" and, in these times of uncertainty and change, I suppose we could take comfort in Marr's consistency. Nothing has changed.

But, to prove that he never misses an opportunity to miss a point, yesterday Marr also interviewed Jeremy Corbyn. and it was then that he asked the leader of the opposition what the "leave option" that he had in mind entailed. Said Corbyn:
A leave option would mean a trade relationship with Europe and it would mean protection of rights. And obviously that includes that protection of the Good Friday Agreement. That will be put alongside remain in a referendum within six [months] – and my whole strategy has been to try and bring people together on both sides of the argument, 'cause actually there's a great deal that unites them about the inequalities and injustices in this country.
Corbyn is thus saying that, within six months of his elevation to prime minister, he would not only have renegotiated a new withdrawal agreement, but also a "trade relationship", notwithstanding that the latter can't happen until we've actually left the EU.

This remarkable claim though just begged to be clarified by a series of probing questions. On what grounds, for instance, did Corbyn believe he could negotiate a new trade relationship within six months, and how was this going to be done alongside talks on a revised withdrawal agreement.

It possibly won't come as a surprise that Marr didn't ask such questions, or anything like them. These details were of no interest at all to him. All he wanted to know from Corbyn was: "what your own personal view is about leaving the EU or not". Said Marr: "It's the biggest single question facing a lot of people in this country and they have a right to know the answer".

Now I may be out on my own, but if I even cared whether Corbyn personally wanted to leave the EU, it would most certainly not qualify as the "biggest single question" that I faced on Brexit. and I suspect I am not on my own. This is entirely the preoccupation of the Westminster/media bubble.

What effectively we saw yesterday, therefore, was evidence that there are currently two general election campaigns. One is being played out on the grand canvas of the national media – largely for the entertainment of politicians and journalists – and the other one in the country at large.

In terms of that second campaign, we got a small insight into what is going on from Deborah Mattinson, a founding partner of BritainThinks, a research and strategy consultancy.

She has been conducting a series of focus groups, where people were asked to describe Britain at the start of the campaign. The words chosen were "divided", "confused", "angry" and "broken", from which she concludes that "the electorate is weary". She continues:
Faith in politics and politicians – never high – is now at an all-time low. Just six percent say that politicians understand "people like me", Boris Johnson has poorer ratings as PM than any of his recent predecessors at a similar stage in their premiership, and Jeremy Corbyn has the worst opposition leader ratings since polling began. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) now believe that our politics is "no longer fit for purpose".
When Mattinson asked a focus group of undecided voters last week, "What have you picked up about the election so far?", she found they had plenty to say about policies, parties and politicians. But their confident chatter died away fast. Eye contact was avoided. No one could think of anything that related to the campaign.

Says Mattinson, a recent poll found a similar lack of engagement. Four thousand voters were asked what "incidents, events, stories etc" they had noticed. The winning score, at 42 percent, was for "none". In second place came the five percent mentioning Jacob Rees-Mogg's Grenfell remarks. Just two percent mentioned Brexit and one percent "NHS funding".

While the consultants and pundits may need focus groups to inform them of public sentiment, most people outside the bubble take the temperature of their own communities every day of the week. And so far, outside the foetid embrace of the media and the hothouse of Twitter, this election has largely been a non-event. Most people, I find, do not even discuss it and, if the subject is raised, it is usually to offer some wry or ironic comment.

It is my view, though, that if the media – as exemplified by the Marr show – could step outside its bubble, to confront politicians with relevant questions, and demand real answers, the attitude to politics could be transformed. But so rare is it that that an interviewer or journalist puts a politician on the spot that, when they do, it is the talk of the town.

News addict that I am, I find myself switching off the television news, utterly frustrated by the superficial, venal content, and the prancing of celebrity journalists who think they are bigger than the stories they report, such as "look at me" Laura, political editor for the BBC.

But as long as the media reach down to us, in their patronising way, treating us all as morons – missing the point in every conceivable way – the dribble they produce will drive people away from a subject that is of vital importance to them. But then, when it comes to defining what journalism is for, the Guardian doesn't even place the need to "inform and explain" in any of its headings. When it comes to that, we're on our own.






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