Richard North, 03/02/2020  

Before it gets too busy – with today promising to be more than usually frenetic – I thought I would take time out to review a recent article by James Ball in the New European on how the media have covered Brexit.

The New European isn't everybody's cup of tea, and its own coverage has been tainted by its espousal of the "bollocks to Brexit" meme, but even this journal is capable of producing an occasional solid piece of writing. This is one example, written by a journalist with at least some self-awareness, even if he too isn't everyone's cup of tea.

Ball's essay, running to nearly 2,500 words, argues that the way the media has reported Brexit - caught up in the twists and turns – has meant that the public has "consistently missed the story". He starts with an apt analogy, remarking that anyone who knows the sea also knows that it is the tide that matters. "But while tides might be what's important", he writes, "it's the waves that are much more fun to watch".

"So it's been with Brexit, at least as viewed through the lens of the UK media over the last three-and-a-half years", he declares, essentially making the point that the media have been watching (and reporting) on the froth with very little attention to the substance.

"Closely following Brexit in the media", he writes, "could easily leave one exhausted and disillusioned, but also confused, and probably knowing almost nothing more than someone barely following the story".

In an interesting insight, Ball argues that part of the problem with the coverage of Brexit was quite simply who was covering it. Usually, he says, the details of anything involving the EU is kept to Brussels correspondents, and (for the broadsheets at least) confined to deep inside the newspaper. Anything detailed, involving international negotiations or the slow cycle of policy, would usually be left to specialist correspondents rather than the Westminster lobby.

But Brexit was clearly going to be the top political story for years, and the UK's political lobby are very used to regarding page one stories as their home turf. So what to do when the number one political story would be a complex and high-stakes international negotiation, rather than the usual "who's up? who's down?" coverage that dominates domestic UK political writing?

The answer turned out to be simple, Ball writes:
Brexit was quickly turned into the kind of stories the UK lobby like to write. The EU side of the negotiation was largely cut out of existence, allowing for splash headlines every Monday on some new UK proposal that anyone credible knew was dead on arrival (or usually before arrival) in Brussels.

The beauty of these was they could come from anywhere: Number 10 could buy a few days floating a plan it knew would be rejected. The ERG could set new "red lines". Even a document as ridiculous as the "Malthouse compromise" (basically a request for the EU to unilaterally give the UK what it wanted, but with the word "compromise" in its name) was aired in the British media for weeks.

For anyone but the closest Brexit watcher, separating out real, viable proposals from a fresh bit of noise became absolutely impossible. As even this became boring, lobby attention turned away from the most important negotiation for a generation and focused on whether the protesters outside parliament were annoying, whether Brexit could mean a new royal yacht, and with an almost indecent obsession with the bongs of Big Ben.

As one editor working at a national title put it: "Even as they described Brexit as a monumental, once-in-a-lifetime decision that had upended British politics and society, they continued covering it largely as if it was politics as usual, just another general election or similar…

"This was more about processes than a lack of understanding. The changes in how we consume information and discuss issues that have made established approaches to covering politics woefully inadequate are not driven by, or unique to, Brexit. But they are closely woven into it, and have been exposed by it."
There is much more of this refrain, leading Ball to conclude that, "We as a media structurally fail to cover what's actually important".

He goes on to say that the UK media are used to covering policy and government via leaks, often semi-officially sanctioned leaks designed to float ideas in a deniable way. This, he asserts, became the default method to cover Brexit, with the UK government ostensibly setting its negotiating positions in secret, so as not to give the EU an "advantage", and then leaking bits out selectively.

The problem with this, he adds:
… was that the EU had set out its own negotiating position - in painstaking detail - entirely in public, in multiple languages, available on its website and readily discussed by its spokespeople and its senior officials.

It is hard for one side of a negotiation to claim its aims and red lines are state secrets when the other side has placed all of their cards, face up, on the table. The EU could hardly have done it any other way: the negotiators in the room had their mandate set for them by the 27 nations remaining in the EU, with no authority to go beyond them. Part of their strategy of transparency was to reassure member states no secret concessions were being made.

The UK media dealt with this contradiction by… almost universally ignoring it, running with whatever the UK said more recently. This made for plenty more front pages for the reporters willing to pull that trick - but it came as a huge disservice to their readers - and the readers, listeners and viewers of newspapers and shows which then breathlessly picked up stories they should have had the judgment to ignore.
This, of course, we can affirm as the media almost universally shunned the EU's Notices to Stakeholders, preferring the shrieking coverage of the latest "revelations" from anonymous Downing Street sources, and willing but equally anonymous sources in Brussels.

Ball, however, does not restrict his criticisms to journalists. Noting that readers and viewers (and listeners) are not entirely exempt from blame, he observes that: "Brexit created a whole new category of pundits, 'experts', actual experts, talking heads and cheerleaders".

Almost universally, he says, "the ones who did best - who got the most bookings, whose social media followings swelled by tens and hundreds of thousands, who essentially turned Brexit-watching into a career - were the ones who told people what they wanted to hear". He adds:
Thanks to the way our comment editors like to commission and our TV shows like to set up their debates, it was far better, career-wise, to pick Remain or Leave and be a full-throated cheerleader for one or the other, rather than to try to give an honest assessment of the facts, even if this came from a perspective of being an open supporter of one or the other.
Deviating from the script was rarely tolerated on either side, Ball says, noting that Brexiteers who tried to acknowledge that "WTO terms" was utter conspiracy theory nonsense got "castigated". As Brexit got ever more bitterly divided and tribal, he says, "most of us settled into the coverage that told us the most reassuring story".

The result "was that Remain and Leave's most ardent supporters now live in entirely different media worlds, believing entirely different facts, and have almost no overlap from which to come back from. It also means neither is particularly well-informed by the media they consume".

Despite all that, Ball remains optimistic. The media might be flawed and often fail, he says, "but it's also still how we find out about the world. We need it to be better". In the short term, he avers, at least one Brexit watcher has reason to hope the next coverage might be better than what's come before.

"Essentially, Brexit is really boring and really technical - but also really important. So it's tricky to cover", he said, before saying why things could improve. "Well … they might let the more specialist journalists lead on it if it slips down the political agenda".

It's better than nothing, concludes Ball, but I beg to differ. Largely, the specialist journalists are part of the problem - not forgetting that Johnson was the Telegraph's specialist Brussels correspondent. With rare exceptions, few have the humility to understand that their egos are smaller than the events on which they report, and while there are some who know a very little about the subject (as opposed to nothing at all), it is uncommon to find that they also know their own limitations.

I think we must face up to the fact that the media is not going to get better any time soon. Wedded to the trivia and the superficial, journalists allow themselves to be distracted by any passing fad, rushing about hither and thither like the silent movies comic inventor Snub Pollard in his magnet car (pictured). They have long shown their inability to report sensibly on EU issues, and Brexit is just more of the same.

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