Richard North, 19/01/2021  

Yesterday was the day when the Scottish fishermen (or some of them) brought their concerns to the streets of SW1, complaining of "Brexit carnage", the message of "government incompetence" emblazoned on the side of a large vehicle – which seems rather appropriate for the circumstances.

Incompetence, however, was by no means confined to the government though, as BBC News reporter John McManus was on the scene, calmly explaining that, "Having left the European Customs Union, UK exports [of fisheries products] are subject to new customs and veterinary checks which have caused problems at the border".

McManus has more than 19 years' experience of working for BBC News, as a reporter, producer and on-air presenter and, over several years, has variously worked as a reporter for BBC World Service Radio and BBC World TV, as well as working for BBC1 bulletins, the News Channel/WTV, and BBC Radio 4 news programmes.

Yet, despite his seniority and experience, the man – like many of his colleagues – is incapable of distinguishing between the effects of leaving the customs union and the Single Market. Furthermore, in common with almost the entire corps of legacy media journalists, he insists on describing the checks as "new" as opposed to already existing but newly applied to the UK, it having acquired "third country" status.

But even the infelicities of McManus pale by comparison to the sterling endeavours of Lisa O'Carroll, of the Guardian. O'Carroll is not any old journalist; she is the paper's specialist Brexit correspondent, tasked on this occasion to chronicle the woes of wine importer Daniel Lambert who recently committed himself to a length complaint on Twitter, graphically describing the difficulties he has encountered.

Helpful, our Lisa explains to us ignorant plebs that, "At the heart of the issue is a complex piece of paperwork, called Chief, that was used for imports from non-EU countries before Brexit", thus inviting the question as to how it is even possible to be a Brexit correspondent for a major national newspaper without knowing about this HMRC software.

I actually recall writing about Chief in March 2017, airing concerns that the system would not be up to the jo. This certainly seems to be the case with Daniel Lambert, with it not permitting him to make the necessary declarations and thereby preventing him importing his product.

The failure of a key piece of software – the subject of parliamentary select committee inquiries – one might have thought would have been of great interest to O'Carroll. But it passes her by. The media narrative is about "paperwork", "red tape", and "bureaucratic procedures", the constraints of which set the tone of this hack's coverage.

Sadly, though, we're not only getting dismal performances from the so-called "mainstream" media. Even the speciality press is lettering us down, witness a tediously superficial explainer from Autocar, which seeks to inform its readers: "What the Brexit deal means for car manufacturers".

To my mind, one of the crucial issues here is the adoption of UNECE (WP.29) standards in the TCA, thus ensuring that the UK industry will maintain a high level of regulatory convergence with EU-based plant. This, in removing important non-tariff barriers, will to an extent facilitate trade with the EU – and the rest of the world.

Typically, though, there is no mention at all of this development in the Autocar piece, which focuses entirely on tariffs and rules of origin, in the latter case not even bothering to explain the difference between the "value added" and "insufficient production" elements, which have some relevance to the automotive industries.

The one-dimensional approach of the title typifies the media coverage of Brexit where the coverage on offer is in the hands of intellectual pygmies whose grasp of the subject remains stubbornly at the equivalent of primary school level. In a nutshell, the British media is incapable of reporting on Brexit at an adult level.

Even the august but generally over-rated Financial Times fails to rise to the occasion, reporting that, since the UK left the EU single market and customs union on December 31, "British fishing businesses have suffered delays at the border when exporting fresh produce to the bloc as it applies new import controls".

To point out the error may be regarded by some as pedantry but, since the previous iteration of the EU's fishery control regulation stems from 2009, and a proposal for revision was adopted on 30 May 2018, the import controls can hardly be described as "new".

The distinction, of course, is both important and relevant in that, where the government's declared intention during the "future relationship" negotiations was to leave the Single Market and the customs union, it was entirely predictable that existing "third country" controls would apply, the nature of which were also known.

While individual UK operators might not be (and, in fact, were not) aware of the precise requirements which were to enter into force on 1 January 2021 – irrespective of the nature of the trade deal negotiated – trade associations and the government should have been fully aware of what was coming, and businesses should have been warned of what they might expect.

That they were not warned (in time) is indicated by the FT, which tells us (without comment) that several French government officials expressed surprise at the lack of preparation on the British side for the "new" regulations that the EU is applying to imports from the UK since the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.

Thereby, the paper is actually missing the main story that businesses were sent entirely unprepared by their trade associations and the government into a maelstrom of bureaucracy, with which they could not possibly comply.

And yet, trade bodies such as the British Ports Association seem to be in denial. On the one hand, they blame a shortage of UK environmental health officers – who actually certify fisheries products in the UK (under veterinary "supervision") and the "extremely strict application" of the "new" EU import rules for the delays.

The Association wants the government to hold urgent discussions with counterparts in the EU, particularly France, "about a pragmatic approach to enforcement". This is echoed by the trade body Scotland Food & Drink, which wants an "immediate dialogue" with the European Commission to secure a lighter-touch approach to border controls.

A UK government spokesperson, however, will only concede that the fishing industry faces "some temporary issues", and says that the government is "looking at what additional financial support we can provide to those businesses affected". This is expected to be worth £23 million.

The idiot Johnson, however, blames blames seafood exporters for "not filling in the right forms", thus demonstrating his usual ignorance of how the EU regulatory system works.

He also links the crisis to the Covid-19 pandemic shutting restaurants across the Channel. "Unfortunately, the demand in restaurants on the Continent for UK fish has not been what it was before the pandemic", the buffoon says.

A spokesman then adds: "We continue to extensively engage and work closely with representatives of the industry from across the UK, and the authorities in EU member states, to understand and address any issues with documentation", thus completing the circle of ignorance and indifference.

Not anywhere in the media does one get any sense of how badly the government has failed – or why – and the calls for "pragmatism" by trade associations verges on the absurd.

Not only will EU member states continue to implement well establish controls (which they must do without discrimination, under WTO rules), when the revised regulation comes into force, UK fisheries product traders will face a far tougher regime.

Interestingly, Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy at the Road Haulage Association, says that the "chaos" seen at UK ports due to Brexit – where the situation at Dover and other ports is "deteriorating" - would top the news agenda in any other year.

But, given the almost complete inability of the British media to report the issues in any depth, one wonders whether more intense coverage would make any difference, other than spread the veneer of ignorance somewhat thinner.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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