Richard North, 25/01/2021  

I think that I may have occasionally voiced a certain level of dissatisfaction with the legacy media and its treatment of the EU, and then Brexit. But if there was a prize for totally crass reporting, this week's prize (assuming the Daily Express was excluded) would have to go to The Sunday Times and the utterly facile piece by business correspondent Anna Menin.

The headline parades the content of the piece, declaring "Traders tangled up in Brexit red tape", while the sub-heading give the clue as to quite how awful it is, as it tells us: "Unexpected Brexit bureaucracy is ensnaring products ranging from shellfish to jumpsuits".

And just to confirm that Menin is not the victim of an over-enthusiastic sub-editor, we see her writing of the "post-Brexit red-tape tangle" and "the unexpected bureaucracy" that has left many fishermen unable to export their catches to the European Union.

Another of her journalistic feats is to cover Richard Lister, 57, a farmer in North Yorkshire and chairman of the National Pig Association (pictured). He sells sows to be slaughtered (the rubbish end of the market) and ships about 40 carcases a week to the EU.

Pre-Brexit, Lister says, his processors could send a truckload of meat to Germany and turn it around within 16 hours, but over the new year the process was taking five days. Now, he says, the trade has "ground to a halt".

This really is a dismal performance by Menin, and the paper which commissioned the piece, and the editors who allowed it to be published. If there is one absolute about this sorry Brexit tale, it is that the shitstorm which is currently hitting British exporters was not only predictable but predicted – no more so than what was going to happen to the meat industry.

You have to wonder too about Lister. As chairman of the National Pig Association, he is no straw-sucking yokel but at the top of his product sector. He should have had a very good idea of what was going to happen, yet seems to have been totally unprepared.

Actually, there's a double-blind here, the sort of complication that only a specialist agricultural correspondent might know about – the sort of journalist that is no longer employed by the legacy media.

Sow meat is indeed the rubbish end of the market and, in the UK the only outlet is food manufacture, where processors pay bottom dollar. That's why Lister's man was sending them to Germany, where sow meat is more valued and the higher prices would (under normal conditions) easily cover transport and associated costs.

On the other hand – as you might expect – sows are older animals. From a public and animal health perspective, there are more likely to be diseased or suffer morbid conditions than the young pigs which make up the bulk of the pig meat trade – and more likely to have veterinary medicine residue levels, higher then permitted. Thus, any inspector worth his (or her) salt is going to home in on Lister's loads.

No one in the business can be unaware of this so, in effect, Lister – right at the outset of the new regime – had decided to send an inspection-magnet into the EU. That the process took five days really should not have come as any surprise. He was a fool to try such a risky load.

Looking at Lister's previous media contributions on Brexit, though, his most recent intervention that I can find is in May 2020, when he expresses concern about the government's plans to slash tariffs on imports of pork products and other agricultural products. He is also keen to see that standards of imported meat are maintained, to protect "the pork sector against cheap imports".

Still earlier, in the January, Lister joins a consortium of 60 groups to sign an open letter from the NFU to prime minister Johnson, telling him that "Brexit provides an opportunity to foster a sustainable, carbon neutral model of farming in the UK building on our reputation for high quality, safe and affordable food".

Lister was at his most voluble in January 2019, when the industry was looking at the prospect of a no-deal exit if Mrs May's deal was rejected. Then our doughty chairman pitched in to warn that while UK exporters could face tariffs on shipments to the EU, the Government was planning to waive import tariffs to keep food prices low.

Said Lister at the time: "That is hugely worrying and would have a devastating impact on the sector. These people that espouse a no deal Brexit have no comprehension of what that involves".

As it turned out, Lister was one of those who seems to have had no comprehension of what a deal involved. Nowhere can I find any concerns expressed about EU border controls, or any indication that they might present a problem.

In fact, going back to June 2017, we see Richard Lister congratulating Michael Gove on his appointment as Defra Secretary, whence he told him that "Even if we are forced to leave the Single Market", he told Gove, "retaining membership of the Customs Union remains an absolute priority for my organisation, as it does across the agricultural sector". He then added: "We are also clear that any trade deals forged outside the EU must include measures to protect British producers and consumers from imports produced to lower standards".

Lister's "other key Brexit priority" was "ensuring we retain access to EU labour, particularly permanent staff, without which our industry could not operate as it does today".

If, at the outset of the negotiations, politicians and the media were going to get any information on the rigorous controls they would face, then it was not going to come from Richard Lister. And nor, trawling through the trade press, can I find any intimation of concern from the industry at large, until very recently.

As late as October 2020, for instance, we had an intervention from Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales – protecting red meat exports worth £200 million a year, of which over 90 percent went to the EU.

HCC, alongside other agencies, we were told, had engaged consistently with processors and exporters to help them be as ready as possible for changes which would come into force at the end of the year.

Over the September, it had surveyed current exporters and found that companies were aware of new regulations. However, the research also discovered that potential WTO tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit – which on beef and lamb range from 40-80 percent depending on the type of meat cut – was a major headache for businesses as they plan for 2021.

If that doesn't reek of complacency, it would be hard to say what does, and the lack of concern about border controls might in some sense lessen Menin's dismal performance. When she writes that the "bureaucracy" was unexpected, it certainly seems to have caught the meat industry (and the others) by surprise. The players seemed to have been obsessed with tariffs and protecting themselves from cheap imports.

But that does not exonerate Menin, The Sunday Times, or the legacy media in general. While businesses and their representatives may have had their heads in the sand, the problems which they are now experiencing were predictable and predicted. All the media needed to do was take the trouble to look outside their comfort zone.

One place, of course – before he died – was in Booker's column – but publishing there ended up being one of the best ways of keeping a secret, especially from The Sunday Telegraph. That the journalists also consistently failed to look at – one of the longest-established independent blogs on the EU – tells its own story.

This points to the claustrophobic narrowness of the media's reach, and their staggeringly blinkered view. We see these same handicaps in the piece by Andrew Rawnsley where he talks of the current woes being "predictable and predicted" as a result of wrenching the UK out of the single market and the customs union.

But then he goes on precisely to illustrate his limits, claiming that "think-tanks, some politicians, some business leaders and some newspapers", including his own, "warned about the job-costing and investment-sapping consequences of erecting high new barriers to trade" – notwithstanding that they were, in the main, not "new".

Rawnsley adds that this issue was "never front and centre of the arguments that raged about Brexit" although, he says, "Remainers struggled to find ways to make technical-sounding issues matter to the public".

And there we have it: the classic binary division with the man simply incapable of comprehending that most of the principled opposition to leaving the single market came from leavers outside the so-called mainstream. And when given the choice in indicative votes, remainer MPs voted emphatically against staying in the single market. He simply cannot deal with subtleties like that, where the world is not eternally divided into two camps.

And while the media continues to restrict itself to such a limited range of sources – either "prestige" establishment figures or self-publicists, they will continue to be "surprised" by stuff which is known widely by serious people, long before they get to write balls-aching articles about how terribly "unexpected" everything is.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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