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EU Referendum: a humiliating retreat from journalism

2015-12-13 08:01:39

Peter Foster, who styles himself "Europe Editor" for the Sunday Telegraph comes up with a story this weekend which plumbs the depths, even for this newspaper. The essence is that Mr Cameron is planning a "covert climb-down" on migrant benefits for next week's European Council, in order "to win a deal by February, with a UK referendum to follow in June".

It doesn't matter how many times us "mere bloggers" point it out but – on the basis of Electoral Commission recommendations on the interval between the passing of the Referendum Bill (and related legislation) and the referendum period - ten months must elapse before there is a poll.

Thus, whatever Mr Foster's elevated status, and the prestige of his hallowed journal, the scenario he is positing is not going to happen. The Government cannot ignore the Electoral Commission, so there will be no referendum in June next year. The earliest we can possibly see a poll is in November, and even that is extremely unlikely.

Nevertheless, Foster's story has been elevated to the front page of the paper, with the copy written by Tim Ross, the "Senior Political Correspondent".

This is a "decline and fall" stuff, where the Rome spawned its most impressive buildings long after the decline of Empire was under way. With newspapers, the poorer the journalism, the grander the titles. Just think, once we had mere reporters and correspondents.

Anyhow, Tim Ross has it that David Cameron is preparing to make "a dramatic climbdown" in his negotiations with the EU by "abandoning his central demand" for welfare reform.

The point here is that the so-called welfare reform never was a "central demand". It was never even a "demand". It has only reached its prominence because it has become a "look squirrel!" artefact, promoted by an ignorant media which lacks the capability to report intelligently on EU referendum issues.

In this case, Ross relies on that all-purpose tool of the lazy hack, the unnamed "senior government sources". These are extremely convenient as they can be neither questioned nor challenged by us mere plebs. For all we know, if they actually exist they might be "playing" this egregious hack, to evoke precisely the headlines his paper has so kindly furnished.

That apart, just about everything in the Ross story is either wrong or fabricated (if not both). Says this hack: "the Prime Minister has been adamant that he wants to make European migrants who move to the UK wait four years before they can claim state benefits". We are even told: "He made the plan his key pledge".

But that has never been the case. In his letter to Tusk, it is only a 29-word sentence in a passage on immigration over 500 words long. But, with the media having created a frenzy over this single, narrow issue, we have Ross hyperventilating over something which was never given that much prominence by the Prime Minister.

Ross's central thesis is that Mr Cameron is now prepared to discuss other measures to limit immigration – even though that is what he said he was prepared to do all along. But that is not enough for this ever-so Senior Political Correspondent. With no evidence at all, he makes the grand assertion that, "Mr Cameron had been hoping to finalise a deal at a summit of 28 national leaders in Brussels this week, before putting the agreement to voters in a referendum next June".

There's a technical word for this. It's bollocks. Actually, it's total bullocks. And just because Senior Political Correspondent Ross, Peter Foster and hundreds of other journalists keep repeating it doesn't make it right. It's just bollocks repeated hundreds of times.

However, us mere mortals are supposed to be impressed by another device of the lazy hack, the unnamed "advisers". When Ross brings these into play, we are not told whether they are the same as "senior government sources", but since they’re unnamed we'll never know. But we do know is that we're well into the story and Mr Ross has not yet named a single, attributable source.

These "advisers", though, are wondrous creatures. According to Mr Ross, they now accept that their master "will not win agreement for his welfare reforms". So, again without a shred of evidence, we are invited to believe that Mr Cameron, "will invite his fellow EU leaders to propose other ways to address growing public fears over immigration".

In an attempt to give this weight, Ross now throws in a "senior British official" - who is also unnamed. The we get a "senior source". Guess what! He is also unnamed. But this mystical beast tells us, "The PM is ready to talk this through and find a solution. What matters most is to fix the problems, not the precise form of the arrangements". He adds: "The four-year requirement is the basis for the discussions".

Actually, that has the ring of truth about it. We know this because that's what Mr Cameron has being saying all along. Effectively, that's what he said in his letter to Tusk. But if Ross's paper headlined this literal truth, as in: "PM reiterates four-year requirement only a basis for discussion", the Senior Political Correspondent would have no story for his front page.

That non-story, though, is the story. Cameron actually said in his letter to Tusk:
… the purpose of this letter is not to describe the precise means, or detailed legal proposals, for bringing the reforms we seek into effect. That is a matter for the negotiation, not least as there may, in each case, be different ways of achieving the same result.
In other words, this never was a "key demand" and there is no "climbdown". Mr Cameron was always open to discussing alternatives, and there is not going to be a June referendum. Nor was there ever a prospect of being one. Yet, for all that, Ross has it that this non-story "will be seen as a humiliating retreat for Mr Cameron by his critics"

Ross is partially right here. His story is a humiliating retreat - from anything that could remotely be called journalism. How the mighty have fallen as Telegraph hacks delve into the shoddy depths of fabricated reporting, writing non-stories to fill their dying paper.

Speaking of dying newspapers, we're getting a variation of the Telegraph story on the front page of the Independent, this one headed: "Cameron's big EU climbdown". It almost looks as if it could be a copy-out of the Telegraph, adding coprophagia to its sins. Most likely, it is not, but the report clearly relies on the same anonymous sources.

With that, the press has become a sick joke, which perhaps accounts for Iain Martin's sensitivity when called out on his latest drivel. He resorts to labelling us a bunch of pillocks and then, without the slightest trace of self-awareness, decides that we have succumbed to "self-righteous fanaticism" and are not only "inflexible" and "pious" but also "unpleasant".

This is all because we have dared to question his judgement, as he informs us that "the referendum will not rest on a renegotiation that is going nowhere fast".

In Mr Martin's considered opinion, "it is going to come down to a binary choice between staying in the European Union - largely unchanged because serious reform on the British model is unlikely - and leaving to forge a new, looser relationship with our European partners".

Fortified with his amazing perspicacity, Mr Martin reaches down from his lofty heights to advise the Prime Minister that he "should admit there will no great victory from these talks". Instead, he should: "Call it a day – and call the referendum as soon as practical".

With such expertise freely available, we can quite see how Martin would imagine himself so superior to us mere mortals. But we can guarantee that, when Mr Cameron unveils his shiny new "British model" – the like of which Martin shows no signs of understanding – the same man will be the first to forget what he'd written about the subject.

If it's any consolation, though, Reuters has picked up the Telegraph and Independent stories. By the end of the day, it will be all over the legacy media, having since been replicated by the Sunday Times and the Express.

For the record, Number 10 has denied the story in its entirety. A Downing Street spokesman said: "A number of Sunday papers have claimed the Prime Minister is backing away from the four year migrant benefit proposal. One even goes as far as to claim he will be using this week's European Council to drop it – this is simply not true".

Nevertheless, through the day, the story will be multiplied by a thousand tweets, as gullible minds suck up the dross. And so the drivel will inherit the earth.