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Brexit: drama rules the headlines

2018-08-31 07:09:33

The thing about the media producing crap stories is that, for them, it's a win-win situation. Not only do they fill space with the duff stories, they then get to print follow-up stories modifying or debunking the original copy.

With luck, the media can get a nice little controversy going which will give them numerous stories over a few days, charting the reaction to the original reports. Without having to rely on inconvenient things like real facts or the need to do serious journalism, a narrative can be sustained simply by recording the reactions to the original false report.

And that seems to be precisely the dynamic in play at the moment. We've had the Barnier speech in Berlin, which has been widely misinterpreted as a "breakthrough" when it is no such thing. The idea of an "ambitious partnership with the UK after Brexit" that triggered the wave of optimism isn't even new.

This, after all, is what Barnier proposed in his under-reported op-ed published on 2 August. In his Berlin speech, he was just repeating what he had already said to an indifferent world.

But, with that false narrative established, we've had The Times idiocy, building a castle of air out Macron's meanderings on the future of Europe, presenting it as a "lifeline" for Mrs May when it is no such thing.

With this "new optimism" in the air, this brings us to the next phase of this little drama, courtesy of the Guardian. We have the paper headline "Hunt downplays signs of Brexit progress as Poland offers support", reporting that the foreign secretary says Michel Barnier's remarks "do not show change to EU stance on UK plan".

Well, of course, Barnier's remarks don't show any change, as would be readily apparent to anyone outside the media bubble, endowed with more than two brain cells and able to navigate Google News. And an honest paper could have published a simple rebuttal, saying the original story was false – but that's not how the game is played.

Instead, a prestige figure is invoked, in the form of Jeremy Hunt. Meeting his EU counterparts in Vienna, he is said to be offering "a sceptical note" which downplays "any suggestion" that recent comments from the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, offered any indication of a softening of the bloc’s resistance to the UK’s proposals.

Says Hunt: "It’s going to be a very long, hard road ahead. Obviously, when there do appear to be signs of a change then that is encouraging, but I don't think you can read too much into these".

In what must be one of the easiest quotes possible to secure, the paper then has Austria's foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, backing up the new thesis. She is said also to dismiss "the suggestion" that the EU was ready to rethink its current position.

"I think we still have to stick to the directives which were drafted in March 2017, namely the negotiating is all done by Michel Barnier", she says. "So when you speak of a more generous offer, it can only be within the [room for manoeuvre] of Commissioner Barnier and his counterpart, the British government".

Just to give the story legs though, and to open it up for further development, the paper recruits Polish foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, for a walk-on part. He offers the British foreign secretary "some hope", telling reporters that he would try to persuade his fellow ministers to shift their position, "following an intense period of lobbying by British ministers in EU capitals in favour of the white paper on the future trading relationship".

So here we have the original narrative kept in circulation – that somehow British ministers will be able to isolate Barnier from the EU-27 and get direct intervention from the Member States.

It is not recorded who asked Czaputowicz whether a "more generous deal" could be offered by the EU, but the Polish foreign minister replied: "I think that we have to discuss that issue. We are very pleased, Poland, that the white paper was presented. It is a good base for discussion".

He continued, "Poland is in favour of maintaining relations with UK after Brexit, so we will argue for [a] good deal for both sides. I think it is possible. But definitely we will encourage, I will encourage my partners within the EU, to be more open to arguments of the UK".

This sort of diplomacy-speak could mean anything, but it is enough to create a conflict dynamic which gives the UK media something to work with. Thus says the Guardian, "the struggle to get other member states onboard was nevertheless made clear by comments from other EU ministers in Vienna and Berlin, where Barnier was in talks with the German government".

Next in line is Annika Söder, the Swedish cabinet secretary. She suggests that her "central hope" was that opinion on Brexit was changing in the UK in favour of a second referendum. "You know that we wanted to keep you and we look at the polls and we see that there may be some hesitation", she says.

Manufacturing extruded verbal material by the metre, she goes on to say: "We hope that we can find a way forward to have a soft Brexit, because a hard Brexit wouldn’t serve anyone, but still – and this may be not very polite – we hope that there can be a solution where the UK will still be in the European Union".

And from there, we get: "Negotiations are important and Barnier and his team are working hard to find a good solution, so we will not give up on a soft Brexit, even if that tiny hope is still there".

But then the real world is allowed briefly to intrude, with a statement from the German economic affairs minister, Peter Altmaier. As did Heiko Maas, he reiterates Germany's support for the EU negotiator "and the guidelines offering the UK a free-trade deal, which Downing Street has already dismissed as lacking the necessary ambition to maintain economic prosperity on both sides of the Channel".

Needless to say, The Times doesn't have any follow on for its Macron story, and all the papers which were happily burbling away about the famous breakthrough have gone silent for the moment. Fortunately, they have a nice juicy story about Frank Field quitting the Labour Party in its ongoing row about antisemitism.

However, in the media world, nothing goes to waste. The Macron story and the Barnier "breakthrough" will be squirrelled away, ready to be resuscitated when needed, all to prove whatever it is the media needs to support its next imaginary story, in order to keep the Brexit soap-opera moving.

Meanwhile, the facts on the ground haven't changed one little bit. The Brexit talks are still stalled and my scenario still has the Dancing May looking to engineer a "no deal" for want of any other option that she can take without destroying the Conservative Party.

The only thing that is changing is that, gradually, business is beginning to draw its own conclusions about the progress of Brexit, with the story of Panasonic moving its Europe headquarters from the UK to Amsterdam. It will be followed by many more.

And it is not only business losing confidence in the government's handling of Brexit. The ever-willing Guardian reports that: "Four in five civil service specialists [are] dissatisfied with handling of Brexit", quoting the Prospect union saying that clarity is urgently needed in areas such as regulation and licensing.

The union conducted an online survey of 1,073 members, made up of scientists, engineers and experts in their field working across the civil service, over several weeks. Members were invited to say whether they were satisfied with the government’s approach to Brexit. Just 4.85 percent of them said they were either satisfied or very satisfied, compared with 78 percent who said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.

Asked if they were satisfied a good deal could be negotiated, just over seven percent were satisfied or very satisfied, compared with just under 80 percent who were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.

Mike Clancy, the general secretary of Prospect, says that the government has lost the trust of specialists working in the public sector, which should be partly blamed on Gove's comments on experts.

"We are only just seeing the consequences of that remark now. I think any politician who is so confident that they can say to the public that they don't have to rely on experts has an extraordinary ego, which is likely to catch up with them at some stage. It is corrosive and dangerous", he says.

But there is far more to it than that. When opinion from people of prestige is given by the media the same status as fact, and baseless inventions make headlines on the front pages, reality has a hard time making its presence felt.

As long as the effects of a "no deal" Brexit can be tossed around between opinionated pundits and never resolved by mere facts, experts have no place in the media's soap opera. Drama rules the headlines. Facts (like MPs) are not wanted on this voyage into the unknown.