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Spinning the spin

2018-12-27 08:14:46

It has taken no time at all for the Telegraph to pick up where it left off, beating the drum for the "no deal" option. Given the influence with the Tory "ultras" this newspaper has, the ongoing pursuit of this line is important. Until or unless the full impact of a no-deal is understood, it will continue to be seen by significant numbers of MPs and others as a credible alternative to Mrs May's withdrawal agreement.

The situation, of course, would be very different if a "no-deal" was a credible option. But, for nearly two years, I have been putting together a comprehensive dossier on the consequences of dropping out of the EU without an agreement.

Even if we had nothing else and we have plenty, not least the Commission's Notices to Stakeholders it is abundantly clear that the effects would be disastrous. Economically and politically, the damage would be substantial. At worst, it could trigger not a recession but a full-blown depression from which it could take decades to recover.

Furthermore, at this stage of the Brexit process, there should not even be a debate. The issues are well known and have been fully explored to the extent that matters should by now be considered settled.

The fact that the Telegraph even believes it is necessary to continue the debate, therefore, is an indictment of a newspaper that has come late to the party and failed to address such vital issues in good time. But, if it takes the view that the merits of a "no deal" settlement are still arguable, then it is free to pursue that end.

However, inasmuch as newspapers have fundamental duties in this society, in protecting and pursuing the limited democracy that we enjoy - and claim special privileges in pursuit of those duties then it is incumbent on them to conduct any debate of such importance in a fair, honest, and responsible manner.

And in this society, anything else is not optional. We do enjoy rights of free speech but with rights come responsibilities. No person has the right to shout "fire" in a crowded auditorium and no newspaper has the right to mislead is readers on matters where the wellbeing and stability of the nation is at stake.

Yet, in the Telegraph, we have a newspaper that is offering a headline in todays paper, alongside a story, that can only be considered grossly misleading and conducted in such a manner as to be palpably dishonest.

The headline tells us that, "While politicians posture and panic, the 'little people' will get us through a no deal Brexit", an offering by leader-writer James Bartholomew, a man best known for his writings on the welfare state and taxation, with no obvious expertise on EU matters.

And while no one would expect a journalist to be non-partisan, it is relevant to note that Bartholomew is a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs, neither of which positions he declares in his Telegraph piece.

What is especially striking about Bartholomew's contribution is that he would have us believe that effects of a "no deal" scenario can be mitigated by "the little battalions". These are the actors in the drama who don't get into the headlines people who do not "run" the economy but "are" the economy. If we end up with "no deal", says Bartholomew, "their activities will be crucial".

With that in mind, Bartholomew addresses the "worry" that the ports "will get clogged up", intent on leaving the impression that there is nothing to be terribly concerned about. And one can see that this is the intent, just by the choice of words - as anodyne and low-key as decency will allow.

This, clearly, is a studied technique. Many of us might be concerned that the application of non-tariff barriers might bring certain trade sectors to a complete halt, all we are troubled with is the notion that, when the UK become a "third country" for EU purposes, this will mean "extra work processing freight traffic".

But, we are told, to deal with this, ports have their own managements, such as Roel van 't Veld, "chief of the Customs Authority of the Port of Rotterdam!". And Roel started recruiting up to another 1,000 new staff earlier this year, a new IT system has been introduced and a simulation study has been done to identify potential bottlenecks.

Actually, van 't Veld isn't chief of the Customs Authority. He is the policy officer charged with Brexit issues, but it is a common technique to "big-up" sources when you want to rely on them. And clearly, Bartholomew needs to maximise his prestige, so that his quote can defuse the "worry", when he says: "Our job is to make sure things don't seize up and we are pretty good at it".

Interestingly, as one might suspect, though, van't Veld is a popular source for quotes on Brexit, and he is used heavily in an article published in November by the Customs Administration of the Netherlands.

And when he is asked here what Brexit means for the business community in the Netherlands, van 't Veld declares: "the smooth flow of goods and people with the UK, as is now the case in the internal market, will almost certainly be a thing of the past". If a hard Brexit remains a realistic scenario, he says:
Companies will be faced with customs formalities, such as export and import declarations and possibly import duties, as well. They must also comply with product standards and, where necessary, be able to submit veterinary certificates. And that costs money. Recently, a report was published on non-tariff barriers to trade, drawn up by KPMG on behalf of the Ministries of Economic Affairs & Climate and Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality. It warns that the costs for imports and exports will increase by 387-627 million annually. This is still separate from customs duties, VAT expenditures and sector-specific market access requirements, such as phyto-sanitary rules for cut flowers or work permits for cross-border accountancy services. And waiting times at the border also lead to financial damages, especially in perishable shipments such as meat and flowers.
The contrast in the treatment of the same source really does tell you something about Mr Bartholomew and his determination to play down the "worry" - and he doesn't stop there. Further reassurance is on offer as we are told that Seaborne Freight has been working on a new shipping route from Ramsgate to Ostend, while Associated British Ports is spending 36 million on new container port capacity at Immingham.

Looking at the Ramsgate situation, there are currently no ferries running from that port, since Transeuropa ceased operations in 2013, leaving the council with unpaid berthing fees of 3.4 million. But, with only one, double-deck loading ramp, port facilities are extremely limited and, when service was provided, there were only four crossings a day less than 30 a week (see picture).

This compares with the 365 sailings a week from Dover, with the Channel Tunnel adding a further 536 departures. Small wonder we saw the Defra report (which I analysed recently) telling us that:
There may be some temporary solutions available at other ports for the 'Dover' vessels, utilising makeshift ramps and there are single dual purpose ramps in Ramsgate and Portsmouth but these options will not resolve the problem. Effectively, if the Dover ferries cannot accommodate the Channel Tunnel traffic and vice versa (ignoring the major problem arising if both routes are closed together) the trailer traffic has to find alternative routes and other ferry services linking the UK and the Continent and such capacity is not easily available for the accompanied trailer mode. In any case other ferry services do not provide a service to match the needs of the supply chain.
As for the fabled 36 million on new container port capacity at Immingham, in terms of port spending, this a barely chump change. The Port of Calais is currently spending 675 million on upgrading its facilities, just to meet current and expected demand.

The current Jebel Ali port expansion scheme is spending $170 million alone on gantry cranes to handle containers, and 28 million merely buys three cranes for the Khalifa Port in the UAE.

Any suggestion that Immingham or Ramsgate could make the slightest dent in the Channel traffic is completely false, yet the implication is there from Bartholomew, who asserts that "such extra capacity will be available to profit from any clogging up of the Dover/Calais route".

Even then, our intrepid Telegraph journalist will not allow even the prospect of serious disruption there. Talk of blockages may be exaggerated, he claims, citing Jean-Marc Puissesseau, chief of Calais port, who is working hard to keep the traffic flowing. He remarks: "we are doing our utmost" to avoid stacking lorries on the motorway. 

But, if we go elsewhere for Jean-Marc Puissesseau's views, we find him warning that there could be tailbacks up to 30 miles in all directions and potential food shortages in Britain if a Brexit deal involves mandatory customs and sanitary checks at the French ferry terminal.

Bartholomew goes on then to talk about other areas, but we can already see the techniques he uses as he asserts that businesses will get round the obstacles created by politicians.

Taken at face value, the argument looks plausible but it does so only on the basis of quite outrageous distortion of the evidence. Not by any account is this honest dealing. As if the uncertainty is not enough, Bartholomew is bending the truth to fit his agenda and presenting a false accounting.

If a major national newspaper cannot commit itself to an honest representation of the issues, and make sure its own journalists behave in an honest fashion, then we are facing an erosion of standards that can only damage our already precarious democracy. And, although we won't get it, we deserve better.