The post-Brexit honesty test
Leave or remain? 2016's national press
In the years leading to Brexit national newspapers often indulged in political fantasy, writes Ray Snoddy. How will they behave once we finally do leave the EU?
We will probably never know exactly how important the role of the national press, and to a lesser extent broadcasting, was in the torturous three and a half year progress towards the UK leaving the European Union which reaches its climax at 11pm on Friday evening.
There were so many reasons behind the historic vote. Perhaps the deep underlying exceptionalism of an island nation uncomfortable in its European skin was one.
Another was the incompetence of the Remain campaign coming up against the deadly effectiveness of Dominic Cummings slogans such as Take Back Control and Boris Johnson’s referendum eve exhortation – Let this be our Independence Day.
But that the press had a role and one reflected in the imbalance of the support for Remain there can be little doubt.
You almost didn’t need academic research to confirm what the eye could see: that the Leave campaign received disproportionate support in the referendum, support that will be even more apparent this coming weekend in a likely outbreak of triumphalism.
The Sundays had a problem of course. They had to celebrate the leaving of the EU last weekend and despite the pressing importance of the coronavirus the Mail on Sunday rose to the occasion.
Brexit: Time To Start Coining It! Was the headline introducing the new ceremonial 50p coin and coverage of the “low-key” EU departure.
There was also a handsome slot for Jacob Rees-Mogg to announce that the moment of national renewal had come with fresh shoots of rejuvenation and regeneration “piercing through the cold earth”
There were also sunbeams of certainty in the Daily Express as it claimed victory when the Brexit bill was signed – reminding readers that it had been campaigning for this moment for a decade.
Academic study after academic study has highlighted the media imbalance as the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Sun lined up with the Daily Express to outgun The Guardian and Daily Mirror plus the more factual approach of The Times and the Financial Times.
Studies show that seven out of 10 readers of The Sun supported Brexit, although there is the old problem of causation – did readers support Brexit because of the editorial content of The Sun or choose The Sun because they agreed with its general approach.
Research also shows emphatically that the Sun, Daily Mail and the Daily Express had an abiding interest in highlighting negative stories about immigrants over many years, almost certainly having a visceral effect on the emotional response of electors.
A study from Sage Publications used artificial intelligence to survey no less than 19,367 news stories and found, unsurprisingly, that the news media in the UK presented the referendum as a vote about migration in general rather than about intra-EU migration.
The positive case for intra-EU migration was either rarely put or drowned out by the noises off.
Right up to the present day the Leave campaigners have had the best slogans, amplified by the media, as in Boris Johnson’s Get Brexit Done - a slogan that even resonated with many weary Remainers.
But as the Atlantic magazine made clear recently, allowing Johnson to get away with such a slogan amounts to a failure of journalism.
“Here’s the problem. The slogan is meaningless,” argued the Atlantic, which went on to warn of the “interminable discussion” that will now begin with the UK coming under great pressure to change its laws and regulations to accommodate the demands of new trading partners.
Which is trickier, the magazine asked, agreeing to divorce or splitting up shared assets and arranging custody of the children?
The test for the media now will be the honesty with which they approach the really tricky negotiations soon about to begin.
Will the Brexit-supporting press now deal in facts or continue chasing sunbeams, or as a default position blame the EU for its intransigence if the shoots or renewal run into problems.
To get a flavour of what is likely to come you have to go to specialist publications for realistic guidance.
It’s a long read but Ian Dunt’s “Brexit 2020: Everything you need to know about Boris Johnson’s trade deal nightmare” in politics.co.uk would repay the time – just in case.
“Cool, so everything’s sorted right? Brexit is getting done, everything is getting back to normal and I never have to talk about trade again?
“Oh yeah, no sorry. That’s all a lie. We are about to enter the most perilous system-level recalibration of an advanced economy in trading history,” Dunt explains.
Apart from the obvious problems of fisheries, regulatory alignment and tariffs there are the difficulties of distinguishing between goods and service and many companies are involved in both. Car manufacturers, for example, often operate as mini-banks providing finance for purchasers.
Then there is aviation and the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA), which vouches for the 5,000 parts in an aircraft. EASA is an EU body but others can have agreements by signing up to the regulations.
According to Dunt it is far from clear whether the UK will seek such an alignment, with unpredictable consequences.
And so it goes detail after detail, sector by sector.
Perhaps those writing about sunbeams, coining it and shoots of renewal should visit the politico.co.uk website before launching into triumphalism this weekend.
A better approach can be seen in a long editorial in the Sunday Times marking the departure after seven years as editor of Martin Ivens and his replacement by another welcome woman editor of a national newspaper - Emma Tucker.
It pledges that the paper will continue to take a stand for the independence of the press against state interference, believing that the public has a right to know.
The paper’s credo includes support for both free trade and democracy against creeping authoritarianism, which seeks to use technology against the populace.
But in advance of Brexit day The Sunday Times notes that it has presented evenly the case for and against Britain’s membership of the EU without fear or favour.
“The UK desperately needs to shake off its gloom and grasp hard decisions dispassionately. Our consistency of view will help form that national conversation,” the Sunday Times promised.
It is an even-handed approach that other national newspapers might seek to follow rather than offering, or at the very least repeating, political fantasies about sunny uplands.