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The complex prism: Brexit, Boris and the media

25 Mar 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The complex prism: Brexit, Boris and the media

A new book seeks to understand the often misunderstood relationship between Boris Johnson, the media and the EU referendum. Here, Ray Snoddy examines some of its most interesting moments of self-reflection from journalists, pollsters and academics

Two and a half weeks before the first outbreak of coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan there was a landmark general election in the UK.

It seems like a very long time ago, almost irrelevant in the teeth of the current crisis, except that it brought to power a stridently right-wing version of the Conservative Party whose leaders are now responsible for tackling the worst pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1918.

Who is Prime Minister Boris Johnson? How did he do it and was there another systemic failure of journalism to predict what was in plain sight just as the London centric media was astonished by the victory of Leave in the Referendum?

Are there lessons to be learned not just by the media, but society as a whole; lessons that can be applied after the end of the Covid-19 virus, as end there will inevitably be?

The complex prism is examined in a new “hackacademic” book Brexit, Boris and the Media out this week with 40 different contributions ranging from the Today programme’s Nick Robinson and Channel 4’s Jon Snow and the feisty Dorothy Byre, to champion pollster Professor Sir John Curtice of Strathclyde University and Alex Connock, former TV producer now Fellow at the Said Business School, Oxford.

Robinson, who studied with Johnson at Oxford, is perhaps the most revealing - and alarming. Robinson admits for a long time he made a huge mistake that still afflicts many: he did not take Boris Johnson seriously.

For Robinson that view changed one day in the Lobby at Westminster when the Radio 4 journalist asked Johnson why he had given up a lucrative, glittering career in journalism to become a humble backbench MP.

The reply? “What we do is all too easy isn’t it Nick? We don’t actually change anything do we?”

The Today presenter argues that Johnson believes that his former colleagues in the “guild of hacks, scribblers, pundits and allied trades” hold up a distorted mirror to society and that holds the country back and is in need of reform.

The Prime Minister sees the BBC as “statist, defeatist and biased” and believed he no longer has to observe the old rules. Instead he was able to do it his way and win. There are even some in Johnson’s office who dream of setting up a British version of Fox News with the help of Rupert Murdoch.

Journalists now need a period of self-reflection to ask why most pundits failed to take Boris, Brexit, or originally Corbyn, seriously, Robinson believes.

“We should challenge more vigorously the bias that has blighted the mass media for decades – the bias in favour of the conventional wisdom of the day,” says Robinson.

And that particular bias is the starting point for Helen Lewis, former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who now writes for the Atlantic magazine.

Historians, she says, warn of the “teleological view of history” - assuming a fixed endpoint and then telling the story as if it was always heading for that point.

It is something that has happened over and over again in political journalism – not least in 2015 when the conventional wisdom was that David Cameron couldn’t win an overall majority. The assumption was that the likeliest outcome was a Labour minority government backed by the SNP. Cameron wins an overall majority and all the previous speculation was not just wrong but totally irrelevant but may have influenced voter behaviour.

Lewis says her favourite saying about journalism is that it’s not journalism’s job to report that people are saying it’s raining but instead to look out the window and see whether it is or not.

Sir John Curtice emphasises that the British first-past-the-post system provides an exaggerated reflection of the electoral strength of the party that comes first and that no post-war British government has even come close to winning over half the popular vote.

The background to the election – attitudes to Brexit and Remain - have been remarkably stable over the three years since the Referendum, although polls suggest there might have been a narrow victory for Remain if there had been a second referendum.

According to Sir John, the general election result was not swung by direct attitudes to Leave or Remain but the very different ways that Remain and Leaver supporters distributed their votes.

The Conservatives attracted three quarters of Leave voters while Labour secured the backing of a little less than half of Remain voters. The electoral system then turned that difference into a political chasm.

In reality the country did not swing electorally behind a “Britain first” stance but is still deeply divided over the wisdom of the decision to leave the EU.

“What now remains to be seen is whether a government that still has no more than half of the country backing its stance on Brexit can persuade the other half that leaving the EU is not such a bad move after all,” Sir John Curtice argues.

Former Ten Alps chief executive Alex Connock takes a different, and cerebral approach, arguing that the digital battle was won by iterative digital marketing straight out of the online retail playbook.

Connock believes the election brought the often highly manipulative “dark patterns” of global commerce into UK politics.

The now academic wonders whether Johnson advisor Dominic Cummings was one of the few people in the UK to read a paper last November from a Princeton team in the Proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery on Human Computer Interaction.

In the Princeton analysis the “dark patterns” fell into 15 categories. They include forced action, forced enrolment, obstruction, high demand (as in these rooms are going fast), hard to cancel (please call our customer retention team during office hours), low stock message (only two remaining), testimonials of uncertain origin, deceptive notifications, pressurised selling and trick questions.

Whether Cummings read the paper or not, Connock argues all of the tricks were visible in the 2019 election campaign and the Tories won the battle of the programmatic advertising platforms with their use of Google adwords and Facebook ad manager.

That was then, and ultimately it is difficult to predict whether Johnson/Cummings, if they survive the current crisis, will change their views on the media, and public service broadcasting, in particular in future.

They might change their mind in the face of the overwhelming evidence or push ahead with ideologically driven “reform.”

Either way as Nick Robinson argues tellingly, Boris Johnson is someone to be taken seriously – very seriously indeed.

Brexit, Boris And The Media is edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tair. Published Abramis.

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