What the papers don’t say
Those newspapers which told their readers that post-Brexit trade deals would be easy could be sweating, much like a Russian oligarch living in the UK, writes Raymond Snoddy
The front page of the Daily Telegraph is always interesting and instructive as much for what is not there as for what the paper decides is the splash.
Its coverage of the much delayed report into Russian interference with British institutions and political processes is a classic.
At first it appears the hugely significant story didn’t make the broadsheet’s front page at all. The splash is on Mike Pompeo attacking the World Health Organisation over China. There is an interesting single column piece on trade talks between Britain and the EU now close to collapse (more on that later), teacher pay rises “a kick in the teeth” and even the possibility that regional air bridges could end quarantines.
Down, down the eye goes before finding right at the bottom of the page a single paragraph headlined: ‘Russian influence in UK exposed by MPs.’ An extraordinary choice.
It is a story that has been four years in the making and reveals that successive governments and the UK security services had actively avoided inquiring into whether there had been Russian meddling in UK referenda and elections, while Russian oligarchs and their money settled down nicely in Britain.
How come such a story got relegated to page four?
It’s possible to blame the news cycle. The Select Committee report came out at 10.30am and had been all over the television and radio news bulletins all day. The news cycle had moved on and the Pompeo story was newer and fresher.
Possible, but not really plausible for a supposedly serious newspaper like the Telegraph.
The most obvious explanation is also the most likely. It is that the newspaper downplayed a story that embarrassed its pin-up Prime Minister, the successive Conservative Government it has slavishly supported, quite apart from the unexplored possibility that Russia may have tried to influence the Brexit referendum to destabilise the UK.
The coverage highlights once again the great divide between broadcasting and a number of the national newspapers, which have a fixed agenda and see all such stories through their own particular prisms.
The broadcasters had no doubts about the importance of the story. From the BBC’s Six O’Clock news through Channel 4 News to Newsnight, there was detailed analysis, not least into the reasons why Prime Minister Johnson had sat on the report for no good reason since October.
The papers were a little more variable, not least a number of newspaper websites where a lot of patience was required to even find the story. Presumably complex stories about Russian interference that had to be inferred didn’t pass the click-worthy test.
Certainly The Sun website was much more interested in the latest on Ghislaine Maxwell, “Randy Andy” and the topless girl, plus the Johnny Depp libel trial.
The Daily Express dealt with the problem with an obvious piece of deflection and self-interest - ‘Boris: No Way Russia Rigged Brexit Vote’ - thereby missing the main point and carrying the denial of what was not even being alleged.
The Daily Mail as it sometimes does departed from the straight pro-Johnson pro-Brexit ticket and laid into the security services for taking their eye off the ball on interference, attacked those that allowed London to be turned into a laundromat for dirty money and appealed: ‘Now Tame The Russian Bear’.
The Times appears to have an exclusive claiming that M15 are going to get more powers to deal with the Russian threat. Fair enough but, intentionally or not, the end result is to put a positive spin on a national scandal in which the security services did not even begin to use the powers they already had.
Newspapers are like that - the relentless search for the new angle, doing almost anything to have a different story from all the others and as a result, often leading themselves away from the central significance of an event - that and a fear that the shelf-life of a story cannot be more than 24 hours.
The Guardian and the Financial Times did not allow themselves to be distracted and went for the jugular.
For The Guardian it was: ‘Report Damns Number 10 And Spy Agencies Over Russia’ and for the FT it was: ‘Ministers “actively avoided” inquiry into Russia meddling in Brexit vote’.
If the Russian report exposes some of the fault lines in the media over their political affiliations and stance on Brexit, worse could be on the way.
The next big battleground will be over trade deals, as clearly seen in the non-Russian reporting.
It’s there, not just in the Daily Telegraph but also on a different front in the FT.
The FT reveals that UK/US trade talks are delayed partly because of Covid-19 and partly because of serious impasses.
Earlier this year, The Sun reported that a deal would be done by July and the Government was hoping to announce such a large agreement to obscure the dangers of a No Deal final exit from the EU.
Now, according to the FT no deal is possible until the U.S elections are over and possibly not even this year, depending on the outcome of the presidential vote.
The trade cupboard could be horribly bare for newspapers, which casually repeated government claims that lots of wonderful deals could be effortlessly concluded around the world as we left the EU.
The more serious story - if hardly unexpected - is that single column effort in the Daily Telegraph I referred to earlier.
The explosive story reveals that ministers now believe they will be unable to reach a trade deal with the EU, and the current working assumption is that when the transition period is over, the UK will trade with the world on WTO rules and its system of tariffs.
If true, and it almost certainly is, then the implications for the UK economy could hardly be more serious and equally serious for the newspapers who encouraged their readers to take back control on the understanding that the UK could somehow remain in the single market outside the EU and indeed get an even better deal.
A day of reckoning is on the way not just for Russian oligarchs in the UK, but also for newspapers who will have been found to have seriously misled their readers.