Political drama forces UK media to change its tune
As UK politics enters a new realm, two positive media trends have emerged, writes Raymond Snoddy
The Evening Standard cartoon summed up perfectly the complexity of the current political situation.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is depicted saying “I Don’t Want An Election” and Jeremy Corbyn saying “I Want an Election,” while both are thinking via a chain of bubbles – the precise opposite.
It predicts exactly what is going to happen, at least for the immediate future.
But how is the media coping with “unprecedented” events flowing on an almost daily basis from an unprecedented Prime Minister who seems happy to say things, even on the floor of the House of Commons, that are questionable at best?
There is room for hope, if not yet optimism.
Two positive trends can be discerned if you look closely enough.
One is that the media, both broadcasters and newspapers, are starting to take a firmer line on statements that are simply not true, rather than merely reporting unchallenged the sayings and doings of the mighty.
The second, which applies particularly to the Brexit-supporting national newspapers, is that the level of abuse has been toned down. There is a realisation that the situation, and the looming consequences are now so serious, that yah-boo journalism is no longer enough – exposing the apparent desire to crash out of Europe with No Deal on a false prospectus.
It is just a little difficult to turn Sir Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill, or Ken Clarke into saboteurs and villains.
In particular the newspapers are getting increasingly tough on Boris Johnson, his character, his record and his elevation of Dominic Cummings to the centre of power.
If there ever was any sense of pride in one of one’s own – a journalist - being elevated to the highest office it has already gone. It is even possible that there is an underlying feeling of jealousy. How come a chancer who made up quotes and invented anti-EU stories in Brussels has been able to follow in the footsteps of Churchill and Thatcher?
One of the key signs that broadcasters, the BBC as well as Channel 4 News, are stepping up to the plate is their reaction to the claims by Prime Minister Johnson that considerable progress is being made in talks with Brussels, particularly over the Johnson demand that the crucial Northern Ireland backstop be removed.
By instantly bringing in expert journalists, such as the BBC’s Europe editor Katya Adler, broadcasters have demonstrated that it is simply wrong to talk of progress and that in fact no substantive proposals of any kind have been submitted.
Journalists have also uncovered the fact that at a time of maximum crisis the Government Brexit negotiating team has been reduced from 90 to less than 24.
We are indebted to the passionately pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph for a likely explanation – the story that Cummings has described the “negotiations” with Brussels as “a sham” - a story denied by Johnson although with a noticeable lack of conviction.
It was the Sunday Times, also a Leave newspaper, which leaked the Yellowhammer report into the state of preparations for a No Deal Brexit with the possibility of shortages of fresh food and medicines.
There remains some controversy about the precise date in August on the report, or whether it represents a worst-case scenario or something more “normal.”
Michael Gove, the responsible Cabinet Minister, could clear the matter up by publishing the most up-to-date version of Yellowhammer complete with its status – but has not done so.
There was also the direct hit by Andrew Marr when Gove refused five times to say whether the Government would implement legislation designed to block a No Deal exit – legislation that is now very likely to happen.
Likewise, journalists have largely exposed the canard that the five week prorogation of Parliament was primarily designed to prepare a new Queen’s Speech rather than being a device to close down debate on a No Deal exit from the EU.
Even the Today programme, which has been criticised in the past for its lack of robustness on Brexit issues, has upped its game.
When business minister Kwasi Kwarteng was presented with a list of statements and asked which were true it elicited the wondrous reply: “No I think I totally refute that.”
The change in the language of the pro-Bexit tabloids reporting on the day when 21 Conservative MPs defied their Government to block No Deal, is very noticeable.
Not just have the saboteurs gone missing but here there are no “traitors” in sight and no “enemies of the people.”
The 21 are merely denounced as "Remainers” a description some would accept, although most of them have also voted for Theresa May’s Withdrawal Bill, in marked contrast to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group.
The Daily Express is the most unreconstructed of the Brexit press accusing Parliament of surrendering to the EU and the Tory rebels of voting to betray Brexit, even though it was a No Deal Brexit they were “betraying” combined with the five week prorogation.
Both The Sun and the Daily Mail chose the same relatively mild splash – “Over To You Britain” from The Sun and “Now You Decide, Britain” in the Mail.
The country is portrayed as “hurtling” towards a general election even though all the signs are Prime Minister Johnson will be denied the two-thirds majority he needs to call an election.
The Mail seems to be hedging its bets on Johnson-Cummings by writing about the “savage attack” on Johnson’s tactics by former Chancellor Philip Hammond and incendiary rows around the Cabinet table.
The Sun has not changed its spots and writes in an editorial about: “The real coup,” which is of course the Remainer coup that is already “shamefully” under way and that is “to seize power and stop the biggest ballot box mandate in British history being enacted.”
Yet what is very noticeable is the lack of common abuse, an implicit understanding that the 21 are serious and principled players who have put their political careers on the line and a realisation that the Brexit game is not going as planned.
Beneath the rhetoric there is a sense that no-one knows where we are going to end up and that maybe it would be a tad unwise to hitch themselves too enthusiastically to the Johnson-Cummings-bandwagon.
Meanwhile journalists have to step up the analysis, the scepticism and fact-checking and stop calling Boris Johnson just “Boris” which is the cuddly brand he is trying to sell the British people to deflect from uncomfortable truths.