This week Alastair Campbell discusses whether the broadcast media should investigate the Brexit campaign and its consequences.
If we didn’t have such a supine Brexit media, with the BBC taking the BAFTA in the ‘Most Supine’ category, there is a great programme to be made… Brexit on Trial.
They could base it on the ‘Tony Blair on trial’-type programmes beloved of broadcasters. They love those even though he is a figure of the past. Surely when it is the biggest issue concerning our future it is exactly the kind of thing public service broadcasters should be doing. The case for. The case against. Lawyers on both sides. Expert opinion. Witnesses from both sides. Testing past words against what is happening in the present, and being set out for the future. A jury. A judge. Viewers able to tweet, take part in the phone-ins which follow. I reckon it would get the kind of ratings they crave,
I’m aware the BBC has decided the ‘binary choice’ of Leave vs Remain is settled, even though it isn’t. But their job is not to cover events as they unfold, according to a pre-ordained ending set by a minority government held up by a Northern Irish party which would be called as witness in the money-laundering part of the trial. It is to make programmes that educate and entertain, and encourage debate on important issues. Brexit on Trial would do just that.
The issues would fall into two main categories: politics and law. Brexit is so political that clearly there has to be at least some focus on the question of whether it is going to be good or bad for Britain? That shouldn’t detain judge and jury for too long, given a government which wants Brexit to happen has admitted that under every scenario imaginable we are going to be worse off. But it would be worth reminding people of some of the facts attached to that, so long as witnesses for the defence could be used to balance things out and say it doesn’t matter because we will be ‘taking back control’. But then the wigs presenting the case against Brexit could have a field day moving to the ‘are we really?’ category, and point out those areas where we will have less control, not more.
The politics of this being so sensitive, the court formula will be more suited to the second set of important questions. The law.
Was the campaign legal? Did the Leave campaign lie? Cheat? Break the law on funding and data? For the sake of the BBC’s balance mania – the kind of balance that says they can’t really cover 5,000 experts saying Brexit is bats**t unless they can give Patrick Minford his own show and write into the constitution that no bulletin is complete without Jacob Rees-Mogg, and no Question Time allowed without Nigel Farage on the panel and dozens of florid-faced splenetic middle-aged men in the audience – they could allow the Leave side to make the same claims about Remain. We could all go out to put the kettle on for that bit, as Remain weren’t ruthless enough within the law never mind tempted to go outside it.
On the lying and on any possible breaches of data law, clearly it would be important that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings were called.
It would certainly be entertaining to see a top QC, rather than a chummy BBC interviewer or a Labour MP not sure if he is meant to be pro or anti, forensically probing the extent to which Johnson and Gove knew what their side was saying was untrue about the extra money for the NHS, or the millions of Turks coming our way. And it would be good to see them stand there in a witness box as the QC read out all the promises that leaving would be easy, that there would be no exit bill, more money for this, that and the other, and trade deals failing out of the sky.
So what about breaking the law? Here too the evidence is mounting. I urge anyone who missed it to devote a few hours to watching the testimony and interviews of whistleblowers Christopher Wylie and Shahmir Sanni – Leavers who worked at the heart of the Brexit operation making detailed allegations of lying, cheating and criminality.
It seems remarkable, given that in Labour’s time in power we had the cops knocking in the doors based on no more than an SNP MP making wild allegations about ‘cash for honours’, that we do not have more doors being knocked in now. Come on BBC, that helicopter is looking for a new ‘public interest’ gig after the Cliff Richard operation. Surely Brexit criminality is a tad more serious, and more seriously in the public interest, than Cliff.
On the funding side there is a prima facie case to be answered, as set out in the evidence already in the public domain. And when I refer to money laundering, that, of the political variety, is exactly what the Leave side is accused of, with Vote Leave, wary of being caught out over-spending, alleged to have channelled funds to front organisations large and small, their own lawyers writing the constitution of the largest one, BeLeave. Even the legit side of the Vote Leave operation – some of this is your money, public – shipped 40% of its funding to AggregateIQ in Canada, from where much of the psychometric bombardment was done. But the BeLeave alleged laundering operation led to another £625,000 going their way for more of the dark arts to be deployed. Law enforcement agencies on two sides of the Atlantic will be failing in their duties if they do not get right to the bottom of the story here and in Canada. Because the stench is high.
On the data side too, it is the same story. It was all very interesting to see Mark Zuckerberg taking a bit of heat as he went through Facebook’s latest chapter of ‘we’re sorry; we didn’t really know; we’re tightening things up so hopefully our service will improve ’til the next time I have to say sorry and look like I mean it’.
But it put all the attention on the US and the campaign of Donald Trump, as if he doesn’t get enough attention already, and therefore diminished the focus on Facebook’s role in Brexit through fake news, foreign interference and any illegal funding.
Facebook could provide a lot of answers to questions about who spent what, where, and DCMS committee chairman Damian Collins needs to keep pressing. But with the media pathetic, parliament and Congress struggling at times even to understand the questions let alone the answers, and with the Electoral Commission and Information Commission lacking the power or the resources needed for something as important as this, the police are probably our only hope of the truth of any crimes being established.
Lying. That is bad enough. Accusations of broken laws on the theft and abuse of data, with persistent rumours of destruction of evidence, involving people now at the very heart of government, which takes us into the territory of perversion of the course of justice. Watch this space on that one. There is more than a television programme here. There is the making of the biggest scandal of our lifetime to match the biggest issue of our lifetime.
That is why the media, brought up on Watergate to believe that the bigger and higher the target, the braver you should be in going for it, deserve – bar a few hardy and lonely exceptions – so much condemnation for their pathetic rolling over to the government and its supporters like the Mail. And it is why Labour deserve condemnation too, for failing to press and probe on this in the way that Robin Cook did over the Scott Report in 1996, for example.
The Corbynistas like to embrace Robin as one of their own, because of his principled opposition to the Iraq War. He would have been appalled at the free pass Labour are giving the government on this. Lying. Cheating. Crime. Labour should be running them ragged.
The Leavers have a very interesting line of defence on all this (helped as ever by the media). It is basically to say that none of it really matters because Leave would have won anyway.
Now we don’t know that, for sure. Only last week, at Burnley v Chelsea, I was talking to a woman who said she had been hovering between Remain and Leave and eventually settled for Leave because of ‘Turkey’ and admitted she had received a bombardment of ads on Facebook, about millions of Turks coming here, in the run-up to the referendum. Did it swing her vote? It definitely played a part. Would it matter if that had happened as a result of overspending (illegal) and data theft and abuse (illegal)? I think it would.
Even if Remain had won, if the Leave campaign broke the law, they have to be investigated, and if law-breaking is established, people charged and prosecuted.
Or else what is the point of having the law in the first place?
How would MPs, media and public feel if the ‘we would have won anyway’ defence was used by athletes done for doping? Lance Armstrong might have won his seven Tours de France anyway. We don’t know. But he has been stripped of his titles. Because he cheated. He broke the law of the game.
Vladimir Putin would ‘probably have won anyway’ even if he hadn’t locked up opponents, shut down media, given out rewards for turning out to vote. If Leave funding and data allegations are to go ignored then no longer can the so-called Mother of Parliaments and our allegedly frank, fearless and free (provided you don’t challenge Brexit) fourth estate sit in lofty judgement of vote-rigging banana republics, and pseudo-democratic dictatorships.
If the winner in a parliamentary election is accused of an election offence, the case goes to an electoral court and if it is proven, a by-election takes place. This happened most recently at Oldham East in 2010, when Labour MP Phil Woolas was forced to stand down. So have we become such a banana republic that the potential illegalities of a democratic vote way more significant than any constituency election, involving the whole country and changing our constitutional arrangements more than anything in our lifetime, are to be taken less seriously?
That is why putting Brexit on trial is about much more than Brexit. It is about whether we really can claim to be a country of free and fair elections, and the rule of law. Taking back control?
We already have newspapers prepared to call judges enemies of the people, politicians willing to tar as traitors anyone who fails to pretend that whatever version of Brexit we get is the one the country voted for, a new policy at the BBC, essentially summed up as ‘if it’s bad for Brexit it’s not getting on the Beeb’.
It is because so many parts of the state and our national life are failing in their duties right now that so much rests on the police.
For it is hard to escape the view that if Brexit was put on trial, enough has happened already, what with mis-selling and law-breaking, for a judge to declare it null and void, and order a retrial. That, dear reader, is one of the many reasons why the People’s Vote campaign for a vote on the Brexit deal needs to win, and why the Brextremists are so desperate that it doesn’t.