Veteran BBC journalist GAVIN ESLER delivers an excoriating blast against broadcasters, Leavers and the lies that have left the country a more divided, poorer place.
When the facts change, rational people change their minds. It’s normal. It’s advisable. We do it every day. Thanks to Gareth Southgate I changed my mind about the England football team.
The facts about Brexit have most certainly changed over the past two years and I’ve now changed my mind about that too. When once I quietly accepted a democratic vote to make Brexit happen, I don’t any more.
The shambles of the government’s response, the predicted chaos of a hard Brexit or no deal, and the background of lies and cheating have made me think again. Above all, the facts about how we are receiving information about Brexit have also changed.
As the Conservative chairman of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee Damian Collins put it, at the publication of a new report into ‘fake news’: ‘We are facing nothing less than a crisis in our democracy based on the systematic manipulation of data to support the relentless targeting of citizens without their consent by campaigns of disinformation and messages of hate.’ That means journalists have to rethink entirely the very basis of what we do and how we do it.
I started work in the 1970s as a reporter at the Belfast Telegraph during the Northern Ireland Troubles and was instructed to be ‘accurate, fair, and balanced’. In my subsequent work for the BBC, the Scotsman, American journals, a Middle East newspaper and British publications ranging from the Mirror and Mail to the Telegraph and New Statesman, I have always tried to live up to those three pillars of journalism.
Like all reporters, I make mistakes, including the time on live television when I turned to Tony Benn and called him ‘Tony Blair’. He told me he had never been so insulted in all his life. But now – 2018 Brexit Britain – embracing all three pillars of journalism is increasingly difficult and maybe no longer desirable. The idea of supposed ‘balance’ when confronted by ‘campaigns of disinformation and hate’ is especially problematic. In Belfast in the 1980s, even with the bombs going off, balance meant hearing from both unionists and nationalists, Protestants and Catholics. But more recently how can any news organisation ‘balance’ the overwhelming weight of worldwide scientific opinion about MMR vaccines or climate change with the crackpot anti-vaccine theories of Andrew Wakefield or of those who claim climate change is somehow ‘fake news’?
When Lord Lawson used to appear regularly on television to pontificate on the supposed lack of evidence on climate change to ‘balance’ the informed opinions of the best climate scientists worldwide, I wondered why anyone should take seriously the scientific wisdom of a not especially distinguished former chancellor of the exchequer. Would you trust Lord Lawson’s ‘expertise’ to fix your teeth after he read a couple of books on dentistry? So why did he become the go-to ‘balance’ guy for climate scepticism on television and radio?
But now, as the DCMS committee report suggests, in the post-Trump, post-Brexit information world, the pillar of journalistic ‘balance’ has cracked. Consider this dilemma. A journalist standing on the White House lawn seeks to be accurate and fair, but what does she do when the most powerful democratically-elected leader in the world lies – repeatedly, obviously and unashamedly? When Donald Trump tells us that he never made the statement that we have all just heard him make, is it necessary to ‘balance’ a public lie with some Trump loyalist telling us the president employs ‘alternative facts’?
Brave American journalists resist such disinformation. The New York Times, CNN and Washington Post report the president’s lies as, yes, lies. To offer ‘balance’ on disinformation and hate speech is to sound like the old Biffy Clyro lyrics: ‘I talk to God as much as I talk to Satan ’cause I want to hear both sides.’
But we don’t ‘balance’ arguments on child protection by hearing advocates for paedophilia, nor do we confront anti-slavery campaigners with racists arguing that other people can be personal property.
The ‘crisis in our democracy’ comes because maintaining quaint ideas of ‘balance’ in a world filled with ‘systematic disinformation’ is now an existential threat to the country we love, the Britain of the Enlightenment, a place of facts, science and reasoned argument.
That means we have to get serious about the lies about Brexit. What ‘balance’ is necessary in a media world in which secretive ‘campaigns of disinformation’ sow hate through the ‘systematic manipulation of data?’ And do we really need to respect a vote taken in such circumstances?
In 2016 as I travelled around our country I was appalled by the worst British political campaign I had ever witnessed. Remain was rightly ridiculed for inept scaremongering. Voters lacked positive reasons to understand why a trading bloc of two dozen rich nations is a good idea. Instead we got ‘Project Fear’.
The Leave campaign was more effective, but shameless, offering a delusional ‘Project Fantasy’ – an easy Brexit, a future British Wonderland of advantageous trade treaties with grateful foreigners, controlled immigration and no serious economic dislocation.
The Leave disinformation campaign included the nonsensical idea that Turkey was about to join the EU, as if 75 million Turks, plus Iraqi and Syrian refugees, were moving in next door. Despite the lies, I accepted the result and hoped that British common sense might make Project Fantasy somehow work. It hasn’t. That’s because it can’t. Leave’s delusional pain-free Brexit is coming apart not because people oppose it but because it is simply impossible.
Why, given the background of leading Brexiteers, could it be anything else? Nigel Farage has served almost 20 years in the European Parliament – yet he has never implemented any significant policy, anywhere, ever. Boris Johnson is what the Americans call ‘all sizzle and no steak’. His Fantasy Projects are endless. Literally. He has repeatedly backed taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, a doomed Garden Bridge, imaginary bridges to France and Ireland, and a mudflats London airport somewhere in the ocean.
Johnson’s most notorious Project Fantasy is the post-Brexit extra £350 million a week bonus to the NHS. His colleagues Liam Fox and David Davis promised ‘easy’ trade deals, but only Wakanda and Narnia appear ready to sign up. And then there is Jacob Rees-Mogg, who the German newspaper Die Zeit dismisses as ein lebendes Fossil, ‘a living fossil’. German humour is directed towards a United Kingdom once seen as a vital European partner, now the butt of jokes and seen as irrelevant.
Worse: here’s how the shameless Brexit Bunch plan to survive the mess they have created – by going overseas. John Redwood has recommended investors consider opportunities abroad. The Living Fossil Rees-Mogg is part of a financial operation expanding in EU-affirming Ireland. Lord Lawson, when not offering his expert opinions on climate change, premenstrual tension, or whatever else he claims to know about, is seeking French residency. Nigel Farage has been looking for German passports for his family. And Lord Ashcroft recommends that investors consider opportunities in Malta. How many of the 17 million Brexit voters have the same opportunities?
The Project Fantasy clichés have become simply inane. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ was never a policy. Now it’s merely a gag-line for topical comedians. ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’, is nonsensical. No deal is such a very bad deal that it is now useless even as a negotiating position. A more accurate slogan would be that ‘No Brexit is better than a bad Brexit’.
The more slow-witted Brexiteers do not even notice they are drowning in their own verbal human waste. The Conservative MEP David Campbell Bannerman suggested that any Briton strongly supporting the EU was committing treason and linked ardent Remainers to jihadi terrorists. The Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns suggested that we must have a post Brexit ‘vision’. It’s a pity she didn’t think of this before we voted blindly for a visionless future in 2016.
Jenkyns also urged Brexiteers to ‘keep the faith’. What with her faith and her visions, clearly Brexit – always an incoherent policy – has now become an incoherent religion. As the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt put it, a person who has ‘visions’ should go and see a doctor.
And then there’s the cheating. The Electoral Commission is clear. Vote Leave broke electoral law. Not an allegation. A fact. And yet in what once claimed to be the party of law and order a former Conservative government minister, Priti Patel, tried to organise a whip-round to help pay the legal fees of one of the lawbreakers. The Patel charity applies only to pro-Brexit lawbreakers, not Ordinary Decent Criminals.
In all this Theresa May is the scapegoat-in-waiting. Farage speaks of Brexit being ‘betrayed’, with May the betrayer-in-chief. Remarkably, Farage and others on the far right who speak of Brexit ‘betrayal’ sound like those on the far left who claim that communism is a brilliant idea, if only it had ever been tried properly and not ‘betrayed’ by the people who ever tried it.
All this marks an existential crisis for journalism too.
What is the purpose of truth and facts and news in a world of disinformation, where lying at the top has become normalised? The slippery concept of ‘balance’ needs to be rethought. Serious politicians and real experts cannot be ‘balanced’ by obscure talking heads whose main qualification is a university degree in blarney.
Take, for instance, the ubiquitous antipodean, an Australian called Chloe Westley. She was formerly with Vote Leave and is now a rising star in the so-called TaxPayers’ Alliance. Spokesmen and women from obscure pressure groups maybe occasionally worthwhile guests on television and radio, but Westley is now a regular fixture.
The clear message is that what she has to say must somehow be important and authoritative. But is it? Curiously for someone who knows everything there is to know about the golden post-Brexit future for 65 million of us, Westley claims not to know key details about who actually funds her salary.
When challenged on Radio 4 by the impressive Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston about corporate and big business donations, the otherwise omniscient Westley was unable to confirm if, say, her opposition to a sugar tax is encouraged by funding from the sugar lobby or other big financial interests.
Private organisations are entitled to keep their funding secret. But when the TPA spokeswoman repeatedly comes into your home and mine on the public airwaves, their source of funding is a vital public interest matter. Organisations in our Disinformation Age need to come clean, or not be invited to come on television and radio programmes except very occasionally. ‘Come Clean Or Don’t Come On’ is a good principle for other supposedly ‘independent’ think tanks too, including the pro-Brexit Institute of Economic Affairs.
The IEA was recently exposed in a sting operation offering access for wealthy US potential donors to right-wing British politicians. Every dog should have a chance to howl. But since those who howl repeatedly on television are rewarded by broadcasters with a veneer of credibility, they need to come clean to deserve it.
So what can we do to minimise the damage?
First, continue to expose the Brexit fantasies, accurately and fairly assessing whether any of them are ever likely to work. Second, compare the promises of the Brexit Bunch with what they actually do with their own lives and finances. Third, we need to follow the money – the Leave campaign money, the money behind the curiously-funded Leave-supporting ‘think tanks’, and other organisations. And fourth, we need to keep an eye on those speculators for whom a chaotic few months until the Brexcrement hits the fan could prove remarkably profitable.
One final thought.
Hold journalists to account, sure. But most journalists – even ones you dislike – seek to debunk disinformation and expose lies. Instead of bashing decent journalists for the contortions demanded by the impossible ‘balancing’ act some are supposed to perform, let us encourage a re-think.
In the post-Trump post-Brexit world, how can we re-build trust unless we can point out lies when they occur? Broadcasters, especially, need to reflect a wide range of opinions. But confronting expert opinion and elected representatives on television with articulate know-nothing non-experts of dubious provenance financed by who-knows-what, is not ‘balance’. It is a disservice to our people, our country, and to facts, accuracy and fairness.
As for me, I have never joined any political party or any political campaign. But this is different. If – when – Project Fantasy finally falls apart, the sour atmosphere of the Brexit mess threatens to makes this great country of ours an even more divided and poorer place.
If that happens, at least I can look my children in the eye and say, ‘you know that pile of Brexcrement you’re saddled with? Some of us tried to clean it up.’
• Gavin Esler is a novelist, journalist, broadcaster and chancellor of the University of Kent; he worked for the BBC for around 20 years, including as a presenter on Newsnight