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JAMES BALL: How Brexit drama made us all lose the plot

Journalists on College Green during the vote on former PM Theresa May's Brexit deal, January 2019. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

JAMES BALL on how the media coverage of Brexit – caught up in the twists and turns – meant the public consistently missed the story.

Anyone who’s lived near the sea – and no-one in the UK lives further than 70 miles from it – knows that it’s the tide that matters. It’s the rising tide that can trap you on a beach, a rip tide that can drown you, a spring tide that means you might be in for flooding. But while tides might be what’s important, it’s the waves that are much more fun to watch.

So it’s been with Brexit, at least as viewed through the lens of the UK media over the last three-and-a-half years. For months at a time, every day felt frenetic, high-stakes, as if it could be a pivotal moment in the battle over whether the UK parted ways with its closest neighbours.

And then those moments of drama passed, and were followed by the inevitable realisation that, in the words of Theresa May, nothing had changed. Closely following Brexit in the media could easily leave one exhausted and disillusioned, but also confused, and probably knowing almost nothing more than someone barely following the story.

There have been endless column inches written on mistakes the media made covering the referendum itself, but little scrutiny over the mistakes made in the three and a half years since the referendum – a period perhaps even more important than the campaign itself, and one the Remain side eventually, once again, lost.

Perhaps the coverage is part of the reason for that. There are, of course, honourable exceptions, people who have shed light not heat and helped us understand what’s happening. Not every criticism will apply to everyone. But there is much to reflect on.

The day after this newspaper hits the newsstands this week, the UK will leave the EU. That battle is over, Brexit will have happened. But there is not yet any agreement whatsoever on what Brexit will look like, or what it will mean. The stakes remain high. It’s important we try to work out what we can do better if we want to minimise the chances of still worse outcomes as Brexit moves from a totemic battle to a reality.

Who’s writing?

Part of the problem with the coverage of Brexit was quite simply who was covering it. Usually, the details of anything involving the EU is kept to Brussels correspondents, and (for the broadsheets at least) confined to deep inside the newspaper. Anything detailed, involving international negotiations, or the slow cycle of policy would usually be left to specialist correspondents, rather than the Westminster lobby.

But Brexit was clearly going to be the top political story for years, and the UK’s political lobby are very used to regarding page one stories as their home turf. So what to do when the number one political story would be a complex and high-stakes international negotiation, rather than the usual ‘who’s up? who’s down?’ coverage that dominates domestic UK political writing?

The answer turned out to be simple: Brexit was quickly turned into the kind of stories the UK lobby like to write. The EU side of the negotiation was largely cut out of existence, allowing for splash headlines every Monday on some new UK proposal that anyone credible knew was dead on arrival (or usually before arrival) in Brussels.

The beauty of these was they could come from anywhere: Number 10 could buy a few days floating a plan it knew would be rejected. The ERG could set new ‘red lines’. Even a document as ridiculous as the ‘Malthouse compromise’ (basically a request for the EU to unilaterally give the UK what it wanted, but with the word ‘compromise’ in its name) was aired in the British media for weeks.

For anyone but the closest Brexit watcher, separating out real, viable proposals from a fresh bit of noise became absolutely impossible. As even this became boring, lobby attention turned away from the most important negotiation for a generation and focused on whether the protesters outside parliament were annoying, whether Brexit could mean a new royal yacht, and with an almost indecent obsession with the bongs of Big Ben.

As one editor working at a national title put it: “Even as they described Brexit as a monumental, once-in-a-lifetime decision that had upended British politics and society, they continued covering it largely as if it was politics as usual, just another general election or similar…

“This was more about processes than a lack of understanding. The changes in how we consume information and discuss issues that have made established approaches to covering politics woefully inadequate are not driven by, or unique to, Brexit. But they are closely woven into it, and have been exposed by it.”

This is all before we get into the endless false drama created by parliament. Brexit was always only ever going to end one of three ways: parliament voting to revoke Article 50 (possibly after a second referendum), the UK leaving with no deal by letting the Article 50 deadline expire, or the UK and the EU agreeing and ratifying a deal.

Numerous MPs from several different factions regularly pretended other options existed, usually as an excuse to explain why they had voted against every deliverable option. Either because they didn’t know enough to challenge that view, or because they didn’t care, media outlets routinely let MPs and ministers spout this nonsense unchallenged.

This meant that month after month was wasted as a parliament without the numbers to do anything but delay its decision, again and again, made delaying tactics look like high drama. As a result, we collectively came to confuse the drama with what was important.

When Boris Johnson won his majority of 80 seats, he made numerous major alterations to his Withdrawal Agreement Bill. But in the absence of the drama of close votes on amendments, legal threats, and other challenges, these barely attracted any coverage – and yet it’s this bill that has become law, that will shape our lives for the next year, and which sets the terms of the negotiations that will shape them for decades.

This matters far more than any of the fireworks in the Commons last year, and is covered far less. We as a media structurally fail to cover what’s actually important, and thanks to the exhausting effect of the breathless coverage of inconsequential events, the public are likely largely relieved that we’ve strayed off the topic.

Secret plans

The UK media are used to covering policy and government via leaks, often semi-officially sanctioned leaks designed to float ideas in a deniable way. This became the default method to cover Brexit, with the UK government ostensibly setting its negotiating positions in secret, so as not to give the EU an ‘advantage’, and then leaking bits out selectively.

The problem with this was that the EU had set out its own negotiating position – in painstaking detail – entirely in public, in multiple languages, available on its website and readily discussed by its spokespeople and its senior officials.

It is hard for one side of a negotiation to claim its aims and red lines are state secrets when the other side has placed all of their cards, face up, on the table. The EU could hardly have done it any other way: the negotiators in the room had their mandate set for them by the 27 nations remaining in the EU, with no authority to go beyond them. Part of their strategy of transparency was to reassure member states no secret concessions were being made.

The UK media dealt with this contradiction by… almost universally ignoring it. While there were a few exceptions – such as the BBC’s Adam Fleming, who went as far as keeping the EU’s negotiating documents in a series of ring binders – the UK media simply ignored the publicly stated EU positions and ran whatever the UK said more recently.

This certainly made for plenty more front pages for the reporters willing to pull that trick – but it came as a huge disservice to their readers – and the readers, listeners and viewers of newspapers and shows which then breathlessly picked up stories they should have had the judgment to ignore.

None so blind

So far this analysis has had plenty of blame for journalists, and almost none for readers and viewers. While the former should bear most of the blame, the latter are not entirely exempt: Brexit created a whole new category of pundits, ‘experts’, actual experts, talking heads and cheerleaders.

Almost universally, the ones who did best – who got the most bookings, whose social media followings swelled by tens and hundreds of thousands, who essentially turned Brexit-watching into a career – were the ones who told people what they wanted to hear.

Thanks to the way our comment editors like to commission and our TV shows like to set up their debates, it was far better, career-wise, to pick Remain or Leave and be a full-throated cheerleader for one or the other, rather than to try to give an honest assessment of the facts, even if this came from a perspective of being an open supporter of one or the other.

Deviating from the script was rarely tolerated on either side: Remain pundits who noted May’s parliament never came close to having the votes to actually allow a People’s Vote got mobbed on social media. Brexiteers who tried to acknowledge that ‘WTO terms’ was utter conspiracy theory nonsense got similarly castigated. As Brexit got ever more bitterly divided and tribal, most of us settled into the coverage that told us the most reassuring story.

The result was that Remain and Leave’s most ardent supporters now live in entirely different media worlds, believing entirely different facts, and have almost no overlap from which to come back from. It also means neither is particularly well-informed by the media they consume.

These are hardly issues confined to Brexit, but it’s proven a particularly fertile breeding ground for them. As readers and citizens, one good warning for ourselves when it comes to rating a pundit should always be to check whether you always like and agree with that they’re saying. If the answer is yes, it’s probably because they’re telling you what they know you want to hear, rather than giving a real assessment of reality.

A toxic mix

Any of these factors in isolation would be damaging to our ability to grapple with the greatest policy challenge the UK has faced in at least a generation. But the way they all interact has made the mix toxic in a way that could do harms that will last for decades.

The result of the endless drama-focused coverage, structured along partisan lines, and with most stories feeling like non-issues even less than a week later, has been to generate apathy, a sense of being sick of it, even among people who are usually politically engaged – even among many politicians.

There is clearly a pent-up desire to be able to talk about other issues, to have a politics that isn’t single issue, to – as the Conservative campaign so deftly tapped into – “get Brexit done”.

It has often felt like a desire shared even by the opposition front bench, in the hope they could talk about their other policy positions – leaving them to abandon the fight to explain that a damaging Brexit leaves less money to get anything else done.

The result of that exhaustion and relief is to miss the fact that all that happens this week is that the switch has turned, as Brexit is no longer reversible. Almost nothing practical will be different on February 1 than it was on January 31. Until the end of the year, our freedom of movement, our ability to trade, and most of our other EU privileges remain unchanged.

We have no idea what our relationship will look like after December 31, but we will know for certain it needs to be something new – there is no going back after this week. So Johnson has got Brexit ‘done’, but done nothing to define what Brexit is, and given himself only a matter of months to get everything agreed.

His government contradicts itself on what it will try to do on a daily basis. One day the chancellor Sajid Javid insists the UK will diverge from the EU on some standards and rules -which would mean a very hard Brexit and numerous new barriers for business. Then, facing a backlash from business, he walks back on these comments. But which position did he mean?

The EU won’t set up inspections, tariffs and other barriers at the point UK rules diverge from its own – it will require them from the point when the UK and EU’s rules allow the UK to diverge. We could be facing a cliff-edge nearly as stark as a no-deal in less than a year, with no ability this time for parliament to make a last-minute delay.

And yet this has attracted far less coverage than whether or not Big Ben will bong at 11pm this Friday (it won’t), or the fact that the government is printing a 50p coin with an internationalist message to mark the UK leaving the EU (a coin was printed to mark the UK entering the EEC, and the 25th anniversary of that occasion).

Both stories are idiotic, both stories are infantilising, and both stories are getting widely read and shared. Neither story will matter one iota in just a few weeks’ time. The decisions made over the last few years – and especially in this year to come – will shape the future of our country, of who we will meet, of how our careers go, and how much we are able to fund our public services. We shouldn’t let the coverage of it – or what we most read – be an embarrassment to anyone looking back at it.

The media might be flawed and often fail, but it’s also still how we find out about the world. We need it to be better. In the short term, though, at least one Brexit watcher has reason to hope the next coverage might be better than what’s come before.

“Essentially, Brexit is really boring and really technical – but also really important. So it’s tricky to cover,” he said, before saying why things could improve. “Well…they might let the more specialist journalists lead on it if it slips down the political agenda.”

It’s better than nothing.

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