FEATURE 

Truth in the Brexit age

Speaking truth to power and informing their readers. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Liz Gerard looks at how the press has performed during the Brexit saga.

By Liz Gerard

Truth in the Brexit age
“They weren’t interested in compromise or consensus, only capitulation would do.”

“At last!”, cheered Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail. “A PM not afraid to be honest with you.”

The election campaign that was supposed to deliver the landslide victory that would allow Theresa May to “crush the saboteurs” was coming off the rails before it had barely started. Her social care plans – characterised by opponents as a “dementia tax” – were causing uproar and the opinion poll ratings were tanking.

In galloped her white-top knight in shining armour, applauding an “unashamedly moral” manifesto that contained ideas – such as an energy price cap – that he had derided when put forward by Labour’s Ed Miliband.

The prime minister may have been unafraid to tackle uncomfortable issues, but what about the Mail? Is it willing to risk being honest with its readers? Especially when it comes to Brexit?

Last November, under new editor Geordie Greig, the paper was losing patience with parliament – particularly those “saboteurs” who were not crushed in the ill-fated general election – and their failure to rally behind Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement. It commissioned an opinion poll by Survation, splashed on its finding that 41% of those questioned thought MPs should back the deal (against 38% who said they shouldn’t), and demanded: “So now will MPs listen?”

Was it the best deal on offer (bearing in mind, it was the only deal on offer)? Yes, said 52%. Would it be humiliating to stay in the EU? Yes, said 42%. This, apparently, was the evidence that the country was behind Mrs May and that MPs should fall in line.

But the paper that likes its prime ministers to be honest with the country, didn’t dare be honest with its readers. Deep in the text on the page 2 turn were some uncomfortable findings. More preferred to leave with no deal than on Mrs May’s terms; still more preferred to stay rather than leave on under her agreement; and even more preferred to stay than leave without a deal. So hers was the least popular scenario all round. Yet MPs were supposed to listen.

Open ears – like open minds, but unlike open mouths – have been in short supply since the referendum. Mrs May came to office pledging to respect the will of the 17.4m. It was a mighty number that has been rammed home time and again over the past three years. Some might say 16.1m is a pretty big number too, but from June 24, those voters were to be silenced; any qualms they may raise must be disregarded. As they were told so often: “You lost, get over it.” The people had spoken, now everyone had to toe the line.

The country was divided, the main political parties were divided, the generations were divided. Something had to be done to pull us all together again. For the Brexit press – which had done so much to foment the divisions – that meant everyone falling into step behind the Leavers. They weren’t interested in compromise or consensus, only capitulation would do.

The paper that likes its prime ministers to be honest with the country, didn’t dare be honest with its readers.

The will of the people?

A private Treasury report on the possible impact to the economy sparked fury and a full-page Dacre leader with a front-page teaser raging: “Damn the unpatriotic Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the people”. The similarly outraged Express declared in its splash headline: “Time to silence the EU exit whingers”, with a subdeck attacking “arrogant Remoaners”.

A businesswoman who went to court to argue that Parliament (whose sovereignty this was supposed to be all about) should have a say on how to implement the result of what was legally, if not practically, an advisory referendum was characterised as a “Guyanan-born model”. The judges who ruled in her favour were “enemies of the people” (in a report written by the man who is now Theresa May’s press secretary).

When the Commons duly voted to invoke Article 50, there were celebrations – but the fact that not every MP had voted in favour put a bit of a dampener on the party. The 114 who went into the ‘No’ lobby had to be named and shamed. A few months later, the Telegraph picked up the Mail playbook when the “usual suspect” Tory MPs tried to prevent the exact date of Brexit being written into law. Their photographs were ranged across the front page under the headline “The Brexit mutineers”.

Civil servants doing their jobs were “traitors”, anyone questioning the way negotiations were going was “talking down the country”, cries of “betrayal” were everywhere.

The sinking pound, disappearing jobs and warnings from the Bank of England were brushed aside as readers were repeatedly told that Britain was booming and would reap a huge Brexit dividend.

Remain-leaning newspapers had dutifully given up the fight and were arguing for the “least harmful” Brexit. Because nobody actually knew at this stage what Brexit meant – apart, of course, from Mrs May’s immortal definition. The Leave campaign had put forward a smorgasbord of possibilities – we’re familiar with them all now: Norway, Canada Plus, customs union, single market, clean break – but newspaper editors were apparently able to cut through all of that and divine exactly what those 17.4m had voted for. A “soft Brexit” was anathema to Paul Dacre; out meant out.

The Express was less dogmatic. It wanted any Brexit with any leader. In successive days after David Cameron’s resignation, it happily hailed Johnson, Gove and May as the saviours who would lead us out of Europe.

Open ears – like open minds, but unlike open mouths – have been in short supply since the referendum.

Deep divisions

Now, nearly three years on, the country, the parties and the generations are still divided – and so are the papers. On the Remain side, The Guardian, Observer, FT and Independent are all backing a new plebiscite to sort out the mess. The Mirror is trying to pretend it’s not happening, as it did through most of the referendum campaign. Like many MPs, it is terrified of an anti-Labour backlash in Leave-voting constituencies. The Times is reluctantly sticking to the original people’s verdict and urging MPs to back May’s package.

The Express and Mail are also behind the prime minister, not least for fear of a general election and a Corbyn administration. Far from “holding authority to account”, they seem to regard it as their duty to press the government line at all costs. The Telegraph is meanwhile giving Boris Johnson a megaphone for his leadership pitches – blithely telling the press regulator that the former foreign secretary was entitled to make sweeping generalisations and that readers shouldn’t look to its star columnist’s “comical polemical” efforts for factual information. In common with the Sun, it appears quite happy for us to leave without any agreement in place.

Which is not the same as a no-deal Brexit. Because any Brexit is a no-deal Brexit. Mrs May has not negotiated a deal; she has negotiated a divorce settlement and a wish-list of how the two sides should behave towards each other after the parting of the ways.

Far from “holding authority to account”, they seem to regard it as their duty to press the government line at all costs.

Skirting the real issues

Our popular newspapers have chosen not to make this clear, but have rather filled their pages with the Westminster / Brussels soap opera, seizing on the distractions afforded by defections to the Tiggers and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s latest pronouncements. They have barely attempted to explain the Irish backstop, how it relates to the Good Friday agreement and how it might affect peace on the island. And they certainly haven’t gone near the question of smuggling across the border – not from Ireland to the UK, but from a future unregulated UK with its chlorinated chicken imports into the EU.

Instead, they report dire warnings and threats of far right insurrection, civil disobedience, rioting on the streets if Brexiters are thwarted, as though these should inform policy. This from the same newspapers – and politicians – that denounce the whole Muslim community because of Islamic terrorism; the same newspapers and politicians that vowed never to bow to IRA bombers; the same newspapers and politicians that for decades have repeated the mantra: “We must never give in to fear, the terrorists must never win.”

As to security, medical standards and supplies, research funding, our vanishing motor industry, even immigration from outside Europe – for the Micawberish tendency in our media, the least said about them the better, while Remainers know that raising such worries risks another Project Fear backlash.

What hope is there that the real negotiations that will start once we’ve actually left will be properly scrutinised and reported by newspapers and broadcasters that are fully aware that their audiences are sick to the back teeth of bloody Brexit?

For now though, with Brexit delayed possibly until Halloween and beyond, there are the European elections to play with – especially with Farage’s new party poised to sweep the board as voters prepare to desert both main parties and Remain politicians prove incapable of forming the most basic alliance.

If Farage does triumph, there will be an even greater excuse for both politicians and press to dismiss all those polls suggesting that the country has changed its mind and now wishes we could stay as we are. Chances of a second referendum would diminish and, even if one took place, it could well result in the most damaging sort of Brexit.

Which would seem to vindicate those papers now pushing May’s plan.

But that niggling question persists: why? Why are the Brexit papers so…, well, Brexity? The disaster capitalism, offshore tax haven arguments might explain the Barclays’ Telegraphs and Murdoch’s Sun and Sunday Times. But Murdoch seems happy to let The Times go its own way.

Dacre has vacated the Daily Mail chair, yet the fact that his successor and the proprietor are pro-Europeans has not been enough to persuade them to consider Remain and reform. And the new Mail on Sunday editor is more fervently pro-Brexit.

Dacre’s parting shot was that Brexit was in the DNA of the Mail and its readers and that any move to reverse its approach would be editorial and commercial suicide. Evidence to support that came last month when the paper’s chief political commentator Peter Oborne switched sides, writing a 4,000-word essay for the Open Democracy website explaining why. The piece did not appear in the Mail, but its readers got wind of it and reportedly bombarded the editor with angry messages about his columnist’s conversion. So Dacre was right?

Similarly, the Express knows that its readers are dyed-in-the-wool Brexiters and – even under Mirror ownership – wouldn’t countenance softening its stance a jot.

Common sense? Perhaps.

This war won’t end with our departure from the EU. It has riven our society and will do so for decades to come.

Backing the wrong horse?

A BBC producer told an ethics in journalism event last month that only three things mattered to young audiences: Trump, Brexit and climate change. These are the issues on which the baby boomers will be judged. We are constantly hearing that future generations will never forgive us for our selfishness, the refusal after years of post-war peace and prosperity to sacrifice the tiniest thing. You can understand why when the desperate clutching to our chests of everything that is “ours” reaches such a pitch that the Express even writes headlines saying, “Don’t dare steal our Brexit”.

The Express will never reach a younger audience. It will die. But the Mail? It sits alongside the most successful news website in the world. It should be able to afford to look to the future, to reach out to a new generation of readers – on whatever platform.

It led the way with its fantastic campaign on plastics – it was lauding the decision to outlaw free carrier bags on the very day the Express was decrying yet another example of “EU meddling” – and it has further shown its environmental credentials with its assault on microbeads.

Last month, it was huffing and puffing about the Extinction Rebellion protests and it has never been a fan of the likes of Greenpeace. But if the Mail can redirect its energies to practical ways of convincing its consumerish readers that we really need to do more to save the planet, it could achieve great things – and secure its own future.

Likewise with Brexit. Yes, it was on the winning side in 2016 and yes, Brexit may well happen this year or next. So it won the battles. But this war won’t end with our departure from the EU. It has riven our society and will do so for decades to come. At some point, the Mail may decide that it picked the wrong side and try to sue for peace.

It could start by not being afraid to be honest with its readers.