Wednesday 16 October 2019

Colette Browne: 'Frivolous focus of British media shows why the country can't rid itself of damaging Brexit-mania'

Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Boris Johnson is about to become prime minister at a time of immense crisis for the UK, so what is the media currently obsessed with? A picture of him and his girlfriend.

Having declined to take part in a televised debate with opponent Jeremy Hunt, Johnson went on a media blitz yesterday. First appearing on LBC and then Talk Radio, he offered his usual bonhomie and bombast in place of any credible responses to serious questions.

As predictable and vacuous as Johnson's replies were, it was the segments of those interviews which went viral that perhaps best explain why the UK is unable to rid itself of its Brexit-mania.

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In a 25-minute interview on LBC, it was a five-minute interrogation of the provenance of a photo, in which Boris and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds posed in an idyllic meadow, that garnered the most interest.

While interviewer Nick Ferrari's demolition of any suggestion the photo was not staged was masterful and entertaining, does it really matter whether Johnson and his girlfriend are loved up or not?

Police being called to the home of a potential prime minister over a domestic incident is certainly newsworthy. But, after the couple have insisted the row was a mere spat, must we now endure a daily deluge of saccharine photographs strategically leaked by Johnson's media handlers or surreptitiously taken by tabloid press photographers?

While romantic trysts may be more interesting to many than drab trade deals, a disproportionate focus on Johnson's erratic love life will do little to inform the British people about the seismic decision that faces them on October 31.

Personally, I find it baffling that so many of his critics devote so much time to pearl-clutching about Johnson's love life. For a politician whose every public utterance is invariably comprised of a mistruth, an exaggeration, a blunder or a deception, why waste time complaining about his multiple affairs?

"Don't vote for Johnson because he cheated on two wives" may have been a political attack that worked in the 1950s, but most people today realise it is possible to be competent in one's professional life, while simultaneously being a rogue in one's private life.

The problem is that, when it comes to Johnson, he is demonstrably incompetent in his professional life, but the media is so obsessed with his love life that he evades any serious scrutiny in that area.

Despite the length of his interview on LBC, we learned nothing about how Johnson plans to deliver his "bold" Brexit. But we now know that the names of his hairdressers are Kelly and Tamara.

Similarly, in his Talk Radio interview, it was a clip of Johnson's bizarre response - that he paints model buses made from wooden crates when trying to relax - that prompted most headlines.

As a wily media operator, Johnson knows this kind of eccentric reply to a dull question will garner lots of attention - thereby minimising the focus on the paucity of his answers when it comes to questions on policy and trade. Predictably, the media, and consequently the public, lapped it up.

Regrettably, there was less attention on his Plans A, B and C to deliver Brexit by the October 31 deadline. For the record, it was A. "a new withdrawal agreement without the backstop"; B, "a GATT 24 standstill transition"; and C, "get ready for WTO terms". Or, in short, pipe-dream, impossibility and devastation.

Allowing politicians to perpetually engage in disseminating nonsense, without using follow-up questions to try to pick apart the bluster, has led to a political discourse in the UK in which once-serious politicians feel emboldened to use phrases such as "red, white and blue Brexit" to explain complex international trade agreements.

Never one to shirk from hyperbolic absurdity, Johnson was adamant the UK would be leaving the EU on October 31 with or without a deal, saying that it was "do or die".

Given Johnson's prescription for Brexit is likely to result in the dissolution of the union, it is perhaps apposite that the origin of that phrase comes from a nationalistic Robert Burns poem, 'Robert Bruce's March to Bannockburn', which lauds a Scottish victory over England in 1314.

Trite media coverage devoted to petty rifts within political parties, instead of concentrating on the implications for work, travel and business, has come to characterise the British media's treatment of Brexit.

There are a few notable exceptions - Channel 4's consistently excellent coverage and James O'Brien's fact-driven evisceration of Brexiter lies on LBC - but the media has been almost as abysmal as its politicians.

While many complain about our own media, there can be few in this country who don't understand the complexity surrounding the Irish Border, the implications for trade in this country of a no-deal Brexit and the reasons the Government has been unyielding in its insistence on the backstop.

That is, largely, thanks to media coverage that has focused on policy rather than personality, using contributions from experts in economics, trade, business and international relations to inform the public. This kind of coverage has been, if not entirely absent, then utterly sidelined in the UK, partly because most of its newspapers are partisan propaganda arms of the Conservative Party, which advocate Brexit at any cost.

The most recent egregious example of this was the 'Daily Mail's coverage of an opinion poll it commissioned on the Tory leadership battle, which found 54pc favoured Remain and 46pc Leave. However, if you read that Brexiteer newspaper's report of the poll, you would never know, as it left that statistic out.

In these organs of the press, experts are belittled, facts are ridiculed and reality is distorted so that Brexit has become not a geopolitical debate, but a matter of national sovereignty and pride.

Even on the BBC, which is supposed to rise above the rabble, current affairs programmes are largely vehicles for windbags with no discernible expertise in any area to say whatever they like without any consequence or censure.

Brexit has caused a schism in British politics, but the roots of this calamity can be found in a dereliction of duty by the media, whose performance has been truly lamentable.

Preferring disinformation over facts, and bluster over truth, the preeminent concern is not informing viewers or readers, but entertaining them.

In this universe, Johnson's contradiction of the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, on the feasibility of using GATT as an escape route from the worst impact of no deal, is entirely reasonable. Back on Planet Earth, it is fanciful.

Brexit may or may not happen. But it will take a long time for the British media to undo the damage it has done by abandoning the core principles of journalism in its coverage of this omnishambles - truth, accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality.

Irish Independent

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