Political reporting

Denis MacShane, former NUJ president and minister for Europe, on how journalists and editors helped shape Brexit

A case of

Prexit O

f British football reporters and sports columnists, it was once said: “They are fans with typewriters.” The same might be said

of the reporting of Brexit since 2016 in the pro-Brexit press like the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Sunday Times, the Mail on Sunday, the Daily Express, CityAM and influential political weekly the Spectator. Every article was slanted to paint the EU in as dark a hue as possible. There were attacks on Michel Barnier, but most coverage was about the Westminster bubble, especially Conservative Party differences on how to handle Brexit. Few bothered to seek to explore the politics of the EU27 nations or explain to readers what the pros and cons of different variations of Brexit might be. In the first four months after the

2016 plebiscite, the Daily Express published no fewer than 74 front pages attacking Europe or making claims about the threat of immigrants. When Theresa May announced the start of Article 50 Brexit negotiations, the Daily Mail ran 14 comment articles attacking those who were unsure about Brexit. ‘Out of touch elite will do anything to keep us in the EU’ was typical of the Mail headlines. This feverish tone was caught by Allister Heath, who was one of the most effective propagandists for Brexit as editor of the CityAM morning London paper before becoming deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph and editor of the Sunday Telegraph. He felt obliged to write a column under the headline ‘Why it’s time for a new campaign for Brexit’ four months after his camp’s victory. He urged his fellow anti-European editors to keep up the struggle and not assume the vote on 23 June 2016 would

be the end of the story. “There is no such thing as permanent victory in politics. History never ends: triumphs are fleeting; majorities can turn into minorities; and orthodoxies are inevitably built on foundations of sand,” he wrote. This call for a permanent Brexit

revolution was reflected in both the daily and Sunday editions of the Telegraph. Occasionally, tucked away in the business pages, there might be a questioning column from an economics or business writer asking if Brexit would be good for the economy and the paper’s Europe editor, Peter Foster, was allowed to reflect what he was told in Brussels. However, no negative economic warnings were allowed on to the front pages and the paper lost its good name for solid news reporting as writers and comment page editors obeyed their chief’s instruction to fight day and night against Europe and promote Brexit isolationism. The mindset that Brexit could not be

challenged was pervasive. I used to write the occasional comment piece for CityAM, which carries a lot of business news. Then a new comment page editor sent me this chilling email: “I think we are as a paper past the stage where we can question whether or not Brexit should happen.” As a journalist and writer-commentator on European politics, I have been writing comment pieces on politics for all sorts of papers over many years and have never been concerned if an article was turned down. But never before had I been told I could not mount an argument that represented where around half the country was known to be. Other papers were more objective;

the Financial Times, The Times, the Guardian, the Independent and the

“ ”

Observer ran news and comment pieces for and against aspects of Brexit. Columnists such as Sir Simon Jenkins, a star of the Guardian comment pages, who had been a relentless critic of all things EU and European this century, suddenly discovered that leaving the EU was not a good idea and began fulminating against a Brexit rupture. If only he had used his writing skills to

make these points before June 2016, but Sir Simon conformed to the 21st century London salon view that there was nothing good to be said about Europe.

Never before had I been told I could not mount an argument that represented where around half the country was known to be

As Brexit segues into a Brexiternity of tetchy negotiations, endless political rows inside the UK, and enduring divisions between the nations, cities and communities of Britain, the failure of the press and BBC to report and comment accurately and objectively on Brexit was a major contributor to the national crisis Britain now faces.

Extracted from Brexiternity, The Uncertain Fate of Britain by Denis MacShane, published by IB Tauris-Bloomsbury. NUJ members can buy at a 25 per cent discount until the end of November via with the code BREXIT2019

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