Colette Browne: 'Johnson uses 'Downing Street sources' like Trump uses Twitter – and UK's right-wing press laps it up'
Boris Johnson is using a gullible political and media class to frame the Brexit debate in a way that amplifies his divisive election strategy. They don’t have to play along. In fewer than 12 hours yesterday, two anonymous press briefings from No 10 sent the UK media into convulsions and enraged Irish politicians and members of the European Commission.
In the first, a journalist who works for ‘The Spectator’, a rabidly right-wing magazine that Mr Johnson used to edit, sent a text to “a contact in Number 10” asking “how Brexit talks were going”.
In response, he received an 800-word rant in which blame for the ongoing Brexit shambles was largely foisted on Leo Varadkar, while threats of retribution were also levelled at EU member states if they dared accede to an extension which delays Brexit beyond October 31.
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A couple of hours later, an anonymous “Downing Street source” was again whispering in the ears of high-profile journalists to give them the inside scoop of a call that Mr Johnson had with Angela Merkel yesterday morning.
Bizarrely, during that call, Dr Merkel was alleged to have opined that “if Germany wanted to leave the EU, they could do it no problem”. She then bookended that uncharacteristically blunt remark by stating, “the UK cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland behind in a customs unions and in full alignment forever”.
Some of the journalists reporting Downing Street’s account of this call incorrectly referred to the comments as a “No 10 statement”. This resulted in naked spin from Mr Johnson’s team being neatly repackaged as a formal statement from the German chancellor – imbuing the remarks with far more weight and legitimacy than they warranted.
Mr Johnson, a former journalist who understands how the media works, is using anonymous No 10 sources in the same way that Donald Trump uses his Twitter feed – to dissemble and divide.
Whenever he encounters any difficulty, or wishes to change the media narrative, he gets one of his minions to feed a few incendiary lines to political correspondents who feel they are doing their journalistic duty by repeating verbatim every inane comment emanating from No 10.
One journalist, defending the practice of regurgitating every unattributed comment that is spewed out by the Downing Street communications team, said the “aim was to get as much verified information out as possible”.
This explanation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The remarks attributed to Dr Merkel were not verified – and most of the British media didn’t bother trying to independently stand them up before breathlessly reporting them as fact.
Given the dogs on the street are fully cognisant of Mr Johnson’s game plan – to sow as much division as possible in advance of an election that pits Parliament and the EU against the people – it is depressing how easy it has been for Mr Johnson to manipulate the media into amplifying his message.
Not only has anonymous spin been raised to the level of verified information, factual inaccuracies in comments coming from Mr Johnson’s team are rarely highlighted in the reportage.
For instance, Dr Merkel was alleged to have told Mr Johnson that if the UK were to get a deal, then Northern Ireland would have to remain in a customs union. This was then characterised as some earth-shattering bombshell which represented “a new established position” which rendered a deal “essentially impossible”.
The rather more mundane reality is that the EU has said since 2016 that if the stated objective of both the UK and the EU – an open Border in Ireland – was to be delivered, then either a customs union or some technological solution, which facilitates an open Border, would have to form the basis of an agreement.
The backstop was a recognition of the fact that those technological solutions, the preferred option for the British, have yet to be invented, meaning the status-quo customs union is the only feasible way to keep the Border open. As soon as the British can clarify what those arrangements are, then the customs union can go.
Meanwhile, the big story yesterday was not, in fact, a supposed rancorous phone call between Mr Johnson and Dr Merkel, but rather the publication of the British government’s “no-deal readiness report”, which is a masterclass in cognitive dissonance. Introducing the report, Michael Gove boasted that the UK would see a 15pc reduction in the cost of New Zealand honey – ignoring the fact that 60pc of British farming exports to the EU would be slapped with high tariffs in any no-deal scenario.
Predictably, the woefully unprepared state of the UK to crash out of the EU at the end of the month received only minor coverage in the British press yesterday, with the majority of the media instead focused on the gossip-driven account of a brief phone call between two heads of state.
Instead of gormlessly aiding and abetting Mr Johnson and his team, by using their speculation and spin to frame the Brexit debate, the British media could instead focus their attention on some objective truths.
There is zero chance now of the UK leaving the EU at the end of the month, given Mr Johnson has confirmed to a Scottish court he will abide by the Benn Act and send a letter seeking an extension if there is no agreement in place later this month.
This means that, contrary to the bluster of Mr Johnson and his cabinet, an extension is inevitable, which will swiftly be followed by an election in November or December.
After that, even if Mr Johnson were to secure a majority, and use that to overcome opposition in Parliament and crash out of the EU, it would not be the end of the story.
As the UK’s biggest trading partner, a deal will eventually have to be done with the EU. Explaining the parameters of what that deal could, or should, contain is what the media should be attempting to elucidate.
Instead, the media has focused almost entirely on personality politics, tittle-tattle and bitter recrimination between opposing factions, which may make for more entertaining reports but will ultimately do little to advance the debate and just further stoke tensions and divisions.
This may serve the interests of Mr Johnson as he attempts to mop up the Brexiteer vote before an election, but it does a massive disservice to those whose lives and businesses will be irreparably harmed by Brexit.
A famous journalistic credo is that journalism should encompass “all the news that’s fit to print”. Political journalists should consider whether anonymous statements, which amount to propaganda-replete and context-free press releases, meet that test.
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