Tuesday, November 27, 2018

It's the Sun (and the Mail and the Telegraph) wot won it

As our glorious nation lurches daily from one political crisis to the next in the build-up to Brexit, it's sometimes hard to believe or understand how on earth we've got to the state we're currently in. Nicholas Jones has a fair idea, though, and this evening at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Culture, the journalist and author gave a public lecture setting out his view that Brexit has been sold to the British public by our news media.

Jones' observations, I'd argue, were not in themselves particularly revelatory: that irresponsible press reporting about immigration fuelled xenophobic and anti-EU sentiment; that paper owners and editors cynically fed public fears because of commercial self-interest and personal political agendas; that Nigel Farage and UKIP were given undue coverage; that in the post-referendum period those same right-wing papers have repeatedly sought to create the impression that Britain is booming, burying or simply ignoring any bad news and pointing the finger of blame at Brussels bullies whenever it looks as though there may be complications or things aren't quite as rosy as has been claimed. However, what was illuminating was the way that he demonstrated all this, through a procession of front pages and opinion pieces stretching back to 2010, showing the cumulative effect and the apparently gradual but inexorable movement towards our current predicament.

Jones was clearly aggrieved by it all, but did grudgingly admit the brilliance of the Brexiteers in managing to commandeer and control the agenda for so long. The flip side of that, though, was his sense that they've been allowed to do so. In his view, the Remain campaign, Labour and left-of-centre papers like the Guardian have all been culpable in putting up inadequate and feeble opposition. The BBC, he suggested, should shoulder much of the responsibility on the grounds that it has been negligent in checking facts and offering genuine, serious analysis of the issues. Instead, it has too often allowed the right-wing media to set the agenda and appears to have mistaken balance with pitting political rivals against each other for a verbal punch-up - which, while occasionally entertaining, is neither edifying nor informative for the electorate. Had the quantity and quality of information to which people had access been much better in the run-up to the referendum, we probably wouldn't be in this situation.

Unsurprisingly, given the identity of some of the attendees and the venue's proximity to Media Wales' headquarters, the issue of local news media came up in the post-lecture question-and-answer session. Jones ventured that local papers and regional news programmes have a vital role to play in showing the impacts of Brexit at close quarters, but lamented the severe cutbacks that have left teams overworked and under-resourced to the extent that they simply can't provide the kind of service that one might expect or hope for. More troubling, however, was the observation of one member of the audience that worthy stories on significant issues are often demoted or even dropped because they're not thought sexy enough to attract the online views and hits that increasingly determine media revenues.

With the crucial Commons vote just a fortnight away, Jones noted the very recent shift in attitude of most right-wing papers (with the exception of the Sun) in offering backing to the embattled Prime Minister on the grounds that Brexit (in their view) must be delivered in some form. Fascinatingly, with the mooted leadership challenge crumbling, it's now hardline Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg who find themselves castigated (without a shred of irony) as saboteurs and enemies of the people. It all goes to show how quickly things can change - and for that reason Jones was understandably reluctant to speculate what might happen next. Either way, though, the extraordinary power of the British press to shape public opinion and policy is likely to endure.

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