Our media needs training to avoid Brexit fake news

Our media needs training to avoid Brexit fake news

by Eben Wilson
article from Tuesday 17, July, 2018

FOLLOWING the Chequers meeting and publication of the Brexit White Paper we have seen gymnastic somersaults across the body politic. The responses of the chatterati remind me of a group of children trying to find their feet on a bouncy castle. Stumbling, staggering, prat-falling, and re-positioning all over the place.  What fun! 

President Trump’s timing in paying a quick visit to Mrs May on his way to a golf game at Turnberry has been tremendous… truly tremendous. Ironically, the word derives from the Latin root to tremble with dread, even if we see it as meaning extraordinarily great. Both uses are apt. 

It is becoming clear that the new White Paper proposals are simply untenable; they have been rightly panned by anyone with a sense of what the referendum vote was about and that includes quite a few remainers.  The “common rule book” is a breath-taking slap in the face to Leaver ambitions. Mr Trump clearly concurs; Mrs May has set herself up on a fool’s errand, waiting with bated breath for some sort of acquiescent nod from the EU for this bizarre cherry picked multi-ingredient cake mix laced unrepentantly with the vapour of Irish spirit. 

In this turmoil, I also detect a wider malaise, a widespread sense of despair that our broadcast media are not providing truth and enlightenment. This is a real cause for concern; any democracy needs to trust its fourth estate. 

I speak as someone who worked in news and current affairs for more than two decades and offer two pointers to what is driving this. Either we are simply seeing the paucity of depth in modern 24-hour rolling news dealing with adept professional news management within politics – or something has gone wrong with editorial choices. Both create a dissonance between broadcast audiences and the broadcast news and comment delivery mechanism.  Let’s examine them. 

First, depth of content. When I worked in television, programme editors (who are the overseers of choices about content, and with whom producers do battle to get their own view accepted on what content should be aired) were trained in the mantra that programmes should tell a good story and not just examine a subject.  All the better if the story had what were called “smoking guns and dead babies” – content that offered shock and horror to create an audience reaction.  Subject exposition was scorned as “dry” or “too much like schools telly”.  

In general, the formula worked, audiences sat in their living rooms tut-tutting or exclaiming in good measure without really taking in much about the subject at hand; there was a general cynicism among producers that we should not expect didactic explanations to change ingrained prejudices, our audiences enjoyed their skewed views; they anchored their sense of place in their world.  It was not for us to be polemicists; although a bit of well-honed nudging might open minds.  If that sounds arrogant, we were, wilting lilies do not become television producers. 

And now we have Brexit, a fiendishly complex administrative task, engineered by an army of civil servants beavering away on obtuse details of arcane subject matter that even they, let alone a living room audience, find difficult to describe, then explain and so amend.  What is broadcast journalism meant to do in the face of such an impenetrable wall of foggy detail? 

The answer of course is to “report”, factually; if there are any facts around in and among the aspirations and assertions that pass for debate in today’s politics.  But then an orange haired man with crumpled trousers and a big armour plated car arrives by helicopter at an historic palace accompanied by a fabulously attractive wife dressed long in lemon like a medieval princess. Social media explodes in frenzy about beauty and the beast; for the press he’s a smoking gun and she’s always inscrutably distanced alongside him. What a story!  To hell with factual content, just look at the pictures and wallow in conjectures. 

Poor wee Mrs May, standing forlorn with her husband in the palace forecourt; they looked like a middle-aged couple at a shire county ball waiting for a taxi home.  There was something dreadfully ironic about an American president standing tall on stately British steps watching red coats march in circles in front of him for entertainment.  Shouldn’t we have sent a detachment to burn down Congress (again) just to make sure he knew who was boss?  Actually, on second thoughts, perhaps not, he might have thanked us. 

Such entertainment is important; and television does it well. But it does turn Brexit broadcasting into a circus where the costuming and theatre kicks all semblance of content analysis into the dark shadows away from the limelight. 

And what about editorial choices when a more erudite measured view is wanted?  Here you have to feel for the front-line journalists like Laura Kuenssberg, John Pienaaror James Landsdale. Trapped in a convention of the instant two-way where a news anchor turns to them for “insight” they struggle when facts are thin, or arcane, and players in the debate are staggering about changing places. Is it any wonder that they appear to be largely repeating what we already know? There isn’t much else to report; Olly Robbins doesn’t give interviews.  There is little to be insightful about; they are largely left describing the machinations of party politicians which bores audiences. False news.   

However, their predicament lies apart from them with the program editors who control communicative power in their choices and here I think Leavers can have legitimate concerns.  Throughout Brexit there has always been a suspicion that the copy tasters in our London centric national news prefer to taste Remain rather than Leave. 

This is probably not true at the individual level, an on-shift journalist has little time to assess personal preference, rather they operate on the tram rails of an organic commonalised consensus that emerges across daily on-diary reporting among the press pack.  In broadcasting particularly there is an anxiety about not keeping up with events and doing what is called “spiking a story” and so leaving holes in coverage that make you look professionally incompetent. 

However, editors are paid to notice audience sentiment and to redress and reverse any inadvertent implicit institutional bias. I am not convinced this has been done. The risk of offering fake news beckons.   For example, there is an almost prurient perspective in seeking to down mouth Mr Trump, acting as it were as agents of group-think lefties waving placards in Trafalgar Square in a collective media snort.  Often, content and ideas become subsumed to this personalised agitprop theatre, however intellectually thin it is, or celebratory in its crude virtue signalling.  Reporting does need to report such vacuity when thousands engage in it, but it also needs objective analysis to be separated from personalisation. 

It is actually rather important that Mr Trump clearly believes that Mrs May’s Brexit plans are bunkum and that she has negotiated badly for our nation.  His views should not be reported as mad or bad. Mr Trump may well be an unpleasant, narcissistic and self-serving personality but he is also known as someone who loves to negotiate deals and has billions to prove that he is good at it. Does that count for nothing among the metropolitan elite? 

There is an important irony here; Mr Trump is a mercantilist who believes trade is about deals; Leavers are free traders who reject this. The Scottish government should appreciate Mr Trump for they too are mercantilists in their approach to the EU which is also mercantilist.  So any Remain supporting person who rejects both Trump and Leave is actually rejecting mercantilism and demanding it at the same time.  This is an intriguing stance to adopt but it echoes something that many Leavers have asked of Remainers; precisely what do you want or expect to gain from being in the EU?  They rarely tell us, but mercantilism on their terms, which means cosy high level deals made within the EU Commission, is clearly part of the attraction.

Broadcasters repeatedly report this essentially non-democratic anti-populist paradox with a straight face, not through bias, but through ignorance of economics; put simply they think trade is about inter-governmental deals.  This view of trade is erroneous but unfortunately, as the economist Deirdre McCloskey has said, the dynamics of comparative advantage and its effect on trading patterns through time is one of the few non-obvious propositions in economics.

What a pity too that the Scottish government, its civil service and academic influencers have not chosen to equip themselves with the intellectual tools to understand the advantages of trade and the beneficial innovation it brings to consumers.  Our very own Adam Smith was determinedly against mercantilism and laid the foundations for Scotland’s global success.

There has been a distinct failure within the BBC in this; all of its journalists should have been offered specific training in this area as it is so crucial to understanding Brexit. There are precedents for such mass learning initiatives for journalistic staff; we had one on AIDS during the 1980’s so that we did not report prejudicially or with clinical ignorance. 

 Without this, the presumptions behind editors’ choices have shifted the basis of our national Brexit argument prejudicially against the Leave proposition in favour of a falsehood that generates fake news. Leavers have few who can articulate the Brexit case well; Jacob Rees-Mogg has held the fort as best he can from the early nineteenth century canon of liberalism, perhaps now that Boris Johnson and David Davies are free from the straitjacket of the cabinet they will add heavier artillery to the voice of freedom from EU mercantilist hegemony. 

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