Let down by the media

This is a topic we have covered before, but it deserves revisiting. The blame for Brexit going badly cannot be solely attributed to politicians.

Why? because the media that should be bringing the facts to the nation simply isn’t doing so.

Like it or not, the media and politics are entwined like never before. People in Westminster seem to move from jobs at newspapers to political think tanks, to work as advisers to politicians, to Quangos and charities and then back to the media. 

Spend just a short time on twitter and you will often see backslapping tweets like “congratulations to Emma who has gone from the newsdesk at the {insert paper here] to work at the [insert name here] think-tank” or “Congratulations to James who has just left his position at the Smithson foundation charity to work as communications advisor to a Government Minister”. 

Why is this important? Because it further demonstrates the reality of the old idea of the “Westminster bubble” – an interconnected realm seemingly impervious to facts and concepts originating from outside it. 

This cultural and intellectual isolation means that Westminster exists as a self-contained zone brimming with second hand flawed opinion masquerading as  ‘facts’ and outright falsehoods are repeated unchallenged. 

Take for example that before the EU referendum David Cameron and Nick Clegg spoke in very negative terms about the EFTA/EEA Norway option. 

Obviously they didn’t want the UK to leave the EU and so it made sense for them to speak negatively about this alternative outside the European Union. 

Since the vote to leave the EU, most journalists have repeated Cameron and Clegg’s spurious quotes about the Norway option almost verbatim – “fax democracy”, “pay but no say” etc  

Has it not occurred to them that politicians don’t always deal in absolute facts, and are not averse to using clever language to persuade their audience of a desired outcome?

If there were not such permeable membranes between the world of politics, think-tanks, charities and media, they might do a better job of holding each other to account. But as it stands we are getting a truly shoddy service from public servants and institutions. 

Take for instance this recent article by James Forsyth

Before we analyse it, let’s look at the author. Mr Forsyth is Political editor of The Spectator and a Sun columnist who has  also written for the Mail on Sunday newspaper and was an advisory board member of the ResPublica think tank in Westminster. He is married to the journalist Allegra Stratton.

A member of the public might be forgiven for believing that this person is well informed and knows his subject. They’d be wrong.

Mr Forsyth writes

What I am told is off the table, is what one source calls, the “twilight zone of Norway”.

This option would see the UK having to follow all  EU rules despite having no say in making them. As Boris Johnson put it to Tory MPs this week, if the UK did this then “what’s the point” of leaving.

So firstly, he says that this option (Norway EFTA/EEA) would entail the UK following “all EU rules”

This is so patently untrue that even a schoolchild writing a report on the Norway model would discover it wasn’t accurate after three minutes research on Google. 

The UK, which IS IN THE EU NOW doesn’t even follow “all EU rules”. The UK is not in the Euro currency, the Eurozone or the Schengen Area. We also have specific opt outs Economic and Monetary Union and  freedom, security and justice policies. 

The EFTA/EEA states are not in the European Union, so by definition they don’t follow “all EU rules” in fact, if we want to be pedantic, they don’t follow any EU rules but they do mirror those EU rules which have bearing on the Single Market.  

Neither are they subject to the EU’s Treaty that calls for “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”. Instead, they are subject to the rules of the EEA (European Economic Area) agreement.

To quote the EFTA website:

“The EEA Agreement does not cover the following EU policies: Common Agriculture and Fisheries Policies; Customs Union; Common Trade Policy; Common Foreign and Security Policy; Justice and Home Affairs; or Monetary Union (EMU).”

If the UK had a relationship with the EU like Norway then, we would be exempt from many EU policy areas. We would no longer be constrained by Article 34 of the EU treaties, which transfers huge powers from the UK to the EU.

We would be able to make our own trade deals, regain our WTO seat, run our own foreign policy (limited of course by our rights and obligations under NATO) and would no longer be subject to EU rules on fisheries. We would also have input into EU rules.

If Mr Forsyth, a political journalist by trade can’t get basic facts right, that’s one thing. But he isn’t writing for a school newspaper. The articles he and his colleagues write are read by MPs who soon need to make important decisions about the UK’s future.

They and their constituents need insightful, fact based reporting so that the nation can forge a new relationship with the EU.

People need the facts on the WTO option, the Ukraine option and the EFTA alternatives. They need to know the facts about the EU’s proposed transition period.

Sadly, they won’t get them from Mr Forsyth, and many others whose job it is to educate the public.