The revolution might not be televised

Brexit has been blamed for the decline of the British press, but the mainstream media was broken long before we left the European Union


This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Did Brexit break the media? The struggle to leave the EU consumed British politics much more fundamentally, and with greater intensity for longer, than the campaign that took the UK into the old Common Market. It broke leaders, parties and some of the conventions of Westminster politics. From a partisan Speaker to the Supreme Court overruling the Queen for agreeing to parliament’s prorogation, everything was in turmoil.

It is tempting to see these destabilising tumults as the progenitor to what is now classified as the wider “culture war”. But long before the 2016 referendum, British journalism was already in a seemingly irreversible decline. Viewers and readers had been steadily falling away, and already unprofitable platforms were becoming even weaker.

Long before the 2016 referendum, British journalism was already in a seemingly irreversible decline

But does the partisan way that the old media reported Brexit point towards a new journalistic landscape? Are overtly opinionated entrants such as GB News — for all its birth pangs — a foretaste of the future?

Small acorns, big nuts

In November 2010, the Daily Express become the first national newspaper to back the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Instigating this shift was the paper’s chief political commentator, Patrick O’Flynn. “Fellow hacks in Fleet Street and lobby laughed at him,” remembers the ConservativeHome (and later BrexitCentral) journalist, Jonathan Isaby, “and thought he was out of his mind for suggesting what — within six years — actually happened.”

The incredulity at the Express’s support for leaving the EU was understandable, as not all its other causes fared well. The arrival of the Liberal Democrats into government as David Cameron’s coalition partners earlier that spring may well have been as surprising as the Express’s regular installments in uncovering the improbable conspiracy that killed Princess Diana, but it hardly suggested leaving the EU was on the cards.

Indeed, a few years earlier the paper’s famous “Crusader in chainmail” — a logo said to have been adopted because of Lord Beaverbrook’s frustrated interwar hopes for Empire Free Trade — seemed to lose its ferocity under the relaxed, Blairite, management of Lord Hollick. The turnaround came after 2000, with the eurosceptic enthusiams of its new owner, Richard Desmond.

O’Flynn — who subsequently became a Ukip MEP — thinks the Express “was quite instrumental in getting a swathe of modest middle and working class Britain to consider Ukip as a respectable alternative”. Until that time, few Conservative MPs considered leaving the EU to be practical politics.

Jonathan Isaby first encountered Tory Leavers in 2006 when, as a Daily Telegraph diary reporter, he attended the parliamentary launch of “Better Off Out.” Established by the Freedom Association and with the former Commons Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, BOO hoped to build withdrawalist support among mainstream parties rather than trusting it to Ukip to deliver. This sparsely attended Westminster reception gave little indication that delivering Brexit would eventually become a Conservative manifesto pledge.

Yet Tony Blair’s willingness to give Brussels the system it wanted for what many Britons still quaintly called Strasbourg elections — a proportional representation regional list system — gave Ukip its 1999 breakthrough and provided the unknown Nigel Farage with a platform.

Seeking to neuter the emerging Ukip threat to his right, David Cameron made his fateful January 2013 Bloomberg speech announcing his conversion to holding a referendum on membership. Winning (against expectations) an outright majority in the 2015 general election, Cameron was deprived of coalition constraint, and went ahead with the referendum.

“Journalists who had left London had a better sense of what was coming than those who had spent the referendum campaign in the capital,” maintains the Sunday Times’s political editor, Tim Shipman. “I’m only aware of four or five members of the Westminster lobby who voted for Brexit. The referendum result made some journalists realise they did not know the country as well as they had thought they did.”

An incontinent cabinet

Theresa May’s turbulent premiership caused further problems. “The massive magnetic pull of the conventional British position on Europe started to draw her back from the position she had outlined in her 2016 conference speech,” thinks Channel Four News’s political editor, Gary Gibbon. “Then the 2017 election came and opened up a Pandora’s box. Some Remainers became wedded to a second referendum and could not engage with the idea of a softer deal. She was very late to reach across the floor and by the time she did so, there was no trust, no relations, and they couldn’t touch fingers.”

May did not particularly care about the sovereignty issue. For her, it was about practicalities

Even more disturbing to the “constitutional Leavers” who made up the bulk of European Research Group MPs, May did not particularly care about the sovereignty issue. For her, it was about practicalities. “She is a very practical person and was persuaded that we needed to remain economically close,” says Shipman.

The precariousness of her position — any position — in parliament was obvious, as successive so-called meaningful votes vividly demonstrated. But May also had to contend with a Cabinet over which she had all but lost control. “By the autumn of 2018 pretty much anything meaningful said at Cabinet was leaking within the hour to the dailies and was then being tweeted,” admits Shipman. He added, “That made it more difficult for Sunday journalists like me, because so much of what was being said was already out there.”

Indeed, the incontinence reached a level where, says Shipman, “there were three or four people in the cabinet leaking virtually everything that had been said in cabinet within minutes of it occurring. On certain occasions, they were leaking things that had not been said, but that they had meant to say.

“There were ministers intervening in the end of meetings because they had forgotten to say things that they’d told their special adviser they were going to say and their special adviser had already told journalists.”

ITN’s political editor, Robert Peston, believes the problem began before May became prime minister and will outlive her tenure.

The breakdown, he believes, “dates to David Cameron’s decision to allow Michael Gove to stay in the cabinet whilst campaigning against staying in the EU. On the biggest issues of the day there was no longer collective responsibility. That responsibility thereafter collapsed on everything else. And it hasn’t recovered.”

Faultlines and blurred lines

For journalists, he adds, it has “provided extraordinary rich pickings of disclosures about what has really been going on in Cabinet or behind closed doors in government” but the consequences for government are malign and enduring.

“Ministers have briefed in a much more open way than at any time in history,” Peston believes. “It’s made it much more difficult for any prime minister to govern. I doubt that is reversible.” Indeed, he says, it goes some way towards explaining why under Boris Johnson, “other sub-committees are making key decisions on Covid — with Cabinet no longer being the real forum for discussion.”

Where gossipy ministers and their special advisers had given journalists insights into the dramas unfolding behind closed doors in Whitehall, reporters enjoyed no such tip-offs in Brussels

But where gossipy ministers and their special advisers had given journalists insights into the dramas unfolding behind closed doors in Whitehall, reporters enjoyed no such tip-offs about what was going on in successive rounds of British negotiations with Brussels. This was a serious blind-spot.

“British journalism has been appallingly placed in its attempts to cover the EU’s attitude” says ConservativeHome’s editor, Paul Goodman. “We’ve been reliant on Brussels correspondents who are asked to cover a vast canvas in the wake of a long period of news organisations cutting their overseas coverage.”

To Goodman, this imbalance has been stark. “We’ve taken a magnifying glass to Westminster in order to observe every twist and turn whilst trying to watch the continent only through a broken telescope,” he says, hence “the degree of scrutiny given to the EU’s positions has been woeful.”

For Gary Gibbon, the reality was that “Brussels has always read our newspapers, and we typically haven’t read theirs. When you talk to European diplomats they know which newspaper and columnist does what to a degree that we do not reciprocate.

“We’re not as immersed in their landscape. We have nothing like the journalistic or diplomatic strength in numbers over there that they have over here.”

Did the long breach caused by failing to bring a rapid practical resolution to the referendum vote meaningfully change British political journalism? “The centre didn’t hold either in the country or Westminster,” notes Tim Shipman. “Journalists who had grown up covering pragmatic centrism winning the day were thrown by the passions Brexit unleashed on both sides and by the rise of Corbyn.”

Did the long breach caused by failing to bring a rapid practical resolution to the referendum vote meaningfully change British political journalism?

Robert Peston strikes a pessimistic tone. “Of course, in the past, newspapers always showed their political or ideological colours on the front page in the run-up to general elections, but the length of the Brexit uncertainty extended the usual election-time partisanship from a four-to-six-week campaign to an unbroken run of four years. I suspect that this blurring of the separation of news and comment will endure and the ‘culture wars’ are going to remain with us for years to come.”

In Shipman’s interpretation, the long march to Brexit “has revealed fault-lines in this country that had been glossed over and now have caused a realignment. If you look at an electoral map of America in the 1960s when the South switched from Democrat to Republican, this might be the same thing. Brexit will be the most important catalytic event of my lifetime.”

Enter the new pretender

GB News is unarguably the most expensive media phenomenon to come out of where Brexit is said to meet the culture wars. The product — linear broadcast news, albeit curated for social media clips — is almost as defiantly old-fashioned as a longform print magazine. Its backers include Legatum’s Christopher Chandler, and Paul Marshall, owner of the UnHerd website. But its launch face was Andrew Neil. Most famously editor of The Sunday Times in the 1980s, Neil’s career spans being a protégé of ITN and The Economist’s Alastair Burnet, an abortive Fox News stint, front of house acclaim at the BBC, and many years as a Barclay Brothers consigliere and publisher of The Spectator.

Many of the new channel’s most experienced recruits have been distinguished broadcasters on major channels. But then no one who has been keeping an eye on Twitter over the last eighteen months, and noticed all of the fond farewells being issued by colleagues to stale pale male veterans whom the Corporation golden parachuted out, can be surprised at the wealth of talent the new channel had available to draw upon.

Despite such illustrious CVs things have not gone smoothly at GB News

Yet despite such illustrious CVs things have not gone smoothly at GB News. One of the best BBC journalists to go into Tory politics in recent years was the agreeable Guto Harri. His experience of the Prime Minister has left him a Boris-sceptic, but few doubted his professionalism. Until, that is, a rather stagey taking of the knee — the carefully curated viral social media clips are a key part of the GB News game plan — went awry. The few viewers the channel has, and its management, swiftly abandoned Harri, who has understandably since quit.

At this point, in came the underemployed Nigel Farage. It should be noted that Farage was already on the roster of GB News presenters, to no very great effect. For it’s a truth not to be underestimated that Nigel Farage has only really succeeded where he was able to incite and become the beneficiary of Tory infighting over Europe.

Say what you want about the current PM, but he has put a stop to that. Andrew Neil — not least by publicly tweaking Farage for his Trumpian claims that the last American general election was “stolen” — had not hitherto been an obvious admirer of the sometime LBC broadcaster. But GB News news is in a ratings hole and presumably this is one of the more cost-effective dice that could be rolled.

It’s all about the BBC

Some critics of GB News posit a contrast between industry veterans (several of whom have already departed) and others, whom some commentators sniffily describe as “cultural warriors” and others regard as the channel’s raison d’être. Existing 24 hour news is dull and largely unwatched and the very vice the more pompous media pundits take exception to — the prioritising of heated debate over detailed news reporting pioneered by chief executive Angelos Frangopoulos at his former station, Sky News Australia — is the market gap. However, GB News hasn’t filled it.

The failure is all the more marked when one considers that the BBC has reverted to type. Hugely cowed by the pre-pandemic ministerial boycott — which reduced Today and Newsnight to empty irrelevances — the Corporation enthusiastically embraced the government’s pandemic sloganeering to make itself respectable and indispensable. The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire even went so far as to wear a sloganeering rainbow NHS t-shirt while presenting the news. The government boycott ended. BBC management has sufficiently recovered its mojo that it can contemplate creating a post for someone with the undisguised views of Jess Brammar to run BBC News.

There is a media problem in this country. The BBC is overwhelmingly dominant and its views are Jess Brammar’s

There is a media problem in this country. The BBC is overwhelmingly dominant and its views are Jess Brammar’s. The private media is mostly loss-making or effectively bankrupt, and lacking in what clout it once had.

“We all moaned about how tired we were and would it please stop,” Brexit’s chronicler Tim Shipman recalls of the 2016-2019 battle of wills. “But in 20 years’ time, when we’re looking back, I don’t think there’ll be any one of us who doesn’t think ‘these were the glory years.’”

This may be true of mainstream journalism’s last great hurrah reporting Brexit. It remains to be seen if Brexit is going to give its children careers in a broken industry. There are limits to the miracles even this phenomenal news story can work

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