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The Financial Times has a Brexit problem

It cannot transcend its biases

Artillery Row

Last week the Office of National Statistics (ONS) published the latest UK trade data (June 2022). It showed the UK trade deficit ballooning to more than four per cent of GDP. The Economics Editor of the Financial Times, Chris Giles, immediately tweeted the chart with the comment: “In other news, I hear #Brexit is going swimmingly”. 

Yet as Economics Editor of the FT for over 14 years, surely Giles is aware that Brexit is not the cause of the UK’s trade deterioration? Not only does the ONS data make clear that UK exports to the EU are growing, it also makes clear the cause of the trade deterioration: 

Imports of fuels from non-EU countries have seen large increases since mid-2021, driven by increasing gas imports, which is linked to rising wholesale gas prices

So important is this factor in UK trade figures that the ONS has carried out a separate analysis of trends in UK imports & exports of fuels from which the chart below is taken.

Bloomberg knew what was causing the trade deterioration, saying “UK Trade Deficit Hits Record on Soaring Energy Costs”. Meanwhile, the effects of the spike in oil and gas prices on trading balances had already fed into the numbers elsewhere in Europe. In May, Germany reported its first trade deficit since 1991 — the year of German reunification and Bryan Adams. The FT itself had reported this news and CityAM made the cause clear: “Germany registers first trade deficit since 1991 on surging energy prices”.

I asked Giles why he was trying to link these trade figures to Brexit and got blocked for my trouble.

On Tuesday, the FT published an article on the valuation of the pound including a graph entitled “Pound has struggled to recover since the Brexit referendum” — one of many FT pieces which cite Brexit as the cause of the pound’s “doldrums”.

There was no attempt to put the valuation of sterling into context: on the narrow GBP trade-weighted index in real terms, GBP is trading about average for the last 15 years; the Bank of England and IMF both declared sterling 5-20 per cent overvalued in 2015; the big decline in pound/euro rate occurred after the Great Financial Crash et cetera. No. Brexit was the cause. Brexit would be blamed.

When the IMF reported its new global GDP forecasts in April 2022, the FT reported “UK to have slowest growth of G7 nations in 2023, says IMF” but failed to mention that this still meant the UK would have the highest growth in the G7 for the period 2021-2023 and for the period 2024-2027. 

This failure to put a single year’s growth forecast into context, and to report the IMF’s expectation that the UK would be the fastest growing G7 economy for the next four years, is not what you would expect from a detailed, balanced analysis. Perhaps because it does not fit the narrative of Brexit’s economic fallout — as the FT reports it — which is supposed to lead to lower long term GDP growth and not the highest in the G7.

These might seem to be isolated events, but they are not. The FT has been at the forefront of “Brexit bashing” since before the referendum itself.

The anti-Brexit narrative has continued ever since

On 15 June 2016, just before the referendum, the FT made clear it supported a vote to remain in the EU, arguing that the newspaper had “supported British membership of the EU from the outset in 1973” and that “opting out of the EU … would seriously damage the UK economy”.

On the day of the referendum itself, it warned that leaving the EU would damage “not only the UK but Europe and the West”, echoing the words of Jean-Claude Juncker who claimed that Brexit could be the beginning of the end of Western civilisation. The day after the vote, the FT wrote that Britain had “cut itself adrift”, “casually wandered into a new world of risk” and faces a “new diminished place in the world”.

One might have imagined that since the vote the FT might have become more balanced in its output over Brexit. But no. The anti-Brexit narrative has continued ever since with more and more elaborate ways found to link any event to Brexit and forthcoming disaster (see here for examples).

It seems the FT journalists’ issue with Brexit is by no means limited to economics. In October 2017 FT Chief Economic commentator Martin Wolf wrote that “Planet Brexit is ruled by zombie ideas” and insisted that there would be no Brexit deal because the UK did not recognise its relative insignificance to the EU. In December 2020, when a deal was in fact agreed, he described it as “inevitably, a damaging deal for the British economy”.

Robert Shrimsley, the FT’s UK chief political commentator, wrote in his article “Boris Johnson cannot escape the cost of Brexit” that the “Brexit process has indeed felt like a national humiliation” and that “the UK is already paying the price with money it cannot afford to lose”. Gideon Rachman, the FT’s Chief Foreign Affairs commentator declared at the end of June 2016 that Brexit would not be allowed to happen because the British public would be forced to vote again, in the same way the voters of Denmark and Ireland were forced to vote again when the “wrong” result was delivered.

In July 17, when that much-anticipated second referendum failed to occur, Rachman wrote in his piece “The democratic case for stopping Brexit” that a way would be found domestically to “get” a second referendum in the UK.

FT commentator Janesh Ganesh, has written much about the Brexit travesty. FT European Economics Commentator, Martin Sandbu claimed that “long before it acquired the name of Brexit, the project of making the UK leave the European Union was a solution in search of a problem”. In April 2019, in his piece “Brexit is like a slow puncture for the UK economy” Chris Giles wrote, “Britain is united in wanting the political chaos to cease. It is not yet ready to face the truth. The only way to make it stop is to halt Brexit.”

Every fact is framed to present Brexit as irredeemable

Indeed, the FT’s contribution to the Brexit debate — its attempt first to help deliver a vote to remain and then to promote a second referendum, then to keep the UK in the single market and Customs Union, and since to present any and all negative events as a result of Brexit — has not gone unnoticed by the EU and its members. In August 2016, the then editor of the FT, Lionel Barber, accidentally tweeted a copy of a letter he had received from the French Government offering him the Legion d’Honneur in recognition of the Financial Times’s “positive role in the European debate” (I will leave the reader to decide what France means by positive role). Since leaving the FT, Lionel Barber has joined the self-styled Independent Commission formed, he tells us, because “Brexit isn’t working”. “We will do our best to clean up the mess,” he informs us. 

I could give other examples of anti-Brexit reports by these and other FT journalists, but what I cannot give you is a single positive article on Brexit because I cannot find one (I am happy to stand corrected). There are journalists, economists, bankers and political commentators about who are positive about Brexit — or at least who can see that there are positives as well as negatives in the change it brings. It just seems that none of them work or write for the FT

Whether that is an editorial position or a function of the staff they have chosen to hire is not clear. What is clear is that the FT has a view on Brexit, and it is far from positive. This view infects every article written — with every fact framed in order to ensure that Brexit is presented as a negative and irredeemable event.

What does it matter that the FT has a stance on Brexit? In and of itself — not much. Plenty of newspapers and news organisations have political biases. The difference is that they do not portray themselves as unbiased purveyors of the truth in a fake news world. The FT does. 

To quote the FT:

We have also shown the enduring value of independent, authoritative and reliable reporting and analysis in a time of fake news, sensationalism and polarisation in media.

Does that sound like the FT to you?

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