How the British press caused Brexit

Does Brussels control bananas? Will EU ban kettles? These and other anti-EU tales were spun by the British media

WrittenBy:Mihir S Sharma
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What was Britain thinking when it decided to exit the European Union?

No, seriously – what was it thinking? Because, the closer you examine the Brexit vote, the odder it looks.

The county of Cornwall, for instance, voted to leave the European Union (EU) – although it is dependent on the EU for 60 million pounds in subsidies a year. Brussels sends British agriculture 300 million pounds a year; but, even so, rural farming communities tended to vote against staying tied to the source of their cash.

Sure, some of this could be down to systematic racism and xenophobia. But even given such biases, reacting with enough fury to leave the EU seems irrational. After all, Eastern Europeans are as white as the average Brexit voter. And there is an all-pervasive sense that Britain suffers from extensive immigration even though it takes less than most European countries per capita.

What can explain this farcical situation?

It’s quite simple, really. Since the mid-1980s, English politicians and its media have consistently chosen to blame the European Union for pretty much everything that has gone wrong in that country. Absurd numbers have been repeated for the amount of money that England has lost to Brussels; even more absurd rumours have been published as factual European regulations. (Most famously, that Brussels wanted to control the curvature of bananas.)

When this sort of misinformation is fed to people for decades at a stretch, it leads to absurd consequences – in which individuals and entire communities are led to vote against their real interests.

Am I exaggerating? Well, let’s hear from someone who should know.

The former Times correspondent in Brussels Martin Fletcher wrote in The New York Times recently that “for decades, British newspapers have offered their readers an endless stream of biased, misleading and downright fallacious stories about Brussels.” He specifically blames a predecessor in his role as Brussels/ EU correspondent for “setting the tone” of British papers’ anti-EU coverage through entertaining but untrue stories “about European Union plans to take over Europe, ban Britain’s favourite potato chips, standardise condom sizes and blow up its own asbestos-filled headquarters.” The name of this correspondent? Boris Johnson, then a buffoonish journalist, now a buffoonish Conservative politician leading the Leave campaign.

Just in the run-up to the vote, one study from the Reuters Institute at Oxford concluded that, of 928 articles in the run-up to the vote, 45 per cent were clearly in favour of Leave and only 27 per cent for Remain. But perhaps that doesn’t give an accurate picture of the tone. One university media studies department calculated that, in fact, 82 per cent of British newspaper articles about the euro referendum were written with a pro-Brexit tone – after adjusting for circulation and the degree of slant.

And that slant could be considerable. The Daily Express, for example, startled the British over their morning tea a few weeks before the vote by blaring on its front page that Europe “wants to ban kettles”, which would have been shocking if it were true, and obviously wasn’t.

Nor is The Daily Express alone. Here’s a list from Fletcher:

“Some samples from recent Daily Mail headlines give the flavour: ‘We’re from Europe: Let Us In!’; ‘Ten Bombshells the EU’s Keeping Secret Until After You’ve Voted’; ‘Greediest Snouts in the EU Trough.’ These are from The Sun: ‘We’ll Get Stuffed by Turkey’;

‘Checkpoint Charlies: Euro Judges Open Floodgates to Illegals’; ‘Eur All Invited’.” Many of these quite mendacious stories were printed atop alarming photographs of hordes of refugees – who are, of course, not from EU countries anyway.

This somewhat negotiable approach to truth when it comes to Europe is not new. The Daily Express in particular has form – a few years ago, it declared on its front page that the EU wanted to “merge England and France”. The newspaper has 400,000 readers in print, but a large multiple of that number would have seen and remembered the front page. (It can perhaps go further than other papers because its owner, Richard Desmond, has chosen to withdraw from the self-certification body of which most other newspapers are nominally a part.)

This is the kind of headline that British readers have been confronted with since at least the time that Boris Johnson was writing pompous little lying screeds from Brussels. Actually, in some ways, the most amazing thing about Britain voting to leave the European Union is that it took so long.

Naturally, British politicians bear a great deal of responsibility too. The EU is an easy and safe target when you need one. Who’s to blame for economic hardship? The EU. Who’s to blame for government inefficiency? The EU. Who’s attempting to block the EU’s dreadful and continuing intrusion in your lives? Your friendly politician, vote for him please.

If you don’t believe that this has been going on, unchanged, for at least 30 years, do see the December 1984 episode of Yes Minister where Jim Hacker becomes prime minister. How does he do it? By giving a passionate speech denouncing a plan by the Europeans to rename the British sausage an “emulsified high-fat offal tube”.

Over decades, this kind of coverage creates the puzzling confusions I opened with. It allows for nationalism and xenophobia to be given respectability as economic arguments; it allows for voters to willingly suspend disbelief and vote against their own interests. When the media is over-the-top, shrill, and hysterical, voting can lead to demagogues winning. When it lies consistently about the effects and causes of economic troubles, then people can vote against their own interests. And yes, something very similar happened closer to home, in the years leading up to May 2014.


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