This is a longer version of an article which appears in The Observer today, and a shorter version of a (draft) speech I am due to make next month on the nature of the media debate around the EU referendum. I do not read papers or listen to the broadcast media in the way I used to, but having been asked to do this speech, I have been reading more than usual for research purposes. And though I have long known there was something deeply rotten in the state of our press, the scale of the rottenness has been beyond shocking.
The Observer has published around 1200 words of this, but some of the real devil of the work being done by the OUT campaign and their media Lie Machines is in the detail, a lot of which had to be cut. So though I am still working on the speech, I thought I would post what I have done so far up here now, as I believe this is an issue that will begin to resonate as the campaign goes on. I have also had many TV and radio bids to talk about this issue, and would welcome the opportunity to debate it all with Paul Dacre or any of the other Lie Machine leaders. All the best, and remember: make your own minds up, and don’t believe a word you read about Europe in most of the papers. Here goes …
I am 58 years old, have worked in and around the media most of my adult life, on both sides of the press/politics fence; I have been both hunter and hunted, and know the game inside out. I thought I was no longer remotely shockable by anything that our wretched right-wing press could do.
But the coverage of the EU referendum so far, even by their standards of bias, deceit, misrepresentation, and lying, is taking them to fresh depths of dishonesty. In so many ways, it is as though Leveson never happened. Accuracy? Do me a favour; we have papers to sell, agendas to drive, scores to settle, personal interests to defend.
David Cameron has to take some responsibility for this. For his own political reasons – mainly the desire to see the papers hit Labour harder than they hit him in the 2010 and 2015 elections – he was dragged kicking and screaming into Leveson, and has failed to follow through on the Inquiry’s eminently sensible proposals for self-regulation, demonized and distorted as a vicious assault on press freedom by the same Union of right-wing, super-rich, partly foreign, largely tax-avoiding media barons driving the demonizing, distorting coverage of Europe now.
So part of me, the part that has seen Labour leaders get unfair treatment compared with their Tory counterparts for generations, looks at Cameron and thinks ‘you reap what you sow.’ But another part, the part that cares about Britain’s future long beyond the tenure of Cameron or any other individual Prime Minister, whether in office for one year or ten or twenty, feels this debate is far too important for Schadenfreude or party political tribalism. The result of the referendum is far more important than the outcome of a single general election. The historic significance is greater. The consequences – for jobs, living standards, culture, national security and our standing in the world – are greater.
I have written before about the strategic and tactical blunders that led Cameron into the referendum, and the situation he now finds himself in. But that too is all in the past; in the present, between now and June 23, we are confronted with this massive choice, and it is we the people, every one of us with a vote of equal weight, who will make it.
In those circumstances, we have a duty to inform ourselves, and both politicians and media have a duty, or at the least a role, to help in that process. The debate having so quickly become polarized among Tory politicians, with the focus having been as much on the personalities involved as on the issues, the role of the media is even more important.
However, more than in any such debate I can remember, large chunks of the press have totally given up on any commitment to that role of properly informing public debate. What little separation of news and comment may have existed before has now gone completely. The Mail, The Sun, The Express, and The Star in particular, to a lesser extent The Telegraph and on a bad day The Times, are more propaganda sheets for one side of the argument, than responsible contributors to a vital debate about the country’s future.
The Mail, whose evil (I use the word advisedly) cowardly and hypocritical editor Paul Dacre pockets vast EU grants on his vast Scottish estate, nonetheless allows barely a syllable in his paper that might reflect well on Europe, or anyone involved in the campaign to keep Britain in. Rupert Murdoch, through the worst of his ‘humbling’ (sic) appearances at Leveson and parliamentary committees, has refound his mojo in his business and private life and is now enjoying making sure every ounce of Sun ink is used to shape opinion in the direction he wants. Then the Barclays control the Telegraph from their Channel Island tax exile and Richard Desmond’s Express papers, amid scare stories about the weather and conspiracy theories about Princess Diana, feed a relentless diet of anti EU front page splashes as titillating and far-fetched as the stuff in the porn mags and films that helped create his fortune. By this bizarre collection of folk, or so they hope, ‘public opinion’ is formed.
Dacre has given up any pretence of being a journalist in the way most people understand the term. His staff have told the IN campaign not even to bother trying to place articles, stories or ideas, because they won’t get used unless they fit his OUT agenda. The Sun has dragged The Queen into the whole thing, taking something that was almost certainly never said, in a conversation that took place long before a referendum was even on the horizon, and the word ‘Brexit’ did not exist, to make a claim that she supported the OUT campaign. I had a fair bit to do with the Royals and the often crazy coverage of them in my time in Downing Street. Based on that experience, and her ability to shrug off without complaint so many false stories written about her, I can pretty much guarantee this – the fact the Palace has made a complaint to IPSO, the so-called independent press regulator, means the story is a load of cock.
It seems that Michael Gove and his rather odd collection of special advisors may be at the heart of the Queen story. But can you imagine the noise these right wing sceptic papers would be making if a pro-EU source had persuaded the Mirror or the Guardian to run a front page headline ‘QUEEN BACKS IN.’ We would never hear the end of it. Yet Gove has been given a free pass. (He was one of Murdoch’s guests at his wedding to Jerry Hall, an event sycophantically covered in the eurosceptic papers, The Express for example had a lovely front page smiling picture of the happy couple under a patsy headline alongside a splash claiming ‘Europe’ was going to be taking control of the British coastline. Boris Johnson has had similar free pass treatment; freed from collective responsibility by David Cameron to campaign for the OUT side, but keen to gag his own inner Cabinet from being anything other than an echo chamber. ‘It was a cock up,’ he says of the email that delivered this edict. ‘Oh that’s fine then,’ echo the Dacre/Murdoch/Barclay/Desmond Union against the Union.
Then there was the John Longworth saga. Some bloke most of us had never heard of, from the British Chamber of Commerce, makes a few sceptic noises (despite this being against the policy of the organization he leads) and is thereby elevated to instant hero by the Dacre/Murdoch/Barclay/Desmond papers. Anyone who takes another view is an idiot, a liar or a spiv, and anyone from the government who objects to what he said guilty of smears and dirty tricks.
Then Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, a somewhat more significant figure in the running of our economy than Longworth, makes a few blindingly obvious statements to MPs about the inevitable uncertainty Brexit would cause, and the need for business and the Bank to do some worst case scenario planning, and he is immediately denounced as being part of Project Fear. Worse, much of the broadcast media covers his Parliamentary committee appearance as being Carney under attack from the OUT campaign, rather than setting out in detail what this genuinely important voice in the debate had to say. (This is part of the game the Dacre/Murdoch axis has long played – try to bully the broadcasters into shaping a more sceptic agenda around their news coverage, not least by pretending the broadcasters are slavishly pro IN. Sadly, all too often, it works.)
The Archbishop of Canterbury is another senior establishment figure whose views have been put through the Dacre/Murdoch/Barclay/Desmond mangling machine. He made a long and thoughtful intervention. The press saw two main angles – the OUT side need to do more to explain what would happen if they won; and it is not racist to be concerned about immigration. The mangling machine largely ignored Point 1. Point 2 was spun to suggest he was basically a fully fledged OUTer who takes his spiritual guidance from Nigel Farage and George Galloway.
There were times in Downing Street when I felt parts of the media operated like a reverse Pravda. If a story fitted their agenda, it went in. If it didn’t it was spiked. It may have been hard for them to ignore Carney or the Archbishop, so they spun against them. But others who have come out in favour of IN – including the OECD, the IMF, Shell, BMW, Rolls Royce, Morgan Stanley, Vauxhall, UBS, Centrica, AA and many more – have been almost totally ignored. Had any one of them come out for OUT then front pages galore would have splashed it. There is literally no major employer calling for OUT, (apart from these papers) so their behaviour and tone is a symptom of their isolation which they want to hide from their readers. In addition to the invented stories, this is lying and misinformation by omission. Oh, and before any of you start bleating or tweeting ‘dodgy dossier’ the accusations against me of lying, deceit and misinformation in relation to Iraq have been thoroughly investigated by three inquiries (we await the fourth) and I have been cleared by all of them.
Now let me do something few of these right wing hacks who work for the Union of Lie Machines ever do and admit that I am biased. I am biased in favour of the UK staying in, partly because I have thought about it for longer than it takes to write yet another punning Sun headline or tweet that Boris should be PM ‘because he makes me laugh.’ But even if I take that bias into account, if I make a strategic analysis of the campaign so far, then the OUT team look like a rabble of kids running around a football pitch not quite sure where the ball has gone, while the IN team do at least seem to have a set of unified clear messages and a determination to get them across.
The IN team has forced everyone (including the OUTers) to accept there will be some kind of economic shock from leaving – but the media has barely followed up at all in questioning the cost of that to their readers and listeners. Likewise a combination of IN and broadcast media pushed Johnson into spluttering that we should do a deal with the EU like Canada’s. A proper media would have explored that further and quickly discovered plenty of stories revealing potential damage to our interests. Likewise Chris Grayling says we will get a new beneficial trade deal with India. Has anyone asked the Indians?
There is something comical about the way the OUT campaign and their media cheerleaders rage constantly about Project Fear, the label borrowed from the SNP in the Scottish referendum, to rebut anything that dares to suggest there might be a single reason to want to stay inside a Union that has helped deliver peace, prosperity and power to our country over most of my adult lifetime. Because their whole coverage, for years, has been based on scare stories, some with a Boris Johnson byline in the days when he used to write as much nonsense as today he spouts on his fantasy journey to becoming the next Winston Churchill.
In my time in Number 10, I can recall variously having to rebut stories from the right wing rags that bent bananas and cucumbers were going to be banned; the British Army was going to vanish; Cheddar cheese and Scotch whisky were going to have to be renamed; lollipop ladies were to be outlawed; we were going to have to drive on the right; Brussels was going to set all our tax levels; the British passport was to disappear; some Luxembourg or Belgian nonentity was going to replace the Queen.
In recent weeks, we have had plenty more of this, much of it peddled by Gove’s former sidekick Dominic Cummings. Perhaps most insidious, he and Nigel Farage both made the outrageous – and untrue – claim that those involved in the New Year sex attacks in Cologne would be free to come to the UK. (Well, they could if they had lived in Germany for eight years, had no criminal record, and renounced their own nationalities). We have also had the OUT campaign claiming we will have to have Arabic subtitles on our TVs. Sun readers have ‘learned’ that Christmas is going to be renamed ‘the Winter Festival’ by the EU. Several of the anti-EU axis managed to blame the floods a few months ago on ‘Brussels.’ Turkey’s desire to get in the EU has been ripe scaremongering territory. Clearly all Turks (Muslims don’t you know?) will move to Britain. Farage has managed to get some coverage for his false claim that Cameron’s negotiation means we will have an EU army in the UK, and the old (invented) EU Navy has had a few outings too. And I bet you didn’t know ‘Brussels’ was going to make you have more recycling bins, did you?
On and on and on they have gone, day after day, week after week, year after year, lie upon lie. It is a wonder there is a single Mail or Sun, Star or Express reader left who is anything other than a fully fledged OUTer.
And therein lies the opportunity for the IN side. People may be influenced at the margins by this incessant drumbeat against Britain’s membership of the EU. But the public have seen and heard enough about the press to know that their standards have fallen to base levels, that the word of many cannot be trusted, that they do not believe in giving two sides of a story, and that many of their stories are inventions.
David Cameron, who is not standing for a third term as PM, has nothing to lose from taking them head on, calling them out on the lies and the misrepresentations, making sure the public hear a message that their voices cannot remotely be trusted. The undecided are looking for two things above all – leadership and information. Cameron has to provide both.
The IN campaign more generally has to fill the gap that the public wants filled – the need for genuine information about the reality of Britain’s relations and what exit would mean. We need more of the kind of newsletter sent out by the IN campaign to 14million households a few weeks ago setting out basic information. The kind of basic information the Dacre-Murdoch axis does not want people to have.
Equally, the OUT side has to be put under much more pressure fully to explain what would happen if the country does vote to come out. If that were to happen, then on June 24 we will be waking up to confront a change way bigger than anything a change of government would represent. Yet where is the manifesto for what happens if OUT wins? Where are the detailed plans that public and media would expect from any government or party seeking to make a fundamental change to the way our country is run? They are not there. The media won’t force them out. The IN campaign has to do it.
IN is arguing for the status quo, and therefore has less to prove in terms of what happens afterwards. They should embrace the notion of Project Fear because frankly there is a lot to be afraid of, if we sleepwalk into this huge decision without actually having the informed debate we need.
In a real, healthy democracy with a vibrant free press, we would have that informed debate. But we do not have a vibrant free press. We have a press largely owned by a small group of men (at least one of whom doesn’t have a vote, several of whom don’t pay tax here) who believe their views and interests are more important than the tens of millions of people on whose behalf they claim to speak and whose views they claim to represent.
I am not a huge fan of David Cameron. But at least he is fighting for what he believes in, and at least he is telling the truth as he sees it. He is up against a collection of people and papers, Lie Machines, with a near total disregard of the truth in favour of propaganda that even Vladimir Putin might think was too one-sided to be credible.
The stakes are high for the country. But they are high for the media too. Because frankly if the country does vote to stay in it will expose Dacre and Murdoch and Co as impotent old men who can call the shots with all who work and write for them, but not with those who read what they write. That is going to be a very good day for democracy when it comes which, despite all of the above, I believe it will. Because in spite of decades of dumbing down, their readers are not as stupid as the media barons might imagine, thank God, and they are in the main more honest, decent and thoughtful too.