As Brexit Day approaches, it seems fair to look back and conclude with a reasonable amount of certainty that the British political system was either not built or at least not ready to handle a project this complex and all-encompassing. Whitehall is drowning in preparations for all possible scenarios, the Commons are tearing themselves apart, and there is no space or oxygen left for anyone to discuss any of the other many, many other issues this country faces.
What has rarely been discussed in depth, however, is the effect it has had on the British media. Brexiteers have complained that broadcasters are biased in favour of Remain and Remainers argued the opposite, but allegations of partisanship are only part of a wider number of problems.One of them is hardly new: lobby journalists are expected to both cover the horse race between the main parties in Westminster and become overnight experts in whichever policy area gets its place in the sun that day. The approach has been criticised in the past as it does mean that the consequences of some policy changes aren’t always reported on in the best possible way, but it isn’t really the fault of those journalists; the failures are systemic.
Brexit has put this in sharp focus; most aspects of it are incredibly technical, from niche international legislation on trade to the opaque science of tariffs and how they are set, and not one person could possibly be expected to be across them all. Still, they are topics that have dominated the Brexit debate for nearly three years, and it isn’t obvious that most reporters have truly mastered them. While it shouldn’t be vital for journalists to grasp the fine detail of every policy, it does mean that whichever side of the Brexit divide finding themselves on the backfoot can suddenly offer “simple solutions” that just aren’t workable.
The many iterations of the “alternative to the Irish backstop” are the best example of this, and bring us to another faulty aspect of political journalism – anonymous briefing. It is one of the finest traditions in lobby reporting and allows hacks to properly report on what goes on behind the scenes without betraying their sources.When it comes to Brexit, however, it can create a lack of accountability. In a world of shifting factions, endless backstabbing and parliamentary machinations, it would be useful to know precisely who has said what, whether they have changed their minds over the course of a few months, or if they are campaigning for one thing in public and trying to make another happen in private.
If MPs feel that they can brief journalists one way or the other without ever expressing their stance publicly, it can only encourage them to act more deviously than they otherwise would; after all, they have little to lose in that scenario.As a reader, too, this can be confusing; voters deserve to know what is happening, but if every other story is a war of words between nameless political operators on a topic so technical it is barely possible to explain in a short news story, they should not be blamed for losing all interest in the Brexit process.
This might well be where this urge for so many to get the UK’s exit from the EU done and over with. If every day looks like the latest muddy and pointless update on a forever war, even the most dedicated anorak will get frustrated and tempted to just give up.
It isn’t obvious what should be done at this stage, as it is mostly too late and the 29th of March is fast approaching. That being said, demanding that your sources put a name to their vitriol could be a decent start, whether we do leave at the end of the month or not.