UK Media Must Up Its Game

Here’s a question for future historians: will the UK media be blamed as much as its politicians, should Brexit really hit the skids in just a few weeks’ time? If not, it really should.

Take one story as an example from the weekend: Jacob Rees-Mogg’s fanciful suggestion that a £13.8m shipping contract awarded by the UK Government as part of its emergency No Deal preparations may have collapsed from political pressure from notoriously anti-business Leo Varadkar. The premise? Arklow Shipping Limited, the company which was subcontracted to provide the ferries for this critical operation, is an Irish-based company. And that’s it. This claim, without any apparent foundation, was nevertheless included completely unchallenged and unqualified in almost every news report, and in some cases, on an equal par with the headline and story itself.

For anyone reading this who sometimes shares Rees-Mogg’s political views, stay with me and consider this neutrally for just a moment. Unless Rees-Mogg has eyes and ears in Leinster House of all places, and has spared no expense in his search for the truth on this one, he’s as much a bystander as we are in terms of the facts of this story. No evidence was supplied to support such his claim, which even then, would not justify it being treated like the undisputed facts of the story itself, unless there was something behind it. If anything, this is an odd side story – worthy perhaps of an article in itself. At worst, it is simply jingoism. And yet there it is, included matter-of-factly even in a broadsheet like The Guardian – casually lodged in “for balance” between a paragraph on calls for the Secretary of State responsible to resign, and another on yet-another-warning from Japanese companies on the “severe consequences” of a No Deal Brexit.

The difference is that the latter is a serious and credible claim, and including a suggestion unchecked beside it simply allows both to be treated on the same logical plane. After all, even a staunchly pro-Brexit person may agree that what Rees-Mogg said is completely implausible, but if it’s in there nonchalantly beside the warning from the Japanese companies, can’t we just as easily dismiss that too?

Despite their pursuit of obligatory balance, don’t newspapers have a duty to distinguish between credible fact and a baseless claim – particularly at a time when political tensions and emotions are so high? When you add in that most British newspapers have a distinct political outlook, exert such a massive influence on both government and public opinion, and that its main-selling papers actually go as far as telling people on their front pages how to actually vote, you can start to see just why the UK has such serious political problems at the moment, which don’t appear likely to end anytime soon.

I accept that the cardinal rule of newspapers is that sensationalism sells more than the truth, but I am not suggesting that newspapers chose not to report opinions. I am simply asking why newspapers do so without even the slightest factual challenge – almost as if every opinion or suggestion has a rightful claim for inclusion just because it represents an alternative, even if completely nonsensical, explanation. After all, we don’t get many articles crowbarring in “balance” into articles on declining squid populations in the North Atlantic, so why should important political stories be treated any different?

At some point in this debate, I feel, the UK press either became too polarised to distinguish fact from fiction, or too afraid to do so lest it be accused of something even worse than that: bias. Shouldn’t a fact be a fact, and nonsense be nonsense, whatever paper you read and whatever political views you hold? That’s not bias at all: that’s just common sense.

The more immediate point for people here, of course, is that Leo Varadkar (and the government he leads) has become something of a hate figure in parts of the English press: “shut your gob” comes to mind, as does a recent editorial in The Sun pointing the blame squarely at him should the “misery and chaos” of No Deal come to pass, for “posing like a hardman” over Brexit. Some high-profile Unionists in Northern Ireland even seem to despise Leo Varadkar so strongly that even his racial origins and sexuality seem as much fair game as the views and the stances that he holds on Brexit. In calling things like this out for what they are, should we also consider the environment that encourages people to have them? After all, people have to get their opinions from somewhere, and as the media is the main part of that, it should also come with serious responsibility.

The same principles should apply when any politician, including pro-Remain ones, say something clearly intended to be insulting. But then this happened last week with Donald Tusk’s “special place in hell” comments – they were acknowledged across the board as pointlessly divisive, regardless of whatever some people thought of the basic premise behind it. The same should be true of political causes here too: you don’t have to be a unionist to be shocked and dismayed at Gerry Adams referring to breaking the “bastards”, or a nationalist to feel the same any time Sammy Wilson comes up with yet another insulting comment too. Can’t a person be shocked and dismayed at both, regardless of what politics aims they subscribe to? We should know the dangers of this more than anyone.

Of course, the biggest irony in this story is that what Rees-Mogg has to say on the matter overshadows many facts that give this story enough wind of its own: starting with the decision from an already crisis-prone Secretary of State to award such a key government contract to a company with more links to rich Tory donors than it does to actual ships, which didn’t even exist until two years ago, and which has never operated as much as a rubber duck before. And this is before they were caught having apparently hastily copied the terms and conditions for their services on their website from a pizza company. That’s not exactly the type of delivery people had in mind, or the sort of maritime cluelessness you’d expect from a country of Francis Drake, Dunkirk and Rule Britannia at a time of growing national emergency.

An article that finds space for Jacob Rees-Mogg’s assertion should also surely find space for the actual statement from Arklow about why they torpedoed the deal at the eleventh hour, stating rather teasingly that “it became clear Seaborne would not reach its contractual requirements with the government”. But you’d have to scour several before you found that in one. We can only wish they’d gone into more detail on this one, but what’s to stop a newspaper from chasing it up, fleshing it out, and reporting the facts first of all?

Most likely, the actual reasons are too boring for all but the lawyers and insurers to be interested in; a condition precedent failed here, an insurance requirement missed there. Possibly the new port facilities in Ramsgate weren’t ready, the council pulled the plug, or Arklow realised this has Carillion written all over it and jumped ship sharpish. Who knows, but surely that’s what newspapers are for, and we shouldn’t have to rely on parody websites and twitter feeds to give us some relief and debunk baseless claims with no plausible or factual connection to the story. By all means, get Jacob Rees-Mogg’s views the next time there’s a big vote coming up and Theresa May tries another byzantine ruse to get a parliamentary majority for whatever form Brexit eventually means. But his views shouldn’t be included by default on every single Brexit story, especially ones where he knows no more about the facts than we do.

And then there is the biggest story of all. Shouldn’t newspapers be exploring why exactly Jacob Rees-Mogg is saying this? It’s clearly not because he is stupid. He is someone who knows the finer points of lucrative finance contracts more than most, and the myriad reasons on why they can fall through. A Head of State stepping in at the last minute to torpedo one must be a first. So why not ask him what he knows, and if he can’t offer anything, ask him just why he thinks it’s fine to suggest it to the public anyway, regardless of evidence?

For now, Jacob has kept us guessing on the factual source of his unique breakthrough – befitting perhaps, of an esteemed gentleman’s discretion and decorum. Until then, we can only hope he turns his gaze to the other unanswered mysteries of the seas; from the Mary Celeste to just what age Fungi the Dolphin really is. I’ll have more on that last scoop when I get it, but until then, is it possible for the UK media to take a lesson from these shores, and learn some important lessons while it still can?

 

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