What the UK needs is responsible journalism to hold politicians to account and insist that government actions are fully scrutinised, says Mary MacCallum Sullivan.
On Saturday 19 October 2019, the House of Commons voted for the Letwin amendment to delay approval of the Johnson/EU Brexit deal until all the legislation has been scrutinised. Let’s look at the press response to this sensible proposal to avert a No-Deal exit.
‘How dare they! New plot to hijack Brexit,’ the Express screamed, saying it was ‘met with fury’ – ignoring the more than one million marching for a final say that very day, or the views of the majority of our elected MPs.
(Incidentally, of print outlets, only the Observer covered the march on its front page). The Mail decried a ‘sabotage’ and ‘hijacking’ – rather than the reality, which is vital scrutiny of a hard Brexit and a botched deal. The Times pushed the No. 10 line of Labour trying to ‘stop’ Brexit.
Parliament is doing its job of holding the executive to account, and of providing the checks and balance so necessary to the robust functioning of a democracy. But the press is failing us — something seen in the parlour games over Johnson’s extension letter – -focusing on the irrelevant points that his letter was ‘unsigned’ and a ‘photocopy’.
Within most of the media, we’ve seen the European Union characterised as a ‘big, bad Other’, undermining the ‘sovereignty’ of United Kingdom, imposing all sorts of checks and brakes on a ‘vassal’ state, rather than membership of the EU offering instead an association of partners in a grand (if deeply flawed) peace and mutual collaboration project.
Johnson himself as a journalist undertook a policy of trivialising the European project, and creating ‘fake news’ stories that proposed the Brussels legislators as fussy jobsworths looking for all the ways they could impose more ‘red tape’ on manufacturers and businesses. He was well paid to do so by a deep-pocketed press proprietor, one of many who resented the association of European nations.
This was not serious journalism, nor has the Johnson political project been any more serious.
Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum was undertaken for non-serious reasons – to rein in the Conservative party’s Eurosceptic wing. The Remain campaign was not taken seriously (why should we care about the internal Conservative Party dynamics?), while the Leavers spent prodigiously on a deliberately dishonest yet social media-literate onslaught that successfully manipulated voter despair and anxiety.
This was not serious democracy.
Brexit was, and still is, a Conservative project. Theresa May lost her majority in 2017, but never wanted or had the confidence of the House. She sought to avoid any meaningful input from Parliament, and this withholding of engagement was resented and resisted by the other parties and by the Speaker.
Any Brexit plan based on a small majority in a binary referendum, nowhere near the normal requirement for major constitutional change of two-thirds, was always going to be divisive – evidence of an already divided electorate.
In any case, May’s personal style was never going to be collaborative, and her subservience to her right wing and the DUP determined the extreme form of Brexit that emerged from the negotiations.
The negotiations were never serious. No serious or meaningful vision of a post-Brexit UK, or of a post-Brexit relationship with the EU, was ever brought to the table or presented to the British electorate.
No meaningful consultations or discussion with the devolved nations of the UK was ever initiated. No attempt to put flesh on the bare bones of the electorate’s decision was ever attempted.
This is not serious democracy, and it is high time, in common with emerging movements around the world, that we took up the cause of serious democracy. In Hong Kong, in Lebanon, in a myriad of other countries around the world, people are marching, demonstrating, demanding a voice, demanding a meaningful economic, political and moral engagement with the urgent realities and practicalities of their situation.
They are demanding fairness, demanding an end to endemic corruption and the banditry of the global 1%, demanding to share in the decisions that affect them, demanding good governance.
‘How dare they?’
The responsibility for three years and more of distraction from more ‘serious’ political matters (righting the wrongs of Conservative/coalition austerity, the climate crisis, new constitutional and political arrangements, and a raft of other urgent injustices) lie firmly at the door of the Conservative party.
It is precisely the job and the democratic responsibility of the opposition parties and the House of Commons led by its Speaker to do what they can to stand in the way of a No-Deal Brexit or, indeed, any Brexit at all, to ensure that in the end the decision of the 2016 referendum is revisited now we have had time to absorb just what ‘Brexit’ really means.
What is revealed by the headline is just how complicit in this whole mess is the mainstream ‘British’ media. Now, more than ever, we call for serious, responsible journalism that engages with truth, evidence and balance.
How dare they, indeed?