From hints of “blackmail” in Theresa May’s Article 50 letter to threats of war with Spain over Gibraltar, pro-Brexit newspapers seem intent on stoking anti-EU animosity even as politicians on both sides talk of goodwill.
In the first week of the Brexit negotiation process, politicians have largely set a conciliatory tone. May’s letter showed a marked shift from her previous “have cake, eat cake” rhetoric. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, gave an emotional speech. The prime minister has suggested further flexibility on key issues like free movement, to which the Brexit big beasts in her cabinet have reacted with perhaps surprising equanimity – for the moment anyway. Even the European Parliament’s red lines held no nasty surprises and included constructive talk of “association” agreements.
This is not, however, the impression you get from much of the British press. Under headlines which can be as shrill as they are misleading, their reporting latches onto any perceived political slight. Of course they have readers to entertain, at a time when printed papers are under intense pressure from newer forms of media. Lengthy international negotiations seldom make for thrilling reading – especially if everyone involved is trying to keep things civilised.
But there is an ideological element to this too. For decades, many of these papers campaigned loudly for Brexit, often a particularly hard form of it. Editorial pride would be grievously hurt if those jubilant front pages on June 24, or the Sun beaming farewell messages onto the White Cliffs of Dover, ended in a deal which looked remarkably similar to EU membership. If only from habit, papers stoke hostility to make Theresa May’s “deep and special partnership” untenable.
To portray this agenda as straight reporting, the newspapers quote a roster of Brextremist idealogues on the fringes of power. Regulars include Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith, and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
“Your money or your lives”
The reaction to Theresa May’s Article 50 letter was an early example. The tone of the letter was generally positive, or at least constructive. But the press picked out one line: “a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”. You could read that as a statement of fact, perhaps a reasonable warning.
But during a press conference on March 29, the day the letter was sent, Bruno Waterfield of The Times asked Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, a leading question about “blackmail” (listen 08:30). In his measured reply, Verhofstadt repeated the term (listen 10:30). The following morning’s front pages were duly filled with the blackmail “row” to which the government had to respond.
“Up yours senors”
Then there was Gibraltar. A line in EU draft negotiating guidelines, leaked last Friday, effectively said that Spain would have a virtual veto over any EU-UK agreement on the status of the Rock after the UK leaves the EU. Chief minister Fabian Picardo didn’t seem particularly concerned on The Andrew Marr Show (listen 15:30), pointing out that the clause didn’t even mention Gibraltar’s sovereignty. Nevertheless, that’s what the row became about.
Former Tory leader Michael Howard threatened Spain with the “same resolve” Thatcher had shown over the Falklands. The following Tuesday a UK patrol boat escorted a Spanish warship out of Gibraltarian territorial waters – a not unusual occurrence, but enough for the Daily Mail to rage: “Next time bring an armada”. The Telegraph ran Nigel Farage’s opinion that any deal now was “completely and utterly impossible”. The Sun then launched a campaign to protect Gibraltar’s sovereignty, now backed by Picardo, with a headline which tried to recall past linguistic glories: “Up yours senors!” By the end of the week they’d managed to get their projector to the Med to beam “Hands off our Rock” on the thing itself.
The press can reflect and influence public opinion. Whether it’s Gibraltar, free movement or the Telegraph’s “Cut EU Red Tape” campaign, politicians cannot simply ignore the papers. But they must not let these stories poison the negotiations. The stakes are too high.
Edited by Michael Prest