As the referendum campaign rushes on, causing the country and government agonies of division – all of it utterly unnecessary, of course – it is worth remembering what we owe to journalism in this debacle.
Of the seven leading politicians at the head of Leave, three are journalists – Michael Gove was a columnist for the Times, Boris Johnson writes for the Daily Telegraph and Chris Grayling was a mid-ranking executive for the BBC and Channel Four before he ended up in the cabinet, doing a famously poor job at the Department of Justice.
It was in his weekly Telegraph column that Johnson had agreed to announce his decision about which side he was backing. It is now established fact that he wrote two columns – one advocating that we remained in the EU and the other saying that we must leave at all costs. That’s the journalist’s skill for you, but it also says much about Johnson’s political ambition. His true view on the EU appeared in his very recent biography of Winston Churchill. He wrote, “Together with NATO (another institution for which he can claim joint credit) the European Community, now Union, has helped deliver a period of peace and prosperity for its people as long as any since the days of the Antonine emperors.”
Journalists like Johnson can be very flexible on their core beliefs but it is also the case that they tend in their polemic towards the romantic and anti-authoritarian. They like to back campaigns that stir the heart and stick it to authority, and, naturally, they never have to deal with the consequences of their views.
This is essential for a properly functioning democracy, but it also underscores the truth that journalism is usually better on causes than effects.
Responsibility is not and can never be the journalist’s first priority. That was true of Churchill as a journalist and is also true of Johnson and Gove, who have become the leading advocates for Brexit. But it is hard not to see their campaigning as simply a romantic, anti-authoritarian polemic writ large and aimed at the electorate as though it were a newspaper audience, not a public charged with making a profoundly important decision that will affect generations.
The Brexit cause stirs the heart – particularly the jaded English heart – and it will certainly be satisfying for the Daily Mail’s Brexit journalists to blow a raspberry at the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Junker, who has come to represent all that is odious about the EU’s authority. But these same journalists, as well as the ones that have part-morphed into politicians, are genetically programmed never to acknowledge the consequences of the grand anti-European polemic. All that matters is that the case is made as colourfully as possible and that it gets a result. Consideration of the impact of Britain’s departure from the EU, both internally and externally, can go hang.
Rather less interesting than the grand polemic to them is what actually happens if we leave. The IMF, the London School of Economics and now the OECD have painted a very grim future. The OECD goes so far as to say that Brexit poses as big a threat to the world economy as the ‘hard landing’ in China. Their analysts found that the UK economy would be just below 1.5 percentage points smaller in 2018 after Brexit than it would be if the country voted to stay in the EU on 23 June. That adds up to a lot of lost jobs, many businesses going into decline and more cuts.
And yet you have got two thirds of the British population believing Brexit will have no impact on their finances. Why? Because they are treating the referendum as if it were some sort of TV show, a game of opinion that has no bearing on reality.
The task for the Prime Minister and the leaders of Remain is to persuade the country that this is for real – real job losses, real cuts and a real impact on Britain’s influence.