The EU referendum campaigns were marked by a catalogue of fibs, porkies and whoppers.
On the Leave side (“Take Back Control”), campaigners promised that the £350 million a week that the UK supposedly paid the EU would go instead to the NHS (it was even emblazoned on the side of their tour bus); that the divorce from the EU would be swift and painless; that we could still set up better trade deals with EU nations while slashing immigration from them; that there was a plan; that there were sunlit meadows ahead.
While the Leavers were accentuating the positive, the Remain team (“Better Together”) were full of gloom and doom; their campaign was dubbed “Project Fear." They predicted a dire economic downturn; panic wiping trillions off global financial markets; the pound plummetting to record lows; a surge in popularity of the far right and a dramatic increase in hate crime. Ridiculous scaremongering...
Except that after the Leavers unexpectedly won the referendum, all that actually did happen (respectively here, here, here, here and here).
The Brexiteers became a swiftly-diminishing peleton moving in reverse, with much backpedalling: here, here, here, here and here, to cite a few examples. There was little celebration. No one was in charge. No one wanted to be (“you take control—you touched it last”). Nausea and unease swept the land, along with a new bitter-tasting phenomenon, especially keenly felt in Wales: “bregret.”
But it’s early days. Let’s see how Theresa May, the new unelected PM who doesn’t believe in Brexit and voted against it, gets on with implementing it.
Appearing to support something you disagree with, of course, is what politicians habitually do for a living, and why they are so unpopular. They rarely speak their mind—they’re trying to speak yours. You can tell when they’re lying, the joke goes—their lips are moving. Nixon didn’t know about the Watergate Hotel break-in. Clinton did not have sex with “that woman.” Blair thought there were WMDs. All governments lie, as rebel American journalist I. F. Stone observed.
An archetype of the species, or perhaps a parody, is would-be US president Donald Trump. He doesn’t exactly lie; he simply regards it as irrelevant whether or not something is actually true and speaks instead like a defiant 10-year-old: I am the best, I didn’t do that, it’s not my fault, they did it, I didn’t take it, it was broken when I took it, I’m not a liar you are, you’re ugly, a dog, a fat pig....” And so on.
Pathological lying is not regarded as a clinical condition in its own right. But it is a common feature of many people who suffer with some kind of psychological illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) includes a number of “personality disorders” which might describe the kind of inner world that could give rise to lying: the “borderline” might lie to avoid abandonment; the “histrionic” to be the centre of attention; the “narcissistic” to preserve a grandiose self-image. Perhaps the best-fitting DSM label for liars is “antisocial personality disorder”—the closest thing to what the layman might call a “psychopath”—which includes among its diagnostic criteria: “Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.”
Lies about immigration
One of the things politicians lie about in Britain, a lot, is immigration, a key issue of the referendum. They know it’s good for the economy—if the goal was just to maximise GDP, a purist neoliberal would feed the market with free movement of goods and services, capital—and workers. Such a person would advocate completely open borders.
But politicians know too that pandering to people’s fears and appearing “tough on immigration” is a sure vote-winner (as discussed in Part 2, Britain is a nation built on discrimination). So they play a peculiar game: with one hand, they hold up a stop sign—especially when the cameras are on. With the other, new arrivals are discreetly beckoned with a nod and a wink.
Governments similarly rarely counter the arguments against immigration, either. For example:
• Immigrants are a drain on the economy. Actually they tend to be young, fit and keen to work—they respond to demand, relieve skill shortages, and create new jobs. They are known to be net positive contributors to the British economy (one study showed a contribution of £4.4 billion between 1995-2011). Without them the demographic crunch caused by declining fertility rates and increasing longevity would be even more acute. Benefit cheats? If immigration stops, you’ll be cheated out of your most important benefit: your pension.
• Britain is “full up.” Really? Have you ever taken a train from London to Edinburgh and looked out of the window? Only about 1 percent on our land has been built on. Britain ranks 51st in population density, slightly ahead of Germany and Italy, well behind the likes of Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan.
• Immigrants are taking over. The public’s average guess at what proportion of the UK is foreign-born is 31 percent. The real number? 13 percent. And while about three-quarters thought immigration was a problem in Britain, only about a quarter thought it was a problem in their own local area.
• British culture is under attack. It always has been, shaped by outside forces for centuries. But it is large enough and robust enough to take what it likes and discard the rest. Culture is democracy. If chicken tikka masala is indeed Britain’s national dish, it’s because people like it. Of the immigrants to the UK in 2001, the leading country of origin was Australia, yet there was no debate over Britain being “swamped” or “flooded” by Australian culture.
On referendum day, the Daily Mail ran a lead article (“Day of Truth”) that lamented “a campaign characterised by mendacity.” What does it have to say about its own mendacity? The endless sensational stories over the years about supposedly idiotic EU regulations that were either very exaggerated or completely false? Did it report the analysis in The Economist that revealed the Daily Mail to be the clear leader in publishing stories about the EU that weren’t true? Such as Euro banknotes being responsible for impotence; or the EU demanding that cows wear nappies; or that the Latin name be used for “cod” instead of fish and chips; or that corgis be banned; or the one about EU immigrants being convicted of 700 crimes a week? (This of course is just a very small sample. And it’s not just the Mail. All the tabloids tell tall tales of asylum seekers stealing royal swans or donkeys from London parks and barbecuing them or councils banning hot cross buns from being served at Easter in favour of naan bread.)
In the 1930s, the Daily Mail was owned by Harold Sidney Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, reportedly a keen prewar admirer and supporter of Adolf Hitler and his annexation of Czechoslovakia; he wrote in the newspaper in praise of fascism, Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, too. How much of the discriminatory editorial content, politics and tone of today’s Mail is a reflection of the beliefs of the current owner, great-grandson of Harold, Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere? We don’t know, but wealthy press barons have a history of explaining away the problem of gross inequality with a simple message: blame the poorest, most desperate, most foreign.
Is one of the Mail’s former reporters, Brendan Montague, correct when he says in a 2012 article in The New Yorker that there is institutional racism at the Mail? There is certainly in its pages endlessly repetitive, disparaging, stereotyped negative characterisations of immigrant groups, asylum seekers and refugees—using words like “criminals”; “scroungers”; “dirty”; “barbaric”; “violent”: “cruel”; “deviant.” Isn’t demonizing faceless foreigners with an ever-flowing stream of cruel rhetoric by definition racist? Papers like the Mail and the Daily Express have been doing this for a century—articles about Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany used the same denigrating words as articles about refugees today.
There is much hyperbole, metaphor and repetition to convey a sense of threat. Stories that conform to the negative stereotype—“British holidaymaker burgled in Bulgaria!”—get published. Those that don’t get spiked. People ask: where are the moderate Muslims denouncing acts of Islamic terrorism? They are online, in cafes, mosques, in demonstrations—yet mysteriously absent from the Daily Mail. The moderate voices are muzzled—on both sides of the playground, only the loudest, most cartoonish, most offensive voices are heard.
Governments have been known to manipulate media coverage for their own propaganda purposes. A century ago American journalist Walter Lippmann wrote that society consists of two groups, a small, powerful, educated elite, and the rest, which he called the “bewildered herd.” And to keep democracy ticking over, in Lippmann’s view, the bewildered herd must be kept complacent, pliant and distracted by things like sports, soap operas, the fantasy of salvation through material goods. Occasionally, the bewildered herd needs to be sold on an unpopular action, invasion or war—with a highly sophisticated propaganda apparatus to demonize a supposed enemy and their supposed evil intentions. Writes Noam Chomsky: “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
The influence surely occurs in the opposite direction, too. Newspapers can frame a debate, or make or break a policy or a politician. Hence all the cosy chats with that guardian of British culture, Rupert Murdoch, the octogenarian Australian-turned-American overseer of an alleged phone-hacking, police-bribing empire that publishes The Sun and The Times. Murdoch might have more influence on the tabloids’ beloved “British way of life”—whatever that means—than EU figurehead/straw man Jean-Claude Juncker, yet this outside influence goes uncontested.
The tabloids have found that stories of fear and loathing are good for business. Why? As a species we have survived by being hypervigilant to danger and the British tabloid press overflows with a daily diet of things we should supposedly worry about: ebola, sars, swine flu, zika, the flesh-eating virus, killer food bugs, MMR, HPV, benefit cheats, hoodies, paedophiles, new age travellers, terrorists and a litany of other “moral panics,” the leading one being, of course: foreigners. Without a hint or irony or shame, the same pro-Leave newspapers that slammed “Project Fear” now join in the fearmongering about a post-Brexit world. If a tabloid newspaper were a person, he or she would be terribly, terribly worried about the world today, and probably never venture out into it very much.
The media and the government seem to be locked in a desperate dance, a series of pitiful vicious circles—a race to the bottom that assumes and panders to the idea that the public is inherently racist. The results are self-fulfilling.
The news today: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
No thank you. I’d prefer to live.
Rivers of hope
As newspapers slide into irrelevance, and the hyperventilated barking of the tabloids recedes into the distance, the responsibility for ending this ghastly codependent relationship, changing the dynamic and shaping healthier public opinion, starts with the government.
When is a politician going to counter Enoch Powell’s rambling paranoia from 50 years ago with a new landmark speech on immigration, one with a message of hope rather than hate; one that adopts the novel approach of telling the truth? Something like this:
“I want to talk about immigration.
“I want to acknowledge the impact of immigrants on communities across the land. In some, undoubtedly, the impact includes more competition for jobs, lowered wages, a strain on public services, overcrowding and challenges to British culture. We need to do a much better job of managing the negative impact on those communities and families that are so affected. We will do that.
The 5 stages of Brexit
“British people have a reputation for tolerance and fair play. Yet all too often government policy and certain sections of the media promote mistrust, fear and loathing. As long as new arrivals are stereotyped and problematised, with no attention paid to their integration, they are bound to be treated as unwanted by the public, too, leading to the formation of marginalised ethnic minorities who then suffer the additional disadvantage of being blamed for economic and social problems. Any government policies built upon the swamplands of racism and xenophobia are not sustainable. Such policies are irresponsible.
“We need to have an honest debate about immigration, numbers, management, border controls, and our responsibilities as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, one whose empire was built on overseas plunder. I hereby call on the Prime Minister to set the wheels in motion for a new referendum. The topic? Immigration.”
NEXT TIME: No. 4. Polarisation