What Brexit has done to the British media


As Brexit Day approaches, it seems fair to look back and conclude with a reasonable amount of certainty that the British political system was either not built or at least not ready to handle a project this complex and all-encompassing. Whitehall is drowning in preparations for all possible scenarios, the Commons are tearing themselves apart, and there is no space or oxygen left for anyone to discuss any of the other many, many other issues this country faces.

What has rarely been discussed in depth, however, is the effect it has had on the British media. Brexiteers have complained that broadcasters are biased in favour of Remain and Remainers argued the opposite, but allegations of partisanship are only part of a wider number of problems.One of them is hardly new: lobby journalists are expected to both cover the horse race between the main parties in Westminster and become overnight experts in whichever policy area gets its place in the sun that day. The approach has been criticised in the past as it does mean that the consequences of some policy changes aren’t always reported on in the best possible way, but it isn’t really the fault of those journalists; the failures are systemic.

Brexit has put this in sharp focus; most aspects of it are incredibly technical, from niche international legislation on trade to the opaque science of tariffs and how they are set, and not one person could possibly be expected to be across them all. Still, they are topics that have dominated the Brexit debate for nearly three years, and it isn’t obvious that most reporters have truly mastered them. While it shouldn’t be vital for journalists to grasp the fine detail of every policy, it does mean that whichever side of the Brexit divide finding themselves on the backfoot can suddenly offer “simple solutions” that just aren’t workable.

The many iterations of the “alternative to the Irish backstop” are the best example of this, and bring us to another faulty aspect of political journalism – anonymous briefing. It is one of the finest traditions in lobby reporting and allows hacks to properly report on what goes on behind the scenes without betraying their sources.When it comes to Brexit, however, it can create a lack of accountability. In a world of shifting factions, endless backstabbing and parliamentary machinations, it would be useful to know precisely who has said what, whether they have changed their minds over the course of a few months, or if they are campaigning for one thing in public and trying to make another happen in private.

If MPs feel that they can brief journalists one way or the other without ever expressing their stance publicly, it can only encourage them to act more deviously than they otherwise would; after all, they have little to lose in that scenario.As a reader, too, this can be confusing; voters deserve to know what is happening, but if every other story is a war of words between nameless political operators on a topic so technical it is barely possible to explain in a short news story, they should not be blamed for losing all interest in the Brexit process.

This might well be where this urge for so many to get the UK’s exit from the EU done and over with. If every day looks like the latest muddy and pointless update on a forever war, even the most dedicated anorak will get frustrated and tempted to just give up.

It isn’t obvious what should be done at this stage, as it is mostly too late and the 29th of March is fast approaching. That being said, demanding that your sources put a name to their vitriol could be a decent start, whether we do leave at the end of the month or not.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Barry Cooper says

    I am reluctant to get involved in this muddle. However, it occurs to me that maybe the underlying problem is that Brexit is quite unlike normal Government projects.

    Another big project is the high speed line HS2. Decisions on this huge project have been taken by the Government and despite the fact that not all Conservative MPs agree with it, the Government has been able to push it through.

    If the Govt had been able to take the same approach with Brexit they would have pushed it through, whatever the views of dissenting Conservative MPs.

    So, maybe the problem is “simply” that the Government were unwilling to accept the result of the referendum and remainers were put in charge of the project, with an inevitable underlying (maybe subconscious) wish to undermine the project.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Barry, interesting explanation.

      Here’s an alternative.

      I suggest that one of the many issues may be that nobody – not leavers, not remainers, not the government, not our parliamentarians, not the media, not civil servants, not the Prime Minister, probably not anyone in Brussels, not the people who wrote Article 50 – understood just how fiendishly complex the exit process would be. If the PM had understood this, she would not have triggered Article 50 within 5 mins, nor glibly set up a series of red lines that had so many detailed technical implications that they were essentially undeliverable except through a no-deal exit.

      The Brexit decision (just like most voting decisions) was an emotional and ideological one not one based on any kind of detailed understanding. I don’t say that to condemn it – simply a statement of what it looks like to me – and how democracy necessarily operates in the real world where most people have better things to do than get into endless detail before casting a vote.

      The result is that as the process has evolved, more and more complexities have emerged leading people inevitably to change their views and positions, abandon red lines, realise that promises could not be kept (eg rolling over all EU trade agreements before exit date), etc, etc.

      These tedious (for most people) complexities have led remainers to argue for abandoning the whole thing and leavers to become ever more impatient and wanting just to get on with it. And. of course, this is all very fertile ground for conspiracy theories of all sorts.

      As you say, Brexit is quite unlike any other process or any other government project. And it’s never been done before – so no previous experience anywhere. HS2 is simple in comparison – and yet it’s still a bit of a mess even though this is not the first time that anyone has built a high speed line. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the muddle everyone is in, nor by the continually shifting positions as the implications of specific courses of action that people so glibly put forward eventually become clearer.

      As for the media, most journalists are by necessity generalists or ‘specialist’ in quite broad areas (eg economics, or health, or…). It’s unreasonable to expect them to be able to get into the intricacies of every technical aspect of Brexit. And I wonder how many of their readers would care for that anyway. Those sorts of discussions are happening in specialist technical publications not in the mainstream general media.

      But Marie’s point about anonymity is interesting and important. One would like to believe that, without anonymity, people would hesitate to take up positions that could later prove to be unsustainable. But the Brexit process has maybe shown us that that is not the case. Everyone changes their positions daily while claiming, as the PM does continually, that nothing has changed.

      • Barry Cooper says


        Yes. Having once been a top-down person (40 years ago) I can still understand and agree with your comment. From the top-down things are so complicated.

        I sense there is now a “movement” amongst some intellectuals, with new kinds of vested interests, towards simplicity.

        Maybe Radix contributors should consider and explore the differences between the two views? It may provide enlightenment of a new kind of middle way. Not just somewhere between left and right, but also between up and down. Down here, from where I write, simplicity is very appealing. Where left and right views can live together amicably.

        Too simple maybe?

        • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

          It’s hard for me to imagine a bottom up approach to the Brexit negotiations.

          I agree that there is a desire for simplicity. And always good to simplify as much as possible but not more. Otherwise we’re into populist territory where every problem is presented as having a simple one tag line solution.

          Your point about exploring alternatives along the lines you suggest is a good one.

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