“Brexit continues to suck the life out of the British news cycle,” said journalist Andrew Neil on the BBC programme This Week recently. He might reasonably have omitted the last two words of that sentence.
The UK’s decision to leave the European Union after 40 years has been the main story for all of its news media for many, many months.
I am old enough to remember that the issue of membership of what was first called the Common Market has long been an issue of discussion and even controversy in UK politics. Margaret Thatcher’s successful Conservative governments of the 1980s frequently criticised the organisation even while they maintained membership. Divisions within the John Major government of 1992-1997 over the issue of the Maastrict Treaty led to the election of Tony Blair’s Labour government.
The major difference today is how much more ubiquitous and dominant are news programmes within national television. In the UK thirty years ago each weekday had about five hours of news within 36 hours of programmes on two BBC channels; nowadays we have the two 24-hour TV news channels provided by Sky and the BBC, plus nine hours of news each weekday on the two main BBC channels as well as the regular news bulletins on the other networks.
Both BBC News and Sky News tend to follow each other closely in the stories they cover and how they prioritise. The topics are often London- and Westminster-centred; also acts of violence, perceived terrorism, natural disasters. This has led to a climate where the same few news stories are endlessly repeated and the way they are reported uses the same language and the same people and the same video footage.
24 hours a day of TV is a long time to fill. So other resources have emerged to supplement. New media organisations like Spiked and Novara Media sprang up alongside the long-established but less popular print newspapers. Think tanks with different interests and shades of political opinion conduct research and write articles which the news media pick up on. Each of the two news channels has devised many programmes of political conversation. Unfortunately these have learned to prefer confrontation and shouting rather than clarity and balance. And there is “social media”, especially Twitter, which staff of both TV news and print newspapers have long used as a major source and which they also have adopted as their own principal broadcast conduit. The journalists do less independent research and reporting but more commentary and their language has become less nuanced and less temperate and less impartial.
We had political divisions in the past, of course. Industrial disputes always polarised opinion, especially the miners’ strike of 1984-85. The British military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq led to sustained protests and arguments.
So, what about the discussion over leaving the European Union? It’s surprising to remember that during the campaign before the referendum in 2016, the word “Brexit” was almost never used: we all just talked about leaving or staying in the EU. Only when the incoming Prime Minister Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit” did the word start to gain popularity and notoriety. Although, as conceded above, it is certainly an issue which divided opinion within political parties and within different geographical areas in the past, many of us have still been shocked about the extent to which it created hostility and hysteria and accusations of treachery within all age groups and social groups. Especially since the poverty and social problems which people were angry about had obviously been caused not by the EU but by the neglect of successive national governments, both Labour and Conservative. The TV producers’ fondness for headlines like “Brexit Crisis” and “Brexit Britain” and for raised voices and personal insults has allowed this evidence to be ignored, and for the actual closeness of the referendum vote to be forgotten.
A robustly free and impartial press is the feature of a just society and Amnesty International and kindred organisations remind us that in other countries more journalists are being intimidated, imprisoned and killed than ever before. However, I do feel that a large part of the blame for the anger, aggression and fear around “Brexit” can be fairly laid with our media, principally the television news programmes. Why might they have behaved as they have? Many possible reasons: technological changes within their industry, difficulties in coping with these, a long-standing gluttony for political drama, the laziness of individual executives and producers. What I am quite sure about is that we are not living through the finest hour in the history of the UK free press.
A perceptive reminder came recently from the Canadian academic Steven Pinker. Why, he wondered in his recent book, are people so unhappy, when all the evidence shows that the whole world is wealthier, healthier and more peaceful than ever before?
His answer: because the picture of the world which the media presents is so different. “Journalism has a built-in bias towards the negative, in that it covers events, and it is easier for something to go wrong very quickly rather than right very quickly.” An explosion or a terrorist attack can break out rapidly, but improvements in well-being arrive more slowly and gently and so are very seldom deemed worthy of a news report.