Joint Ministerial Council on Brexit in the Cabinet Office, London, October 16, 2017. Stefan Rousseau/Press Association. All rights reserved.Our openDemocracy essay, 'Pro-Remain media and Brexit: unwise response to populism?', stemmed from a variety of sources, but a key one was the EU Referendum blog.
Post-Referendum, Richard North, a longtime advocate of the UK leaving the EU, was very unhappy about the Government's approach. His frequent exhaustive, and exhausting, posts on the minutiae of regulatory affairs and other deep Brexit-related matters made for essential reading as the Conservative Government embarked upon leaving not just the EU, but also its complex Single Market.
However, it was a below-the-line comment on an August 22 post by North from TonyNorthEast that was the foundation for the essay. "Is it just me but has our government not been very clear that they are seeking an AA/DCFTA type deal?" was the remark, noticed by my father, Martin.
Despite obsessively following Brexit news for well over a year, neither of us was aware of the concept of a 'Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area' embedded within an 'Association Agreement' – let alone the acronym version. Such is the ignorance of the 'educated' British middle classes about European Union affairs, even as my father and I were furiously reflecting on the UK leaving the Union.
The missing Ukraine option
Martin followed up and unearthed more information about the apparent possible suitability of the 'Ukrainian model', which left us even more confused. How was this option not at least worthy of discussion by the traditional media and others following the process? Why are we talking about Norway, Switzerland and Canada, but not Ukraine? The lack of a good answer to that question frames the essay.
My father and I had watched the Referendum results come in together. While Martin was on the fence (he voted Remain effectively as proxy for another son, who hadn't registered to vote), I was an instinctive Remainer. Although aware in broad terms of major EU shortcomings, as a liberal and social democrat, my thinking was that it seemed an absurd idea to undergo the trauma of separation when what was needed was, if anything, radical engagement with and reform of a fundamentally virtuous enterprise. Dad saw things differently. The international system he favoured was a pragmatic one of cooperation and competition between liberal democratic nation states. While in idealistic theory he actually favoured the concept of a powerful supranational European Union, albeit with extensive devolution to the regions rather than states, he saw little point in a relentlessly dissident UK remaining in the EU.
Regardless, we both agreed the vote was a seismic event. Incrementally, I came to be focused more on why people might have voted to leave the EU, and Martin – possibly after almost daily doses of Dr. North's scathing analysis of Brexiteer free-trading fallacies – began to take a less blithe approach to the ability of the UK, as a politically and economically powerful nation, to prosper post-Brexit, regardless of the EU's reaction to its withdrawal.
For both of us, it was hard to escape the conclusion that there has been some sort of breakdown in trust between sections of society that consider themselves to be well-informed and promoting ideas that support the general welfare, and the rest of society who get to live in systems created by those ideas.
Ideally, the very first response from the elite would seem to have been to go out of its way to demonstrate that it was contrite, that it was listening, and that it was desperately trying to work out where things had gone wrong. Failing to undertake any kind of reflective process in the light of major democratic decisions that are alleged to be irrational seemed very unwise. But as far as we were concerned, as the debate evolved, the prevailing liberal-left reaction to Brexit fell very much into that trap.
Taking the media and ourselves to task
With this as our broad thesis, one strategic problem was how to criticize the media for this and other omissions without being hypocritical. In some respects, this was simply impossible. As some journalists had been ill informed, so had we. If the media had been biased, so had we. But some arguments are worth making even if they highlight your own failings. This seemed like one of them.
Another difficulty was to try and make a genuine effort to have our biases corrected, our assumptions tested, and our arguments challenged. Otherwise, how was the contribution anything other than blowing hot air into an already frothy debate?
As a journalist, my view of the media and objectivity is that we have to keep trying. Clearly, there will always be constraints formed by, among other things, personal opinions, subjective experiences, and the positioning of the media you're working for. But, resigning yourself to unchecked partiality because of the impossibility of achieving perfect neutrality is a fallacious approach. In that regard, I believe that the critical part of objectivity is re-examining assumptions and conclusions as often as possible, which entails considering alternatives. I therefore suggested that we conduct a review process with peers and experts.
As Brexit is vastly complicated, having expert eyes go over the draft would ensure we were on solid factual footing and reveal any superficial, sweeping analysis. As our main audience was Remainers, we wanted to see how they would react to our broad argument that, as the UK was probably leaving the EU, it was important that the pro-EU media didn't overlook some possible ways forward. Given that we were firmly in 'the bubble' and pretty much only know Remainers, it wasn't hard to find test readers. I'd also corresponded with a number of EU experts.
The initial responses were useful, if a little abrasive. Dad's brother said our article was 'markedly tendentious' in a scathing mock recommendation to reject from a peer reviewer; my girlfriend told me – an instinctive Remainer – that I sounded 'very much biased' and 'totally pro-Brexit', as she recoiled specifically from our glib dismissal of the Schengen project and generally from an inappropriate overall tone. It was apparent that there was major engineering work to be done. From then on there was a concerted effort to remove all references that might displease our Remain audience so that they did not distract from our core arguments. And we also tried to present facts about the EU in a much more balanced manner that better reflected the range of interpretations and experiences.
The biggest expert challenge came from Matthew Bishop, a senior lecturer in international politics at Sheffield University. Matt appreciated our efforts, but believed that we were wrong to criticize the prevailing wisdom on Brexit, as the evidence demonstrated conclusively that it would be economically disastrous.
What Matt didn't do was provide a convincing critique of the 'AA/DCFTA' model, which was the lynchpin of our argument. Instead he suggested that it would be unacceptable to the EU as undermining the Single Market's integrity; a claim that's not backed by EU specialists I'd spoken to. We adjusted our piece to more accurately reflect expert Remain opinion: but we stood by our media critique.
Richard North was largely unmoved by our piece. He has been strongly focused on arguing that the best option for the UK was to stay in the Single Market by remaining in the European Economic Area. It seemed to us that had been to the exclusion of exploring the AA/DCFTA option adequately and we also believe his anger at the UK's folly has led him to make some exaggerated criticisms of the Government. His main concern about the Ukraine option was that the political circumstances were very different… but this didn't address our point that it was an important legal precedent that had been under-explored in the Brexit debate.
The biggest challenge was to our basic premise and it came from my elder brother, Dan (the one who'd been too apathetic to vote). While enthusiastic about our media criticism, he was unconvinced by our logic; if Brexit was such a 'bad job', then why shouldn't pro-EU media and journalists campaign against it?
This led to some soul-searching. I initially tried to argue that the media had some sort of democratic duty to respect the outcome of the Referendum, but this was duly dismissed. Eventually we worked out our leading argument: it was fine to campaign against the outcome but, given the backdrop of the 'populist insurgency', there also needed to be a more pragmatic approach from the media that strove for objectivity and impartiality.
Of course, this is just one argument, as 'Ukraine' is only one model, but this was the position we arrived at after a two-month process of examining the facts and our opinions.
To sum up
It seems some strong headline conclusions can be drawn from the UK debate surrounding Brexit. Regardless of the EU's merits, people in the UK don't understand it very well. And that goes for many people from all walks of life, including journalists like me, not just mocked Leave voters. Discussing it all as openly, thoroughly, and as reasonably as possible seems the only sensible way to proceed from here on in. This was our intended contribution to that evolving debate.