Theresa May says she is determined to bring the nation together, the better to prepare for the challenges and opportunities of Brexit. She is unlikely to succeed. The triggering of Article 50 will change the climate to sour, both at the negotiating table in Brussels and in the UK between Leavers and quite a few Remainers. The former do not feel secure in their victory, despite the overwhelming media support they continue to enjoy. In the coming months and years, animosity between the two camps will be fuelled on the one hand by press coverage as toxically anti-EU as any seen during the referendum campaign, and on the other by a steady growth in popular support for a second vote on withdrawal. 

The owners and editors of the Daily Mail, Express, Telegraph and Sun believe they won the referendum for the Leave campaign and that they can build a protective wall around a hard Brexit. The heavy artillery fire in the tabloids provoked by Tony Blair’s “Britons change your minds speech” is proof positive of their steely intent.

Brexiters clearly enjoy a massive advantage in media support. But they are suspicious of the BBC. Hyperactive leavers generate a daily flow of bilious complaints on social media alleging that the BBC is bent on supporting and reviving the Remainers’ cause. This is by no means obvious to those who lost the referendum. Even if one accepts that the BBC’s news coverage is as well balanced as it can be, an overall judgment must also consider the stories and angles it chooses not to cover as well as those that it does. So far, the BBC seems tempted to play safe by putting foundations under Brexit, rather than dealing with risky analysis about the potentially huge social, economic and geopolitical costs of withdrawal.

For example, the documentary “After Brexit: the Battle for Europe” was skillfully constructed around the dystopic account of an EU that is already in a state of disintegration and heading for collapse. Its closing line, uttered by Katya Adler, the BBC’s Europe editor, did not hedge its bets. Brexit may already be irrelevant, she said, because “sooner or later Europe may not be there for us to leave”.

Though nothing new, Adler’s theme is that the populist anti-establishmentarians pushing their way up through the cracks in Europe’s liberal democracies are nourished by a variety of discontents. And their distrust and anger are focused on Brussels – a city which to most British media is a backcloth to bureaucratic failure and betrayal of national interests. The fact that most of the EU’s successes and failures can be laid at the doors of national governments rather than faceless bureaucrats receives scant attention.

Adler’s film rounded up the usual populist leaders – including Marine Le Pen of France’s Front National, Beppe Grillo of Italy’s 5 Star Movement, and others from Germany and Hungary – to assert that the time had come to take back control from an unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels. Its sins were manifest: a failing currency had been disastrously foisted on unsuspecting peoples, while Europe’s borders had been left unprotected against immigrant hordes, and national identities and loyalties threatened with suppression in the name of the EU.

Missing was any acknowledgment of governments’ responsibility for policy failures. Nor did we have an account of what the Union, however imperfectly, is actually doing to guarantee economic growth and stability, build secure borders and foster local, regional and national identities. This perspective has been largely absent from British media coverage of the EU for more than 40 years. The UK voted for withdrawal on the basis of misleading, insufficient and inadequate information. It will be similarly ill-equipped as it leaps into Brexit.

by John Wyles | 20.02.2017

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

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