Richard North, 03/01/2018  

If a UK minister announced that he was about to conclude negotiations for a substantial lunar green cheese quota, with mining expected to start in April, one wonders how the media would behave.

Would they, like Sam Coates in The Times, simply take the announcement at face value and publish it as a story with no critical faculties engaged? That is certainly what Coates has done with his latest article telling us mere mortals that officials have been told to be ready for a "no deal" in the Brexit negotiations.

Ministers, Mr Coates would have it, have been advised to try to negotiate a transition period if talks with the EU end without a deal, supposedly to give Britain more time to prepare for a hard Brexit.

This, apparently, is on the basis that Whitehall believes that Britain could be given additional time by the EU to cushion a hard landing after 29 March next year in the event that talks break down over a future free trade agreement (FTA). Europe, we are told, does not want a sudden £8 billion black hole to appear in its budgets in either 2019 or 2020, and neither the EU nor the UK wants to cause precipitous damage to their economies.

As such, Mr Coates avers, British officials believe that it is more likely that there will be an implementation period after 2019 even if FTA talks are abandoned. The alternative, he says, would be leaving without any withdrawal or bilateral agreements, which would be likely to cause maximum economic shock.

And there, we are on the equivalent of lunar territory, planning to mine green cheese. More specifically, Mr Coates is dealing with something equally elusive – the non-existent talks on a free trade agreement.

It doesn't seem to matter how many times different EU officials, from the president of the European Commission downwards, tell us that there isn't going to be a free trade agreement by 29 March 2019. And before that, there is not going to be a breakdown in talks. There can't be because there won't be any talks.

Yet, faithfully, Sam supports Mrs May's delusion that an FTA is attainable before we leave, writing that its conclusion is the "primary objective" of ministers.

Only somebody of that inclination could thus move on to write about the UK negotiating a transition period, "assuming that the trade talks are still going ahead". This is straight out of David Davis's playbook and bears as much relation to reality as the likelihood that the green cheese on the moon is recoverable.

Nevertheless, Mr Coates says, "Whitehall is hoping to secure more time in the event of 'no deal' to ensure that as much infrastructure is working as possible". He then adds: "There are unlikely to be full checks at Dover by next year, with only a skeleton customs service in operation in the event that there is no free trade agreement".

But, as we already know, the EU has offered the "vassal state" transition which takes care of customs and many other problems relating to Brexit, making an FTA an irrelevance until the transition period is over, ostensibly in December 2020. And is just as well, because there will be no free trade agreement.

How Mr Coates manages to get it so spectacularly wrong could be one of the seven wonders of the world, were his errors not so predictable and tedious. The London-based hackery is so close the Whitehall and Westminster bubbles that they are unable to distinguish fact from fiction.

What other explanation could there be for that same Mr Coates, in the same tawdry article, actually writing with (presumably) a straight face, this unutterable garbage:
Ministers such as Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, have talked about the possibility of negotiating rapid bilateral agreements with Germany to ensure that basic services can continue. The EU is likely to resist breaking ranks, however, if broader talks collapse.
Really? This is supposed to be serious journalism? Are London hacks of the likes of Coates going to tell us that they are duty-bound to retail such nonsense just because it is delivered by man-child Johnson? Could any honest, or vaguely competent journalist use this for anything else other than an example of the appalling ignorance of our political leaders?

And as for Mr Coates "analysis" tacked on to the end of the script, can he really expect us to accept him saying: "The EU is likely to resist breaking ranks, however, if broader talks collapse", without hoots of derision?

Does Mr Coates not know that trade is an exclusive competence of the European Union. To suggest that the EU would "resist breaking ranks" is so childishly feeble a comment that one can scarcely believe that even a dismal London hack actually wrote it.

A sixth-form student would tell us that, on no account would Germany (or any other EU Member State) countenance a bilateral deal with the UK on trade – rapid or otherwise - as that would be a clear breach of EU treaties.

It really is staggering that supposedly senior journalists, working for major national titles, can no longer bring themselves to look outside their own bubbles and realise what they writing is tripe. They are doing nothing but damaging their credibility and misinforming their readers.

Nor is the nonsense confined to these shores. In the Irish Times yesterday we had Fintan O'Toole tell us that the referendum "was an opportunity to vent a general rage at the Establishment". And there was I thinking that the referendum had been an opportunity to instruct our government to withdraw from the membership of the European Union.

For all that, it would be nice to think that, amidst the dross, there is some useful reporting going on. Political journalism, though, is so close to its subjects that it is tainted by them. We can hardly expect to get anything of value from it.

That much is evident from former Treasury Minister Lord O'Neill, speaking not to the London press but Die Welt. He complains of the government's "fantasy" approach to trade, highlighting the inadequacies of Liam Fox and our "ludicrous" foreign minister.

Remarking on the government's approach to future trade links with the Commonwealth, O'Neill argues that, with the exception of India, their economies are too small to absorb displaced UK exports. "It's kind of fantasy", he says, contrasting New Zealand with China. The latter is set to grow by 6.7 percent this year – adding the equivalent of "four New Zealands" to its GDP.

The focus, O'Neill says, is "mad". Brexiteers in May's cabinet like Boris Johnson or Michael Gove were, "very intellectual, smart people. But they have no clue about the world of economy. They are clueless, sadly. Clueless".

Therein is part of the problem – the blind leading the blind, or the clueless leading the clueless. Both groups, though – journalists and politicians – act as if they are a cut above the rest of us, oblivious to their own ignorance as they parade their assumed superiority.

Lord O'Neill notes that the UK is only one of two of the world's ten largest economies in which economic growth is not accelerating. This, he regards a self-inflicted wound. He does not blame Brexit, per se but the way Brexit has been handled.

Here, right up front, the politicians must bear the brunt of the blame but, as long as we're getting issue-illiterate articles from the likes of Sam Coates, then the media must take a goodly share of the blame as well.

In a democracy, the media claim special status and privileges, all in the interests of safeguarding a free society. They are not ordinary businesses, therefore, and have a special responsibility to track and accurately report on issues of importance to our nation.

But as much as Brexit has revealed the fault lines in our political system, it is also demonstrating that the fourth estate is not up to the job. We are being badly let down by a broken media, and are worse off for it.

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