Richard North, 23/02/2019  

In The Times today we have a long essay from Sir Ivan Rogers, running to just over two-and-a-half thousand words.

The headline tells us that, "Politicians must stop sugaring the pill on hard Brexit choices" and Sir Ivan's sub-heading tells us that "Britain faces mission impossible in trying to get good trade deals and talk of the benefits of WTO terms is a fantasy".

His thesis is perfectly respectable but his article conveys nothing we didn't know already. The comments, and especially those regarding WTO terms, have been rehearsed many times on this blog. We are wearily familiar with the arguments.

Elsewhere, in the Telegraph - also behind a paywall - we have David Collins, Professor of International Economic Law at City University. He writes under the headline: "Bright days await us after a no-deal Brexit, as long as we keep preparing for it".

Says Collins, directly contradicting the points made by Sir Ivan, "the UK must stick to its guns and continue to prepare for 'no deal' in earnest". He then declares:
As Brexit day approaches with the prospect of a serious withdrawal agreement (meaning a normal Free Trade Agreement) fading by the day, most of the UK public and business community are awaking to the reality that a clean break with the EU will be entirely manageable – nothing like the Armageddon that many in the media and government sadly still drum on about.
The assertion that the withdrawal agreement is akin to a "normal Free Trade Agreement" is, of course, absurd. The two are entirely separate with, in the Brexit process, the one following the other. But this doesn't matter to professor Collins. If it did, quite evidently, he would not have pursued the idea.

Enter now Ed Conway, economics editor for Sky News. He writes his own "Sky Views" essay under the title, "Our love of simple narratives is bad news when it comes to Brexit" which, interestingly, is followed by an active link asserting: "Why you can trust Sky News".

In one of those delicious ironies, Conway then devotes most of his essay to telling us exactly why we should not trust Sky News – or any news for that matter.

That much emerges from a rare moment of self-awareness as Conway writes: "most of the political and economic stories we deal with on a day-to-day basis are so complex that they defy simple narratives", with him adding, "Or, more accurately, they allow us to spin multiple, contrasting stories about them".

In Conway's world, though, he asserts that this "t'was ever thus", the "big difference" these days being, it seems, "that so many people seem unwilling to see the world through every prism except the one they prefer".

Certainly, Brexit is the classic example of a complex issue which defies a simple narrative, and the contrast between the essays from Sir Ivan and professor Collins admirably illustrates how two newspapers are spinning "contrasting stories" about Brexit-related issues.

It seems to me, therefore, that Sir Ivan's essay is addressed to the wrong group. Rather than the politicians, he should be telling the media to stop "sugaring the pill". After all, the media are often an important source of instruction for politicians, and they provide the platform from which so many politicians communicate with the public.

However, the media could quite simply argue that the Rogers/Collins pieces are an example of putting opinion in front of the public (and the politicians) and letting them decide. And if there is merit in that argument, it surely rests on the idea that journalists should not seek to impose their own views on their readers, or direct them towards one view in preference to another.

If that was the argument – and I'm not sure that it is – then it is more than a little tendentious. The Telegraph in particular, has been beating the drum for a no-deal and "WTO terms" since forever. Its choice of Collins for the weekend message is simply a perpetuation of a long-standing, partisan campaign.

Nor can it be possibly argued that Telegraph journalists have been taking a neutral stance. The names Liam Halligan and Allister Heath spring to mind, two writers who have been particularly strident in their advocacy of the no-deal "WTO terms" meme.

Crucially, though, the adoption of "WTO terms" is not a question of nuanced opinion, coming down one side or another of a finely-balanced argument where the relative merits require careful judgement.

Here we are dealing with demonstrable facts and, as Sir Ivan puts it, the assertion that we do the bulk of our trade with the rest of the world "on WTO terms" is one of the four fantasies we must put to bed if we are to have a serious, civilised debate about the country's best way forward outside the EU over the next decade or two.

There is a reason, Sir Ivan says, why Liam Fox and his department are making strenuous efforts to ensure that as many as possible of the free trade agreements with non-EU countries we have by dint of EU membership get "rolled over", with no change, into British agreements.

The reason is that the government knows these free trade agreements provide vastly better trading terms than reliance solely on WTO agreements. It is therefore desperate to ensure that trade does not, in the event of no-deal, become markedly less free with these countries, which would put us at a major disadvantage compared with EU competitors.

It is most decidedly a matter of fact, as Sir Ivan avers, that two-thirds of our total global trade is either with countries with whom we have a free trade agreement by dint of being in the EU, or with the EU itself.

Even in the remaining third, for example the US, there are critical trade facilitating agreements which go way beyond what adherence to WTO commitments alone would give us. Those all fall away in a no-deal world.

And that is why, rightly, the trade department is seeking to preserve the lot, solely to try to stand still. The vacuous "let's go WTO", "clean break" sloganising one hears from avid proponents of a no-deal Brexit is "economic lunacy". It is not a liberation: it would be a deliberate, massive act of self-harm and protectionism, pushed by people masquerading as free traders.

Yet still, as Pete pointed out on Thursday, there are those who are missing the point on the no-deal scenario, the consistency of which more than adequately illustrates that we are dealing with malicious intent.

The issue that Ed Conway avoids, therefore, is the extent to which the media should be allowed to pick and choose their narratives when confronted with unarguable evidence that to choose one is deliberately to perpetrate falsehoods.

An obvious port of call might be the independent press complaints body IPSO. But, even though the code of practice requires the press to take care "not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information", those journalists who are able to pass off their views as opinions seems to be able to evade censure.

But even then when, in 2017, I raised with IPSO claims that the United States and China did not have trade deals with the EU, complaints officer Madeline Palacz decided there was a distinction between "trading relationships" and "formal trade deals". From this she concluded that, while these countries had agreements that went towards their trading relationships, these did not constitute formal trade deals.

Thus, this IPSO employee knows better than Sir Ivan Rogers who even today describes "critical trade facilitating agreements" between the EU and US which "go way beyond what adherence to WTO commitments alone would give us".

What is happening, therefore, is that the legacy media have been given a license to lie. The likes of Ed Conway might smooth it over with the use of the anodyne term "spin", but then it turns out that he is not averse to creating his own narratives. With the industry regulator turning a blind eye, the fact is that the newspapers regularly and wantonly convey lies – and know that they are doing it.

Recently, we have seen the select committee report on disinformation and fake news, with a strong emphasis on social media but, if we take into account the likes of the Collins piece published in today's Telegraph, then it is self-evident that the place to look for "fake news" is the legacy media.

As long as these newspapers feel entitled to lie, and there are no sanctions against those that do, we can never have Sir Ivan's "serious, civilised debate" in this country. With lions once led by donkeys, we now seem to have donkeys led by liars.

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