Richard North, 12/01/2020  

Caught between the royal soap opera and the downing of the Ukrainian Boeing 737, legacy media incontinence is steadily drowning out the Brexit agenda, no doubt assisted by the Johnson administration which seems to be doing its best to starve the debate by keeping silent on the detail of its intentions.

YouGov is reduced to rehashing a 2017 survey on the most important ingredient in a full English breakfast, with a tweet that gets 155 retweets and 456 "likes", attracting 190 comments – as opposed to my latest tweet which gets 14 retweets and 13 "likes".

The Independent on Sunday, on the other hand, is resorting to something equally fatuous, asking the UK public whether it wants to remain in EU. For the record, the poll shows that "remain" is backed by what the paper calls a "highly symbolic 52-48 margin", despite the finding having no political relevance whatsoever.

The only Brexit-related article of substance appears in the Observer, which carries the headline, "EU may threaten 'to block' City's access to its markets".

But the only thing new about this is that it comes from Croatia's prime minister, Andrej Plenkovic, whose country has just taken over the EU's rotating presidency. Apart from that, it simply rehearses something we knew already, recognising that a divergent UK is unlikely to get easy access to the Single Market.

Bluntly, if this is the best we can do on one of the most important policy issues of our time, when the Sunday Times is carrying on its front page the legend, "Prince William on Harry and Meghan crisis: 'I've put my arm around my brother all our lives. I can't do it any more'", as the "Queen calls family crisis summit", I fear for the very survival of our democracy.

This is no longer just a question of a venal media, obsessed with trivia, and a dysfunctional political system. It also encompasses the infantilisation of a population which seems unable to focus on matters of any weight, and needs to be sustained by a constant diet of lurid headlines.

This is one of the reasons why the likes of the fanboy gazette produces no fewer than seven "royal crisis" stories to lead its website. It knows full-well that a large proportion of its readership will go no further than reading the headlines, without opening the linked reports.

We thus have "storytelling by headline" with a large proportion of the adult population having no greater appreciation of the news agenda than can be gained from a quick scan of the headlines delivered by favoured media sources.

One can hardly blame the legacy media for this, if it perceives that this is where the public interest lies, with "clickbait" being the dominant genre, and page impressions are everything if advertising revenue is to be maintained.

That said, when accessing some media stories on a wide screen, with the copy topped and tailed by adverts, which also extend to the sides, one gets the impression of peering down a tunnel as one fights for concentration against the auto-start videos and the lurid, animated adverts.

Reading this type of presentation on a smartphone is near impossible, with the ever-present possibility of incompatible software on different platforms crashing the system, which it does with unfailing regularity. Even those who genuinely seek information find it hard to capture useful material.

One also gets the constant reinforcement of the impression that the legacy media only speaks to itself, illustrated by a report in the Guardian with the headline "Labour’s heartlands may be gone for ever. It needs to find new ones", and the standfirst telling us that the northern towns have changed.

We did this weeks ago, not least in this piece which I headed: "Politics: the North has changed", which goes to show that, while we read (some of) the legacy media, they rarely reciprocate. This means that, with their input and ours, we end up better informed, often well ahead of the field.

Interestingly, the paper uses as its source, the think-tank co-founded by the Labour leadership candidate and Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy, referring to "revealing but little-noticed research". But, if it was on the ball, it would have come to the same conclusions from its own research, days after the election.

Therein lies another problem. In having to cope with the 24-hour news cycle, cut-backs in the workforce and widespread deskilling, few journalists have the time or ability to do anything that resembles serious research. Hence, we have seen the growth of the think-tank industry, which churns out prepackaged "think" pieces to fill the holes in the media coverage.

When access to the media is then determined by celebrity (or notoriety) and "prestige", with a strong emphasis on the "human interest", quality and depth take a back seat as entertainment replaces news and analysis.

One can pull down endless articles from the media, such as this, telling us that "a free press is the lifeblood of democracy", with the invariable rider that "journalists must not be silenced".

But what also comes to mind is Humbert Wolfe who in 1930 wrote: "You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! The British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to".

This problem has been with us a long time and, if there are constraints of what the legacy media delivers, many of these are self-inflicted and journalists pursue the superficial and the trivial, while failing properly to inform themselves on issues of substance.

Here, it is well-known and has been widely reported that the Johnson administration would like to remove the word "Brexit" from the public discourse, in its attempt to perpetrate the illusion that he is getting Brexit "done".

Yet, it takes no real understanding to appreciate that Brexit cannot be considered "done" until the future relationship is concluded with the EU. Attempting to project Brexit as complete, simply because we have concluded the first phase of withdrawal, is a political fraud – and a transparent one at that.

There is no need, therefore, for the legacy media to go along with the fraud. In fact, a truly free press, concerned with the health of our democracy, would go out of its way to keep Brexit in the public eye, purposefully resisting government attempts to play down the issues.

But this is not the British media. It talks the talk, but rarely walks the walk, ever willing to ditch serious analysis in favour of the hystérie du jour.

Then, given that the public respond so favourably to the diet of trivia with which they are fed, and fail so often to inform themselves, we cannot be surprised at the media stance. Newspapers, specifically, are not public services – they are business which need to follow the money.

However, as I am so fond of saying, democracy is not a spectator sport. If we are willing to allow ourselves to be distracted by media incontinence, letting them dictate the agenda, then we deserve what we get.

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