Richard North, 28/01/2020  

It is a measure of the power of prestige that prime minister Johnson can repeatedly deliver absolute tosh on the matter of regulatory checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

In any sane world, the man would have been faced down, not least by the official opposition in parliament and by a series of stern editorials in the print media. But, when a brazen liar chooses to repeat a lie, with the status of prime minister behind him, he is still given a hearing.

However, even with our deferential media, the gloss is beginning to wear off as it begins to confront the reality – not least as delivered by Michel Barnier in a speech yesterday at Queen's University Belfast.

As an aside, one must take time out to admire the humour of the Northern Irish who, with an apparently straight face, named the venue chosen for the speech as the William J. Clinton Leadership Institute. Leadership, but not as we know it Jim.

For those who want to watch the speech (and haven't already), it is on You Tube where it is quite evident that the EU's chief negotiator – days before we leave the EU – is not prepared to beat about the bush.

"Brexit", he says, "unfortunately has consequences that we must manage. The UK has chosen to become a third country; to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union; to leave behind the EU's framework of common rules, common supervision and common Court of Justice".

Although it should hardly need saying at this point, Barnier nevertheless added the obvious: "It (the UK) has chosen to create two regulatory spaces", he says. "This makes frictionless trade impossible. It makes checks indispensable".

Speaking specifically (but not exclusively) about Northern Ireland, he tells us, "We will need sanitary and phyto-sanitary checks on food products and live animals. The EU must be able to assess risks on any product coming into its market and, if necessary, activate physical controls".

Continuing his statement, he reminds us with brutal frankness that "these checks must take place somewhere". And, he says, "as the whole point of the Protocol is to avoid a hard border and protect the all-island economy, it was clear that they could not take place at the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland".

"The only real option", he concludes, "was to use Northern Ireland's other entry points. This is also where such checks are the easiest to implement. And controls will also take place in Dublin and other EU entry points".

Later, he is asked about Johnson's claims that there will be "unfettered access" for goods both ways, and what would happen if the UK did not fully implement the protocol.

Barnier, showing the nearest thing he ever has to agitation, stated that this "will have consequences". Many of these consequences have been under-estimated, he says, or not well-explained to the people. There will be no possibility for frictionless trade between the EU and the UK, he says. "There will never be any compromise on the Single Market – never, never, never", he adds.

This is about 41 minutes into the YouTube video, and it is these remarks which have been largely picked up by the media. Predictably, the Guardian is hot on the trail, reporting on the difference of view between the EU and Johnson.

"The text is very precise. I always tell the truth", says Barnier, leaving it for the audience to decide how to label Johnson's claims. When journalists persisted in asking how he felt about Johnson's repeated claims that there would be no checks, he replied: "I know what is written in this text". The sub-text, of course, was "one of us in lying … and it ain't me!"

It should not be assumed, however, that the media are taking the issue that seriously. At the time of writing, both the Guardian and the Telegraph - along with The Times - were carrying on their websites as their lead item, the story about Prince Andrew giving "zero cooperation" to the Epstein inquiry. The obsession with the royal soap opera continues to exert its baleful influence.

And, so far, the media collective has given far more attention to the commemorative 50p coin than it has to the words of Michel Barnier. And I doubt very much whether that will change (no pun intended). Never let it be said that the British media doesn't do trivia.

Even on the BBC website, one struggles to hunt down the story as it is well-hidden under the category "local news" in the Northern Ireland politics section.

At least we are then allowed to know that "New checks on goods entering NI [are] 'indispensible'", according to Barnier. And yes, "indispensable" is misspelt. But then, this is the modern BBC for you, the best website that £100 million (of our money) can buy.

According to this source, though, the prime minister has only "suggested" that GB-NI trade would remain "unfettered", then having Barnier making "comments" that the UK's choices make frictionless trade "impossible". Weak as ditchwater would be a fair assessment.

With no license fee review to worry about, though, ITV was able to take a more robust line, headlining its website piece: "Frictionless trade impossible after Brexit", attributing the quote to Barnier.

There again, however, this is offered as a straight quote. Yet what Barnier is doing is flatly contradicting Johnson. This is how the media questioning was framed, inviting a biff-bam response. Yet having specifically invited Barnier's contradiction, none are prepared to call Johnson out for the liar he is, except (by inference) the Guardian, which headlines: "Barnier refutes Johnson's claims over Irish Sea trade checks".

Mind you, it isn't only the BBC which is displaying its illiteracy. The supposed "paper of record", The Times, has Bruno Waterfield writing the lead story under the headline, "EU demands its judges keep control after Brexit", with the standfirst reading: "Strasbourg would rule on future UK trade rights".

This is a reference to a document which is pompously "seen by The Times" claiming that the EU is to insist that the "European Court of Justice" will be able to enforce the terms of a trade, fishing and security deal.

Even though Waterfield is one of those journalists who insists on calling the European Council a "summit", I doubt that even he would confuse the ECJ's location in Luxembourg with that of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (which is not even run by the EU).

Unfortunately for The Times, this error is on the front page of their print edition, so they cannot escape with a silent edit, pretending it never happened (although following editions have been corrected). As for the Barnier speech, we are told that Barnier said that the EU "would make unprecedented demands during negotiations because of European fears that Britain would abandon 'standards'".

Barnier actually said no such thing, or anything like it. The nearest thing to it is Barnier saying that, "the UK cannot expect high-quality access to our Single Market if it insists on competing on State aid, social or environmental standards".

So, another day passes as we approach the "high noon" of Brexit. And as Barnier complains that the consequences are "not well-explained to the people", the media collective goes out of its way to prove him right. Fed on a diet of lies by the prime minister, and unwilling to call him out, its craven silence amply demonstrates that it is no longer fit for purpose.

And yet, we have Henry Faure Walker, chairman of the industry lobby group News Media Association, responding to the government's refusal to fund "public interest journalism", saying: "Without swift and significant market intervention now, the flow of independent, high-quality local news and information which is essential for the functioning of our democracy can no longer be guaranteed".

These people really are living on another planet.

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