EU Referendum

Brexit: no lessons learned


There are four possible options for Brexit. Mrs May's deal is the highest profile of them all, but that has been put on hold until after the Christmas break, leaving the media with nothing to play with.

Of the three other options, the unilateral revocation of Article 50 has been given an outing recently, with the full ECJ ruling. But, for the moment, it has no political traction. Its moment may come, but it's not just yet. And, by the same token, the "no deal" Brexit is not consciously on the agenda, despite attempts by The Sunday Telegraph to make it so.

That leaves the fourth option, the favourite of the continuity remainers who have been pushing it as a means of reversing the result of the 2016 referendum. And that, of course, is the so-called "second" referendum, although some would prefer to call it the third referendum, the first dating from 1975.

Had things been different, the media at the moment would be immersed in the Tory party leadership challenge, having already worked up their copy on the runner and riders, ready to assail us with a blow-by-blow account of their doings.

That would have kept the political hacks gainfully employed until well past Christmas but, deprived of that gainful employment, they have been reduced to rooting around for a replacement. And, with the other three Brexit options more or less on hold, this leaves the second/third referendum as the hot favourite to fill the looming empty spaces.

Then, over the weekend, we've had a steady build-up of publicity on this option, with Tony Blair making the running after he had intervened in the public debate by predicting that there could be a majority in parliament for a "final say" referendum.

That gives us two high profile protagonists: Blair in the red corner, and Mrs May in the Blue – just the ingredients the media have needed to run a "biff-bam" confrontation narrative, which they've kept going into this week as the fight apparently spills over into the cabinet.

However, with nothing more to sustain it than an ill-judged intervention by an ex-prime minister, there is probably insufficient traction to keep this story going past the Christmas break. In media terms very few stories survive the cliff-edge of Christmas. The break has the effect of wiping the slate clean.

Oddly enough, thirty years ago to the month, we were embroiled in a political crisis which was to trigger the resignation of a junior health minister and seriously dent the Thatcher government, and that one was of such intensity that it did jump the Christmas break and start all over once the festivities were over.

This was the infamous "Salmonella in Eggs" scare of December 1988, precipitated when Edwina Currie made an unguarded and, as it turns out, wholly unwarranted claim that most egg production was infected with Salmonella.

Events spiralled out of control and, by the New Year, it had merged with the Listeria in Cheese scare, then morphed into a series of food scares which had 1989 as the year of the scare, and a wholesale loss of confidence in the safety of our food.

No one involved in the food industry at that time will ever forget the events, where the unremitting publicity, with continuous front-page headlines, day-after-day got to such a pitch that that we could scarcely bring ourselves to look at the papers any more.

For students of the media – and this was very much a media event – the learning curve was steep: there was no salmonella in eggs crisis: intensive sampling of eggs and the feed which was supposed to have been contaminated, so causing the "epidemic" yielded no results.

A list of high-profile food poisoning outbreaks which had been pulled together to support Mrs Currie's claims – including one in the House of Lords - turned out to be of dubious provenance, made apparently more serious by the falsification of epidemiology figures by a senior public health worker.

In fact, there was an epidemic of a particular strain of Salmonella in poultry, known as Salmonella enteritidis PT4, but the incidence was almost entirely confined to broilers, bringing contamination into homes and restaurants via the meat.

Coincidentally, there had been a new fad sweeping through the nation's fashionable restaurants, bleeding down into normal catering practice. This was nouvelle cuisine, where diners were encouraged to transcend mere consumption of food and partake in a meal experience, where they were treated to a succession of dishes, each characterised by a graduation of subtle flavours and garnishes.

To avoid swamping these culinary creations, chefs had got used to making low-acid mayonnaise, which accompanied most dishes. This had the unfortunate effect of turning a product - which when made to the classic Mrs Beeton formulation had disinfectant properties superior to that of a working solution of Dettol – into a potent medium for the growth of the Salmonellae introduced from contaminated surfaces in the kitchen.

When properly scrutinised, an unusual peak in "egg-associated" outbreaks turned out to be comprised mainly of mayonnaise outbreaks. Once they were taken away, we had a rag-bag of incidents from which little useful could be drawn in terms of identifying contamination sources.

Revisiting those days, much depended on the terminology, as it does today, as between customs unions and cooperation. We found we needed to teach the media (and investigators) the difference between source of contamination (as in contaminated eggs or chicken) – the object that brought the contamination into the kitchen - and the technical vehicle of infection, that which delivered the salmonella to the soon-to-be-sufferer.

Official investigators had fallen into the bad habit of describing vehicles of infection (the food suspected of giving rise to the illness) as the source of the outbreak, the natural (but wholly incorrect) inference being that an egg-based food meant that the eggs themselves were the source of contamination.

Sadly, for most of the media, the technical differences were way beyond the capabilities of most journalists to understand – hence their willingness wrongly to brand eggs as the culprit in so many outbreaks.

Another mystery which the media never mastered was the concept of the incubation period – the time between ingesting the contaminated food and exhibiting signs of illness. Typically, with Salmonella food poisoning, the incubation period is 8-18 hours, and more usually the longer period. It can be several days. Thus, if you suffer this type of food poisoning, it is more likely to be from the meal before last.

But that didn't stop the Observer profiling in a lead story of the period, the "tragic" case of a worker who had consumed a fried egg for his breakfast, lovingly served by his wife, then to be admitted to hospital by lunch-time with symptoms of serious Salmonella food poisoning.

The lacklustre performance of the media, its tendency to leap into the arena on the most slender of evidence, and its almost complete inability to master the technical issues about which it so freely reported, left an indelible mark on those of us who, day-by-day had to deal with the consequences.

The ignorance of the media, and their carelessness with the facts, caused real damage to faultless businesses, distorted the political agenda for months, if not years – which met its catharsis in 1996, when BSE came to a head – and forever changed the politics of food safety (and not entirely for the better).

To that extent, thirty years later, things have not changed. We still have a venal, superficial media, ready to leap to conclusions on the most slender of evidence, and one which seems structurally incapable of learning from its errors or admitting that it was wrong.

I'm surprised, actually, that we haven't seen any retrospectives on Mrs Currie's little adventure, to mark the thirtieth anniversary. It was an extraordinary time and the first in political history where a prime minister was called to the despatch box to answer questions on the safety of the nation's food.

That perhaps points to a more recent characteristic of the media – its loss of institutional memory. We are recalling events of thirty years ago which, to me, are as fresh as if they had happened yesterday. But they occurred before many of the hacks currently at their desks were even born.

Certainly, there were no institutional lessons learned in a media which is just as prone to go rushing after fashionable scares as ever it was, with the same verve compounded by indefatigable ignorance.

If you like, therefore, "Salmonella in eggs" is the mother and father of Brexit, in terms of headline coverage. We see the same mistakes, the same overarching lack of knowledge and the same indifference to the truth. And whatever else, we will never see any change because, in its own eyes, the all-knowing media is simply incapable of error.