Metaphors flow as Britain screws up Brexit, again

Yesterday, after British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal went up in flames (again), The New York Times accidentally published pre-prepared copy outlining both, opposing outcomes of the latest Brexit vote, as if both had actually happened. Successive paragraphs—separated by the word “or” on a line of its own—referred, respectively to “Parliament’s second rejection of the plan” and its “surprise approval.” Clearly, someone forgot to delete the latter. Scott Bryan, the British journalist who spotted the flub and put it on Twitter, asked: “What if the world just split in two and we are now living in two dimensions?”

The Times’s choose-your-own-Brexit-adventure moment is a convenient metaphor for a process that could still plausibly go in any number of totally contradictory directions before Britain leaves the European Union—or doesn’t—in 16 days. After months of legislative gridlock, journalists covering Brexit are running out of new things to say and trite ways to say them. “In previous Theresa May stories we’ve already used Groundhog Day, high noon, crunch time, cliff edge, cockroach/nuclear winter, Maybot, dead woman walking, wounded she-elephant,” the Times’s Ellen Barry tweeted. “Running out of metaphors. Will pay cash.” Robert Peston, the political editor of Britain’s ITV, went with a Game of Thrones comparison—that, too, felt tired. May herself offered up a metaphor by losing her voice and addressing Parliament in a hoarse whisper yesterday. Many outlets prominently mentioned it; The Sun, a well-read British tabloid, this morning splashed the headline “CROAKY HORROR SHOW.” It wasn’t a good pun, or a new reference. In 2017, May famously coughed her way through an excruciating speech.

ICYMI: An odd trend being adopted by CNN, NYT, and Politico

May’s lost voice symbolized her loss of control over the Brexit process, which is now more or less in the hands of Parliament. In the UK, several major newspapers spelled that out. The Guardian hailed “The day May lost control”; The Financial Times and the i used similar wording in front-page headlines. Many US outlets took uncertainty as their lead theme. The Times’s Stephen Castle described Britain “hurtling into unknown political territory.” An AP article by Jill Lawless and Raf Casert painted a picture of “chaos and doubt.” Its headline? “May Day.”

What happens next? As Jack Blanchard, who writes Politico’s daily UK newsletter, wrote this morning: “We don’t know. I don’t know, you don’t know, they don’t know. She [May] definitely doesn’t know. Seriously, nobody knows. We just don’t know.” Blanchard, to his credit, gamely outlined how the next few days could pan out. British lawmakers will vote today to rule out—or not—the prospect of quitting the EU without a transition deal. (Confusingly, May seems to be asking her colleagues to both oppose no deal and leave it on the table for future leverage; perhaps she took a leaf from the Times’s book.) If no deal is ruled out, lawmakers will vote tomorrow on the terms of an extension to the Brexit process. An extension, however, is not entirely in Britain’s control—it would need to be approved by all 27 other EU member states. That outcome, itself, is hard to predict: a CNN flowchart mapping out possible ways forward peters out into question marks.

So far today, British Brexit headlines are trading in ifs, expected to’s, and would-be’s. Early this morning, the government confirmed that it would, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, temporarily stop checking goods crossing between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU)—a key sticking point in the Brexit deadlock. That eventuality would, officials conceded, give smugglers free rein. The announcement saw journalists reach, once again, for the metaphors; it would, they wrote, effectively amount to a customs “honesty box” (an honor system). Metaphors, increasingly, are all we have to go on.

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Below, more on Brexit:

  • How we got here: If, for some reason, you want to revisit coverage of previous Brexit false dawns, I wrote about UK media reaction after May first struck her deal, in November, and US media reaction after she canceled a vote on it, in December.
  • Stupid people and journalists: Before yesterday’s vote, Geoffrey Cox, Britain’s attorney general, stood up in Parliament to offer legal advice on the last-minute tweaks to May’s deal. While Cox voted for the deal, his advice helped kill it among his colleagues. A government minister told the Financial Times’s George Parker and Sebastian Payne that Cox erred by putting a criticism of the deal right at the end of his advice, where “stupid people and journalists would easily see it.”
  • Backstop to the future: Cox’s advice concerned the “backstop,” a controversial mechanism in May’s deal that would prevent a “hard border” on the island of Ireland, whatever happens with Brexit. If you’ve seen the term but don’t know what it means, the AP has an explainer.
  • What is Labour’s stance? Britain’s opposition Labour Party seems to change course from one day to the next. Under pressure from many rank-and-file members, the party’s leadership recently backed a second referendum on Brexit. As BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano notes, that story was Sky News’s most viral political story of the past six months. But Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, did not mention a second vote in his rebuttal of May yesterday, and a party spokesperson this morning suggested pushing for one is not a top priority.


Other notable stories:

  • For The Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis writes that coverage of the Ethiopian Airlines crash has been another example of Western news outlets erasing African tragedy. Many of them “reported the news with unevenly rationed compassion,” she writes. “Some stoked unfounded suspicions about the caliber of the airline itself. Others stripped their reporting of emphasis on Africa almost entirely, framing the tragedy chiefly in terms of its impact on non-African passengers and organizations.”
  • Yesterday, news outlets continued to unearth incriminating old comments by Tucker Carlson: according to The Intercept’s Aída Chávez, he previously said he was “100 percent” Rupert Murdoch’s “bitch.” As Carlson continued to rail against such reporting on his show, many big advertisers stayed away. Neither Carlson nor Fox has said sorry; neither has Jeanine Pirro, for her weekend comments on Ilhan Omar. The Post’s Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison ask: “Why can’t Fox apologize?”
  • In other Fox-silence news, The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani and Andrew Kirell note that in his 27 appearances on the network since November, attorney Alan Dershowitz has yet to be asked about an explosive Miami Herald report outlining the illegal plea deal scored, in 2008, by Jeffrey Epstein, Dershowitz’s pedophile client. “Dershowitz said he never requested that Fox News keep him out of their Epstein coverage,” Tani and Kirell write. “In fact, the lawyer said, he has brought up on Fox the allegations that he participated in the billionaire pedophile’s sex-trafficking ring.”
  • For CJR, Gabe Schneider takes a look at the East Bay Express, a storied California alt-weekly that now has no full-time staff writers and depends entirely on freelancers for copy. Robert Gammon—the former editor of the Express whose recent departure left the paper in the hands of its publisher—tells Schneider: “Journalists are really important. But with an advertising-based news model, the advertising staff are more important.”
  • On Monday, authorities in Venezuela detained Luis Carlos Díaz, an independent journalist, and accused him of plotting to cause a nationwide blackout. Díaz was released yesterday, but must now appear before a court every eight days, Bloomberg’s Patricia Laya and Jose Orozco report. Earlier this month, Isaac Lee explained Venezuela’s appalling press-freedom climate for CJR.
  • Vox’s Carlos Maza takes issue with TV news’s “tactical framing” of the Green New Deal. “I have watched hours of segments about the Green New Deal, and none of them explained how it might work,” he said. “Instead, they focused on the politics: Is it going to pass? Does Pelosi like it? What did Trump tweet about it? Everything, except, is it a good idea?” Last week, I wrote about Green New Deal coverage for CJR.
  • According to Jared Holt of Right Wing Watch, the Associated Press published at least three press releases containing misinformation and partisan propaganda, including one claiming that measles vaccines cause autism. As of late February, Holt writes, the AP has added visual markers to make it easier to differentiate PR posts from news.
  • And for CJR, Susan Schmidt, who spent 25 years at the Post, explores that paper’s response to the recent controversy involving its owner, Jeff Bezos, and The National Enquirer. “Longtime Post journalists say they were proud of the paper’s arms-length handling of the story, but annoyed that the paper was being dragged into it at all.”

ICYMI: A speculative, yet explosive claim causing “awkward tension” at WaPo

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.