Britain’s tired press looks for distractions

Britain was supposed to be out of the European Union today. Depending on which newspaper you read, that would have meant moving into a bright, unshackled future, or a desperate economic hellscape. The words “October 31” rang through the country’s media for months, accompanied by dire warnings from right-wing politicians that if the deed wasn’t done by then, there would be civil unrest; Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said that he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than keep Britain in the EU a day past Halloween. But the departure date is now set for January 31 (or sooner, if politicians can pass an exit deal before then); in the interim, Britain will have an election, on December 12, to try and break the impasse. That means six weeks of relentless campaign coverage. Some outlets, fatigued by now, are desperately trying to focus elsewhere.

Even right-wing tabloids—reliable agitators for Brexit—haven’t mustered the energy to scream about it being November and Britain still being in Europe. The anticipated front-page fury (previously expressed in terms of “MUTINEERS,” “BETRAYAL,” and “THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE”) hasn’t materialized. Instead, The Sun, Britain’s best-read tabloid, rails this morning against Jeremy Kyle, a daytime TV host (a lower-rent Jerry Springer) whose show was canceled this year after a participant died. (The Sun: “Kyle bile even more vile.”) The Daily Star—which briefly banned the word “Brexit” in March because it had grown too tiresome—also has Kyle on its front page, dressed as Shrek for Halloween (“KYLE IS AN OGRE”), as well as a story decrying a British university for banning sombreros from costume parties. The Daily Mirror, a left-wing tabloid, centered John Bercow—the former (as of yesterday) House of Commons speaker best known to American journalists for shouting “ORDDDEERRRRR” in bemusing viral videos—demanding £1 million to appear on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, a British reality-TV show. (Producers said no.)

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Of course, it’s impossible to fully avoid Brexit in British political media these days, much like it’s impossible to avoid Donald Trump in the US. Yesterday, the unstoppable force met the immovable object as Trump phoned LBC, a talk-radio station, to offer support on a show hosted by his friend Nigel Farage, Brexiteer-in-chief. “It’s October 31, the day we were told over and over again we would be leaving the European Union, and we’re not, so I was a bit disappointed by that,” Farage said on air. “But I was cheered up because I got a very important phone call from someone. Let’s call him Donald from Washington, shall we?” Farage lobbed soft-ball questions that would make Jeanine Pirro blush, as Trump rambled repetitively about the Queen (“a great, great woman”), Boris Johnson (“He’s the Trump! He’s the Trump!”), and his grievances with NATO, Democrats, and the press. The interview made news: Trump warned that Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal will complicate efforts to strike a UK–US trade deal, and urged Johnson to team up with Farage in the coming election (“I think it would be a great thing”). The latter suggestion wound up on the front pages of several major papers this morning.

As the campaign progresses, Brexit is likely to dominate coverage. But it won’t be the only story—in particular, the future of Britain’s free-to-use National Health Service will be prominent, too. Yesterday, we got a preview of that battle: the Mirror’s front page warned that Johnson can’t be trusted to protect the NHS; the right-wing Daily Mail countered with a poll showing voters trust Johnson with it than more than they trust his opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader of Britain’s Labour Party. Still, Corbyn will be foremost among those urging the media to change the subject from Brexit (not least because his position on it is confused). Launching his campaign yesterday, he pleaded with reporters to be nice to him: “I ask our media, as good journalists, to just report what we say,” he said, as party activists roared in approval. (Good journalists sensed menacing undertones; Corbyn is a long-term antagonist of the mainstream press.)

There’s a lot of vitriol flying around Britain right now. Election coverage will expose it, at best; exacerbate it, at worst. Rod Liddle—a columnist for The Spectator, a mainstream conservative magazine that Boris Johnson used to editwrote this week that parents should stop their kids from voting, and that elections should be held on days when “Muslims are forbidden to do anything on pain of hell,” to help Johnson’s Conservatives win. Liddle’s language was extreme, and, one fears, it’s more likely to prove a taste of things to come than an aberration.

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Below, more on Britain:

  • Colonial coverage: Farage asked Trump about Meghan Markle, who’s received harsh coverage from sections of the right-wing media of late. (This week, 72 female lawmakers condemned press treatment of Markle as “outdated” and “colonial.”) “I think you’ve probably personally had more tough press, and perhaps [more] unfair press than anybody else alive. Do you feel a bit sorry for young Meghan?” Farage asked. Trump replied: “She takes it very, very personally. And I can understand it.”
  • Toxic Mail: Last month, Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail, lashed out at his successor, Geordie Greig, in a letter to the Financial Times. The dispute was nominally about advertising; ultimately, though, the driver was that Dacre and Greig have diverging views on Brexit. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde breaks it down.
  • “Tendentious and politically slanted”: In the summer, the BBC broadcast a documentary detailing allegations of rampant anti-Semitism in Corbyn’s Labour Party. The party complained that the broadcast was biased, but the BBC is now set to reject the complaint, The Guardian reports. In other BBC news, 120 of its female staffers have lodged complaints about gender-based pay discrimination; their names were released in error.
  • Unreliable sources: Last week, Peter Oborne, a British commentator, accused journalists of assisting Johnson’s “fake news machine” by willingly quoting anonymous Downing Street briefings that turn out to be false. That sparked a debate among British reporters about the perils of blind sourcing. Politico’s James Randerson has a round-up.

Other notable stories:

  • The House of Representatives voted, more or less on party lines, to formalize the next steps in its impeachment inquiry, laying out rules for its coming televised phase. With the Trump–Ukraine news cycle continuing to churn, BuzzFeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy set out to find a demographic that’s deepest in the Fox News bubble. She ended up in Pace, Florida, where people (spoiler) think the impeachment is a sham. (Still reading this bullet? For Nieman Lab, María Celeste Wagner and Pablo Boczkowski predict that impeachment coverage will increasingly be “catnip for news junkies—but also a boost for news avoidance.”)
  • Also in the House, Rep. Katie Hill—a California Democrat who is resigning her seat amid allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships with staffers and a simultaneous smear campaign in which right-wing websites have published naked images of her—gave a blistering exit address: “I am leaving because I didn’t want to be peddled by papers, and blogs, and websites used by shameless operatives for the dirtiest gutter politics I’ve ever seen, and the right-wing media to drive clicks and expand their audience,” she said. Both RedState and the Daily Mail shared nude photos of Hill; the articles in question were written by a former adviser to the Republican Congressman who Hill defeated last year.
  • Emily Tamkin, CJR’s public editor for CNN, writes that the network still doesn’t know how to cover “the squad”—Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib. It’s been a year since they won their seats, Tamkin says, and “still, somehow, CNN treats these four duly elected members of Congress as at best an anomaly and at worst an annoyance.”
  • Catherine Herridge—chief intelligence correspondent at Fox News, where she’s worked since the network’s founding in 1996—is jumping to CBS News, to be an investigative reporter. Her departure is a blow to the news side of Fox, following the resignation of Shep Smith. Yesterday, Herridge called CBS a network “where facts and storytelling will always matter”—a possible parting dig at Fox.
  • The American Society of News Editors is out with its annual newspaper-diversity survey. The average newsroom in its sample is 58 percent male, and 24 percent more white than the city where it’s based. On the latter score, only five newsrooms are reflective of their cities (or more diverse); some are less diverse than they used to be. Full results are here.
  • In Russia, legislation takes effect today requiring internet providers to install equipment that will allow the state to unilaterally block traffic. Per Human Rights Watch, the new law means that “the government can directly censor content or even turn Russia’s internet into a closed system without telling the public what they are doing or why.”
  • CJR’s Akintunde Ahmad writes that reporters should think twice when covering criminal suspects who have yet to be convicted. Journalists need not regurgitate “the few known facts of an incident,” Ahmad writes. “Publishing underreported crime stories often has little benefit for the public, and catastrophic consequences for a suspect.”
  • Amanda Knox—the American woman who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Italy, then eventually acquitted—now has an advice column. Knox will write periodically for Westside Seattle, a local newspaper, published by the family of Knox’s husband. The Guardian’s Hallie Golden has more.
  • And Aaron Sorkin—who wrote The Social Network, a movie about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook—wrote an open letter in the Times excoriating real-life Zuckerberg’s refusal to fact-check political ads. The column contained numerous factual errors. Twitter noticed.

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