With Theresa May’s exit, everything—and nothing—changes

Last Friday, Theresa May finally resigned as Britain’s prime minister. At the end of her exit announcement, May, who will stay on until the governing Conservative Party picks a successor, started to cry. Her tears sparked media debate as to whether we should feel sorry for her; the next day, British newspaper front pages carried the image with varying degrees of sympathy. Internationally, reporting and commentary struck similar chords, albeit with less dependence on the crying photos. Some observers, including The New York Times editorial board, stressed that May’s main job—delivering Brexit—had always been an impossible task. The consensus view in the American press, however, held that May’s time in office has been an unmitigated failure. Anne Applebaum, a columnist for The Washington Post, called May “the least successful British prime minister in living memory.”

The time for reflection quickly concluded. In the British press, at least, May has already become something of a footnote. The Sunday papers were dominated by the horse race to succeed her. The crowded field of heavyweights and callow outsiders has shades of the Democratic presidential primary contest in the US. Boris Johnson—the journalist turned London mayor, turned Brexit figurehead, turned foreign minister, turned Brexit figurehead again—is the frontrunner; on Sunday, much coverage focused on his colleagues’ efforts to stop him. Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, two high-profile rivals to Johnson, emphasized in separate broadcast interviews that they are details people—a veiled rebuke of Johnson, who has frequently been accused of having a poor grasp of policy specifics. Johnson’s love life was another recurring theme. The Mail on Sunday noted, in its front-page headline, that the race is “turning toxic already.”

ICYMI: After trade talks, China press crafts a controlled nationalist narrative

On Sunday night, an already crowded news cycle moved on again as the results of Britain’s elections to the European Parliament, the European Union’s legislative arm, were announced. (Britain was supposed to leave the bloc prior to the elections, but ended up taking part. Voting was last Thursday.) Many outlets, both in the UK and overseas, proclaimed a thumping victory for the Brexit Party, a newly formed grouping led by Nigel Farage that advocates Britain leaving the EU without an exit deal. That looked like a fair takeaway: the Brexit Party topped the national poll by a margin of more than 10 percent. In truth, however, the picture was more complicated. Taken together, the vote share for the Liberal Democrat and Green parties, which both strongly support canceling Brexit altogether, tied the Brexit Party’s vote share; if you include pro-Europe nationalist groups in Scotland and Wales, pro-Europe voters actually won. (Full disclosure: I campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU in 2016, before I became a journalist.) Beneath many headlines about Farage and the Brexit Party, Britain’s inconclusive, ongoing divisions emerged as the bigger story. Among international media, the Post did a particularly good job putting this context front and center.

Since Sunday night, the British press has continued to litigate the results. Supporters of the Brexit Party fumed at the BBC for downplaying the extent of their victory in its election-night coverage. This morning, however, Farage—a bombastic self-promoter—continues to dominate newspaper front pages; a banner headline in Metro even amplifies his claim that the Brexit Party would win a national election, should one be called. (Britain’s electoral system and the different contexts of national and European elections make this outcome highly unlikely.) The attention lavished on Farage’s party is no surprise—its success looks like a new narrative in a cycle that has become numbingly repetitive. Not everyone accepts that framing, however. “The idea that the Brexit Party is a ‘new’ party is a total fiction,” Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who broke the Cambridge Analytica story, tweeted. “It’s just the latest host body for Farage—the tapeworm of British politics.”

The long weekend has felt like a case study in British political media in 2019—intense, whirlwind narrative churn atop deeper divisions that never seem to change. May herself became a metaphor for this phenomenon: as her tenure wore on, the words “nothing has changed” even became satirical shorthand for her inflexibility in the face of obvious failure. But the press should be highly skeptical of those such as Johnson and Farage, who peddle simple ways out of the grinding impasse. As the Times editorial board noted Friday, the intractable policy problems that undid May’s efforts to solve Brexit will not go away. On that front, at least, nothing has changed.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on Theresa May, Europe, and Brexit:

  • I, Maybot: During her time in office, May came to be known as “the Maybot” for her emotionless, mechanical political style. (The term was coined by John Crace, a sketch writer for The Guardian.) Her tears on Friday marked a narrative shift that made some observers uncomfortable. “She was Maybot for three years. She gets emotional when she’s leaving and now she’s a role model for girls and women,” Janine Gibson, an editor at the Financial Times, tweeted. “We still have some way to go with the way we talk about women in public life.”
  • Boring down: For the Times, Stephen Castle profiles Johnson. “A journalist by training, Johnson was fired by the London Times for inventing a quote but later made his name as the Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph with a string of articles lampooning European integration,” Castle notes. As foreign minister, Johnson “complicated the prospects for a dual British-Iranian citizen, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who had been arrested by Iran for sedition. He said in Parliament that she was there to teach journalism, even though she was there only to visit family.”
  • Beyond Britain: As in the UK, the European election results painted a complicated picture across the continent: right-wing populist groups made gains, but so did liberal and green parties. Different European newspapers emphasized different parts of this story. The Guardian and the BBC have round-ups. For the Post, Applebaum argues that, through these dueling narratives, the EU is becoming “a single political space.”


Other notable stories:

  • Late last week, a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which had been slowed down to make her sound drunk, went viral on social media. CNN’s Anderson Cooper took Monika Bickert, a senior Facebook executive, to task for keeping the video up; online, debate as to what the platform should and should not have done continued through the long weekend. Last night, Facebook courted yet more negative press as it confirmed that Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg will defy summonses to appear before Canada’s Parliament, which could now vote to hold the pair in contempt.
  • President Trump, who has been traveling in Japan, endorsed North Korean state media’s description of Joe Biden, the Democratic frontrunner for 2020, as having a “low IQ.” Yesterday, during a news conference, Trump doubled down on the remark. The president also sided with Kim Jong Un on North Korea’s recent missile tests, contradicting his own national security officials as well as his Japanese hosts. In a tweet, Ian Bremmer, a consultant and Time columnist, attributed a fake quote—that Kim “would make a better president” than Biden—to Trump; Bremmer was joking, but some pundits thought the quote was real. In response, Trump raged that libel laws should be tightened “to hold Fake News Media accountable!” Bremmer apologized.
  • For CJR, Shen Lu assesses a defiant recent turn in Chinese media coverage of the country’s ongoing trade dispute with the US. “Some Chinese media experts say that with its antagonistic press coverage, the Communist Party is aligning public opinion with the state’s position,” she writes. “It’s a familiar tactic: to rally public support during a national crisis, the state uses heated rhetoric about clashes with foreign countries.”
  • Running With Beto, a fly-on-the-wall HBO documentary about Beto O’Rourke’s losing 2018 Texas Senate campaign, is out today. James Poniewozik, TV critic for the Times, jumps off of the film to argue that chasing media coverage is increasingly part of the message Democratic primary candidates are trying to get across: “To pitch yourself as a president, you must first prove yourself as a show… You do media in part to prove that you can use media well enough to win.” One exception, as Poniewozik notes, is Biden, whose campaign has limited its public schedule and media exposure. For the Post, Annie Linskey and Chelsea Janes ask whether Biden can afford to keep that strategy up.
  • Sports Illustrated finally has a buyer—sort of. Meredith Corporation, its owner, sold the magazine’s intellectual property to Authentic Brands Group, a marketing company, in an “unusual partnership”: Meredith will continue to handle editorial output, Authentic Brands Group will license SI’s brand and content, and the pair will split the profits, the Post’s Ben Strauss reports. Meredith has the right to quit the arrangement in two years.
  • On Sunday, Scott Pelley, a 60 Minutes correspondent, told CNN’s Brian Stelter that he lost his previous job as anchor of CBS’s Evening News because “I wouldn’t stop complaining to management about the hostile work environment.” (Last year, several senior figures at CBS, including former CEO Les Moonves, were ousted for sexual misconduct; the fallout exposed a broader cultural rot at the network.) David Rhodes—the former president of CBS News who, Pelley says, threatened Pelley’s job over such complaints—hit back, telling The Daily Beast that Pelley never came to him with any concerns. In a statement, CBS News said it “disagreed” with Pelley’s “opinion.”
  • And over the weekend, Felix Klein, a German government official, advised Jewish people in the country not to wear the kippah in public due to an uptick in anti-Semitic attacks. In response, Bild, a German tabloid, printed a cut-out kippah on its front page and urged readers to wear it in solidarity. CNN’s Jack Guy has more.

ICYMI: The story of Ernest Hemingway’s $187,000 magazine expenses claim

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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