Reporters grapple with the ‘hot mess’ of British politics

Much like the latter seasons of House of Cards, British politics is a melodramatic mess. Yesterday—continuing a tiresome week in which a member of the opposition was expelled from Parliament for picking up a ceremonial mace—Conservative lawmakers voted on whether or not to retain confidence in Prime Minister Theresa May, after she canceled a key vote on her Brexit plan when it became clear it would not pass. May survived the confidence vote and now, under Conservative Party rules, cannot be challenged as leader for a year. Her winning margin, however, was finer than many expected, further eroding her brittle authority.

It has become almost impossible for reporters to move the Brexit story forward because it is stuck at an impasse—the road forward is paved with thousands of slightly different permutations, but none of them currently seems feasible, let alone most likely. BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg described the confidence vote outcome as “purgatory”; Ian Dunt, the editor of a national politics website, wrote that it was “the worst of all worlds: May is ruined but immune.” Dramatic days, like yesterday, at least fill copy with color. But they don’t fundamentally change anything. This morning, May is still prime minister, her Brexit deal still cannot get through Parliament, and it’s still true that something has to give before Britain crashes out of the European Union on March 29th, unless it doesn’t leave on that date after all.

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May, herself, is a contradiction for journalists. Some coverage paints her as a bumbling laughing stock (a video of her failing to get out of a locked car earlier this week did not do her any favors), while other examples show her as a paragon of fighting spirit and stiff-upper-lip British resolve. She’s frequently called “dogged” and “determined”—using both those words, Financial Times Political Editor George Parker told NPR that “although the Brexit deal she’s negotiated seems to upset just about everyone, she herself has actually gone up in the public estimation over the last few weeks” as she stares down repeated onslaughts. In Parliament, these come mostly from men, as Parker notes.

The past several weeks have been particularly hard to parse for US news outlets whose audiences are interested in Brexit, yet baffled by British politics. Reporters must avoid getting snagged in a tangle of arcane technicalities, including the minutiae of May’s Brexit plan, complicated Parliamentary arithmetic and procedure, and political parties’ internal leadership rules. Yesterday’s confidence vote was a party affair, not a Parliamentary one. If May had lost, she could still have carried on as prime minister and even decided to run in a subsequent leadership election; the fact she won, meanwhile, does not make her safe for 12 months. And while May did, as many reported, promise Conservative lawmakers that she would step down before the next scheduled general election, in 2022, it’s not totally clear that she’d resign if the election were to be held in the near future, instead.

Given these difficulties, it’s impressive that most US outlets kept a handle on yesterday’s developments—most reporting on the confidence vote communicated that it was not a triumph for May, and was accurate and (relatively) easy to understand. In doing so, they conveyed a better understanding to American readers. But the root subject matter remains unavoidably messy. Earlier this week, the model Chrissy Teigen tweeted, “I read and read and try and learn [about UK politics] but my brain cannot grasp it.” As The Washington Post’s Jennifer Hassan replied, “Chrissy, it’s a hot mess.”

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Below, more on Theresa May and Brexit:

  • “Her goose is cooked”: For the most part, British newspapers did not see last night’s victory as good news for May—the front page of The Sun, for instance, told her it was still “TIME TO CALL IT A MAY.” Two other right-wing tabloids, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, were more supportive: continuing to reflect recent editorial changes, as I wrote last month.
  • Blood from a stone: After scrapping talks with other EU leaders yesterday to concentrate on keeping her job, May is in Brussels today hoping to secure concessions which will make her Brexit deal more palatable to British lawmakers. The Guardian has the latest developments.
  • An “impossible choice”: While so much has happened since, Sam Knight’s July profile of May for The New Yorker is still a good introduction to who she is, and the challenges she’s facing.
  • The end of an era: Also in the UK, veteran political broadcaster David Dimbleby will tonight chair Question Time, a flagship BBC show giving regional audiences a chance to grill politicians and commentators, for the final time after 25 years in the hot seat. He’ll be replaced by Fiona Bruce, who will become the show’s first female host.


Other notable stories:

  • Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was sentenced to three years in prison yesterday for paying hush money to two women—allegedly at Trump’s direction—in violation of campaign finance laws. Afterward, prosecutors revealed they struck a deal with American Media Inc., David Pecker’s tabloid company, which will avoid charges despite finally admitting that it helped Cohen and Trump “catch and kill” the women’s stories. The Wall Street Journal won plaudits yesterday for nailing the story over two years ago. And CNN’s Brian Stelter noticed that Pecker’s National Enquirer stopped putting Trump on its cover after federal prosecutors came calling this year.
  • After Tribune Publishing (then known as tronc) fired LA Times Editor and Publisher Davan Maharaj last year, Maharaj pursued a wrongful termination suit armed with a recording of Michael Ferro, the company’s then chairman, referring to a “Jewish cabal” running Los Angeles, NPR’s David Folkenflik reports. Following mediation, Tribune agreed to pay Maharaj $2.5 million.
  • Staff at New York magazine yesterday asked management to recognize a union after around 80 percent of editorial employees signed on. The news came a day after Slate staffers voted to put a strike on the table over cost of living, diversity, and union fees issues at the digital publisher. For CJR, Andrew McCormick profiles Jones Day, a law firm that has become a “go-to for media executives facing union drives,” including at Slate.
  • As ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network enters its second year, it named 14 newsrooms and reporters it will support to produce local and regional investigative journalism, including the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska, the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, and the MLK50: Justice Through Journalism project in Memphis, Tennessee. The weirdest reaction came from Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin, who, after learning of the Louisville Courier-Journal’s involvement, called ProPublica “a left-wing activist group funded by the likes of George Soros.”
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists released its annual global survey of imprisoned journalists, finding, for a third year in a row, that at least 251 reporters are behind bars—a disturbing “new normal.”
  • Trump’s decision to tap Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson who previously worked as a Fox News commentator, as his next ambassador to the United Nations has been widely criticized. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, however, Dovid Efune has an intriguing contrary take: “If one small side effect of a positive Senate vote is that it expands the career horizons of journalists by demonstrating that their skills are both valuable and transferable—well, that will only be an added benefit to democracy.”
  • In a first public statement since her testimony rocked Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, Christine Blasey Ford taped a message presenting Sports Illustrated’s Inspiration of the Year award to Rachael Denhollander, who was the first woman to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. ICYMI last week, CJR’s Alexandria Neason had a fascinating deep dive into media coverage of USAG, explaining why reporters were slow to pick up the Nassar scandal.
  • And for CJR, Yardena Schwartz tells the story of the Ski Club of International Journalists, which was founded in the 1950s to thaw relations between Western and Eastern reporters. “With US-Russia relations once again at the center of global headlines, the story of SCIJ is a reminder of the importance of solidarity among journalists,” Schwartz writes. “Even now its aim is rare: gathering journalists not for lectures and workshops, but to explore each other’s cultures and worldviews.”

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