Right, I’m angry. I just caught up with the execrable BBC Newsnight programme of yesterday evening. During the day, the Prime Minister—the real leader of the “remains”—made his first major invervention in the Brexit debate, declaring that “no options are off the table when it comes to our membership of the EU” but “I would guide very strongly against” adopting what is referred to, for the sake of short-hand, as the Norway Option—outside of the EU but participating in the Single Market via the EFTA/EEA. This evidently contradictory statement may make some kind of sense in the Newspeak world that politicians inhabit, but as far as those of us who prefer to deal with what is humbly called reality are concerned, it is nonsensical to declare that you do not rule anything out and then “very strongly [guide] against” a particular course of action. Of course, none of the press pack picked up on this because he’s the PM, innit.
The fact that neither of the established “leave” campaigns had even so much as mentioned the Norway Option, prior to the last couple of days—when both ‘Leave.EU’ and ‘Vote Leave’ idiotically repudiated it; running away from a fight that could be so easily won given the right messages and an effective delivery strategy—may provide a clue as to the real target of this opening gambit. The Flexcit plan features the Norway Option as one of three equally plausible alternatives for providing regulatory stability in the short to medium term as part of a six-stage process for phased withdrawal from the supranational political and economic structures of the European Union.
Unfortunately, no representatives from the ‘Referendum Planning Group’ were booked to make the case for a Brexit scenario that recognises both the political imperitives and the environmental constraints that will necessarily shape this vastly important decision. With that in mind, if Owen Paterson desires to be in the least bit effective during the EU referendum debate, he has to get out from under the feet of the ‘Vote Leave’ crowd. In contrast with his previous performance on Newsnight when he dealt with an obnoxious Evan Davis, who consistently interrupted and would not allow him to finish his sentences, with calm authority and in the process managed to communicate important information about the role of the “global bodies” that he last night referred to roughly fifteen times without ever naming one, this time Paterson was left floundering. On his previous appearance, Paterson was simple, clear and persuasive, informing Davis, in a headmasterly fashion, about the need to re-engage with the rest of the world by playing a full role in the world governing bodies that shape so much international regulation. “Look, I did DEFRA…”, he reflected, before then proceeding to describe the work of the OIE, IPPC and Codex, and the way in which Britain is denied full self-representation on these bodies, as well as many, many more, as a consequence of our EU membership. Last night, he started to talk about fish, but just as the word “Codex” appeared to be on the tip of his tongue, he referred only to “global bodies” once again.
That said, I am disinclined to be too harsh on the man. I cannot imagine performing in such a fraught environment. To put the “interview”—for it was not really anything of the sort—into context, Paterson’s appearance was preceded by the softest of softball interviews with a pro-EU politician from Norway, during which the fact that the overwhelming majority of Norwegians oppose EU membership for Norway was dismissed as a trivial matter. Naturally, the guest was invited to conclude with the obligatory assertion that of course Britain should remain within the EU. Davis spoke softly, he was polite, he allowed his guest to answer every question without challenge and no follow-up questions were asked. This was followed by a pair of talking heads with a representative from Switzerland and another from Singapore (yes, Singapore!) which included information that was so incidental to the realities of the Brexit debate that one wonders why else it was featured if not to blow a lot of smoke in peoples’ eyes. For the record, BBC researchers, ASEAN is nothing like the EU.
Then and only then, the general audience, who might legitimately expect context and critical thinking from the national broadcaster, thoroughly confused, was Owen Paterson introduced. A few immediate observations on the tricky subject of bias, which is often difficult to pin down because it is as much to do with subtlety and framing as overt statements. But I think the following details are suggestive. Davis’ tone was much more sharp. Just compare the way in which he addressed Paterson to his cooing intonation only moments before during the segment featuring the pro-EU politician. He interupted, a lot. He did not interrupt any of the previous speakers. Not once. He contradicted Paterson, a lot. Likewise. Of course, this is the sort of thing that a politician worth their salt should be able to handle, but when you have a reasonable amount of knowledge about a subject and some bozo starts asking irrelevant and silly questions, I can see how it is possible to get thrown off course.
Moreover, when a politician cuts ties with his strongest researcher and intellectual anchor, there is bound to be a bit of a wobble. The BBC were never going to play fair, but I confess to being rather naive regarding the range and effectiveness of the techniques that were deployed even at this early stage of the debate. I fully accept Pete North’s excellent point regarding the idea that most media misrepresentation arises from structural ignorance rather than political partisanship, but last night’s Newsnight programme was not that. Last night’s Newsnight programme was a rout by a few very capable propagandists, hoping to take out someone who was, until now, shaping up to be a major figure for the “leave” campaign. Not necessarily defeated, but certainly wounded, for the time being, Mr Paterson should think very carefully about whether this sort of ritual humilation is something that he would like to suffer for the next two years. The crowd with which he is now running do not have the first idea about how to provide the support that he needs.