The reporting of the referendum campaign and more particularly the media comment in the aftermath of the result is indicative of the low standards that now permeate British political reporting even in the so-called quality press. One way of summing up political reporting in general, and not just over the EU referendum, is to state that the media is mired in a miasma of misunderstood memes. No doubt some journalist would point out that miring is something that occurs in mud, while a miasma is a vapour. By doing so they would prove my point. Journalism has learnt from social media, where many journalists first plied their trade, that focusing on what they deem a mistake is more important than investigating to the root of the problem. The problem in this case is the media and at its root it is rotten to the core. This referendum exposed that rottenness in a way that other political debates would not, because most of the media where placed on one side of the argument by their own position within the British social hierarchy.
The clearest example of this social media type reporting to avoid addressing the real issue or even engaging in a proper journalistic investigation was the response to an article written for The Sun by Vote Leave campaigner Boris Johnson in advance of the American president's visit to London. It was reported in much of the remain supporting media that Johnson had made the racist assertion that Barack Obama's opinions were linked to the part-Kenyan President's ancestral dislike of the British Empire. In The Guardian the initial article on the comments by Anushka Asthana and Ben Quinn was primarily about how Labour politicians accused Johnson of racism, but the journalists correctly noted that it was referring to the removal of a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office just before Obama moved in. They also quoted the relevant sentence in full:
Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president's ancestral dislike of the British empire of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.
The some who said that is probably a reference to an articles in the The Sun's rival The Daily Mail at the time of Obama's heavy criticism of BP over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Zoe Brennan's article was co-written by freelance African journalist Paul Orengoh, who had two years earlier co-written an article with The Times' Ben Macintyre about Obama's grandfather being tortured by the British in Kenya during the clamp down after the Mau Mau rebellion. Brennan's article added the further detail that Obama had removed a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office and this is probably who Johnson is referring to.
The same day the Guardian ran another article by Mona Chalabi which twisted Johnson's words, without actually misquoting him. She shortened them in a fact checking article on the Chruchill bust to,
Johnson attacked the part-Kenyan president's ancestral dislike of the British Empire.
By removing the closing reference to Churchill's love of the empire and asserting that Johnson attacked Obama, rather than citing other comments at the time, Chalabi provided part of the meme that would carry forward in much of the leave supporting media, namely that Johnson attacked Obama's ancestry as a way to blunt the president's espousal of the remain cause in the British referendum. This reached its height, or maybe its depths, when the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland in an article critcising Johnson's post-referendum appointment as foreign secretary claimed that the new chief diplomat had attacked Obama's part-Kenyan ancestry. British political journalism was once something to admire, but now it is mired in exactly the sort of chicanery that is criticises in politicians (or at least in those politicians not serving the whims of that particular journalist).
Even if the memes purveyed by the media stood up to investigation they would be problematic as they involve a filling up of word count with an unexplored repetition of the current meme doing the rounds. Such passing references should have no place in political journalism as they divert attention from the main issue under investigation. It enables the journalist to hide deficiencies in the investigation by reference to something about a politician, campaign, or party that will cheer the audience of that media outlet, rather than provide an intelligent contribution to the debate. The example of Johnson's speaking about other people referring to the part-Kenyan president's ancestral dislike of the British Empire is a striking example. Rather than providing a intelligent contribution to the debate it hides the truth by shortening the quotation to make it a personal claim by Johnson rather than others and loses the connection to Winston Churchill, about who Johnson wrote a biography. To then shorten this further to become an example of Johnson's racism, as Freedland does, goes beyond a lack of contribution into a distortion of the facts, which according to The Guardian are supposed to be sacred. Journalists in this digital age like to market their social media credentials yet so many seem to regard an internet search engine as a forbidden territory. Freedland should have checked to see what Johnson about Obama rather than writing down an unchecked half remembered meme.
I have described modern media as mired in a miasma of misunderstood memes and that aspect of not understanding the meme goes beyond not remembering to check whether the meme contained any truth. A meme that is true can be misunderstood if it is set in the wrong context, which without checking sources is easy to do as the whole point of a meme is that it a short phrase oft repeated and usually without any context given. A key example of a true but misunderstood meme is much repeated part sentence from Vote Leave campaigner Michael Gove that the country has had enough of experts. Gove did say that, but the media immediately extrapolated this to mean that the country has had enough of any experts at all. Context is everything. Gove was being interview by Sky News' Faisal Islam, who challenged him on the many organisations such as the International Monetary Fund who said that Brexit would lead to economic turmoil. It was in that context that Gove declared that the country had had enough of experts. In other words the experts that the remain campaign continued to wheel out to try to persuade voters that a leave vote was to too dangerous and they should play safe and vote remain. Gove responded to further probing by stating that the electorate would trust their own judgement on how to vote. So far from being the meme-laden post-truth Trump-like approach that Islam claimed it could be summed up as Gove saying it's a referendum not an election.
Islam's accusation that Gove and by extension Vote Leave was post truth picked up on one of the major memes of the reporting and illustrates the derivative nature of memes in the contemporary global media. Post truth was an accusation that a New York Times journalist made about US presidential candidate Donald Trump. This then became a key meme of reporting from the perspective of media reporters who had their doubts about Trump and was picked up by the British media who had their doubts about the leave campaign.
The UK media is very celebrity focused and so it is unsurprising that much of the media coverage centred around key personalities such as David Cameron, George Osborne, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, etc. That is, however, out of keeping with a referendum being about the questions on the ballot paper, but especially the London-based media are unused to referendums and so they tended to report the campaign as if it was an election campaign. The media coverage became a classic example of the adage that the media makes the news while claiming to only report it. Yet with a result that went against what most media outlets wanted it was also an example of how the media can control the message, but cannot control the voters.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved