The herd instinct of our free and fearless press is well-known: one paper has a story, and it starts gaining traction, the rest of the pack joins in. What is less common is for the herd instinct to be sparked by one news source whose employees might be expected to give out correct information in the first place. That is where we are this morning, after the BBC mis-translated German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarks.
This is what the Beeb’s website told readers yesterday evening: “German Chancellor Angela Merkel has suggested an alternative to the Irish border backstop - a key Brexit sticking point - could be found within 30 days … The PM said he was ‘more than happy’ with that ‘blistering timetable’ … He accepted the ‘onus’ was on the UK, but said he believed there was ‘ample scope’ for a new deal to be reached”.
And so it came to pass that the press pack not only decided that this was the line to take, but they also believed it. Today’s front pages confirmed it, with the i Paper proclaiming “30 days to solve Brexit: Merkel’s offer to Johnson”. The Telegraph goes with “30 days to ditch the backstop”, the Express “30 DAYS TO DO A DEAL”, and the Mail pretending it can talk foreign, offering “CAN WE DO IT? JA, WE CAN!” And it wasn’t just the press.
At ITV, political editor Robert Peston joined in the delusion: “Striking that Merkel has pulled rug from under [Philip Hammond], the Gaukeward Squad and much of anti-no-deal posse by saying there is negotiation to be had in next 30 days on how to eliminate backstop. No wonder [Boris Johnson] looks happy”. They all got it wrong.
Angela Merkel didn’t say what the Beeb claimed she said. That got lost in the translation, as David Brown has explained: “What Angela Merkel said... ‘We need a backstop. Maybe we will find a solution in 2 years time, maybe we will find a solution in thirty days time…’ How the BBC reported it... ‘Angela Merkel announced that a solution to the backstop could be found in thirty days…’”. Got it in one. There was no offer.
David Allen Green, who has been keeping a watching eye on the unfolding shambles, observed “After three years, the propensity of London media to fall for the spin of Westminster politicians rather than hearing and reading what EU politicians and bodies actually do say continues to disappoint. Brexit is as much a media and information crisis as a political crisis”. And the BBC is as much a part of that crisis as the press.
And we can see how the failure of the London-centric media to understand what happened yesterday is playing with Brits abroad, thanks to Jon Worth in Berlin: “Mark my words - in 30 days from now: … the Merkel-Johnson press conference will be forgotten … the UK will still have no workable solution to avoid the Backstop If you think I'm wrong, reply to this tweet, and I will dig it out in 30 days to see”. He has made a diary entry for next month.
Our media class is not listening to those outside its hermetically sealed bubble. Alleged Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has just been done up like a kipper by Angela Merkel and, led by the BBC, they’re trumpeting a great victory in the retelling.
The real world may not be to the media class’ liking. But that is no reason not to report on it, and report honestly and accurately. Another less than ideal day for the Beeb.
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