Britain’s partisan press takes aim at the “Brexshit”
By Jon Allsop
After finally reaching agreement with the European Union on the details of Brexit earlier this week, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, wobbled. Domestic critics assailed her from all sides—charging, variously, that the deal she struck would entail too close a relationship with the EU or not enough of one. Yesterday, two members of May’s cabinet—including the official who, in theory, had been responsible for the Brexit negotiations—resigned, saying they could not support the deal. Senior backbench lawmakers, desperate to sever as many ties as possible with the EU, threatened to trigger a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership. When May stood up in Parliament to promise a “smooth and orderly” exit from the bloc, mocking laughter peeled around the House of Commons.
Swathes of Britain’s press, which is reliably opinionated, have, predictably, piled on May, too, renewing long-held criticisms of her performance and the Brexit process as a whole. On the left, The Guardian offered rare, faint praise of May, but painted her deal as a disaster with flaws “intrinsic to the very idea of Brexit,” which the paper has always opposed. On the right, the Murdoch-owned Sun—which vociferously backed Brexit leading up to the 2016 vote and has since pushed for a cleaner break with Europe than May is offering—screamed yesterday, in melodramatic all caps, that “WE’RE IN THE BREXS*IT.” The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, has topped its front page with scathing opinion pieces for two days running. Yesterday, it went with a wounding assessment by Nick Timothy, May’s former right-hand man, that the deal was “a capitulation.” Today, it quoted columnist Allison Pierson’s call for May to resign immediately. “We need a chess grandmaster to wrangle with Brussels,” Pierson writes, “not the runner-up in the 1973 Towcester tiddlywinks competition.”
Britain’s print media are not generally prone to changing their spots, yet the past few months have brought some curious, and important, realignments. A year and a day ago, the right-wing Daily Mail mocked up a mugshot-gallery-style front page with pictures of Conservative Party lawmakers who favored Britain’s EU membership under the headline “The Brexit mutineers” (afterward, some of them received threats). Since then, however, Paul Dacre, the Mail’s pro-Brexit editor, departed, and was replaced by Geordie Greig, a convinced “Remainer.” This morning, the Mail once again took aim at Conservative rebels—this time, however, it was those on the opposite, hard-right wing of the party that drew its ire. Calling them “preening saboteurs,” the paper asked, in its front-page headline, “HAVE THEY LOST THE PLOT?”
The Daily Express, a strident right-wing voice of yore, has been kind to May’s soft Brexit deal this week, too. It, too, got a new editor this year, appointing Gary Jones, who formerly led the Sunday Mirror, a left-leaning tabloid. At a Parliamentary hearing shortly after his appointment, Jones called some of his paper’s past content “Islamophobic” and “downright offensive,” and promised a softening of tone. Yesterday, the Express painted the “rosiest picture as far as May is concerned” of any paper, the Guardian observed, “with no mention of leadership challenges or cabinet troubles”; this morning, its front-page headline called May “defiant.”
Britain’s tabloids pride themselves on their ability to shape the country’s political agenda. In 1992, a now-mythic Sun front page famously claimed credit for an unexpected Conservative Party election victory (“IT’S THE SUN WOT WON IT”). The foundations of the country’s vote to leave the EU, too, were undoubtedly laid by decades of hostility toward Europe on the part of right-wing papers, the Mail and the Express prominent among them. May remains very much under-fire—not least from The Sun—though it will comfort her that at least a few strong media voices who would previously have ridiculed her deal are standing behind it, and her, for now.
The extent to which British papers lead their readers by the nose, rather than the other way around, however, has long been an open debate. A YouGov poll out today indicates widespread public rejection of May’s deal, with many citizens pushing for a second referendum instead. Like everywhere else, newspaper circulation in Britain is declining. If Brexit is the apotheosis of the country’s campaigning press, it might also mark the start of a new, steep decline.
Below, more on Brexit:
- A1: The Guardian has a good round-up of today’s British newspaper front pages.
- B3: While right-wing columnists in the Telegraph slammed May’s deal and called for a harder Brexit, the paper today gave page three to an op-ed by Tony Blair, former Labour Party prime minister, who is campaigning for a second vote to keep Britain in Europe after all.
- C you later: When May became prime minister after the Brexit vote, in 2016, she sacked George Osborne, who had served as finance minister under May’s predecessor, David Cameron. Osborne then quit politics to become editor of the Evening Standard, a London newspaper. He’s used that perch to relentlessly hound May: according to Esquire, he said last year that he would not rest until she is “chopped up in bags in my freezer.” It comes as no surprise that the Standard has been hard on May’s deal this week, calling it “dead."
- D parts: In July, The Atlantic’s Tom Rachman wrote that Paul Dacre’s departure from the Mail could change Britain. “The Daily Mail still commands vast power, its thunderous front-page headlines all but causing the paintings to tremble at 10 Downing Street,” Rachman wrote. “And this is where Greig comes in, for he is about to take control at the inky institution, perhaps editing this country’s political chaos in the process.”
Other notable stories:
- On CJR’s podcast The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with David Little, editor of the Chico Enterprise-Record in Northern California, on getting a paper out amid the deadliest wildfires in that state’s history. The LA Times’s Benjamin Oreskes also profiled the Enterprise-Record, noting that its staff has dwindled in recent years.
- Bucking expectations, the judge in CNN’s lawsuit against the White House did not rule yesterday on a temporary restraining order to restore Jim Acosta’s press credentials; he’s set to rule this morning instead. After a pack of news organizations, including Fox, filed amicus briefs on behalf of CNN, the pro-Trump One America News Network also filed a brief… on behalf of the White House.
- Prosecutors inadvertently revealed that the Justice Department has prepared to indict Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who lives in exile in Ecuador’s London embassy. “Though the possible charges against Mr. Assange remained a mystery on Thursday, an indictment centering on the publication of information of public interest... would create a precedent with profound implications for press freedoms,” the Times reports.
- Mark Zuckerberg hopped on a call with reporters to discuss Facebook’s community standards yesterday, but was quickly derailed by questions about Wednesday’s explosive Times scoop outlining a behind-the-scenes malaise at the company. As fallout from the company’s questionable PR tactics—which included hiring Republican spinners to link liberal activists to George Soros—intensified, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer and a key subject of the Times piece, pushed back. For CJR, Mathew Ingram writes that “Facebook’s instinct to deny, then apologize is baked into its DNA.”
- Saudi prosecutors announced yesterday that they would seek the death penalty for five people they said were directly responsible for the murder of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi last month—though the announcement once again shifted the official narrative, asserting that the killers were under orders to render Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia, but instead administered an overdose of sedatives. Also yesterday, the US government imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis it said were implicated. The list included senior officials close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
- Remember the migrant caravan? Fox News helped Trump whip up an immigration panic prior to the midterms, but then mostly dropped the story, according to data obtained by The Wrap’s Jon Levine. Mentions on CNN and MSNBC—who were criticized for amplifying Trump’s wild claims—also trailed off.
- BuzzFeed has a revealing round-up of the perks different cities offered Amazon as it hunted for a second headquarters, including an exclusive airport lounge for executives (Atlanta), a special taskforce to curb an “unacceptable murder rate” (Columbus), and… nothing at all (Toronto). Amazon decided to split its new base between New York and Arlington, Virginia.
- With friends like these… The Daily Beast reports that Trump has repeatedly mocked the “dumb” softball questions of his top media booster Sean Hannity.
- And for CJR, Karen K. Ho spoke with Sunny Dhillon, a reporter at Canada’s Globe and Mail who quit last month after his bureau chief would not let him focus on the lack of diversity in Vancouver’s newly elected city council.