Has someone invented an infallible crystal ball? Reading a lot of Brexit reporting in the press and the broadcast media, you would certainly think so.
As far as I know, sitting here in September 2018, the United Kingdom has not yet left the European Union. That development is not scheduled to happen for nearly six months. Therefore no one in the known universe can predict at this stage how Brexit will eventually play out – or crucially, whether it will play out at all.
Yet every report I hear on the BBC, along with many that I read in newspapers, treats Brexit as an absolute, unstoppable, cast-iron certainty. Four little words are missing from all these reports: “if Brexit goes ahead”.
This reveals a terrifying flight of reason in the face of Political Correctness (yes, with a capital P and a capital C). The reporters writing these stories would never dare to suggest that any other future world event is bound to happen by immutable law. Yet somehow, rules of logic have been thrown away in the reporting of Brexit. Merely because there was a referendum on the subject more than two years ago, reporters and editors have apparently decided they are to duty-bound treat the implications of the vote with absolute, unshakeable certainty.
You only have to make a small leap in imagination to see the utter folly of this reasoning. Just suppose for a tiny moment that Brexit does not go ahead. It is possible, after all. The earth might be struck by a meteorite, for instance. Britain might have a general election. There might be a “no” vote in a second referendum. All these scenarios, whether likely or not, are possible.
If that does happen, then all the certainty about Brexit exhibited by the BBC (and of course by all the pro-Brexit politicians) will be exposed as having been based on a false assumption, not on any practical reality. All those confident pronouncements about “when Britain leaves the EU” will be seen for what they were – hot air. It will become clear that all along, the word “when” should have been replaced by “if”.
I am a lifelong supporter of the BBC, so it saddens me to single it out for criticism in this way, but on the subject of Brexit it has turned itself into a stubbornly insistent, if perhaps unwitting, apologist for the pro-Brexit camp. And all because of its pursuit of so-called “objectivity”.
I understand why this has happened; the BBC is terrified of being accused of breaking the impartiality obligation written into its charter. But I would argue that its dogged assumption that Brexit will go ahead it not in fact impartial or objective; it is based on a false premise.
The trouble is that the two pieces of wording have not been recognised as opposites. If used to qualify the content of news reports, the phrase “if Brexit goes ahead” would be seen as revolutionary and subversive, whereas “when Brexit goes ahead” is accepted as merely expressing the mythical “will of the people” (as determined by a close-run and deeply flawed referendum process). It is assumed to reflect a universally accepted reality.
It does not. “When Brexit goes ahead” is insidiously manipulative, and just as pointed in its implications as the “if” phrase would be. It treats as a certainty something which, however likely or unlikely, is at best a possibility. In fact in some ways it’s worse than “if”, since it postulates the outcome as inevitable, when at least the “if” phrase leaves room for doubt. “When Brexit goes ahead” is a silent killer – for the most part accepted and tolerated, rather than being seen for the hidden political statement that it is.
Unfortunately, the BBC can look for support to numerous politicians on both sides of the divide – and that includes people who, even though originally Remainers, now claim to view Brexit as unavoidable, and obstinately parrot arguments about “the democratic decision of the people” in defence of their stance, as if a one-off vote two years ago had to stand for all time. It’s difficult to understand what fears or foibles might have prompted such people to become clairvoyants.
“When Brexit goes ahead” has now become so ingrained in the BBC’s thinking that it infuses its every utterance on this subject. Even when the organisation gives airtime to Brexit opponents, which in fairness it does on a frequent basis, there’s always an implication that these people are operating on the fringes of societal norms, and have little if any chance of getting their way … because “Brexit will happen,” come what may.
I’m a realist. I know the BBC couldn’t suddenly start inserting “if Brexit goes ahead” into its reporting. Such a move would instantly undermine the pro-Brexit cause in such a blatant fashion that the director general would presumably be fired within minutes.
Yet as momentum builds behind the drive to revisit Brexit, and even to hold a second referendum, I can’t help feeling disappointed that the BBC seems to be lagging so far behind popular opinion favouring a rethink on the subject. If the organisation could somehow weave a more genuinely impartial tone into its Brexit reporting, that would actually reflect the impartiality it is supposed to uphold.
Claiming that “when Brexit goes ahead” reflects objective reality is about as plausible as arguing that it is possible to predict who will win the next World Cup … or who will win Britain’s next general election.
My novel Never Going to Happen, written under the pen-name Anders Teller, explores the two sides of the Brexit debate in the context of a fast-action thriller that is also a mystery and a romance. More details here.