The idea of a ticking clock has proved an extremely powerful weapon for advocates of Brexit. It has shaped the conversation even among broadcasters, which have a legal duty to be impartial. At a special Saturday sitting, Parliament voted to give itself a greater ability to block No Deal, at which point the government chose not to contest its main motion, which sought general approval for Johnson’s Brexit agreement. Sky News then sent a news alert reading: “Did your MP scupper Brexit deal vote [sic]?” It was a leading question, playing into the narrative that any delay to Brexit is equivalent to sabotage. The “Brexit deal vote” returned to Parliament three days later. (Sky’s online headline, which was the same as the news alert, was later changed because it “fell short of Sky News’ editorial standards.”)
That is not an isolated example. This weekend saw a perfect execution of the Number 10 strategy to encourage the media to adopt its framing of Brexit. Having failed to pass his deal, Johnson was legally obliged by an earlier piece of legislation to send a letter to the EU requesting more time before Britain’s exit. He had long claimed he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than do this. And yet, by law, he had to do it. So late on Saturday night, Number 10 “sources” told leading broadcasters and Sunday-newspaper journalists that Johnson had in fact sent three letters, one of which restated his desire to leave on October 31, and had not signed the letter he was legally obliged to send—as if that affected its validity. In one final flourish, at least two journalists were briefed that Johnson was willing to go to court over his actions.
Of course, this legal showdown—with a martyred prime minister facing those who would dare to obstruct “the will of the people”—never happened, for the simple reason that the lack of signature was irrelevant; with or without it, the letter was an official communication. Johnson’s actions therefore complied perfectly with what he was legally required to do. The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, confirmed that fact when he soberly tweeted: “The extension request has just arrived. I will now start consulting EU leaders on how to react.”
Still, the strategy worked, as far as British media management went: The Sunday Telegraph’s front-page headline was “Johnson Refuses to Sign Brexit Delay Letter.” The Sunday Times went with “Boris Fights ‘Brexit Wreckers’ With Three Defiant Letters to the EU.” From their tone, you would think that Johnson had tattooed screw you, Brussels on a bulldog and thrown it out of a Spitfire over the European Parliament.
The past week has also seen another common bias: a preference for “horse-race journalism”—who’s ahead, who’s behind, what are the odds of each possible outcome—over interrogations of policy. The BBC produces an enormous amount of political coverage, including podcasts, online articles, radio packages, and nerdy television programs such as Newsnight and Politics Live. (I often take part in these programs.) But its flagship offerings are its evening news bulletins, “the Six” and “the Ten.” Watching the Six on Friday, two days after Johnson’s new deal was revealed, I was struck by how much attention was paid to whether it would pass the Commons, with slick graphics about likely rebels, and how little attention was paid to its contents. The whole section totting up the parliamentary numbers was, to be blunt, a complete waste of time—the vote was effectively abandoned.