I bring you news: what you might construe as a fact. The fact is that facts are out; finished. Actually, this isn’t a fact. Like so many statements presented as fact, it is just an opinion. But it is an opinion worth listening to, if only because it has taken us out of the European Union.
Aaron Banks, the right-wing businessman who helped to bankroll the Leave campaign and now proposes to form his own party, has diagnosed the essential problem with Remain: 'It featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally’. It seems that a Washington DC outfit specialising in political strategy gave the same advice to the organisers of Leave: 'The facts don’t work’.
But lies do. Nearly two-thirds of those who voted to quit the EU believe they were misled by Leave’s flagship pledge to give the NHS the £350m a week which it claimed was being sent to Brussels. Down there in the kindergarten they’ve started for the British electorate, the infants swallowed it whole. And then, within hours of the result, the shameless Farage denied it; it had been all a lot of nonsense. Natch. Lies work.
In cyberspace, the spectacular investment in the NHS had been endlessly tweeted and re-tweeted, facebooked, instagrammed and blogged without mercy until it became one of the motifs of the campaign; Johnson – who, in those days, tended to be affectionately known as Boris – connected with the people emotionally by splashing the claim about the £350m a week all over his battle bus.
Johnson knew, Gove knew, Farage knew, Leave knew the essential facts (the facts that don’t work any more): although the UK’s membership fee to the EU is £18b a year, we receive an instant rebate of £5bn, applied straight away, and the EU hands back a further £4b in subsidies, mostly to farmers and poorer regions. So we don’t send Brussels £350m a week. Never have. It’s pure fiction.
The mainstream media could have nailed the lie. But the BBC, whose constitutional duty is to 'inform’ the nation, was too hung up on some deluded notion of balance to expose it for what it was, while the newspapers...well, you couldn’t make it up. You couldn’t make it up – because they already had.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University has done some useful preliminary work on the naked bias of the press coverage. It has found that, in the first two months of the campaign (to the end of April), 69% of the politicians quoted in national newspaper coverage were Conservatives and only 14% Labour; that three-quarters of the campaign spokespersons quoted were pro-Leave; and that 45% of opinion pieces favoured leaving and only 27% backed remaining.
When the initial research was completed, the top four topics in the 'debate’ were the economy, trade, sovereignty and currency; at that stage, only the Daily Express was obsessed by immigration. It will be interesting to see how the bias intensified in the second half of the campaign, when the hysteria over Johnny Foreigner became more general and Leave sedulously exploited public prejudice and fear. For these results from Oxford, we must wait.
But statistical analysis tells us only half the story: it tells us in general terms what we already sensed, enlightening us on how bad it really was. What it doesn’t convey is the power of the 'emotional connection’ that Leave employed as a weapon: the substitution of raw feeling for truth that may have turned public opinion in the final weeks.
Two questions arise from the post-Brexit disclosures of how the campaign was won.
First, if the discredited leaders of Leave, Johnson and Gove, built their crusade on a lie, having been advised that 'the facts don’t work’, and if two-thirds of the people now believe they were misled, how legitimate is the result? As I pointed out here last Friday, only 37.4% of the total electorate voted to leave. The mandate was feeble in the first place. It is a lot weaker now.
Second, how do we go on functioning in a democracy in which public misinformation directed at a poorly educated majority is accepted as the norm? The journalist wife of a contender for the leadership of Britain reminded him in an email of the importance of satisfying such people as Murdoch and Dacre, advising him to accommodate their wishes. It was an insight into a world of unaccountable power, a power brutally abused during the most disgraceful episode in modern British history.
But that’s okay. Newspaper sales are soaring on the back of it.