Bad PR or Dodgy Journalism? Time for Change

This last weekend has been one of the most difficult weekends that the Remain/Rejoin movement has ever had to endure. What started as a simple contractual dispute concerning the failure of Astra Zeneca to meet its contractual obligations to deliver a certain number of vaccines to the EU very rapidly and very publicly spiralled out of control turning into a PR disaster which ended up with, amongst other things, the EU being accused of trying to steal British vaccines. Our opponents had a field day as a result.

The EU had every right to insist that Astra Zeneca fulfil its obligations under the contract, not least because they had paid a large sum of money up front, and whilst raising important questions about what has been termed ‘vaccine nationalism’ that deserve serious consideration, the EU also had every right to attempt to secure supplies of the vaccine for its citizens.

Indeed, it should be noted that the UK has restricted the export of around 170 drugs relating to the treatment of covid to ensure supplies for British people and the US has restricted the export of vaccine to ensure there is enough for Americans.

The EU was also within its rights to consider all available options to secure that supply, including triggering article 16, which is where the real trouble started.

The EU was slated in the British News Media for triggering article 16. Except, as I write this, I still have not been able to find any evidence that the EU actually triggered article 16. I’m certain it was discussed, but far from sure it was triggered.

What appears to have happened is that someone in the EU published a draft document that had not been agreed but which made reference to triggering article 16. The British News Media picked this up, and for some reason, reported that article 16 had actually been triggered.

Whilst it was a serious PR blunder for the EU to publish such a sensitive draft document in that way, it is equally concerning that the British News Media reported it as a done deed, with the BBC possibly being the first culprit. Accurate reporting is key to quality journalism.

In addition to this shortfall in accuracy, in the ensuing media frenzy, the British news did not mention that Johnson had threatened to trigger article 16 around two weeks ago and thereby failed to present a fair and unbiased portrayal of the issue and the headlines soon degenerated into nationalistic jingoism aimed at discrediting the EU.

As we in the Rejoin movement know only too well, this sort of thing is nothing new. Inaccurate, misleading and all too often, biased and false stories about the EU are commonplace in certain sections of the British news media. Furthermore, during the 2016 referendum some prominent UK news organisations, including the BBC, failed to challenge blatantly inaccurate claims made by the Leave Campaign such as the cost of our EU membership.

Such issues are not restricted to news stories relating to the EU, but run right through the reporting of some sections of the British news media, indeed, some news organisations often appear to be little more than mouthpieces for a particular political party or cause, something that is currently deemed to be acceptable.

What is perhaps more frustrating, is that very often it is difficult if not impossible to have inaccurate or misleading stories corrected as the British news media is self-regulated by an organisation that has limited powers of enforcement and where participation is voluntary.

There are also no requirements for journalists to be qualified or registered in any way. The risks of this omission are illustrated in my own area by an individual named Martin Costello, a former UKIP parliamentary candidate and now an activist in whatever Farage is calling his latest political reincarnation. A few years ago, Costello set himself up as ‘journalist’ with his own TV ‘news channel’ based on social media platforms. As far as I can establish Costello has no training or experience as a journalist whatsoever. In reality Costello is a far-right political commentator and activist and nothing more. Each week Costello pumps out hours of supposed journalism which in reality is nothing more than far-right political propaganda. No doubt he will be ‘reporting’ on the EUs attempt to ‘steal’ British vaccines soon.

This situation is not acceptable. A much stronger statutory regulation which requires accuracy and fairness along with formal qualification and registration of journalists is needed, which should be accompanied by a requirement for news media to be politically neutral.

Had such a system been in place this last weekend we would have seen a very different story presented to the public. One that was far closer to the truth and one that was much less biased.
I am sure we would still have seen reports that the EU was considering triggering article 16, but we would not have seen reports that it had been triggered along with the frenzy that followed. In presenting the story, facts such as Johnson’s threat to trigger article 16 may also have been included in the interest of political neutrality and balance, along with reporting the restrictions on exports by the UK and US mentioned earlier.

Such a system or regulation would not threaten the ability of the news media or journalists to investigate any issue they wish, but would stop the current bias towards a particular political party or cause currently evident in many sections of our media.

Such a system of regulation is not new. The broad outline is exactly what has been introduced for the financial advice industry which was out of control with poor quality commission driven sales. That new regulatory framework has transformed the industry over time and improved it. The same improvements are needed in the world of journalism and news reporting and the profession and industry would ultimately benefit with a better reputation.

The role of the news media is to report the news, not create it or to set the political agenda, it should be somewhere to find out the facts and hear both sides of the story in a balanced and fair manner. This is not the case at present. The events of this weekend demonstrate that there is much wrong with the news media in the UK and that change is needed.

The EU is not proposing to do anything that the UK and the US have not already done.

This weekend I was planning to write about Starmer and his current refusal to contemplate placing Rejoining the EU onto the agenda of the Labour Party. Instead, I find myself in very much the same situation as last weekend, i.e. writing about the fact that our opposition is currently still very active and that we therefore also need to be active, but that does not necessarily mean we need to start campaigning directly and openly for Rejoin, but rather we need to start preparing the ground for that ultimate campaign.

The issue that has brought this about is of course the situation with the EU, Astra Zeneca and the vaccine.
As the week has gone by, I have seen an increasingly concerning stream of news headlines about the situation saying that the EU has done this, or that the EU has taken the other action. On clicking the headline to find out more, in almost all cases, what I have actually found is that the headline has been an over exaggeration of what was really happening. The real situation was the EU was considering action, had given itself powers to act if the need arose, or considering a particular course of action – and nothing more.

This came to a head last night with very concerning news reports that the EU had triggered article 16. Digging a little deeper and a little time have revealed that the EU had not triggered article 16. Indeed, it is difficult to find out exactly what did happen. According to the press this morning it may or may not have been an ‘error’. It is simply not clear what has happened at this point in time.

Whilst there are clear issues with the EU’s vaccination program centring around a late start and a slow procurement process, what is also clear is that the real issue over the Astra Zeneca and the EU vaccine is a contractual one. Astra Zeneca agreed to supply a certain number of doses of the vaccine by a certain date and took money from the EU for that. Astra Zeneca subsequently informed the EU that it could not deliver and nothing more.

As a consequence, the EU has moved to secure a supply of the vaccine for their own citizens by insisting that Astra Zeneca meet its obligations under that contract, if necessary, including by supplying doses of the vaccine from production facilities in other countries including the UK. The contract between Astra Zeneca and the EU that has been published show that the EU is entitled under the terms of that contract to make such a request.

One could argue that the EU and Astra Zeneca should have sat round a table behind the scenes to address the problems and find acceptable solutions. Instead, we have witnessed a media debacle with the right-wing press in particular having a field day with, as already noted, over exaggerated headlines. In addition to those headlines, the media have portrayed the EU as being selfish and even trying to steal vaccines from other countries including the UK.
Not only I have seen no evidence to support those more serious claims, the media has also been very one sided. There has been almost no mention of the fact that before Christmas the UK banned the export of over 100 drugs that could be useful for treating Covid, or the fact that the US has totally banned the export of Covid 19 vaccines.

In other words, the EU is not proposing to do anything that the UK and the US have not already done.
This situation demonstrates something that most Rejoiners are already only too well aware of. There is a serious problem with the British Press – it is politically biased, often at the behest of wealthy owners, often misleading even dishonest, and also poorly and ineffective regulated, all of which are issues that need addressing.

These issues also circle back to the need for Rejoiners to be proactive and start preparing the ground for future battles. We should be calling for these issues to be addressed now. We should be campaigning for the current system of self-regulation to be replaced with a statutory system of regulation that is independent of the media to ensure accuracy now. We should be campaigning for a requirement for the media to be politically neutral to ensure fair reporting now.
In addition to the unfair, misleading and biased media coverage, our opponents have also been having a field day. A visit last night to the social media pages of Farage’s current political platform shows them exploiting the situation with rampant nationalism and xenophobia fuelled by misleading information, half-truths and outright lies about the EU and the situation.

This not only demonstrates the need for us to be proactive i.e. actually taking on the opposition rather than arguing amongst ourselves in our safe spaces, but also the need to hold politicians such as Farage to account for their actions, including their lies. Again, this is something that we could and should be doing now. But I have to ask how many of us are actually doing this?

At present one of my colleagues here at UKIN.EU, Joel Baccas, has a parliamentary petition active that calls for lying by politicians to be made a criminal offence. How many people reading this have actually signed it? How many people have spent longer that the 2 minutes it would take to sign it and send a clear message to the likes of Farage that what they are doing is unacceptable arguing that they can’t be bothered to sign petitions?

Which all comes back again to the need for Rejoiners to be proactive – nobody is going to do this for us. It is up to us. If you haven’t signed that petition find it and sign it now!

It is also worth noting that this whole media circus has also been very successful in diverting attention away from the effects of Brexit. The fishing industry is staring into the abyss, exports have slumped, and British firms are being advised by the British Government to set up shop in the EU meaning the loss of British jobs to the EU…It is easy to see why the right-wing media and our opponents are making such a fuss over this – they needed something to divert attention away from the mess they have created!

Contractual Dispute or Vaccine Wars?

We are currently seeing much concern and indeed criticism of the EU over the issue of Astra Zeneca vaccines.

In such circumstances it is often a good idea to stand back and break the issue down into its component parts.

What we are seeing is essentially a dispute over a contract entered into between two organisations specifically the EU and Astra Zeneca for the supply of a certain product.

Astra Zeneca agreed to supply the EU with a certain amount of the product by a certain date and has now said they are unable to do so. The EU is saying that is not acceptable and is insisting that Astra Zeneca deliver what was promised in that contract.

If we were talking about an ordinary product such as pens or paper nobody would be making a fuss – but we are talking about a highly emotive subject – a vaccine in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century.

The press and our opponents are stirring things up for different reasons. The first to sell papers, the second to cynically and dishonesty advance their cause. What a surprise!

All the EU is actually attempting to do is secure supplies of a critical product for its citizens – and if it were the UK government in that situation the press and our opponents would be encouraging our government to do exactly what the EU is doing.

You can find more detail in this BBC article