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.