THE crises come so thick and fast that I can hardly remember which one provoked the headline in the Daily Star. On the day that Boris Johnson prorogued Parliament, and all the other papers led with the news that he’d done so, the Star’s splash on the subject was pareidolia: “Never mind all this fuss on Brexit. . . It’s Freddie Mercury in a pork chop.”
The chop, once admired and photographed by the fan to whom this vision had been vouchsafed, had been eaten; so there will be no site of pilgrimage.
By the standards of this week’s journalism, that was hardly surreal.
Watching events from a semi-detached perspective — I know hardly more than what is in the papers, but I talk to people who do — what is most striking is just how many aspects of the situation are widely admitted and just as widely ignored. Yet, without them, nothing makes sense. Here are a few of them.
First, Mr Johnson is a shameless and wholly unprincipled liar. It is, therefore, wrong to take seriously anything he says without a great deal of corroboration. This fact is entirely deliberately obscured by the Telegraph and the Mail; and, perhaps unintentionally, by the left-wing press, which has cried “wolf” too many times about too many Conservative politicians.
But the difference between a lie by omission or by misdirection and the lie direct really does matter. Maintaining it is one of those conventions that makes democracy possible.
Second, most politicians, of all parties, believe that Jeremy Corbyn (last measured approval rating: 15 per cent) will lose any election fought against Mr Johnson (last measured approval rating: 32 per cent). They may all be wrong, but this is what they believe. By the time this piece appears, you will know whether that belief has led the Labour Party to decline the offer of a General Election.
Third, anyone who has thought about it knows that “No deal” is not the end of Brexit. It will not widen the Channel by one inch, nor summon up St Brendan to tow the island of Ireland out of sight on the back of a passing whale.
It can be only the prelude to years and years of wrangling over deals that will all be worse than what we now enjoy as members, and compared with anything that we might now negotiate.
This knowledge is certainly shared by everyone who has been in Government for the past three years. It’s what the Civil Service has been telling them. The clearest recent statement is an extraordinary piece by Ivan Rogers, once the diplomat in charge of these negotiations, which The Spectator has put on its website and which I would urge everyone to read.
WITHOUT these three facts, nothing that is presently happening can make sense. You might as well just read the Daily Star. Yet efforts have been expended to conceal one or more of them from the readers of all the papers (except, perhaps, the Financial Times), partly because the core, politically engaged, readership does not want them all to be true.
This last point is important. It isn’t just the case that newspapers tell their readers what to think. I seem to remember that something like one third of The Sun’s readers thought that it was a Labour-supporting paper under Mrs Thatcher. Of course, some columnists are influential, and, of course, the selection of news matters a great deal. But this is not an entirely one-sided case. Readers also tell newspapers what to think; in part, by their explicit reactions, mostly in the form of letters to the editor; more by the implicit criticism of buying, or not buying, the paper.
In the digital age, this is much more easily measured. We really do know what readers want, and how much they want it. This puts a subtle, reciprocal pressure on both sides. Although the feedback loop is not nearly as tight or as powerful as it is on YouTube, there is still a tendency for newspapers and their readerships to self-radicalise around a question such as Brexit, so that the Leavers have gone within three years from promising “the easiest trade deal in history” to claiming that any deal at all is tantamount to treason, and that to vote to demand one is grounds for expulsion from the Conservative Party.
There is another process at work, even more long-term. News can be one of two things: it can be whatever you want to tell someone else about, or it can be whatever you need to take a decision about. Sometimes, of course, it is both, like yelling “Fire!” when there really is one. But, in a centralised and technocratic society, there are fewer and fewer decisions for most people to take which are not about what to buy. And so we’re left with newspapers that deal in pork chops — and porky pies.