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Theresa May & Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels, Belgium on 2/7/2019 © Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

Theresa May Promises More Talks But No Walks

Newspapers have their own ways of talking about talks and influencing imminent disasters. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.

Published simultaneously on February 7, following a meeting in Brussels between British Prime Minister Theresa May and EU leaders, here are two contrasting versions of the same story.

In an earlier edition, The Guardian’s headline read, “May clashes with Tusk and Juncker but EU agrees to fresh talks” and Business Insider as, “The European Union says it will not reopen talks on the Brexit deal.”

Here is today’s 3D definition: 

Talks:

Meetings in which either important or unimportant issues can be discussed and acted upon, discussed and not acted upon, or mentioned just for the record

Contextual note

The Guardian article puts a consistently positive spin on the fact that “talks” are planned, leaving the reader with the impression that a renegotiation of the Brexit withdrawal deal is a possibility. Business Insider makes it clear that this simply isn’t the case. There will be “talks” — how could there not be? — but not on the subject that has divided the British political class.

The Guardian concluded its article (earlier edition) with this upbeat quote: “Despite the challenges, the two leaders agreed that their teams should hold talks as to whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European council.”

Toward the end of Business Insider’s article, the ambiguity entertained by The Guardian entirely disappears. It quotes the EU’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstad: “Mrs May today in the meeting assured us that there will be a backstop.” This is the issue that sank the prime minister’s hopes of success by making any kind of political consensus impossible within her theoretical majority in Parliament, which includes Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party and a bevy of hardline Brexiteers in her Conservative Party.

We should ask ourselves: What are these two publications trying to do?

The Guardian’s audience is generally more sympathetic to the Labour Party, essentially its centrist elements. Since 2016, the newspaper and its chief editorialists have been visibly and vocally opposed to Brexit and critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour. Could it be that this article is skewing its presentation of facts in the hope that, thanks to the promised talks, enough centrist Labour MPs will rally to May and provide her with the majority she needs to overcome the opposition in her own majority, thereby reinforcing a bipartisan centrist consensus? No one can answer this question but, as an exercise in critical thinking, it’s worth asking.

Business Insider is an American publication with an international outlook focused on the economy. It follows British politics very closely but has less skin in the British political game and, therefore, less reason to hide its motives.

Then there’s The Daily Mirror. Historically loyal to Labour, it played an important role influencing the public in the Brexit drama, thanks to its taste for the occasional example of outrageously alarmist fake news. Vociferously committed to Brexit and influential among Labour voters, the paper has forced Corbyn to defend Brexit despite the likely disastrous consequences of a hard Brexit for the working class.

Reporting on May’s visit to Brussels, the newspaper highlighted an important facet of the event that both The Guardian and Business Insider chose to neglect: “The European Council President urged the Prime Minister to grasp an olive branch from Labour for a permanent customs arrangement that could finally get her deal through.” It then presented in dry factual detail the complex (i.e., hopelessly confused) debate within Labour.

Historical note

In the era of fake news, the case could be made that all news is in some sense fake because no story can be reduced to its mere facts. There will always be a point of view. And as the comparison of the three journals shows, there are enough facts to justify both true and false readings of any story.

Citizens of democracies should understand that the current debate about egregious examples of fake news doesn’t imply that designated “respectable” newspapers can be trusted to publish the “truth.” In 2002-03, The New York Times, whose integrity nobody dares to call into question, published the purported “facts” transmitted by the White House to journalist Judith Miller about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. In doing so, it consolidated the case in the minds of a lot of “serious” citizens that the invasion of Iraq was justified.

As Fair Observer documented yesterday, an NYT columnist has just confessed that the newspaper and the entire media culture in the US has remained silent for decades about a very real and very visible issue in the Middle East.

In other word, all news, whatever the source, contains not facts, but someone’s perception of facts, as well as a necessarily distorted interpretation of the facts. Fact-checking alone doesn’t guarantee integrity. And two of the examples cited above — The NYT on Iraq’s WMDs and The Daily Mirror on Brexit — demonstrate that the consequences of the reporting of even respectable journals may contribute to unmitigated historical disasters.

The system we live in has made meddling not just with elections, but with our understanding of the world a profitable enterprise. For that reason, it will continue in all its forms. Governments across the globe continue to neglect the only effective way to counter it: the kind of education that stimulates and rewards critical thinking and appreciation of perspective.

That is at the heart of the vocation of Fair Observer, where we encourage and publish authentic perspective (not to be confused with the “truth”). We’re still hoping that governments and educational systems will one day get the message.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.