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Boris Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead

Press coverage of the referendum was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts.

The pound plummeted, the Prime Minister resigned, stock markets plunged and the UK began to unravel, as did the post-1945 world order. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Isis were celebrating the Brexit vote but that didn’t stop our disgraceful national press from crowing. “Take a bow, Britain!” the Daily Mail declared. “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, ADIEU”, the Sun quipped in a headline. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed the “birth of a new Britain”.

They and others – the Express, the Morning Star, several of the Sunday papers – were claiming victory: a victory achieved after a relentless campaign of lies and Soviet-style propaganda about the European Union that long pre-dated the referendum. Indeed, it was a campaign that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Boris Johnson, who had been fired by the Times for making up a quotation, was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels.

Johnson did not invent Euroscepticism but he took it to new levels. A brilliant caricaturist, he made his name by mocking, lampooning and ridiculing the EU. He wrote stories headlined “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same”, “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps. He set up Jacques Delors, who was then the European Commission president, as a bogeyman and claimed credit for persuading Denmark to reject the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 with a Sunday Telegraph splash – “Delors plan to rule Europe” – that was seized on by the Nej campaign.

To Johnson, it was all a bit of a jape. “[I] was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive ­effect on the Tory party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he told the BBC years later.

That many of Johnson’s stories bore scant relation to the truth did not matter. They were colourful and fun. The Telegraph and right-wing Tories loved them. So did other Fleet Street editors, who found the standard Brussels fare tedious and began to press their own correspondents to follow suit. I know this because I became the Brussels correspondent of the Times in 1999 and suffered the consequences.

Soon, a Europe of scheming bureaucrats plotting to rob Britain of its ancient liberties, or British prime ministers fighting gallant rearguard actions against an increasingly powerful superstate, or absurd directives on banana shapes, became the only narratives that many papers were interested in. They were narratives that exploited our innate nationalism, distrust of foreigners and sense of superiority. They were narratives so strong that our political leaders mostly chose to play along with them.

The EU is arrogant, bureaucratic, wasteful and meddlesome. It desperately needs reforming. But post-Boris, its great achievements – cementing peace, uniting the continent, creating the world’s largest single market, enabling its citizens to travel and live anywhere they choose, busting mono­polies, improving the environment – have gone largely unreported. Similarly ignored is that Britain has many natural allies in Europe and has enjoyed some significant successes: competition policy, free trade, eastward enlargement. The French now regard the EU as a plot to impose Anglo-Saxon economics on the continent. True, we lost the argument on the euro and the Schengen Agreement, but we won opt-outs.

With a few honourable exceptions – such as the Financial Times, the Times and the Guardian – the referendum coverage was merely a supercharged version of what had gone before. It was led by the biggest broadsheet (the Telegraph), the biggest mid-­market paper (the Mail) and the biggest tabloid (the Sun). And it was based on myths: that we pay £350m a week to Brussels, that we can continue to enjoy access to the single market without freedom of movement, that millions of Turks are heading our way because their country is about to join the EU, that immigrants are destroying the NHS rather than keeping it going.

The coverage was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts. Loughborough University found that 82 per cent of all referendum stories, adjusted for newspaper circulations, were negative. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers don’t matter any more but they do when just 635,000 votes for Remain ­instead of Leave would have averted this national catastrophe. They do when the press is a primary source of information for millions of Brits. They do when most of our papers have relentlessly portrayed the EU as the monster of Johnson’s fertile imagination, not just for a few months, but for more than two decades.

The referendum was a chance for our national press, particularly the tabloid press, to restore its standing after the phone-hacking scandal and to prove its continuing worth to the British people. Sadly, most newspapers chose wilfully to deceive, mislead and inflame. They decided to follow Johnson’s lead by peddling lies and phoney patriotism. They helped him to hoodwink the millions of poorer, less-educated Britons – those who will be the first to suffer from Brexit’s consequences – into voting against their own interests.

Johnson campaigned against a myth of his own creation, with the result that a mendacious pundit, one who achieved prominence by writing entertaining but dangerous nonsense, is the odds-on favourite to be our next prime minister.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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