6 August 2019 — South Front
Written by Dr. Binoy Kampmark exclusively for SouthFront
For a country that prides itself on the acerbic publication, the punchy put down, and balloon piercing irony, the propaganda battles in a changed media scape must have come as a bit of a shock. No part of the country has been exempt from a tide that sees no signs of stopping.
The great distortions arising out of the Brexit campaign, one which saw a vote in favour of seeking a departure from the European Union must count as the high water mark of propaganda’s success. With Britain sporting a new Prime Minister, the arch opportunist and Brexiter, Boris Johnson, a narrative of deception has won out.
In many ways, Johnson becoming PM is exactly what a Brexit Britain needs. His role as former editor of The Spectator, a journalist working in Brussels, and a Tory politician, have made his role in making British media susceptible to propaganda far more profound than most of his peers. Misinformation, half-truths and fanciful confections have governed the European debate for years, with Johnson being instrumental in this process, feeding the legend of a continental monster intent on oppressing Britons and their way of life. As Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph, he became the standard bearer for anti-EU sentiment in Brussels, feeding Eurosceptic fanaticism back in Britain and beyond with such choice titled pieces as “Snails are fish, says EU”, “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that EU-manure smells the same” and “Threat to British pink sausages”. Johnson’s feeling about it all? A “rather weird sense of power” that his copy had “this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party”. In June 2016, such views reached a certain fruition.
The Brexit campaign, assisted by a half-informed media scene, led to the most astonishing parading of rubbery figures and assertions. This, argues Gareth Harding, could be put down to simple ignorance: “the British public knows less about [the EU] than do citizens in any other country bar Latvia.” The number most popularly paraded by the Brexiteers, led by Johnson, was that the EU was a succubus drawing out 350 million pounds per week with no return. Casting aside the EU would leave such money to be rechanneled and directed into the British health system. No EU effectively meant better health for British citizens. Only subsequently was it revealed that there was no ironclad guarantee that this policy measure would, in fact, be implemented.
This nonsense was unmasked at points, but the propaganda appeal had become irresistible, a point fanned by pro-Brexit media outlets which had been, historically, suspicious of the EU. Papers such as The Sun have a history of such titles as “Up Your Delors”, a statement of contempt made in 1990 to the “French fool” who dared suggest a single currency for Europe. The Daily Mail, for its part, holds the view that the EU is hell bent on establishing a continental tyranny, while the Daily Express has been opposed to British membership of the club from the start.
All such outlets have been susceptible to fanciful interpretations of European policy, and its effects on domestic affairs. The immigration debate was one. Some weeks prior to the Brexit vote, the Office for National Statistics released figures revealing a rise in net migration to the UK to 333,000 the previous year. The report noted that the 20,000 rise in net migration had been caused by a drop of 22,000 Britons moving abroad. There was no drowning flood to speak of.
The sense, just prior to the vote on June 23, 2016, was that the Leavers were stealing a march on the Remainers. The Remainers were being accused of disseminating apocalyptic propaganda; the Leavers were portraying themselves as paragons of truth intent on reclaiming control. The rise of social media was also a significant factor in cultivating positions and promoting specific propaganda lines. “Evidently Twitter,” note Max Hänska and Stefan Bauchowitz, “is an important part of the changing news ecosystem, through which politicians, journalists and citizens communicate and compete for eyeballs.” In 2016, the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report found that social media as a news source for the UK public had grown dramatically, constituting around 35 percent of information received. A 2015 Ofcom report noted that 43 percent of those who got news online did so through social media channels. Unsurprisingly, the percentage proved higher among 16-24 year olds: 61 percent, with 16 percent relying exclusively on social media for news.
With the defeat of the Remainers, desperation ensued. Allegations that Britain’s media scape had been tampered given its increasingly fluid nature abounded. In the United States, the Democrats on the Senate foreign relations committee argued that President Vladimir Putin had conducted an asymmetric assault on democracy in Europe. On the subject of Britain, the senators argued that the Russian state “has sought to influence democracy in the United Kingdom through disinformation, cyber hacking, and corruption.” The report does much to attribute cause to the Kremlin while ignoring the indigenous element inherent in British populism and anti-EU suspicion. Stress is placed on the problem of Britain’s campaign finance laws.
Subsequent studies have shown the issue of Britain’s media ecosystem to be more complex. The Oxford Internet Institute, in a 2017 study of 3,000 Twitter accounts, suggested that evidence of Russian meddling is scarce, though it concedes that organised media manipulation has become a global practice. In 2018, the Institute published a report finding the existence of formally organised social media campaigns in 48 states. “In each country there was at least one political party or government agency using social media to manipulate public opinion domestically.”
With the UK risking a no-deal Brexit in October, the media scape remains polarised. It suits a figure like Nigel Farage, for years dismissed as mildly absurd for his anti-immigration stance. He has become a political mainstay of Brexit Britain, the clown made good. Having been the front of the UK Independence Party and the pro-Brexit campaign, he now spends time leading a charge that has terrified the Conservatives. In Peterborough, he told some 1,500 Brexiters about the broader mission at hand. “This fight now is far more than just leaving the European Union. This is a full-on battle against the establishment.” This battle has also struck a Trumpist note, with Farage reserving special salvos for the BBC which he sees as an arch proponent of, yes, propaganda. (Interestingly enough, the BBC was itself responsible for promoting news stories highly negative of the EU in the lead-up to the Brexit vote. A study by Zurich-based analysts Media Tenor found positive coverage coming in at 7 percent; 45 percent proved negative.)
With a four month old outfit, Farage forged ahead with his Brexit Party in elections held by the very same entity he despises. The Brexit Party’s success in the EU parliamentary elections is as much a product of the media scape as its shaper. Its social media profile has been impressive relative to their opponents, with media consultancy company 89up finding, after going through 1.5 million public Facebook pages, 125,035 shares of content. (The Conservatives came in with a far more modest 26,400.) As William Davis notes pointedly, “The Brexit Party is a mixture of business startup and social movement; it serves as a pressure valve, releasing pent-up frustration with traditional politics into the electoral system.” In contrast to the more ramshackle, rough outfit of Ukip, which had a lower ceiling of appeal, the Brexit Party has been described by the Financial Times as “slick, with a mix of celebrities”. In the European Parliamentary elections, the Brexit Party won a stonking 29 seats against the Liberal Democrats with 16, Labour 10, the Greens seven, the Tories four, the SNP three, and Plaid Cymru and the DUP with one each.
Farage put the successes down to an elementary theme rather than any coherent body of evidence: “With a big, simple message – which is we’ve been badly let down by two parties who have broken their promises – we have topped the poll in a fairly dramatic style. The two-party system now serves nothing but itself.” Despite doing well, Farage was careful to avoid drawing attention to another result: 40 percent of the UK European vote went to parties who are against Brexit, with 35 percent favouring it.
The Brexit Party has attempted to adopt the language of cool and chic marketing, necessary for success in Britain’s modern media environment. For one, it is winning the social media battle. London-based online content and social media consultancy 89up revealed last month that Facebook posts linking to the Brexit Party website had been bountiful in the sharing department, exceeding those of every other party combined. A survey of 1.5 million public Facebook pages by the consultancy found a staggering gulf between the portion of shares generated by the Brexit Party (125,035) and the Conservatives, with 26,400. UKIP, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party came in with a limping figure of 6,000 shares.
As with anything to do with Farage, its best to look past the plumage and shine. The Brexit Party image comes equipped with rumours on how it is receiving its funding, with its donor base shadowy. This can hardly surprise: Farage has been known to be rather liberal with his finances, happy to attack the EU as he receives its funds, and shy about declaring how he has used them. Budgets have never been his thing, money being an inconvenient factoid.
Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is one sensing an Achilles heel in the Brexit Party, suggesting that the party has been the recipient of “undeclared, untraceable payments”. The UK Electoral Commission feels there is enough to go on, demanding that the party “review all payments, including those of £500 or below, it has received to date.” This comes after the Electoral Commission’s conclusion that the “fundraising structure adopted by the party leaves it open to a high and ongoing risk of receiving and accepting impermissible donations.”
The views of Brown have had little traction with Farage supporters and the broader Brexit milieu, a point evidenced by the good showing in the European elections. Efforts by critics and opponents to refashion the Brexit Party as a financial surrogate for the corporate interests of one man rather than citizen values is not something that has worked. Brown has tried, rather bravely claiming that Farage was “not going to be remembered as he wants, as the man of the people – he’s going to remembered as the man of the Paypal.”
Political realities are often different from financial ones. As former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg admitted, “It was obvious there was a strong English, anti-European anti-immigrant movement waiting for someone to articulate it.” Farage may well be the man of the Paypal, shoddy with party finances and shifty with the bank book, but he remains an identifiable voice, with anti-EU cadences that continue finding agreeable listeners across Europe, from Marine Le Pen in France to Matteo Salvini in Italy. The media landscape, riven by actors made even more relevant by the means to disseminate information of uneven accuracy, has also left its mark. All have, in their own way, articulated visions with some granular truth, often in a wrapping of propaganda. Now, the arch-propagandist of them all, known affectionately as BoJo, has affirmed the triumph, and value, of the half-truth. Be optimistic; that will be enough.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com