Politics & Policy

The Media’s Disgraceful Brexit Meltdown

Dueling Brexit referendum signs in London, June 20, 2016. (Kevin Coombs/Reuters)
The votes were barely cast before the bogus ‘buyer’s remorse’ narrative was being spun.

Minutes separated the news from the narrative. On Friday morning, at just a hair past midnight, it was reported that the British people had voted to leave the European Union. Less than half an hour later, they were being told by the press that they regretted it. And nowhere was the wish-casting or the condemnation more vocal than within the United States press corps.

That the American media establishment considered the Brexit plebiscite to have gone the wrong way was obvious to anybody with an active Twitter account and a working pair of eyes. In and of itself, this was not the end of the world; to work for a newspaper is not to abandon all of one’s private views, and for many Twitter has become a place where the tightly bound can opine without redress. And yet, once back within their professional capacities, one expects better of the ostensibly neutral. That so many of those who have been tasked with informing the public chose instead to embark upon a hard-fought campaign against the truth should worry anybody who is concerned with the health of the Fourth Estate.

Perhaps the most galling part of the press’s disgraceful reaction has been the almost total lack of skepticism on display. It was bad enough that almost everybody within the American media seems to have looked at the opinion polls – which on the final day showed the vote to be pretty evenly matched – and to have concluded nevertheless that Remain was certain to prevail. But for this myopia to have marked the aftermath as well is nothing short of astonishing. Over the last four days, pretty much every half-assed story going has been given glaring front-page treatment – providing, that is, it serves to soothe the chatterers’ frazzled nerves. Thus it was that the loss was blamed on a supposed obsession with immigration; that a soaring “Bregret” narrative emerged; and that a hoax petition was given a prominence within the reporting that it in no way deserved even had it not been a prank. The response, in short, has been extraordinary.

RELATED: Brexit Reaction: Damn the People

It has proven difficult to count the number of ways in which the press has blown this story, so I will focus on just two of the many crucial errors that have caught my attention.

The first is the press’s peculiar belief that the “Leave” side won because its voters are stupid and impetuous, and because they don’t know what’s good for themselves – an attitude that has been well illustrated by the insistence that British voters took “frantically” to googling “what is the EU?” once the results had become clear. From the start, the implication of the coverage has been that, devastated by the news that they had actually prevailed, the moronic advocates of Brexit elected finally to do some reading.

In truth, this whole line is nonsense. As 538’s Ben Casselman has pointed out, people also googled “who is Mitt Romney” after he lost to Barack Obama in 2012. Should that be taken as a sign of regret? Hardly, no. Not only do we not know who is doing the googling (it could be Remain voters, it could be Leave voters, it could be non-voters; nobody knows), but, as Gedalyah Reback of Geektime notes, this is what voters do in the wake of momentous political events. Moreover, it turns out that the supposed “frantic” “spike” in interest was caused by just 1,000 people. Even if we presume – against demographic trends – that every single person who took to Google was a Leave voter who was downing gin-and-tonics and flagellating himself for his stupidity, the data here would indicate no more than that a whopping 0.00005 percent of those who had voted were having second thoughts.

#share#Equally unfounded is the talk of a three-and-a-bit-million-strong petition, which, if accepted by the British government, would invalidate the first referendum and yield a second that requires a supermajority. Again, the implication here is that, having got what they wanted, Leave voters are panicking. Again, the story is built on sand. As Heat Street reports, the petition represents not the hearty cry of the devastated masses, but a rather devilish 4Chan-initated prank. Per those who have looked into the effort, the vast majority of the “signatures” (a) originated from IP addresses outside the U.K., and (b) were left not by real people, but were automatically generated by a simple hacker’s script. Oops! (For what it’s worth, even if the petition were authentic, it wouldn’t matter one whit. Sixteen million people opposed Britain’s leaving; would it really be newsworthy if a fraction of that group called for a second chance?)

The case that Leave voters are suffering from ‘buyer’s remorse’ is in fact embarrassingly weak.

That neither of these stories is supported by the available evidence should not come as a surprise, for the broader case that Leave voters are suffering from “buyers’ remorse” is in fact embarrassingly weak. A poll conducted by ComRes the day after the referendum showed that 48 percent of Brits were “Happy” with the result, that 43 percent were “Unhappy,” and that seven percent were “indifferent.” Moreover, ComRes found that four times more Remain voters said that they were “happy” with the result than Leave voters said they were “unhappy.” “Bregret”? Brenonsense.

The press’s second big mistake has been to buy into the absurd idea that the British voted to leave the EU because they hate immigrants or non-white people. Over and over again, I have seen it argued that this referendum was primarily about “xenophobia” or “anti-immigrant” sentiment, and that opposition to unchecked immigration is, by definition, racist. For the sake of brevity, I won’t bother to explain here why lambasting the residents of a small island for wanting to control its borders is the most abject folly; and neither will I point out that the EU privileges the free movement of white Europeans over would-be immigrants from Africa, Asia, and South America. Instead, I’ll note for the record that the widely respected pollster Lord Ashcroft found that half of all Leave voters had cast their vote with sovereignty in mind, compared with just one-third who had been primarily interested in the question of immigration.

#related#One of the great failings of the American media class – both in this case, and more broadly — is its refusal to accept that national sovereignty is just as important to people as is material wealth, and that the average person’s objections to unrestricted immigration are rooted in quotidian concerns rather than racism. The Voxes and the Wonkblogs of the world may well be hooked on questions such as, “If the French parliament handed regulatory control over to the Peruvians, what would happen to exports?” – but most people are not, and, if given a choice between being ruled from afar by self-professed experts or retaining more control over their lives, they will usually plump for the latter. At the Virginia ratifying convention of 1788, Patrick Henry instructed the electors, “You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your Government.” Clearly, a considerable number of Brits still agree.

Not that you’d know it from the press . . . 

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