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Cockburn Columnists

The New York Times: all the news that’s fit to fake

‘Meaningless and unhelpful’: The Times is making it up about Brexit — again

September 16, 2018

10:58 AM

16 September 2018

10:58 AM

Cockburn still takes the Sunday edition of the New York Times. He has two cats, and all those extra sections make excellent liners for the litter tray. Perhaps this is what people mean when they say that you have to hold your nose when you read the Times.

The Times may have closed the curtains on the question of Nikki Haley’s window dressings, but its writers still cannot be trusted. Is it from malice or ignorance? Or a cocktail of the two, in which the presumption of virtue overrides the responsibility to check the facts?

In recent weeks, Cockburn has exposed a Times report on Britain as a web of fiction, and also heard that the Times’ London reporters are so desperate for Russian hacking stories that they were hoaxed into meeting a purported source on the famous Abbey Road street crossing, presumably so the hoaxer could watch the free Abbey Road webcam, and laugh at them standing around in a crowd of Beatles’ tourists.

On Sunday morning, the Times did it again. This time, as so often, the joke is on its readers. Last Thursday, Boris Johnson, the pro-Brexit would-be prime minister, was the guest of honor at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual black-tie bash in Washington, DC. Sarah Lyall of the Times was there too. Lyall used to be the Times’ London correspondent, a post from which she displayed a bravura ignorance of everything British, and a bold refusal to allow her preconceptions to be modified by the reality of the place she was living in.

In her account of Johnson’s remarks in an on-stage ‘conversation’ with AEI president Arthur Brooks, Lyall says that Johnson described ‘the need for what is known as “hard Brexit”’. But he did nothing of the sort.

Cockburn was at the AEI dinner too. He wrote down Johnson’s remarks in his impeccable script, first on the back of his invite and then, when Johnson went on a bit longer, on the starched cuff of his dinner shirt.

‘Hard Brexit’ is British slang for leaving the European Union without access to the EU’s single market, deal or no deal. It is possible for non-EU countries to trade within the EU’s single market. Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland already do so. The only obstacles to Britain operating under similar rules in the future are the ineptitude of Theresa May and the obduracy of the EU.

Johnson avoids talking about ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexits. The terminology refers to the hypothetical extremes of the negotiating field. Any serious observer, or anyone with experience of negotiation, knows that the reality of Brexit will be a compromise that lands somewhere on the very large middle ground.

‘There is no such thing as a hard or soft Brexit,’ a person who has advised Johnson told Cockburn this morning. ‘These are meaningless and unhelpful terms.’

Nor did the topic of whether Johnson prefers to take his Brexit hypothetically ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ arise in his conversation with Arthur Brooks. Johnson spoke mostly about the realities of US-UK trade, and why a US-UK free trade agreement would be in the US’s interest as well as Britain’s. He said nothing at all about Britain leaving the single market. He said nothing at all about the possible structure of British-EU trade terms after Brexit — no mention of a ‘Canada-plus’ or ‘Canada-minus’ deal. And he said nothing at all about terms along the lines of the European Economic Area deals currently used by Norway and Iceland. He didn’t talk about the ‘need’ for a ‘hard Brexit’, because he didn’t talk about the details of Brexit at all.

‘Johnson was stating that locking into the EU regulatory system so that the UK could not execute an independent trade and regulatory policy was not good for the UK,’ said his former advisor, who was also at the AEI dinner. ‘Nor is it good for the rest of the world.’

Despite Brooks’ prompting, at no time did Johnson go into detail about what kind of Brexit he wants. This was wise of Johnson: He is making a play for the prime ministership, and if he stakes out a detailed position on Brexit, he will be denounced by both sides. Lyall’s job, however, to go into the details and report them accurately. Details like the name of the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, which Lyall spelt ‘Bernier’.

Was Lyall ignorant of the policy details? Or did a glib and insubstantial phrase like ‘hard Brexit’, with its implications of conservative intolerance, appeal so strongly to Lyall’s political prejudices that she didn’t bother to check what it might mean, whether Johnson had described the ‘need’ for it — or even whether it exists in any real sense?

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