No one should be surprised that Britain could vote to leave theEuropean Union on Thursday. For decades, British newspapers have offered their readers an endless stream of biased, misleading and downright fallacious stories about Brussels. And the journalist who helped set the tone — long before he became the mayor of London or the face of the pro-Brexit campaign — was Boris Johnson.
I know this because I was appointed Brussels correspondent for The Times of London in 1999, a few years after Mr. Johnson reported from there for another London newspaper, The Telegraph. I had to live with the consequences.
Mr. Johnson, fired from The Times in 1988 for fabricating a quotation, made his name in Brussels not with honest reporting but with extreme euroskepticism, tirelessly attacking, mocking and denigrating the European Union. He wrote about European Union plans to take over Europe, ban Britain’s favorite potato chips, standardize condom sizes and blow up its own asbestos-filled headquarters. These articles were undoubtedly colorful but they bore scant relation to the truth.
Mr. Johnson’s dispatches galvanized the rest of Britain’s highly competitive and partisan newspaper industry. They were far more fun than the usual dry, policy-driven Brussels fare. Editors at other newspapers, particularly but not exclusively the tabloids, started pressing their own correspondents to match Mr. Johnson’s imaginative reports.
By the time I arrived in Brussels, editors wanted only reports about faceless Eurocrats dictating the shape of the cucumbers that could be sold in Britain, or plots to impose a European superstate, or British prime ministers fighting plucky rear-guard actions against a hostile Continent. Much of the British press seemed unable to view the European Union through any other prism. These narratives reflected and exploited the innate nationalism, historical sense of superiority and disdain for Johnny Foreigner of many readers.
Articles that did not bash Brussels, that acknowledged the European Union’s achievements, that recognized that Britain had many natural allies in Europe and often won important arguments on, say, the creation of the single market, were almost invariably killed.
The European Union can be meddlesome, arrogant and incompetent, but seldom if ever was the ordinary British reader told how it had secured peace on the Continent, embraced the former Communist countries of Central Europe, broken up cartels or forced member states to clean up their rivers and beaches.
British newspapers’ portrayal of the European Union in the lead-up to the referendum on June 23 has likewise been negative. The Financial Times and The Guardian have backed the Remain campaign, but they have relatively small circulations and preach largely to the converted. The Times has been evenhanded, though it finally declared on June 18 that it favored staying in the European Union. But the biggest broadsheet (The Telegraph), the biggest midmarket paper (The Daily Mail) and the biggest tabloid (The Sun) have thrown themselves shamelessly behind Brexit.
They have peddled the myths that Britain pays 350 million pounds a week(about $500 million) to the European Union; that millions of Turks will invade Britain because Turkey is about to be offered European Union membership; that immigrants are destroying our social services; and that post-Brexit, Britain will enjoy continued access to Europe’s single market without automatically allowing in European Union workers.
Some samples from recent Daily Mail headlines give the flavor: “We’re from Europe: Let Us In!”; “Ten Bombshells the E.U.’s Keeping Secret Until After You’ve Voted”; “Greediest Snouts in the E.U. Trough.” These are from The Sun: “We’ll Get Stuffed by Turkey”; “Checkpoint Charlies: Euro Judges Open Floodgates to Illegals”; “Eur All Invited.” Formally endorsing Brexit on June 13, The Sun, a mainstay of the xenophobic press, declared: “If we stay, Britain will be engulfed in a few short years by this relentlessly expanding German-dominated federal state.”
Loughborough University’s Center for Research in Communication and Culturehas calculated that 82 percent of newspaper articles about the referendum favor Brexit when circulation and “strength of papers’ endorsements” are taken into account. InFacts, a pro-Remain group that campaigns for accurate journalism, has filed 19 complaints with the Independent Press Standards Organization, Britain’s print media watchdog, leading to five corrections, including one against a headline in The Sun that proclaimed, “Queen Backs Brexit.” The watchdog has yet to rule on the rest.
It is often said that newspapers no longer matter. But they do matter when the contest is so close and shoppers see headlines like “BeLeave in Britain” emblazoned across the front pages of tabloids whenever they visit their supermarket. They matter if they have collectively and individually misled their readers for decades.
The upshot is that Mr. Johnson and his fellow Brexit proponents are now campaigning against the caricature of the European Union that he himself helped create. They are asking the British people to part with a monster about as real as the one in Loch Ness. Mr. Johnson may be witty and amusing, but he is extremely dangerous. What began as a bit of a joke could inflict terrible damage on his country.