BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away for one more week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
So the fallout from Brexit was marked by plunging - plunging markets, plunging pound, plunging politicians, among them Prime Minister David Cameron. He ran on the promise of a referendum on whether to leave the EU, assuming it would lose, and then fell on his own sword.
[CLIP]: PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: The British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path. And, as such, I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Boris Johnson, columnist and ex-mayor of London, led a fire-and-brimstone campaign for Brexit, and the Brits assumed he’d ride his win to 10 Downing Street. But on Thursday he bowed out, after his erstwhile ally, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, flatly stated that Boris wasn't up to the job. No, said Gove, reluctantly. It had to fall to someone else. To Gove, in fact. Poor Boris.
BORIS JOHNSON: …my friends, you who have waited faithfully for the punchline of this speech, that having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now a little more on Johnson. In 1989, after being fired from the Times of London for fabricating a quote, The Daily Telegraph sent him to gray old Brussels to cover the dull old EU. Martin Fletcher, a writer and former foreign correspondent for the Times of London, held a similar post in Brussels a few years later. He said Johnson's work in Brussels really livened things up.
MARTIN FLETCHER: He set out from the word go to create a sort of “cartoon caricature” of Brussels, full of scheming Europeans who were creating a super state that was trampling on ancient British liberties, forever foisting ridiculous rules and dictates on the longsuffering British people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the headlines his stories generated was “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure Euro-manure smells the same”?
MARTIN FLETCHER: Yes, the first paragraph of which read, “The smelly farmyards could become an offense on the Brussels plans to quantify maximum permissible odors.”
I mean, as far as I can tell, that was made up out of whole cloth.
It’s an example of how he portrayed Brussels as meddling in the minutest corners of British life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How about this headline, “Italy fails to measure up on condoms”?
MARTIN FLETCHER: Yeah, the first paragraph which was, “The Italian rubber industry is falling foul of EU rules by making undersized condoms.”
[LAUGHS] I mean, you can see why people read the stories. They just happened to be completely untrue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These were stories that had no basis.
MARTIN FLETCHER: There was a kernel of truth in what he said, in the sense that the EU was very bureaucratic and it did sort of meddle more than it should probably in the affairs of its member states. But beyond that, his stories were a grotesque exaggeration.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And why did he write them?
MARTIN FLETCHER: First of all, he was writing for The Telegraph, which was the sort of house newspaper of the euro-skeptic right at that stage, and secondly, because Boris has always had a somewhat tangential relationship with the truth. You know, there was a lot of euro-skepticism around before Boris went to Brussels. He didn’t invent it. But he elevated it to a whole new level. And what happened was other Fleet Street editors, who were rather bored with this gray stuff that had been coming out of Brussels up to that point, started pressing their own correspondents to match Boris. And so, you started getting stories in other tabloids about how the European Union was going to ban double-decker buses or force our fishermen to wear hairnets. I don’t make this up.
I followed him in 1999 and even on the Times of London I felt under pressure. We were all under pressure. Not only was there a demand for these preposterous stories but you couldn’t write about the European Union’s many achievements.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me an example of a story that you really felt was important but couldn't get in because it didn't fit the template?
MARTIN FLETCHER: How the European Union secured the peace in Europe, how it enabled younger generations to live, work, travel anywhere in Europe in a way that my generation could only dream of. I mean, that’s a huge advantage, a very important aspect of our relationship with Europe which never got reported.
Actually, we have a lot of allies. We won the arguments on the competition policy on creating a single market on eastward enlargement of the European Union. There are lots of countries that agree with us. You would never know that from reading the British press. Editors in Fleet Street could only see Brussels through a certain prism, and those narratives were so strong that politicians couldn’t challenge them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote in your New York Times op-ed that Loughborough University’s Center for Research in Communication and Culture calculated that 82 percent of newspaper articles about the referendum favored Brexit.
MARTIN FLETCHER: Of Britain’s national daily newspapers, only three, the Financial Times, The Guardian and the London Times favored Remain. The rest favored Brexit. And that included The Telegraph, the biggest broadsheet, The Daily Mail, the biggest midmarket paper and The Sun, which is the biggest tabloid. And when I say “favored Brexit” all balance, all sense of fairness, all sense of truth, frankly, went out of the window. It was a thoroughly mendacious campaign, whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment.
So people say that newspapers don’t matter, but I think they were critical in this referendum. The margin between the Leave and Remain camps was 1.2-something million votes. In other words, if just a little over 600,000 voters had voted the other way then we would still be staying in the European Union.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. And, according to one opinion poll that was carried out in the wake of the Brexit decision, more than a million people regret their vote to leave the European Union. So that would have swung the vote the other way.
MARTIN FLETCHER: Look, the papers perpetrated four big lies. The first was that we send 350 million pounds a week to the European Union. The real figure is about 120 million pounds. Secondly, that Turkey was about to join the European Union and, therefore, millions and millions of Turks were going to be invading Britain. Any sober observer of the situation would be amazed if Turkey joins in the next 20 or 30 years. I mean, it’s becoming increasingly authoritarian. Its chances of joining are minimal. Thirdly, that we could somehow retain access to the single market of 500 million people without also giving freedom of movement to European Union workers. I mean, that just isn’t going to happen. And fourthly, that our social services were being stretched to a breaking point by all the immigrants that had come to this country. Actually, most of our social services, especially the National Health Service, is kept going by immigrants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because they pay taxes.
MARTIN FLETCHER: No, because so many are working in the NHS.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aha.
MARTIN FLETCHER: [LAUGHS] Without immigrants, the NHS would assuredly collapse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the wake of all the criticism of the way the Brexit campaigns were covered in the last week, has there been any kind of mea culpa from outlets like The Daily Mail and The Sun?
MARTIN FLETCHER: [LAUGHS] No. The Prime Minister had resigned, the pound had plummeted, global stock markets had plunged, the UK had become so unraveled and the only people who were celebrating were Trump and Putin and ISIS and Marine Le Pen in France. So what was the headline in The Daily Mail? It was “Take a bow, Britain.” And in the Daily Telegraph, it was “Birth of a new Britain,” as if none of the calamities that had become to befall us had happened at all. And the other thing you’re hearing now is well, both sides were telling untruths.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah.
MARTIN FLETCHER: The Leave camps as well as the Remainers were telling untruths and they were accusing them of what was glibly described as “Project Fear.” The Remain camp couldn’t trumpet the virtues of the EU because the EU is unpopular. Even I think the EU is badly in need of reform. So not being able to talk positively about the EU, they had to rely on issuing warnings about what happens if we came out of the EU. So it was, in a sense, based on theater. The only thing I would say is that all the dire predictions of what would happen if we voted for Brexit are coming true, as we speak.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Martin, thank you very much.
MARTIN FLETCHER: You’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Martin Fletcher is a writer and former foreign correspondent and editor for the Times of London.