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Fintan O'Toole: The English have been told lies about the EU by most of their press

Brexit is the outcome of decades of spoofery by Britain’s media

Up Yours Delors: the pantomime image is a distinctive genre of English fiction. One of the tragedies of Brexit is that it will become redundant

In February 2016, just as the Brexit referendum debate was getting going, the Evening Standard columnist Anthony Hilton wrote that, "I once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union.

‘That’s easy,’ he replied. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.’ ”

At the time Murdoch did not deny this but later that year, when his bid to take over all of Sky made his political power a sensitive subject, he insisted that: “I have never uttered those words. I have made it a principle all my life never to ask for anything from any prime minister.”

Hilton, in turn, stood by his story and said the remarks were made in the early 1980s, when Hilton was city editor of Murdoch's Times.


Proof will never be available either way. But what is undoubtedly true is that, for the billionaire press barons used to wielding such immense influence in London, Brussels is infuriatingly impervious. The EU is largely indifferent to them.

That is one of the reasons they have promoted a relentless campaign of lies about it. The other reason is simpler: Brussels is boring. Most of what it does is pretty tedious – if you want to sell papers, making up luridly entertaining stories is much more effective than reporting the truth.

The English have been lied to by most of their press and made to believe that "Brussels" is a factory for mad schemes to meddle with their lives

What we have to remember, though, is the astonishing reality that this lying is the bedrock of Brexit. Britain could not have been brought to its current state had a majority of its citizens not been convinced of one “truth”: that the EU has been interfering non-stop in every part of their daily lives, from the way they have sex to what they eat and drink, from what they wear to what happens to them when they die.

If the consequences were not so serious, there would be a pure fascination to this long-term propaganda campaign. It is made up, not of one big lie, but of an endless succession of little lies, each in itself so absurd as to seem harmless, yet cumulatively amounting to a profound distortion of public reality.

What was distorted was the English perception of influence. When Scots and Welsh people were asked in 2012 to identity which layer of government had most influence over their lives, just 8 per cent and 7 per cent respectively cited the EU. This was very much typical of responses in regions throughout Europe from Bavaria to Brittany.

The great exception was England, where 31 per cent of people cited the EU as the most influential layer of government. Why? Because the English have been lied to by most of their press and made to believe that “Brussels” is a factory for mad schemes to meddle with their lives in ever more ludicrous ways.

Saucy sitcom

What has made this lying so effective, though, is that, viewed piece by piece, it is comic, absurd and amusing, a saucy sitcom in which the implied soundtrack is a camp “ooh-er, Missus!” and a mockney “would you Adam-and-Eve it?”

It is competitively inventive: the journalists get great fun out of thinking up the next outrage. And at its most vivid, it conjures visual images that lodge in the brain.

For example, there is the Sun headline of October 19th, 1994: "EU to push for standard condom size"; "Brussels is set to produce a standard Euro condom, whilst refusing to implement the subsidiarity principle so that Member States can take into account the different national characteristics of the male organ. The resultant compromise is simply not large enough to house British assets."

There’s the punning on “member states”, a boring Europhrase turned into a reference to the erect penis, and an assertion that our blokes have bigger mickeys than the Europeans. But there’s also an invitation to form in the mind a ridiculous image of the well-endowed Anglo-Saxon trying to fit himself into a tiny continental-size condom.

Or: "Circus performer must walk tightrope in hard hat, says Brussels" (the Times, July 23rd, 2003): "A tightrope-walker says that his career has been placed in jeopardy by legislation originating in Brussels which dictates that he must wear a hard hat to perform."

Or: "EU's plan to liquify corpses and pour them down the drain" (the Express, July 8th, 2010).

Or: "Shake 'n back – EU tells women to hand in worn-out sex toys" (the Sun, February 4th 2004); "Red-faced women will have to hand in their clapped-out sex toys under a new EU law. They must take back old vibrators for recycling before they can buy a new one."

Or "Get netted: we won't play Ena Sharples, fishermen storm at Europrats" (Daily Star, October, 1992), the claim being that the EU was forcing fishermen while working at sea to wear hairnets like that sported by the Coronation Street character.

Or: "Shellfish (especially mussels and oysters) must be given rest breaks and stress-relieving showers during journeys of over 50km" (the Times, January 29th, 1996).

Memorable images

This is a distinctive genre of English fiction – one of the tragedies of Brexit is that it will become redundant. It covers a range of comic forms from seaside postcards (the condoms and sex toys) to Pythonesque gender confusions (the butch fishermen in their hairnets might as well be singing “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay”) to the deliciously grotesque (those liquefied corpses) to Dadaist surrealism (oysters being given rest breaks).

But each of these vignettes – and hundreds more over the years – has a common quality: memorability. It creates a visual image that lodges in the brain. And it is the accumulation of these images that expresses itself in every vox pop on Brexit from an English market town. These repeated pantomimes have congealed into a history play.

When English people say they are sick of Brussels interference, it is these crazy little yarns that are weighing on their minds.

It is hard to think of anything quite like this in history, where perniciously effective propaganda has come in the form of such extravagant daftness.

It used to be claimed that Britain’s destiny was shaped on the playing fields of Eton, but here we have a country in thrall to a different kind of sport, a game of knowingly outrageous mendacity, a decades-long spoofing contest in which journalists – to serve the interests of an elite of super-rich media owners – dared each other to come up with the most outlandishly ingenious fabrication.

And this is also why Brexit has proved so hard to give a rational shape to. If you turn political reality into a Monty Python sketch, it is very hard to take it seriously again, even when you really, really need to.