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Jon Snow on why journalists must learn the lessons of getting Trump, Brexit and 2017 general election wrong

By Jon Snow

The last two years have caught the media, the pundits, and the professional ‘know-alls’ napping.

When Mrs May called the 2017 General Election for 8 June, many were talking ‘Tory Landslide’. They were even talking of Labour being reduced to 100 MPs in the Commons.

We so-called experts, failed to spot that the British people – bitterly divided over Brexit – had no interest in her ‘snap election’, and determined to punish her for calling it. After the 2015 EU Referendum, the media failed to look at the consequence of such a narrow victory for so controversial and complex an issue as leaving the European Union.

The self-same ‘experts’ took Mrs May’s bid for a bigger mandate than her 17-seat majority in the House of Commons at face value.

Not so the electorate who proved the experts wrong at every turn. No one was predicting a hung Parliament or the nightmare scenario in which the Northern Irish right-wing DUP MPs were summoned to keep the Tories in power.

And though many of us understood ‘strong and stable’ was a PR man’s effort to divert us from what proved to be a truer epithet of ‘weak and wobbly’, few in the media discussed her frailties openly until too late.

But then we, the media/political elite, had already been in trouble in America, failing to spot the populism there that would propel the most unstable and inappropriate presidential candidate into the White House.

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In both the UK and America, this is in part because few of us live amongst those suffering most from the actions of those in power. I blame myself for not spotting it when covering the US presidential election in America’s frustrated heartlands.

Standing at the back of a sports hall in North Carolina, I realised Donald Trump was now including me in his tirade against the media. I was amongst only 20 or so media present, and perhaps 500 people present in the hall altogether.

Suddenly, upon Trump’s urging the entire crowd turned around and yelled at us, thrusting their fists at us. In those mad October days in 2016, it was impossible to imagine that this man – whose campaign rallies veered between pantomime and something very dark – was within a couple of months of becoming the so-called ‘leader of the free world’.

The same was true as the political elite in the UK chose to ask the British people whether they wanted to leave Europe. The media believed the political leaders who said it would easily be won by those who sought to remain.

But it proved an issue of such complexity that few journalists, let alone many members of the general public, had much idea of what it was all about. Hence Europe became a handy receptacle for the resentments over immigration, poverty, and shortcomings of the welfare state, for which the EU was rarely responsible.

Needless to say, the politicians came up with two key themes they thought
would work for both Trump and Brexit. Trump wanted to make America ‘great again’, whilst the Brexiteers wanted to put the ‘great’ back into Britain; and both campaigns were threaded through with ‘fake news’.

In the years before the Referendum, if, as a reporter, one stopped a voter in the streets and asked them to list their top ten issues – Europe rarely figured at all.

In America, the Trump/Clinton battle looked an easy one for the media, but proved illusive. Many regarded Mrs Clinton as a bit of the same-old, same-old, but at least someone who understood America’s power structure. Trump simply declared she was ‘a criminal’.

None of us had spent time watching years of ‘the Apprentice’ – unlike many of the voters. They loved this outsider, Donald Trump, firing people noisily on TV. Few of us understood this was exactly what many of them wanted to do with the Clintons, and a lot of other high profile politicians.

Many in the media convinced themselves ‘sense’ would prevail. Few of us realised this blunt, rude, odd-looking man, ‘the Donald’– millionaire that he was – had captured the zeitgeist. Ultimately, once again, few in the media sprang from the echelons of those most keenly screaming from Trump.

It would be too simplistic to say – for Trump, read Farage. But UKIP and those who funded it had spotted the deepening alienation which increasing numbers of British voters were feeling for politics.

In the case of the UK, it was a ‘thing’ rather than a ‘person’ which had become the issue. Europe was the thing. Europe– castigated by the Mail, the Express, the Telegraph and others down the years –suddenly it had come good as an explosive issue.

In a single vote, we were told, leaving Europe would cure all our ills. In a flash we would have £350m a week to spend on the NHS (fake news, or a straight lie?) Down the 40 years of EU membership, the media had done very little to extol the benefits of Europe, and plenty to attack it.

How much did the Cornish media do to praise the massive EU investment over the decades in the game-changing developments across what is one of the poorest counties in Europe?

How much did the national press do to unwind the complex free trade arrangements in Europe which affected not only ourselves but many emergent Commonwealth countries too?

For myself, I feel the media failed, not only over the Referendum, but perhaps over reporting Europe at all down the 40 years of the UK’s membership. Amid the fresh mown lies (or fake news) of the campaign itself, we didn’t have a chance. Not that some in the media would have wanted the chance anyway.

For America, the media did not fail. They reported Donald Trump as he was, and is. That is what the people wanted, and as a consequence the people elected him. But on the campaign, they were so far removed from the alienated voters they were reporting, they missed the potential scale of his success.

In the June 2017 British general election the media and political classes were hoisted by their own ignorance of the nature of the society they were reporting. Voters thumbed their noses at Mrs May and her hard Brexit.

They decisively did not increase her mandate to deliver on leaving Europe. Neither did they vote to have the Northern Ireland’s hard-line DUP keeping Mrs May in power for however short a time it may prove.

Brexit, Trump and the Media is a salutary reminder to we, who report, pontificate, and comment, that we need to render our industry more reflective of the people we serve.

This an extract from Brexit, Trump and the Media – a collection of essays edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait and published by Abramis.

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