There used to be – and you won’t see it any more, for obvious reasons – a certain type of story in the right-wing Press. I suppose different editors had different names for these stories; I don’t know what they were, but they’ll be familiar to anyone who’s been paying any attention to the media for the past thirty years or so. They were stories about the excesses and madnesses of the European Union.
You’ll know the sort of thing. Stories about the EU banning bendy bananas, forcing barmaids to cover up their cleavages, banning the dear old British fry-up. And so on. Stories like this appealed to the die-hard Eurosceptics on the right, because they reinforced their existing prejudices, but they also, I’d suggest, gaslit a generation of voters into believing that the EU was an insane authoritarian regime determined to stamp out any form of regional sovereignty, a parliament of grey unelected bureaucrats meddling in our ancient British traditions.
All these stories were lies.
The best-known, I guess, is the banana one. Back in 1994 papers such as The Sun, The Daily Mirror, the Express and the Mail ran a story to the effect that the European Commission was seeking to ban sales of curved bananas, with shops ordered not to sell fruit that was too small or abnormally bent.
As with all these stories, there was a germ of reality to it. The fruit industry had asked the European Commission to classify bananas according to size and quality, as a way of simplifying the trade – if fruit sellers bought a certain quantity of a certain category of banana, they knew what they were getting in terms of size and quality. There was no ban, no intention of stopping the sale of curved bananas – or, in another similar story, curved cucumbers. The story was a lie.
And then there was the thing about barmaids. In 2005 the EU proposed at employers should carry out a skin cancer risk assessment for employees who worked in the sun all day. You’d think, considering there are thousands of new cases of skin cancer diagnosed in the UK every year, this would be greeted as a sensible move, but no. The Sun ran a story along the lines of prudes in the EU wanting to make British barmaids cover up their cleavages. Again, this was a lie.
There were so many stories like these that the EU eventually set up a website to counter them, but I don’t imagine many of the people who read those stories bothered to check. The EU were slow to react to stuff like this, and I think they misjudged their reaction when they did. The anti-Euromyths website was a worthy thing, but people are always going to respond more readily to a lie accompanied by a photo of a barmaid’s chest than the truth accompanied by a spreadsheet about skin cancer.
I’m sure the journalists an editors involved would say the stories were just a bit of harmless fun, not to be taken seriously, but the point is they were taken seriously. Not so long ago I saw an interview with one Leave voter who said she’d voted that way because of ‘bendy bananas’. We’re not supposed to call Leave supporters stupid, but someone thought they were.
Being as we’re so assiduous these days in calling out media lies, calling for BBC journalists to be fired for the smallest of errors, shouldn’t we be interested in who wrote these lies? Who were these liars?
Oh, look. It’s the Prime Minister.
Yes, the tousle-haired scamp made his name in journalism – after a rocky start when he was fired by The Times for making up quotes (from a member of his own family) – by writing stories like this. He didn’t invent the form, but he made it his own, and others followed. As his stories – and others – entered the public consciousness, they groomed their readership into believing the EU was an oppressive regime determined to destroy everything good about Britain, and when the time came to vote in the Referendum, they were ready to express their views.
Does any of this matter? No, of course it doesn’t. The Referendum’s done, Article 50’s been enacted, we’re in Transition now and we can’t go back. Johnson is Prime Minister with a huge majority, and even if we had an Opposition worthy of the name there’s nothing to stop him doing whatever he wants.
The Government and the Eurosceptic Press are still gaslighting us, for their own purposes, during this period of negotiations with the EU. And all we can do is watch.
Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?