Wednesday’s front page spread in the Daily Telegraph calling out “Brexit mutineers” over their opposition to part of the UK government’s plans sparked a political row and brought condemnation on all sides.
The Conservative MP Anna Soubry – one of a group of 15 potential Tory rebels identified by the paper – called the headline a “blatant piece of bullying” and told Parliament her office had reported to police a series of threats made against her as a result.
The politicians were pictured under a caption saying “Remain-supporting Conservatives rebel against May’s move to enshrine in law the date Britain leaves EU”. The article said they were threatening to block the prime minister’s plans for Brexit in Parliament, even though all but one had voted to invoke Article 50.
Although some saw the description as harmless, others detected something more sinister.
Some opposition Labour MPs were scathing in their condemnation. Former shadow cabinet minister Chuka Umunna said it was an “ideological witch-hunt to bully Tory MPs to go against their instincts to do what they think best for our country”.
The Prime Minister Theresa May defended her opponents’ right to speak out when she spoke in Parliament. “There is of course a lively debate going on in this place and that’s right and proper and that’s important,” she said, acknowledging the “strong views” on different sides which the government was listening to. Steve Baker, a Brexit minister, said he regretted “any media attempts to divide our party”.
The Telegraph’s splash, which also provoked some furious exchanges on Twitter, had echoes of the Daily Mail’s controversial headline from a year ago branding judges as “Enemies of the People” after the high court ruled that MPs must have a say on triggering the formal Brexit process. Months later the same paper described Theresa May’s ill-fated move to call an early election as an attempt to “crush the saboteurs”.
The description of the rebels as “mutineers” may not be quite as partisan as “enemies”, but the paper’s format – the picture gallery identifying each individual accompanied by the clear implication that they were in some way defying the democratic process – gave it a “faintly menacing look”, according to the Financial Times.
For Denis MacShane, former Labour minister and author of “Brexit. No Exit”, such headlines are typical of elements of the British press which over several decades have developed a dislike of Europe into a crusade. Earlier this year he recounted in the UK trade magazine “The Journalist” that he had shown the Daily Mail’s front page to a conference in Switzerland.
“The German-speaking audience gasped. One spontaneously called out “Der Sturmür” – the title of a main pro-nationalist daily paper in Germany in the 1930s,” he wrote. “Indeed, that is exactly how the Nazis branded their democratic opponents – as Volksfeinde – enemies of the people.”
It is not only newspapers which have been accused of intimidation towards those who do not share their views. Last month a Conservative MP and government whip, Chris Heaton-Harris, was rebuked by Downing Street after writing to university vice-chancellors asking for a list of professors involving with teaching about Brexit, as well as details about courses.
He was forced to reiterate his belief in free speech in universities and “open and vigorous debate on Brexit”. But his intervention was attacked for having a “whiff of McCarthyism”. “This chilling letter could have come straight out of a dystopian novel,” said the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran.
The Daily Mail followed up on the outraged reaction among academics – more than one complained of a “witch hunt” – highlighting allegations and examples of “anti-Brexit” and “pro-Remain” bias among many lecturers who, it pointed out, often “receive EU funding”. It linked research funding for universities with opinion polls showing over 80 percent of academics had voted to stay in the EU.
Pro-Brexit politicians and campaigners have also been called out for comments implying that their adversaries are anti-democratic, unpatriotic, or even guilty of treachery. In October last year a Conservative councillor, Christian Holliday, was suspended after launching a petition calling for anyone supporting EU membership to be charged with treason.
However, accusations have been levelled against people on both sides of the Brexit divide denigrating opponents, and even for inciting violence.
Writing earlier this year, Denis MacShane said that Brexit negotiators in European capitals were concerned that a major obstacle to reaching a fair compromise in the talks between the UK and the EU was the British press: “a major player, more important than the Brexit negotiating team”.
Some of the Tory rebels pinpointed by the Daily Telegraph have almost welcomed their treatment as a kind of badge of honour. But for one of the 15, the Conservative MP Bob Neill who responded in The Guardian, “this sort of journalistic activism, dressed up as speaking for the ‘will of the people’, will be called out for what it is: complete rubbish”.
“Accepting the sort of journalism that intimidates MPs by labelling them, or indeed judges, ‘mutineers, ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies’ – all epitaphs I have received – is a very slippery slope,” he wrote.
“It’s not only putting off many talented individuals from standing for parliament, but in our increasingly post-truth age, characterised by fake news and a ready acceptance of fiction over fact, distorts further our hold on reality, breeding an unjustified suspicion in our institutions – as all populists seek to do.”