On 24 September, the UK’s Supreme Court delivered a verdict that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was unlawful. It was a truly landmark ruling. Yet the following day, the right-wing press went to town and presented a totally different picture. As one lawyer noted, they shared “misleading” front pages that spread “hatred and ignorance”.
The judgement stated that Johnson’s “advice” to the queen:
was unlawful, void and of no effect… The prorogation was also void and of no effect… Parliament has not been prorogued. This is the unanimous judgment of all 11 Justices.
But the right-wing press didn’t quite report it like this. Some claimed the Supreme Court was simply trying to block Brexit, while others suggested that the Supreme Court (and not Johnson) had acted unlawfully. All of them failed to present an accurate picture of the way parliament, government and the judiciary work in the UK.
As the Secret Barrister pointed out, the “editors of these newspapers are fomenting hatred and ignorance and grossly misleading their readers”:
The editors of these newspapers are fomenting hatred and ignorance and grossly misleading their readers about the judgment of the Supreme Court, the separation of powers and the rule of law.
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The Lord Chancellor should be all over this, defending the judiciary. Where is he? pic.twitter.com/fvusA3TNuM
— The Secret Barrister (@BarristerSecret) September 25, 2019
Other people also agreed:
The venomous and malicious rightwing British press exposed in all its shamelessness. #TomorrowsPapersToday
— Simon Cosgrove 🇪🇺#FBPE🕷🔶♻️ (@simoncosgrove) September 25, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen, I present you with the true enemies of the British people. These 4 papers are responsible for the hate and division we see in our country today.#TheSun #DailyExpress #DailyMail #Telegraph#TomorrowsPapersToday#TomorrowsPaperToday #BBCPapers pic.twitter.com/bVz6HTxqxY
— Brexit Watch (@ukvoteremain) September 25, 2019
The key issue with all of these front pages is that they fundamentally ignore the UK’s separation of powers. This means that parliament, government and the judicial system must operate separately to avoid abuse of power. As US James Madison famously said:
The accumulation of all powers… in the same hands… may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.
According to the Daily Mail, the decision led Johnson to ask “Who runs Britain?” – a foolish question really to anyone who understands the separation of powers. But this is exactly what the Secret Barrister noted: it’s potentially highly misleading for many readers.
One Twitter user posted this with a wry analogy of reporting on other court verdicts:
TOMORROW: Court finds man guilty of murder. We give our front page to the murderer’s complaint about the verdict and let him suggest the jury are corrupt. We also ask the murderer’s mates for quotes. We give no column inches to the jury.#TomorrowsPapersToday#MailFrontPages pic.twitter.com/jy1X6C4J65
— The DM Reporter (@DMReporter) September 24, 2019
Meanwhile, the Telegraph front page was perfect fodder to encourage Tory voters:
— Vote Conservative (@ToryVote_) September 24, 2019
The Express, on the other hand, played to the “17.4m” people who voted Leave. It implied that, on this basis, Johnson wasn’t “unlawful” at all. Again, it also totally misrepresented the separation of power:
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) September 24, 2019
The Sun (in England), meanwhile, went for a terrible pun and claimed its readers ‘slammed’ the ruling as a “farce”:
Compare & Contrast.
— Darran Marshall (@DarranMarshall) September 24, 2019
As some people pointed out, if Jeremy Corbyn had acted in the same way, the media response would likely be very different:
PROOF that our so called "free press" is an absolute sham: if the Supreme Court had unanimously found Jeremy Corbyn guilty of misleading Queen & country they would never in a million years attack the Supreme Court judges or link it to Brexit – they'd INSIST he was locked up! pic.twitter.com/6AWqQzHg6G
— russjackson (@docrussjackson) September 25, 2019
The ‘most right-wing press in Europe’
This isn’t the first time the right-wing press has attacked the judiciary. In 2016, the Mail claimed judges were “Enemies of the People”. This followed a high court ruling that parliament (and not the prime minister) had to trigger Article 50.
A 2016 YouGov study found that British people perceive their press to be the most “right-wing” in Europe. Indeed, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK controls a third of our national newspapers – 70% of which are owned by just three companies.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), meanwhile, produces an annual ‘Press Freedom Index’ (PFI), ranking every country according to government restriction of the media. And in 2018, the UK kept its “status as one of the worst-ranked Western European countries” in the PFI.
With the country in constitutional crisis and a prime minister who refuses to resign even after this ruling, we see this pattern emerging yet again. Now more than ever, we need a strong independent media to fight this propaganda.
Featured image via Flickr – Chatham House
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