CROWING FOR OBAMA?: Mark Mardell’ the BBC’s former ‘Europe’ editor and now presenter of World This Weekend, was in no doubt on Sunday about how important President Obama’s observations about the EU referendum were. He declared:
The UK part of his farewell tour wouldn’t even count as a long weekend, but it might prove the most important 50 hours in the referendum campaign so far. Here was one of the most popular and powerful politicians in the whole world pulling no punches.
Next came an extract from the president’s interview by Huw Edwards in which he outlined in detail and in full the horrors that would befall the UK if it left the EU. Mardell then visited the president’s staged ‘town hall’ question and answer session, where, he said, Obama seemed to be ‘a bit of a rock star to some’. There followed a vox pop in which the first respondent said that Obama ‘had every right to speak out’ in the way he had because Britain was not an isolated country. The second voice agreed it was OK for the president to intervene, the third said he could have an opinion, but it was up to the British people to decide. Mardell concluded:
Of course, what any President of the United States says is important, but this one perhaps strikes a different chord.
He then asked ‘former adviser to the Labour leadership’ Aisha Hazanika how it struck her that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson had mentioned his Kenyan ancestry. She responded:
It sort of smacked of a completely unnecessary, weird undertone that was pretty unpleasant, and I think actually, very un-British. I think people were quite embarrassed about it, and I think it ties into what’s actually happening with the mayoral election at the moment, we are seeing quite an ugly strain of dog whistle politics. There are people in the Conservative Party saying ‘We’re not saying Sadiq is necessarily a terrorist, but . . .’ and that kind of smearing with innuendo and association is not something that has really happened in British politics, and I don’t think that that sends a particularly progressive message around the country and to the rest of the world.
Mardell then observed with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the Queen’s 90th birthday, it could have been a week for ‘inward looking staring backwards at the past’, and the president’s political intervention had been wrapped in appeals to British sentimentality. He said:
But the blunt, unsentimental job he set himself was to take a wrecking ball to the Leave campaigners’ case
Mardell then spoke to Simon Hix, introduced as a professor of political science at the London School of Economics. He noted that the ‘leave’ side was calling Obama a lame duck figure, but then said that the president was ‘telling it pretty straight’ and was ‘articulating the policy that was probably that of the Washington establishment’. He added:
I think the onus is on the people campaigning for Brexit now to articulate the post-Brexit vision of the UK in the world, and one of the big question marks there is Britain’s relationship with the United States. They always assumed that we could leave the EU and we’d naturally be able to set up some Anglospheres, some global, English-speaking trade bloc, as a substitute for the EU in a way, and I think Obama has put paid to that idea.
Mardell then interviewed ‘former defence secretary’ Liam Fox and noted first that, before the visit, with the backing of 100 other MPs, he had written a letter to the US Embassy urging Obama not to intervene. Mardell noted that the advice had been ignored and then asked what impact the intervention would have. Dr Fox replied that Obama’s claim that Britain would go to the back of the queue in arriving at a trade deal would not apply because the negotiations would not be handled by his successor. Mardell said that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would follow the same policies. Fox replied that what was said in primaries could not be trusted, and pointed out that negotiating trade deals with the EU was highly complex as 27 countries were involved. Mardell interrupted to state that the president was quite clear – it was impossible to queue-jump and it could take ten years. Fox disagreed and claimed that several deals were dealt with at the same time, it was not a system of one at a time. Mardell observed that Fox was an ‘Atlanticist,,,someone who was very much believes in ties with the US’. It was now clear that Obama wanted Britain inside the EU. Fox responded that the president had also observed that the bond between the two countries was unbreakable. Mardell said:
But nevertheless, doesn’t the President’s whole tone rather blow a hole in the argument for an Anglosphere, for an Atlanticist approach of a Britain outside the European Union?
Fox disagreed and said leaving the EU would make the UK open and outward looking rather than in the strait-jacket of the EU, ‘heading for massive economic failure as a result of the single currency…and the collapse of Schengen’. Mardell noted that Fox’s letter to the US embassy had said that the intervention of the president could undermine the vote itself’. He asked if this had now happened. Fox said that in the interview with Huw Edwards, there had been a lot of backtracking, and his message had been softened so that it was now ‘more appropriate’. Finally, Mardell asked what Fox thought about Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage raising the president’s ‘half-Kenyan ancestry’. Dr Fox said it was important that the debate was about the issues.
That’s a long analysis, but important to show the range and parameters of this Obama package and to illustrate the extent of Mardell’s imbalance. First, it should be noted that Liam Fox was given a reasonable opportunity to respond to some of the points raised by the Obama visit, and made a decent fist 0f doing so.
But the negatives in the construction far outweigh that. The first issue is Mardell’s extravagant, open admiration of Obama. Of course, the president of the United States is powerful, but Mardell emphasised and amplified that on at least three occasions, leaving listeners in no doubt whatsoever that this was a very important man making a very, very important contribution to the referendum debate. Second, his vox pop sequence was weighted to the ‘in side’; those he spoke to expressed only one slight reservation that this was an important, relevant message delivered at an appropriate time. Third, the former Labour party ‘leadership adviser’ Hazarika was given a totally open goal to call Boris Johnson’s mention of Obama’s ancestry ‘unnecessary, weird and pretty unpleasant’ – and then to deliver a withering attack on the Conservative conduct in the mayoral elections. In effect, Mardell presented her with the platform to call him ‘racist’, without explaining at all that Johnson’s newspaper about article about Obama’s intervention contained detailed argument as to why his background in Kenya was relevant. Fourth, Mardell included comment from Professor Hix that the intervention of Obama ‘was a serious blow to one of the key pillars of the Brexit campaign’ without including anything that challenge such an extreme statement. President Obama had already set out his position in the feature; this amplified it. Of course, Liam Fox then rebutted the point, but the construction meant that this was a 2-1 argument, not a straight 1-1 equation. And that was the overall position. Much more time was allocated to the Obama pitch, and Mardell exaggerated its strength by his extravagant praise of Obama. He gave the distinct impression that he was crowing against the Brexit case, and enjoying it.