Earlier this week a friend forwarded a warning into our WhatsApp group chat. The gist was that we should seriously consider stockpiling groceries this week as it increasingly seemed that Boris Johnson would be announcing a no-deal Brexit on Thursday and the supermarket shelves would soon be bare. My friend doesn’t work in government or media but I do know that the message was sent in earnest good faith. (“I hate to exacerbate any situation,” she added apologetically.) After all, those of us in the UK have now been subjected to months of news reports full of anonymous sources talking about down-to-the-wire negotiations or the EU’s obstinance, or Johnson’s abject refusal to compromise.
Combine that with updates about the UK’s lack of preparation for the realities of leaving without a deal and it’s enough to make anyone start to panic. Which reminds me of another warning I received earlier this year when a (different) friend forwarded a message urging people to stockpile everything from paracetamol to canned goods. Anonymous briefings from government sources were suggesting that a UK lockdown was imminent and that the army might even be sent into London to help reinforce it. By the time Johnson actually announced the first lockdown, paracetamol was indeed in scarce supply in London’s supermarkets.
I can’t say whether things are as dire in the Brexit negotiations as the latest headlines would suggest. With all the leaks from unnamed parliamentary sources contradicting press briefings given by mid-level EU officials, it seems impossible to know what’s reality and what’s calculated spin meant to force the other side to blink (or, indeed, provide a plausible defence for any negative outcomes). But it shouldn’t be controversial to say that this chaotic approach to communications is no way for those in higher office to behave.
By drip-feeding warnings and bad news, which is then seized upon and amplified by media both traditional and social, panic and paranoia has been sown into people’s everyday lives. Whether it’s from Downing Street, parliament’s backbenches or officials in Brussels, it’s not hard to see how these leaked titbits are fuelling division and providing fodder for conspiracy theorists who love to shout “fake news”. Surely we can all agree that this is incompatible with the goals of any responsible government.