In the Arab Spring of 2011 much of the foreign media covering the protests in Egypt gathered in or around Tahrir Square in Cairo to report the daily confrontations between demonstrators demanding the overthrow of the regime and security forces seeking to preserve it.
The scene in Tahrir was the backdrop to countless television interviews with opposition activists and what happened there was portrayed as a barometer which would tell the world if the Egyptian revolution would succeed or fail. When President Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 February many television viewers and newspaper readers got the impression that the revolutionaries had won and Egypt was entering an era of freedom and democracy.
Except this was not true: the state and army never lost control of the essential levers of power and two years later Egypt was back under the rule of an even more brutal and authoritarian government.
The journalists who had focused their reporting on Tahrir had got their facts right, but they necessarily got a very selective and, as it turned out, misleading view of what was happening in Egypt, a country of 90 million people.
During the uprising in Libya a few months later, the television cameras were similarly trained on a square in Benghazi that protesters had permanently occupied. Intelligent, articulate English-speaking opposition leaders were available for interview in a nearby building. None of this was necessarily phoney, but it was a highly sanitised version of developments in Libya. Talking to people away from that much-televised square, it became swiftly apparent that the leaders so frequently interviewed had little authority and that Libya was likely to fall apart after the defeat of Gaddafi.
I was reminded of Tahrir and the crowded square in Benghazi when watching journalists and politicians interviewing and being interviewed on College Green opposite the Houses of Parliament over the last week. It has long been a favoured venue for broadcasters because it is a convenient location for MPs, with the dramatic parliament buildings as a backdrop.
Watching this relentless Brexit coverage, I had the same uneasy feeling as I had had in Cairo and Benghazi – that the focus was too narrow and, for all the talk of crisis, dangerous trends were being ignored or given insufficient weight.
The scene on College Green is probably the nearest one could get to seeing the famous “Westminster Bubble” in the flesh, its most regular inhabitants being journalists rather than politicians. Though frequently accused of being out of touch, MPs have to visit their constituencies, meet voters and speak to party activists. Political journalists are more exclusively metropolitan by the nature of their jobs and less in touch with the rest of the country. MPs speaking in the Commons talk about a wider range of topics than when they are giving interviews to news outlets.
All professions suffer from deformation professionnelle and this is certainly true of journalism. Some of this is unavoidable: news means supposing that something new and significant is happening day by day, even when evidence for this is scant. This inevitably leads to a short-term take on events.
A negative aspect of venues such as College Green or its equivalent around the world is that they foster a dangerous herd instinct in which some themes are relentlessly pursued and others marginalised or ignored.
Journalists traditionally give good marks to people who talk to opponents, even when nobody is giving any ground on matters of substance and conversations or negotiations are a waste of time. But by treating the near dead heat of the 2016 Brexit referendum as a case of winners and losers the government destroyed the basis for compromise, if it ever existed.
Everybody believes that everybody else cannot be quite so attached to their beliefs as they claim and will blink at the last, This is dangerously over-optimistic in the present case. I was talking to people in Dover this week, Remainers, who said they had no doubt that if there is a second referendum or Brexit is cancelled then there will be sustained violence.
They add that the EU may well have been unfairly scapegoated and blamed for grievances for which it was not responsible, but these grievances themselves are real, run very deep and have been further envenomed by the referendum. Any hope that the crisis can be defanged at this late stage is wishful thinking.
The extreme Brexit wing of the Conservatives, for all their talk of taking on the world, remain aggressively ignorant about the way it works. They assume Britain has cards in its hand that are not there, so the EU will always come out on top in any negotiation. This is then blamed on incompetent negotiators, a failure of will or, most dangerous of all, a stab in the back.
The same parochialism extends to the UK. The DUP is now treated as a respectable party representing the interests of Northern Ireland, despite its long record as a sectarian Protestant party in permanent confrontation with the Catholic and nationalist population. The DUP alliance with the Conservative Party is destroying an essential precondition for peace in Northern Ireland, which was British government neutrality between the two communities.
President de Gaulle once said that “the most common error of all statesmen is to believe firmly that there exists at any one moment a solution to every problem. There are in some periods problems to which no solution exists.” He was speaking in 1958 about ending the war in Algeria, a conflict so violent and complicated as to make Brexit seem clear cut by comparison.
De Gaulle did succeed in ending the Algerian conflict, which might give some hope to the British as they grapple with Brexit. But Julian Jackson’s magnificent book, A Certain Idea of France: the Life of Charles de Gaulle, points out de Gaulle’s practicality and avoidance of wishful thinking. This is what was lacking among the politicians and journalists in Tahrir Square and Benghazi eight years ago – and much the same is true of College Green today.