Brexit claim exposed; image dented

Britain’s battle over its EU divorce bill rages amidst confusing claims and counter claims, elaborates Subhash Chopra.

Even as Britain's battle over its EU divorce bill rages amidst confusing claims and counter claims, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is attracting fresh attention. Johnson, who is the chief guest at the London based Indian Journalists Association dinner on August 15, is being accused of telling 'a lie' and misleading the British public in the run-up to last year's referendum, over his claim that the EU was costing Britain pounds 350 million a week. That money, he and his fellow Brexiters said, could fund the ailing National Health Service for a full year. Johnson was often pictured beside the Brexit battle bus during his countrywide campaign tour.

Figures released by the government's Treasury Department say that Britain's net payment amounted to about half that or pounds 156m a week, after taking into account the EU's payments to Britain. Labour MP Wes Streeting, a member of the Treasury Select Committee, said: "It is now plain to see that this claim was a lie, plain and simple... It is time for the leading lights of Vote Leave to hold their hands up and apologise for misleading the public.
"We do not send pounds 350m a week to the EU and therefore will not have pounds 350m a week to spend on the NHS or anything else." The claim was a central plank of the Brexit drive.
One of the latest divorce bill cost figures doing the rounds which suggest a bill of pounds 36billion. It has been swiftly attacked by some and downplayed by others. While the Prime Minister Theresa May herself is still on holiday, her office spokesman plainly said: "I don't recognise it (figure)." As other issues like the free movement of workers or the number of years for the transition arrangements remain unresolved, Gunther Oettinger, the European Commissioner for budget and human resources, has insisted that the UK "must honour its obligations" made as a member of the EU. "London will have to transfer funds to Brussels at least until 2020."
Striking a note of realism, Sir Simon Fraser, Britain's former Foreign Office Permanent Secretary, observed that splits within the cabinet were damaging Brexit talks. "I don't think (the negotiations) have begun particularly promising, frankly, on the British side."
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is seldom away from news headlines. Currently, his empire is being investigated over his 11.7 billion pound bid to acquire 100 per cent control over Britain's Sky news TV network, 39 per cent of which he and his sons already own.
The Department of Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport is investigating into Murdoch family's suitability to buy Sky after allegations of sexual harassment at 21st Century Fox television owned by the group in the USA. Labour MPs in the UK and campaign group Avaaz have criticised an earlier inquiry by media regulator Ofcom which had cleared the family as "fit and proper" for the ownership.
The scandal over the hacking of the phone of the murdered school girl Milly Dowler which led to the closure of Murdoch owned top selling Sunday paper News of the World also led to the dropping of the Sky bid then.
As if that was not enough, the Fox News report on the murder of a Democrat party aide, Seth Rich, in Washington last year has led to allegations of right-wing bias in the presentation of the incident. Right-wing media groups were alleged to have blamed Seth Rich for leaking Democrat emails to Wikileaks. The Fox report was alleged to have implied that Seth Rich had been killed by Hillary Clinton supporters as revenge.
Wading into this welter of allegations, Britain's former Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said: " Six years ago people vowed that the anguish caused to the grieving families like the Dowlers by the Murdoch empire would never be allowed again. Now, in 2017 we see another grieving family - the parents of Seth Rich - also suffering deep anguish at the hands of the empire without so much as an apology. If ever an episode showed why the Murdochs should not be allowed more control of our media, it is this."
Critics of the Murdoch bid fear the UK's Tory government is likely to give it green signal.
Murdoch senior has also been drawing attention in the theatre world. His Sun newspaper's birth and its circulation battle with the Daily Mirror is the gripping stuff of a play titled Ink which has just finished a short but highly successful run at London's Almeida theatre. It's a peep into the mind of not just the paper's owner but also of his chosen editor and indeed the entire editorial and managerial team.
Starting a tabloid daily in 1969 in England, the colonial journalist Murdoch (played by Bertie Carvel) from Australia, the 'sheep country', hires a northern English journalist aptly named Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle). Both cut a good hearted on-stage joke of 'Sheep and Lamb' joining hands in the new venture. Happily peppering their dialogues with a few F words, the bumptious duo starts their show over a lobster dinner and a select bottle. They carry their project of disrupting the street (Fleet Street, London's historic newspaper hub now reduced to a bankers' bazaar bereft any trace of news ink). By Jove, they not only disrupted the street, they have transformed pop tabloids into a new species.
The battle with the Mirror was rapidly won with the introduction of Page 3 display of the female body in ever different poses. The picture stories are embellished with big headlines and sharp, short, sexy captions. The Mirror tried to fight it off with the addition of a new free magazine in old, sensitive style. But the Sun won the battle hands down with its saucy stories or as Editor Larry Lamb winds up the play with his secret of success formula: "People want stories."
However, years later down the line, Murdoch's Sun has lost the circulation race to The Daily Mail, the ultra-right-wing tabloid. Murdoch's Sun is now trying to fight back by bringing part of Page 3 to Front Page itself. But the Mail is hitting back by bringing a slice of its own sexy product to its Front Page. Interesting times ahead, as the Chinese say.
Tailpiece: Seven Roman Catholic priests, dressed in black robes and dog collars, walked into a pub in Cardiff but were refused service by the manager who took them for a bunch of fancy dress party jokers. Recognising something was amiss, the pub's deputy manager stepped in with an apology and a round of drinks -- for free – for the holy seven.
(Subhash Chopra is a freelance journalist and author of 'India and Britannia – an abiding affair'. Views expressed are strictly personal.)

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