Each day Whatsapp and Messenger process around 60 billion messages. We’ve never been more communicative- and the burden for instant response has never been greater. It’s quaint then that the main news story of the week has been the delivery of a single letter. Since the declaration of Article 50 was signed by the PM at the start of the week we have had a series of breaking news updates, culminating in the handover to the EU council president Donald Tusk on Wednesday. It is impossible even to say ‘Article 50’ without the prefixed verb ‘trigger’- making the whole exercise feel like a pistols at dawn pastiche. Never one balk at a bit of theatre the SNP –keen to force a second referendum on independence- released images of Nicola Sturgeon looking thoughtfully stern as she penned her own letter to Theresa May. This in turn was reminiscent of the greatest of all political panto villains Donald Trump who accompanies all of his executive order signings with stage-calls and fanfare.
These examples are not so much indications of an epistolary craze sweeping the nation as signs of a non-event. Each time the media laps it up. Blow by blow accounts of EU envoy Tim Barrow’s arrival at the Council –was he kept waiting long? Could the colour of Donald Tusk’s tie say something? –are presented as analysis but it isn’t anything more than pseudo news. In a time when technology has given us new levels of global awareness and interconnection it is strange that our main news outlets devote so much time and resource to the non-event.
Or is it? The phenomenon of fake news is in part of result of the existence of a vast expanse of information that evades and confounds our usual methods of verification. One way of redressing this is to limit your sights to what is immediately observable. It is does not require investment in sending experienced reporters out into the field to uncover the story. It may be not be fake but it is hardly news either.
All of this empowers those who stage-manage our politics. The Brexit negotiations will be the most challenging peacetime event in British history. Acts of political theatre are no substitute for meaningful positions and should not be encouraged. The great occupational hazard of PR is having your lame stunt called out but a smart-arse journalist. It should be no different for our politicians.