Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Post-truth and propaganda

A long read on why it is time the rest of the media stopped treating Fox as TV news, and some UK tabloids as newspapers.

George Osborne becomes editor of the London Evening Standard. Donald Trump blames GCHC for bugging him because of something he saw on Fox News. The lines between right wing media and right wing politicians seem very blurred nowadays. This should not come as a surprise, because right wing media have been becoming much more like propaganda outlets than normal media organisations for some time. The conventions of journalism may have pretended otherwise, but it time we recognised reality.

Let me define two archetypes. The first, which could be called the truth purveyor, is the one we are familiar with, and which much of the mainstream media (MSM) like to imagine they correspond to. The aim is provide the best information to readers or viewers. The second is propaganda. One way of characterising the two archetypes is as follows. Readers have certain interests: objectives, goals, utilities etc. The truth purveyor will provide readers with the information they need to pursue those interests. (As exemplified here, for example.) Propaganda on the other hand, to borrow from Jacob Stanley, aims to provide information that will deceive people from seeing what is in their best interest. Propaganda provides information that supports a particular political goal or point of view.

Take, for example, the issue of welfare benefits. Media as the truth-purveyor type will try and present a rounded and accurate picture of those claiming welfare benefits. Right wing propaganda on the other hand will focus on examples of benefit fraud, or cases where the benefit recipient will be perceived by the reader as taking advantage of the system, with little or no attempt to put the example in any kind of context. This slanted coverage is designed to give the impression that benefit recipients are often scroungers and skivers. The political goal is to make it easier for governments to cut welfare payments, which in turn may allows taxes to be cut.

These are archetypes, and any media organisation will mix the two to some extent. Many would argue that even the most truth-purveyor type organisation may still embody certain assumptions or points of view that distort their readers view of what should be in their best interest. (As argued in Manufacturing Consent, for example.) Mediamacro is an example of this. But that should not blind us to what is happening elsewhere. Lines like “liberals’ nostalgia for factual politics seems designed to mask their own fraught relationship with the truth” [1] suggest nothing new is happening, let’s move on. That would be a huge mistake. It is like saying all news is propaganda, who cares. But because there are two archetypes, organisations can gradually move from one to another, and that movement is important. It played a crucial role in the success of Brexit and Trump.

In both in the UK and US there is a large part of the media which is becoming more and more like a pure propaganda outlet. We are used to thinking about propaganda as being associated with the state, but there is no reason why that has to be the case. In the UK and US, we now have propaganda machines that support political ideas that are associated with the far right, and political interests associated with the very wealthy. Their output is governed more and more by whether it assists those two goals.

Apologists for this right wing propaganda say that most media organisations have their particular political bias, and that will be reflected in the opinions you see in that media outlet. But I’m not talking about opinion pieces or leaders, but about the selection of stories and increasingly about making up stories. I cannot see either the Guardian, Mirror or MSNBC only reporting terrorist incidents by white supremacists, and ignoring those by Muslims. Nor would these organisations make up claims about foreign cities being ‘no go areas’. Suggesting an equivalence between The Mail and The Mirror, or between Fox and MSNBC, is a trap that many fall into.

Now it is natural, in a liberal democracy, that the part of the media that conveys propaganda should pretend it is just a purveyor of truth. When its propaganda becomes self-evident, it is also natural for it to claim that this is because it is others who are distorting the facts. In this sense, the fact that Trump and his supporters talk about the dominant liberal media producing fake news, and the right wing tabloids talk about bias at the BBC should not worry us at all. It is merely indicative that those making the allegations are in the business of, or supporting those, supplying propaganda. [2] More importantly, if we allow this attempt at deflection to move us away from examining what different parts of the media are doing, then the propagandists have won.

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I think it was Charlie Bean who first told me about the stupidity of a firm announcing that it was going to have to make redundancies, without specifying where those redundancies would be. It is foolish because the atmosphere of uncertainty created means that those most able to leave, who are almost certainly the brightest and best and therefore those that the firm would like to keep, end up leaving the firm because they can. Voluntary quits mean the firm no longer needs to create redundancies, but its loses its best quality staff to other firms.

I thought about this when reading about yet more examples of how EU citizens are currently being treated by this government. Colin Talbot has documented what is going on here, but there are literally thousands of similar stories. People who have lived and worked in the UK for years are told by the home office, when their application for permanent residence is turned down, to prepare to leave the UK. Applications which ask for a ridiculous amount of information and are turned down for often mindless reasons. It is a system designed to increase the chances that applicants will fail.

The effect this has, of course, is that those most able to leave the UK, who will often be the most able in terms of the importance of the work they do, will go. Refusing to confirm the rights of EU residents and sending them scary letters is how the UK government is making the same mistake as the firm that announces future unspecified redundancies. I am sometimes told that Brexit will allow the UK to choose the ‘best immigrants’, the ones that will contribute most to UK output and the public purse. Here we see Brexit achieving exactly the opposite: a system designed to encourage the best to leave.

But this is not a new Brexit phenomenon. As I described here, students wanting to come and study in the UK have faced a similar brutal regime, where a mistake by the UK bureaucracy - even when it is acknowledged as such - can lead to additional expense for the student and a period of uncertainty which can only set back their learning. Students midway through their course are told they have 60 days to find an alternative institution to sponsor them or face deportation. The UK Border Agency has no reason to believe that these are not perfectly genuine students who have paid good money to study in the UK, but it chooses to punish them because of alleged failings by a university.

There is an obvious pattern here. It is to treat those who are not UK nationals with a complete lack of humanity. It is, quite simply, very cruel. I talked above about how counterproductive it is, but even if it was not it remains very wrong. It is not something that any democratic government should do. Similar things are happening in the US as a result of Trump’s victory. This lack of humanity comes from a government that begins treating foreigners as a problem, as something to be discouraged, rather than as the people that they are. And it persists because a large part of the press deliberately ignores what is going on. That in turn reduces coverage in the broadcast media.

Contrast this with Germany, which has admitted around 1 million refugees over the last two years. Whatever the motives of the German government, German society adopted a ‘welcome culture’ to these refugees. There have been problems of course, but it is significant that the most serious you may have read about have been made up by certain US media organisations. Contrast this with the UK government shutting down the ‘Dubs amendment’ programme after only a few hundred refugee children had been admitted to the UK. For Germans it seems that refugees are people who have suffered and need help, but for the British they are something to fear and should be kept away at all costs.

Why is Germany welcoming a million refugees and the UK appears to do what they can to keep them out? Is the difference between the two countries something to do with an innate difference in national character? Do we in the UK allow our government to continue their inhuman treatment of foreign nationals because there is
“a special kind of British suggestibility – willingness to obey orders, thinking in generalisations, the search for panaceas, faith in power, which made many British capable of falling to deeper depths than many people of other nations”

Of course not. The above is a quote from Stephen Spender, visiting Germany in 1945, where I have changed German to British. After WWII it was common to believe that what happened in Germany under Hitler could only have happened if there had been some common abnormality in the German character. It was as mistaken then just as it is mistaken now to believe the British are particularly hostile to foreigners. But we should not be surprised when those outside the UK begin to think that way.

There is a much simpler explanation in both cases. The state propaganda machine of Nazi Germany was a critical ingredient in their rise to power and maintaining power. Hitler devoted chapters of Mein Kampf to the study and practice of propaganda. It is perhaps the best real world example of the propaganda archetype I described before. In the UK and US it is very different. Critically propaganda outlets do not have a monopoly of information, and they need to appear much like the rest of the media to retain their readers and their influence on the national stage. But a large part of the UK and US media is nevertheless increasingly acting as a propaganda vehicle, particularly in the area of immigration.

This change is measurable, as this report of a study shows. To quote “over the last 10 years [the UK press] appears to have been complicit in the narrowing of a discussion that is now characterised by an increasingly negative tone.” The anti-immigration propaganda in the Mail and Express reached a peak just before the referendum. As Liz Gerard describes here, these two papers printed on average two or three hostile immigration stories in each issue in 2016. The day before polling, the Mail printed six whole pages devoted to immigration. You would have to be a fool to believe these were ‘reflecting the interest of readers’: it was designed to push the referendum vote the way these papers wanted. It was pure propaganda.


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The are lots of stories around about a post-truth world created by social media. It is usually written up as if it is a new phenomenon created by new technology, but as Timothy Garton Ash notes ‘post-truth’ is nothing new. Equally the hype over Cambridge Analytica (here or here), whether it is accurate or not, is just the technological extension of something that is already happening, and has happened in the past. Most people still rely on the MSM for their news. Post-truth mainly comes from the part of the MSM whose business is propaganda, and the inability of others to treat it as such. Fake news stories on social media did not win the election for Trump. Fox News almost certainly did.

As Tim Harford notes, successful attempts to divert those in a democracy from the truth have a long history. Scientists published evidence that smoking caused lung cancer in the early 1950s. It took decades for that information to lead to campaigns to discourage smoking and for smokers to acknowledge there was a problem, and the reason it took decades was that the tobacco companies conducted a PR plan with that aim in mind. Exactly the same happened with climate change, with considerable success in the US as we are now witnessing with Trump’s election. As a tobacco firm wrote “doubt is our product”.

As Tim and George Lakoff explain, simply rebutting lies with facts can often be counterproductive. The Leave campaign's £350 million a week was a classic example. The more it was talked about, the more it became fixed in the mind of voters. The regrettable truth is that most people do not read the detail, but instead just absorb the headline. In many ways the EU referendum is a classic example of how facts can lose out to propaganda.

All this can just seem depressing, but it is not if we learn some obvious lessons. The first, which Ben Chu explains, is for policy makers not to fall into the trap of appeasement.
“Christina Boswell and James Hampshire have highlighted how the public discourse on immigration in Germany was transformed between 2000 and 2008. Social Democratic politicians used familiar arguments about the economic benefits of immigration. But they did this alongside a campaign to promote positive narratives about immigration and its place in the country’s history to counter entrenched perceptions of Germany being kein Einwanderunglsand (“not a country of immigration”). This twin approach largely succeeded in changing attitudes, flowering in the generous position taken by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat government towards Syrian refugees in the summer of 2015.
By contrast in the UK, at the same time, Labour began to talk up “British jobs for British workers” and never seriously rebutted the dominant and dismal narrative of the tabloid press about immigration being an economic burden and culturally corrosive, arguably helping to set the scene for the current bout of self-harming Brexit-related xenophobia.”

Now politicians here may respond that the German example is impossible given the strength of the propaganda coming from UK tabloids (compared to its relative absence in Germany), but that just strengthens my point that we should start recognising that propaganda for what it is. That recognition needs to start in the rest of the mainstream media. According to a study outlined here, “a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system ... This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.”

But the authors also note that “Our data strongly suggest that most Americans, including those who access news through social networks, continue to pay attention to traditional media, following professional journalistic practices, and cross-reference what they read on partisan sites with what they read on mass media sites.” What this traditional media needs to do, in both the UK and US, is to recognise propaganda for what it is, and treat it with the disdain that it deserves.

In the US that is quite a challenge because a lot of that propaganda is now created or recycled by the President himself. In the UK it is a challenge because the right wing tabloids have the government’s support, and the government holds the purse strings of the BBC. [4] It is very easy just to ignore what is happening, and carry on as usual. But this inability or unwillingness to recognise the danger posed by propaganda is part of the reason 2016 happened. Liberal democracy’s survival in the UK and US may depend on recognising and resisting what is in the process of destroying it.

[1] Taken from Stahl and Hansen. The implication that they draw, that propaganda as news or post-truth or whatever you want to call it can be combatted by a “democratic revival” seems simply naive. To see the profound difference between, say, the Blair government compared to what came before and after them, you only have to look at how they regarded academics.

[2] For those who say how do we know who is telling the truth, then you are part of the problem.

[3] And among academics, UK nationals as well

[4] And, it seems, increasingly supplies its journalists.

12 comments:

  1. "Texters are: 'vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.'"

    BBC's John Humprhrys in Daily Mail 28th September 2007.


    Can I suggest you read (if you haven't already) in The New York Review of Books 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics' by Richard Hofstadter, and then Corey Robin's blog post 'What Michael Rogin means to me, particularly in the Age of Trump: Traditional politics matters!' from 03.16.2017.


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  2. We should concede that private sector propaganda, such as Fox News and the Daily Mail, succeeds in the market because it appeals to readers quite effectively. The Daily Mail has a well-worn formula of leading with outrageous, provocative headlines which it then rows back from in the body of the article, just far enough to appease its more moderate readers. Awareness of bias and propaganda is a good start, but is it really sufficient to counter this trend? Especially as at the first cry of right-wing bias, we are invariably treated to a storm of complaints of left-wing bias (pity the poor BBC): given the relative success of these 'news' organisations in the market-place, and the weakness of arguments for 'plurality' (when the border between MSM and 'social' media is increasingly fuzzy). The one weakness of these seemingly invincible private sector propaganda factories is that ultimately they must follow their readers, despite appearances to the contrary that they are leading their readers by the nose. The only counterforce against them is public opinion, which must go beyond awareness of the biased messages we bathe in to demand alternative points of view. This may seem like a chicken and egg problem, but there is no alternative. It must not be forgotten that ultimately these media giants really are followers, not leaders.

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  3. In a motivational speech given in the 1980s which I recently encountered on youtube, Jim Rohn said something interesting. He ask the crowd what do we learn from the Bible? That evil is no match for good, but good must be put in motion. How far can you push back plants and forest? You can push it as far as you want, but you need to get active.

    In that speech, he talked about what he call desease of attitude and this segment was about neglect.

    Your post got me thinking about this again because slanted pieces look very much to me like weed that needs to be trimmed, plants that grow beyond their place in your garden.


    And just before someone yells at you for making a slanted piece about slanted journalism, I want to point out that I encountered some left leaning pieces that were poorly made as well. A recent story on a dispute between student groups and the government was published during a weekend. One pro-government piece was printed, on the second day, flooded by comments and interviews that were favorable to the movement. They even interviewed current members of those student groups that were not part of those events. It seems it can also happen in other outlets.

    In my view, what you see now echoes in a sense the fear Mill expressed in his defense of free speech in his essays On Liberty. He said censorship was bad because people would tend to pick only convenient opinions and listen to those. I think people very much censor themselves out of frustration and conflicts: machine learning algorithm, supplemented by customization options basically means you can enjoy only comforting posts on facebook, on most newspapers websites and even on youtube.

    If you ask me, part of the problem is a growing conviction that you should live in a sheltered space, free of offensive material -- with this meaning different things to different people. Your right wing media probably only reaps the benefits of it because it manages to propose lazier claims and enjoys more resources.

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  4. The 85-page form designed to trip applicants up is reminiscent of the testing of disabled job-seekers calculated (and incentivised) to find them insufficiently disabled. Bureaucracy left to its own devices is quite bad enough, but this is weaponised bureaucracy.

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  5. If the current government regards reducing net immigration as a primary end in itself, and not just a means to solve other problems, then deliberately undermining the economy and encouraging the best and brightest to leave could be rational behaviour. I hope this is not how the average Conservative MP thinks, but when British voters declare immigration to be a more important national issue than the economy, poverty or unemployment, such thinking has its temptations.

    If you're an oligarch of course, keeping out immigrants at all costs is a silly goal. What immigration policy should ideally achieve is to keep the proportion of the country's population *who have means of redress* at a manageable level, leaving room for a large underclass of 'illegals' who can be ruthlessly exploited because they know they will be deported to somewhere worse at the slightest hint of trouble. Claiming you'd rather kick out the immigrants entirely is simply a way of selling the situation to the bulk of the citizenry, to help them turn a blind eye or even to assist in the campaign of intimidation against the underclass. You see this most sharply with refugees: the propaganda message is to push rightwards along an axis from 'we should help those in need' to 'we are saving them from death, so their lives belong to us'. Maybe some well-connected immigrants actually do leave, and that's too bad for your business, but it could still be an acceptable loss overall if most of your workers don't have any good options.

    Similar things could be said about the DWP under right-wing control (although hopefully not with the stakes as high as they are for refugees). Cruelty isn't just a byproduct of government policy, it is a goal of government policy, and it works at multiple levels: one of the best ways to create a cycle of cruelty is to tell the perpetrators that they will become the victims if they don't keep it up (i.e. Jobcentre employee -> unemployed person). The main propaganda message isn't that the system is inefficient or that the money could be better spent elsewhere, it's that people who rely on benefits (and even their children) deserve to suffer and need to be more grateful for any help they do receive.

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  6. SWL: the Tim Harford article you reference has an excellent quote at the end:

    "... journalists and policy wonks can’t force anyone to pay attention to the facts.... [They]... have to find a way to make people want to seek them out. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. IT SEEMS TO BE ONE OF THE ONLY CURES FOR POLITICALLY MOTIVATED REASONING [my emphasis] but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.

    What we need is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science — somebody who can create a sense of wonder and fascination not just at the structure of the solar system or struggles of life in a tropical rainforest, but at the workings of our own civilisation: health, migration, finance, education and diplomacy.

    One candidate would have been Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling, who died in February. [Through his TED talks] he reached an astonishingly wide audience with what were, at their heart, simply presentations of official data from the likes of the World Bank."

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  7. It seems to me that the problem you have is distinguishing between the two archetypes you write about; I think it's more difficult than you think; in which case it rather begs the question: is there truly the first version you mention or is it all more or less propaganda with water at one end and whisky at the other?

    I used to read WAPO and the NYT until Trump when they came out as outright biased organs, in fact almost hysterical. I don't bother any more.

    It's also interesting that you mention MSNBC as one of the straighter media outlets. They have a morning show: Morning Joe and one of the presenters is Mika Brezinzski (the daughter of Jimmy Carter's NSA). A few weeks ago she was heard to utter the words live on the show "it up to us to tell people what to think" (I paraphrase but only slightly). I'm not sure how you would characterize that but it would be a stretch to regard it as simple reporting.

    I'm not sure that with regard to the media there is any longer what might be termed "truth" or "post truth"; I certainly do find it much more difficult to distinguish simple truth from propaganda. I'm not saying that there's no difference between Infowars and the NYT but the distance is uncomfortably less than you might imagine.

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  8. I do not agree that the best and brightest leave the company first and therefore harm the business in time of uncertainity. I do agree that those who can do, but it doesn't mean they are the "best and brightest", it just means they are more mobile and less attached to the business and its people as well. I have experience large redudancy and those who decide to leave first were the young, childless ones and those who have arrived last (last in first out) and who haven't been involved in the company professionally or socially much. Those more willing to stay are the long term employees who have developed the kind of long term social and professional links inside but also outside work, have children, family and friends in the area they live in, etc... They are probably as bright and often have much more experience as well. Moreover, the "best and brightest" jump ship very often (specially in places like London) to improve their prospect/carreer/wages/etc... regardless of uncertainity anyway.

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  9. Spot on, SWL! This recent article in the FT (paywall) confirms that the biggest fall in EU-born workers in the UK since the referendum has been among the best educated ones, whereas the number of those with lowest levels of education has increased slightly: https://www.ft.com/content/b3174ce8-0f08-11e7-b030-768954394623

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  10. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/opinion/building-a-wall-of-ignorance.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region

    "As economists quickly pointed out, however, tariffs aren’t paid by the exporter. With some minor qualifications, basically they’re paid for by the buyers — that is, a tariff on Mexican goods would be a tax on U.S. consumers. America, not Mexico, would therefore end up paying for the wall."

    Let’s reword it a little:

    "As economists quickly pointed out, however, tariffs aren’t paid by the exporter. With some minor qualifications, basically they’re paid for by the buyers — that is, a tariff on British goods and services would be a tax on EU consumers. The European Union, not Britain, would therefore end up paying for a Hard Brexit."

    Compare:

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/23/eu-trade-deal-theresa-may-brexit-divorce

    Portes needs to have a word with the International Trade expert Paul Krugman. He states that with few exceptions import tariffs are paid by the importers not the exporters.

    You can't have one rule for tariff Mexico into the US and another for the UK into the EU. They are both the same environment.

    You, Portes and Krugman need to get their stories straight. Otherwise people might think you are 'post-truth.' Where do you stand on tariffs Simon?

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  11. Economics and truth
    Comment on Simon Wren-Lewis on ‘Post-truth and propaganda’

    Based on many pertinent examples, Simon Wren-Lewis criticizes the media for obscuring and trespassing the demarcation line between truth and propaganda. Being a scientist, Wren-Lewis knows that this is a problem that plagued already the ancient Greeks and they solved it ― in principle ― by distinguishing between opinion (= doxa) and episteme (= knowledge) and by specifying truth as material and formal consistency. They were well aware that it is a tough task to draw the demarcation line between opinion and knowledge.

    “There are always many different opinions and conventions concerning any one problem or subject-matter .... This shows that they are not all true. For if they conflict, then at best only one of them can be true. Thus it appears that Parmenides ... was the first to distinguish clearly between truth or reality on the one hand, and convention or conventional opinion (hearsay, plausible myth) on the other.” (Popper)

    Now, everybody is well aware that the media are in the opinion business. To accuse them of propaganda is therefore a bit misleading. Media tell stories and 99 percent of a population pays to get a good story/plausible myth. Scientific truth is simply not a big issue is social comunication.

    Knowledge takes the form of a materially/formally consistent theory which is the best mental representation of reality that is humanly possible. All scientists know that truth is the pursuit of a minority and certainly NOT of the mass media and their audience. So, it is at first glance rather odd that the economist Wren-Lewis elaborates so intensively on this well-known sociological fact.

    At second glance, though, it makes perfect sense. The very characteristic of economics is that there is no clear-cut separation between politics and science. The founding fathers called themselves political economists, that is, they left no doubt that their main business was agenda pushing. Economists never got out of political economics. In other words, theoretical economics (= science) ultimately could not emancipate itself from political economics (= agenda pushing).

    Economics started as political propaganda and after the failed attempt to become a science it has actually not much more to offer than opinion and propaganda. The four main approaches ― Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism ― are mutually contradictory, axiomatically false, materially/formally inconsistent, and all got the pivotal concept of the subject matter, i.e. profit, wrong. Economics has NO truth-value, only a political use-value.

    Because current microeconomics and macroeconomics is provable false and economists are de facto since 200+ years in the propaganda business they are in NO position to bash the media for propaganda.

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

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  12. A small world elite well understand how to use information to serve their narrow self interests and quite clearly deliberately blur the lines of reality.

    George Monboit and Dark Money, how the mega rich have created institutions that manufacture information. For over forty years these institutions have enabled the transfer of wealth and power upwards, and still people are blind to it.

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/02/corporate-dark-money-power-atlantic-lobbyists-brexit

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