The good news is that there is some actual news — about Brexit, I mean. Months and years of speculation have finally given away to a genuine fact (from the Latin factum or something done). The bad news is that the factual news is only that the EU has granted another extension of the deadline for Britain’s departure, which means that there must now be at least six more months of the media’s chewing the “could” which they have been doing for nearly three years now.
Here, for example is a selection of headlines from The (London) Daily Telegraph on a single day (Tuesday) this week.
• A long Brexit delay could end with EU leaders playing no-deal chicken with a Brexiteer PM
• France's Poundland de Gaulle could yet kick Britain out of the EU this week
• The Prime Minister has a point: a no-deal Brexit could unravel our United Kingdom
• Businesses are beyond frustrated that MPs’ collective failure could lead to a no-deal Brexit
Not to mention
• A strong economy and relative security could see Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu win again
Or the (London) Times’s
• Corbyn could have the last laugh on May
Looking back on Brexit from some matter of years in the future — and there can be few people in Britain who don’t wish we could do that now — we may find that its most salient legacy has been the media’s wholesale abandonment of hard news for the sake of such titillating conjecture as to what could be happening in the near future.
On this side of the Atlantic, the comparable phenomenon has been the Mueller report which, until it was delivered to the Attorney General a couple of weeks ago, also generated hundreds of coulds, most of them forecasting disaster for Donald Trump. Then, when the William Barr said that there was no disaster for Donald Trump in it, there was a brief period of shock before the coulds resumed, now in the form of speculation as to whether Mr Barr could be deliberately covering up the evidence of “collusion” which the media still assumed must be in the report itself or whether he could have blundered in not finding it there.
So accustomed have our media become to putting “could” in place of “is” or “was” or “do” or “did” that they now report even positive statements of fact, at least when they don’t like the fact, as if it were only hypothetical. Thus the media’s focus was on one particular word when the Attorney General told a Senate subcommittee yesterday that “Spying did occur” on the 2016 Trump campaign by U.S. intelligence services. “The question,” he added, “is whether it was adequately predicated.” Not to the media it wasn’t. The question to them was whether or not it could be called “spying” if that was also the word that had been used by Mr Trump and his apologists to describe what the media regard as an axiomatically discredited “conspiracy theory.” This was, as we might say, settled science. And that, in turn, must mean that Mr Barr could be no more than a “Trump toady.”
That was Jennifer Rubin’s sober assessment of the AG’s testimony on the day he gave it. And the beauty part was that she didn’t even have to say could. Her piece was shot through with “if. . . then” clauses (including one italicized qualifier: “and it’s a big if” ) but at the same time she makes it clear she thinks it no big if at all but tantamount to fact. For just as fact can be reported as hypotheticals, so can hypotheticals be reported as fact in today’s media environment, at least if you’re on the right (which is to say the left) side. Such is the power of a “could” when you’re transitioning from the news to the propaganda business.