A man wearing glasses sits at a desk and relays today’s top news stories. Northern Ireland’s abortion bill has passed and spikes in pollution levels are being linked to heart attacks and acute asthma. Lebanon is experiencing political unrest. Cut to Arlene Foster speaking at a press conference, then a piece-to-camera about air pollution from a reporter. You're watching the news, except something is missing. That giant, all-consuming political news story: Brexit.
This is Sky News Brexit-Free, a new channel that offers current affairs coverage without news about Britain leaving the EU. Launched last week, it airs from 5PM to 10PM, Monday to Friday, alongside Sky’s regular news coverage. John Ryley, the head of Sky News, has called the channel “a bold approach but something we know our viewers will find valuable.” Considering that a third of the UK population avoids the news, according to the 2019 Reuters Digital News Report, and 71 percent of those people say that this is because of Brexit, Sky’s new channel should come as no surprise.
And who can blame that 71 percent? From the moment you turn on your radio in the morning or scroll through Twitter, to the last moment of news coverage you catch at night, you can guarantee that the top story will be Brexit-related. If it's not votes or amendments, it's letters to Donald Tusk or the backstop, or Dominic Cummings or Parliamentary protocol. There is literally no escaping it. Part of the issue is that a huge amount of Brexit coverage may change the course of history but equally, a lot of it doesn’t, and when a bill fails to pass or an extension is granted, we find ourselves right back at square one. Not only does the repetitiveness of Brexit news reporting wear us down, it also means less time for other news stories. This has been the reality of our news cycle for three whole years now, and there seems little hope of it coming to an end on the 31st of October.
All of this has led to news fatigue: an exhaustion or boredom with the news despite a general willingness to listen. This is not a new Brexit-inspired phenomenon but something that has affected people since the dawn of 24-hour news coverage.
“The biggest reason people avoid the news altogether is because it has a negative impact on their mood and the second biggest reason is because they don't feel there's anything they can do,” Meera Selva, director of the Journalist Fellowship Programme at Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, tells me over the phone. “And the third reason is that they can't rely on it to be true. These are perfectly understandable reasons, and you can see why Brexit coverage includes all of those.”
Even as a journalist who writes a weekly Brexit column, keeping up with the latest developments is hard. Giving your full attention to Brexit-related news seems reserved for the politics nerds who live and breathe Westminster, rather than the rest of us who like to know what our MPs are up to, but wouldn’t necessarily put it in our Tinder bio.
Tuning into Sky News Brexit-Free is certainly a novel experience. There are stories on Julian Assange and Syria, and not once do I see Boris Johnson’s stupid face or endure more back-and-forth about the Letwin Amendment. While there is opportunity here to cover topics traditionally overlooked by mainstream news channels – non-London stories, or issues affecting minorities – Sky’s new channel shares much of the same reporting as its regular news channel, Brexit matters aside.
Despite the comparable diversity of news, I can’t help but feel a sense of willing ignorance as I watch. It’s all a bit dystopian. Yes, it’s nice to be able to consume other news when Brexit has become dull but its absence makes you think about who is curating the information you receive – and the power that has. Not to mention the question of whether “what you find entertaining” is a good metric for the news consumption.
Selva, however, feels that people have a right to turn off if they want. “If [people] want to disconnect from a major political issue they can, and they can do it simply by not watching the news or not clicking on any Brexit-led stories,” she explains. “You could still tailor your news diet to exclude Brexit. What Sky News is doing is saying we'll just give you a space where this is done for you.”
Selva adds that this fatigue may tap into bigger issues of trust. “I think there's a recognition that Brexit is having quite a detrimental effect on people's trust in news and trust in politics,” says Selva. “It creates quite a bad-tempered, hostile, and polarised debate.”
Which is certainly true, and the Brexit debate has become so hostile that death threats against (mostly women) MPs have become commonplace. But perhaps there is something equally pernicious about the people who are least affected by Brexit having the option to tune out. Most broadcast news is consumed by an older audience, and the majority of those who voted to leave the EU were above 60. It’s reasonable to assume then, that there may be people who voted to leave the EU who will be watching Sky’s Brexit-free channel.
For people who will struggle to source essential medication or suffer due to changes to the Equalities Act after Britain leaves the EU, however, forgetting about Brexit simply isn’t an option. Indeed, James Blunt, the privately educated pop singer, tweeted yesterday that the UK needs to “get the fuck on with it” because “life won’t change after Brexit,” exemplifying a very specific type of privilege that assumes your own life experience speaks for everyone. Which begs the question: should those so unaffected by the consequences of Brexit be encouraged to ignore the effects it has on our country? Or is it those who face the least consequences – along with those who voted leave – that should be paying the most attention?
"[But] did people know what they were voting?” asks Selva. “What they didn't think they were voting for was three years of chaos, endless negotiations and a chaotic government."
While Sky’s new channel exemplifies quite how polarised we are on Brexit, at least we can mostly agree on that.