Brexit negotiations are a 'spin war': PRWeek grills the Telegraph's Asa Bennett

The Telegraph's Asa Bennett casts light on covering Brexit in a Eurosceptic title - and his very different, but very polite, namesake on Twitter.

Is Brexit actually going to happen?

There would be such a backlash [if it were reversed], so we can assume for all intents and purposes that it is going ahead.

The media are unimpressed with the Government’s negotiating tactics thus far – is that fair?

While I would very much defend the right of the British people to scrutinise and speak truth to power, we sometimes lose that when we talk about Europe and the withdrawal process – it worries me that some pundits take [EU chief negotiator] Michel Barnier’s pronouncements as if they’re stone tablets brought down from on high. He is a politician and he will say political things and his job is to put out the message that Britain hasn’t done its homework. Some columnists take this hook, line and sinker – they’re not understanding there is a spin war here, and the EU has fantastic message discipline.

Does that mean you back Andrea Leadsom’s call for a more 'patriotic' media?

I can sympathise with that, even if it was clumsily worded – but the point really is about the need to equally scrutinise the EU position and its plans. I would warn fellow journalists about treating the EU’s statements as complete unquestionable gospel.

Where did you stand during the referendum?

I started out with a foot in each camp, but leaning more towards Leave. The miserable Remain campaign, and the horrendously melodramatic reaction among Remainers after the vote, made it even easier for me to embrace Brexit.

Do you think it’s a problem that The Telegraph is seen as a partisan outlet?

The Telegraph doesn’t hide what we think about Brexit. We’ve long been a Eurosceptic newspaper as readers, even those who disagree with us, would recognise. I get asked: "Do you only want columns that are pro-Brexit or want a hard Brexit?", but our regular columnists include William Hague, who was one of the strongest proponents of Remain, and we’ve also had noted Europhile Guy Verhofstadt write for us recently. I think Jeremy Corbyn has written in our paper twice now – some of our readers may have seen his work as ghastly socialist drivel, but others will have found it interesting.

How did you get into journalism?

I did a postgrad in political journalism at City University and interned at the Huffington Post, then got a paid job with an MP [Conservative David Rutley], but having to be a bit of an anonymous bag carrier didn’t really suit me. Then I joined London Loves Business writing about politics, broke some scoops and the HuffPo called me up and said: "We’d like to pay you this time." Working for David was interesting though – he had the distinction of being the first Mormon MP, around the time Mitt Romney was running for president. I’d get lots of bids saying "can we talk about the M-word?", but he didn’t want to get pigeonholed as ‘the Mormon MP’. We got odd questions, things like "how many wives does he have?". The answer is one.

Do you enjoy social media?

I’ve been trying out LinkedIn, but Twitter is my more regular bread and butter, although I err on the side of caution of only tweeting when I have something to say – there are some commentators out there who just tweet about everything and I think that cheapens what they have to say.

There is someone who is @asabennett on Twitter who is a music producer specialising in ‘spatial sounds’. He seems like a cool dude but the problem is he has my name, he loves Jeremy Corbyn and does not like Brexit, so when I go on Sky or something advocating my viewpoint, he gets trolled by people and very politely advises people "No, I think you mean @Asabenn" – he’s really the @JohnLewis of politics.

What do you think of PR people?

I have complete respect for PR people. My fiancée works in comms in the arts – but we actually met at university. I think we both are aware of our respective industries’ potential imperfections, but we can provide a devil’s advocate to each other. More broadly, too much of the Brexit content that PRs have to put out is their client saying "There’s not much certain about x, when there is certainty that will be nice", but I think our readers know that broadly, there is a lot of uncertainty, so I try to set a higher bar than that.

Which career – PR or journalism – might you hope future Bennett offspring pursue?

I’d hope that they would be open to the opportunities of either sector, given that both are very fast-changing.


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