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Why I Went Off-script at the EU Referendum Rally Today

06/06/2016 16:44 | Updated 06 June 2016
DYLAN MARTINEZ via Getty Images

This morning, I was at The Oval for a joint event with Harriet Harman, Tim Farron and David Cameron jointly making the point that the EU referendum is not a party issue - it is a yes/no question with a range of arguments for each side, and a wide range of issues that deserve to be canvassed.

The other politicians were standing in front of appropriately coloured Minis - and I had a green Brompton bicycle, a vehicle appropriate for the fact that we approach politics and Britain's future very differently to other parties.

But I had joined the rainbow array at this event because the EU referendum is a critically important issue for Britain's future.

We had different focuses and angles, sometimes abruptly opposed views.

Although of course there were overlaps. Harriet and I focused on the NHS - and that the pressures on it come not from immigration but from government policies of privatisation, cuts, and disrespect for health workers - and on employment rights.

I highlighted the fact that young people, many of whom are not still registered to vote (with the deadline for having your say only a day away), will be those who'll most feel the consequences of an exit from the EU.

And a lot of my focus was on the environment - that air and water pollution, fish and other wildlife, and carbon emissions, don't respect national boundaries - and that much of what we have fought for in standards of water quality, in protecting our most precious wildlife and green spaces, and in preventing the use of dangerous pesticides, are in grave danger at this moment.

As I highlighted, the 'Leave' side, fronted by people who've denied the reality and urgency of tackling climate change, has also explicitly said it wants to destroy those protections.

That was my formal part of proceedings over, for the questions from the assembled media were all directed at David Cameron.

And they were predictably, boringly, unfruitfully, on script.

Two were about internal conflicts within the Tory Party. One was about how fervently the Labour Party is promoting the 'remain' message.

The Prime Minister blocked them with greatly practiced ease.

That prompted me to go off script. As David Cameron wrapped up proceedings, I stepped forward with a message very explicitly directed at the media.

I said that they were short-changing voters, short-changing democracy, by treating the referendum as being about internal party struggles.

It got the biggest round of applause of the day, and I know from conversations on doorsteps, in the streets, in cafes and pubs and all around Britain, that many voters are feeling confused, poorly informed, frustrated at the quality of the debate they are hearing around the EU referendum.

That's not entirely, perhaps even primarily, the fault of the media.

There's been a lot of mud-slinging from both sides of the debate, and a lot of personal attacks. The Tory Party certainly is tearing itself apart on this issue - and as one of my Twitter followers said this morning: Great, but let's watch this after we've voted to remain in the EU.

It's a real indictment of most media coverage that so many Labour supporters don't know where Jeremy Corbyn and the party stand on the referendum: which is clearly, as Harriet Harman said this morning, behind the 'Remain' message.

The media has a choice. They can choose to cover this vital decision about the future of our nation, and the whole of Europe, as a Tory leadership contest. Or they can cover it properly, in a way that allows the voters of Britain to make this vital choice with solid information from a wide range of sources, critically examined.

I used to be a newspaper editor. I've worked on national daily newspapers of varying hues, and I know the pressure for the scoop, the way in which personalities can be seen as far more 'sexy' than issues.

But if we see a low turnout and a vote for Britain to leave the EU in which young people and the less politically engaged haven't participated because they've been switched off or confused by the nature of the coverage, then the media will have a lot to answer for.

Britain deserves a factual, broadly focused, debate featuring a wide range of voices: the voices of scientists and green campaigners, small business people and historians, pensioner advocates and youth activists, MEPs who can talk about the work they do and bureaucrats and campaigners who've worked in Brussels who can explain how the EU actually works.

That's not what we've had up until now. But it isn't too late.

Let's have the referendum debate the British public deserves, and wants.

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