The Power of Myth in Populist Political Discourse – Dr. Imke Henkel

Lincoln University

“Why do fake news stories spread even after they have been proven wrong again and again? In my paper I argue that we dismiss the debunking of falsehood if the fake story taps into our believes about who we are or want to be. Take a notorious example: The British press reported continuously that the European Commission banned curved cucumbers. This claim is wrong. Instead, all what the EU does is to define different classes of quality – accordingly excessive curvature places a cucumber in what is called Class III, which means that it will be packed in a different box from Class I or II cucumbers, but it will not be banned. However, despite repeated corrections, stories like this one, which tell blatant falsehoods about the bureaucracy of the EU, prevail.

I show that British newspaper articles in the 1990s peddled a great number of false reporting about alleged EU regulation by following a specific way of story telling. They evoke what the French philosopher Roland Barthes called a “myth”: Myth, according to Barthes, unfolds its ideological power because it pretends to tell stories that are natural rather than historical. The news stories I analysed all show the same elements of a British identity myth: They present an irreverent Brit who defies the bureaucratic European bully with wit and ridicule. Laughter and exceptionalism are the British traits that are pitched against a bureaucratic EU authority. It runs in the same mould as the “quintessentially English” farcical tone perfected by P. G. Wodehouse. A quarter of a century later this same “ahistorical” identity myth worked in favour of anti EU populism. The populist myth of the witty, irreverent Brit who stands up to the EU bully helped win the Brexit referendum.”

– Dr. Imke Henkel, the University of Lincoln