A face which inspires fear or delight … is not on that account its cause, but – one might say – its target.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigation
Jeremy Corbyn, the first radical socialist leader in the Labour Party’s history, was never going to have things easy. Elected against considerable resistance from the political establishment – but with 60 per cent of Labour members’ support amid a surge in party recruitment – his cards were marked from day one. Labour MPs let it be known that they would get rid of Corbyn by any means necessary. As it happens, the media has been their constant ally in the struggle.
’Jeremy Corbyn’s Supporters Are like Lenin-style Bully Boys Who’d Send Women to the Gulag’ – this headline, accompanying Carole Malone’s opinion piece in the Centre-Left Daily Mirror, was a pastiche of insinuation and invention; the abuse and death threats sent anonymously to MPs, often with bigoted or far-right overtones, were blamed on Corbyn supporters on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. But that was almost beside the point. In a classic case of ideological dreamwork, the headline beautifully condensed multifarious lines of attack on Corbyn from within the mainstream media since his election as Labour leader. Malone ‘just knew’ that the Corbynistas were a bunch of would-be dictators, thugs and misogynists, because this has been the picture so assiduously built up through months of similarly distorted reporting.
A recent study by the London School of Economics on the reporting of Corbyn’s leadership found that not only was the vast majority of reporting predictably negative but the majority was also distorted, either by omitting Corbyn’s views altogether (52 per cent of reporting) or by distorting them (22 per cent). The press, it concluded – to no-one’s surprise – had acted not as a watchdog putting checks on power, but as an ‘attackdog’ defending power against a critic. This attackdog function has meant that, in practice, the media has operated as an extension of the party battle against Corbyn, both from the Conservatives and the Labour Right.
This pattern began well before Corbyn was elected, when Labour figures such as John Mann MP demanded a halt to the leadership race on the grounds that the party was being infiltrated by the far Left. The Sunday Times abetted this attack, leading the charge with a front-page story – ‘Hard left plot to infiltrate Labour race’ – that amplified calls for Harriet Harman to cancel the vote. The only solid proof of such a plot was a call by splinter group the Communist Party of Great Britain for members to join Labour and support Corbyn. Dan Hodges, a Blairite columnist and former spin doctor, evoked Labour Party constituency meetings being swarmed by ‘dozens of proto-Trotskyists … demanding a people’s revolution, and shouting down anyone who disagrees with taunts of “Red Tory”’. This was nonsense. The British far Left would be fortunate to equal 2 per cent of the 300,000 people who joined Labour to support Corbyn. However, with the media amplifying these claims, party management was able to justify a purge of the supposed ‘infiltrators’, targeting people for such offences as having voted Green in the past – as if it might not be an advantage to win converts.
Nonetheless, the purge only succeeded in eradicating a few thousand members, and as it became clear that Corbyn would win, a broad coalition of the media – from the Murdoch rags to the liberal press – took up arms against the threat. The Right was chiefly concerned with the threat of ‘chaos’, with the Telegraph expecting ‘coordinated strikes and demonstrations’ to ‘topple the Government’ and the Daily Mail salivating over a vision of a basket-case economy torn apart by rival insurgents. Pundits lovingly evoked the mighty days of the Cold War, when leftists could be righteously crushed.
Even the seemingly sober Financial Times was at it, complaining of an ‘air of menace’ stalking Corbyn’s campaign: ‘National socialism, it was once called. One side waves the flag, the other demands a bigger state. Both rail against outsiders – the right against immigrants, the left against international capitalism.’ The Financial Times not only reached the threshold of Godwin’s Law – in three sentences – it also compared powerful multinational capital to desperate and drowning refugees.
The Jewish Chronicle, edited by the neoconservative Stephen Pollard, engaged in classically McCarthyite guilt-by-association tactics. For example, attacking his support for Raed Salah, a migrant facing deportation, the Chronicle falsely stated that Salah was ‘a man convicted of the blood libel’. In fact, he was a man being slandered by the British government on the basis of mistranslations.
But this theme would not die: Hodges claimed that Corbyn’s victory would be ‘cheered by terrorists and racists’, and Labour’s mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan used the Daily Mail and Jewish Chronicle to attack Corbyn for ‘encouraging’ terrorism. Former soldier and Tory MP Tom Tugenhat claimed in the Telegraph that Corbyn was a terrorist ally who ‘wants to see Britain defeated’. As if to further undergird Corbyn’s dangerous anti-British credentials, the Sunday Times published an interview with a leading military official who threatened a military revolt in the event that a Corbyn government tried to implement its anti-war, anti-Trident policies. Later, as the campaign over Trident (Britain’s nuclear weapons arsenal) heated up, the chief of staff of the British armed forces used an appearance on the BBC to state that he would be worried if Corbyn’s views were ‘translated into power’ – an explicit, likely planned and undisciplined breach of neutrality.
Much of this material strained for upshot, but the net effect sought by the right-wing press was to represent Corbyn as an anti-British weirdo who could not be trusted to wear a decent suit, let alone represent the nation on the world stage or avoid entanglements with its enemies. And the broadcast media was all too often willing to go along with this, repeating the memes of the reactionary dailies. This tendency reached its zenith when practically the entirety of the media profession devoted its most intense and serious scrutiny to the pressing issue of whether Corbyn, in laying a wreath at the cenotaph, had bowed at precisely a sufficiently British angle.
The liberal press, from the Mirror to the Guardian, usually chose different lines of attack, emphasising what they said was Corbyn’s lack of realism, his unelectability, his nostalgia for the 1980s, and the backwardness of his supporters when it came to women. The Guardian had form, having supported the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as a right-wing split from Labour in the 1980s. It has tended to be, despite the opportunity for a new direction under editor Katharine Viner, an amanuensis of the Labour Right. As Corbynism ascended, leading Guardian writers, from Jonathan Freedland to Anne Perkins to Martin Kettle, Polly Toynbee and Suzanne Moore, all agreed on the essential points that Corbyn was an unelectable politician being chosen by silly people for silly reasons. The paper also gave space to one of Labour’s wealthiest donors, and again to a former Blair speechwriter, to bruit a new SDP-style split.
Andrew Rawnsley, writing in the Guardian’s sister paper The Observer, belittled Corbyn’s ‘fantasy’ politics and ‘promised land’ of plenty, harking back to Labour’s ‘near-destruction at the hands of the Bennites’. It never occurred to these pundits that they were the only ones obsessing about the 1980s, and that this might be displacement activity for them, saving them the hard job of asking how their preferred candidates could be losing to a previously marginalised socialist. The same sources tended to seek out ways to bait Corbyn’s supporters as ‘brocialists’. Suzanne Moore lamented on Corbyn’s election that ‘not one female voice was heard’ – as if she was unaware that Corbyn’s victory was driven significantly by the support of Labour women, 61 per cent of whom said they backed him.
Corbyn’s supposed unelectability has been reiterated several times over since he won the leadership election. A typical example of this was The Independent’s misleading story with a false headline that initially read: ‘Jeremy Corbyn “loses a fifth of Labour voters”’. The substance of the story, carefully hidden in prevaricating formulations, showed something completely different. 63 per cent of Labour voters said they were more likely to vote Labour in the next election with Corbyn as leader, as opposed to 20 per cent who said they were more likely to vote Conservative. Over a third of Scottish National Party voters, approximately a third of Liberal Democrats, about one-fifth of UK Independence Party voters, and 8 per cent of Tories were more likely to vote Labour with Corbyn as Labour leader. And four-fifths of Tory voters were more determined to vote for their own party, just under a fifth of SNP voters would be more likely to vote Tory, while a third of Liberals and 40 per cent of Ukipers would be more likely to vote Conservative. Corbyn had not lost voters: he had polarised them in a new way. The fact that the Independent reported the story in this way is particularly telling, given that it has deliberately sought out a left-of-centre readership who would be sympathetic to Corbyn.
Depending on whom one was listening to, the class basis of Corbyn’s supposed unelectability varied. For the right-wing Telegraph, Corbyn’s ‘sub-Marxist drivel’ would alienate Britain’s great middle class. By contrast, an equally contemptuous piece by Rafael Behr in The Guardian held that Corbyn’s Labour was so ‘poncified’ that working-class voters had turned off in droves. These claims reached a comical zenith during an otherwise unremarkable by-election in the city of Oldham. The Times had insisted that Labour was ‘counting the cost’ of Corbyn’s peacenik antics in Oldham, where a UKIP challenge was ready to reduce Labour’s majority to a margin of error. John Harris, in a video report from Oldham for The Guardian, held that ‘Corbynmania’ was about to collide with ‘reality’. Corbyn’s leadership was ‘looking increasingly fragile,’ Harris averred, and cited an encounter with an anti-Corbyn Labour voter to suggest that perhaps the only remaining Labour voters would be the hardened tribalists who put the party first. There being no polling in this by-election, journalists relied on a combination of anecdotes, vox pops and their own prejudices. In the case of too many liberal journalists, these prejudices boiled down to the idea that working-class voters dislike leftwing ideas and are fond of racism. In the end, Labour actually increased its share of the vote with a 7.5 per cent swing in its favour. The anticlimax was palpable, and the Telegraph wondered whether ‘Muslims worried about war’ might not be to blame for the victory. Labour went on to win the next three by-elections, in two cases with significantly increased majorities, to little comment from the same press.
The discontent from the Labour Right continued, and provided a steady flow of controversies – much of it probably coming from Corbyn’s opponents within the cabinet, who were preparing for a coup against their leader. This reached a new threshold in December 2015, as the Conservative government prepared to bomb Syria. When Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party, some of them organised in the Labour faction ‘Momentum’, pressured Labour MPs not to support the war, these battle-hardened politicians disclosed an extraordinarily sensitive side when it came to criticism. They complained of ‘bullying’ and ‘intimidation’, such as protests outside constituency offices, emails promising to deselect pro-war MPs, tweets pointing out that politicians faced a lot more accountability thanks to social media, and generally people calling pro-war MPs mean things such as ‘warmonger’. As if someone with the heart and courage to vote for bloodshed might not take a bit of criticism in stride. The headlines about ‘bullying’ were finally supported by a news story asserting that antiwar protesters had marched past Stella Creasy MP’s home. The story was utterly untrue, but it was repeated across all of the BBC’s platforms. It was not until months after the reporting that the channel’s Editorial Complaints Unit admitted significant inaccuracies in its broadcasting of the events. At the time, this claim was used by Labour MPs to expel participants and to demand the disbanding of Momentum in the press.
The next upsurge of the media offensive came in the wake of the anti-Semitism scandal. Corbyn’s opponents had been sniffing around the social media accounts of Labour members and officials, looking for controversial material. In a few cases, such as that of Naz Shah MP as well as a few low-ranking members, they found anti-Semitism. But what the press univocally reported was wildly out of proportion to these findings, conflating individual instances of antisemitism with institutional racism. ‘Is the Labour Party’s problem with racism beyond repair?’ a Telegraph headline read. ‘Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem,’ offered Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. To listen to these pundits, the impression one would get was that Corbyn’s victory had marched three hundred thousand antisemites, or at best useful idiots, into the Labour Party. Much of this discussion took place around the vexed question of where anti-Zionism becomes antisemitism. For most of the media, the answer to this question was simple and un-nuanced: anti-Zionism is antisemitism. And the utility of this to the Labour Right was that it rendered a certain type of activist vulnerable. This was demonstrated with the suspension of Labour activist, Jackie Walker, a Black Jewish woman who had made a complex historical argument about intersecting oppressions which was grossly misrepresented by the Jewish Chronicle as blaming Jews for the slave trade.
Ultimately, this furore turned into yet another effort to incriminate Corbyn by association, something helped by his ally Ken Livingstone’s unhelpful and contextually bizarre reference to Hitler’s ‘support’ for Zionism. As the leadership went into emergency mode, announcing a party-wide investigation into racism in the party, Labour MPs briefed their favourite leaking post, the Blairite columnist George Eaton of the Labour Right-cleaving New Statesman, that Corbyn was ‘incapable of tackling the problem’, being too compromised by his associations. But the investigation carried out by the civil liberties activist Shami Chakrabarti did not turn up much evidence of institutional antisemitism, although the scale of racist discrimination against non-whites in the party was deemed significant. When the report was finally released, rather than focus on these findings, The Guardian whipped up an utterly spurious controversy by misquoting Corbyn to claim that he had compared Israel to the Islamic State. But whatever the findings, the damage was already done, and in the lead up to the local elections in May it was expected that it would harm Labour’s prospects. The Telegraph had already claimed that the party was on the brink of losing up to 200 councillors. In fact, the result, though hardly marvellous, was sufficient for the veteran right MP John Mann to label it ‘decent’.
Finally, after several frustrations, a long-awaited coup against Corbyn was initiated. This had been pre-advertised in a number of newspapers, including the Telegraph, and Labour activists were prepared for it. In the aftermath of the EU referendum campaign, regardless of the outcome, leading frontbenchers would launch a wave of resignations leading to a crisis for Corbyn and challenging his ability to remain as party leader. The justification for the coup, when it came, was provided by BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg among others, who reported on the basis of the tendentious reasoning of MPs that Corbyn had ‘deliberately sabotaged’ the party’s Remain campaign in the referendum. The liberal press joined in, with both The Guardian and the Mirror calling for Corbyn’s resignation.
Corbyn, however, had unexpectedly faced down the coup, appealing over the heads of MPs to the membership and the trade unions. The plotters, adept at ensuring media saturation and backed by most pundits, appeared to have no long-term plan, or even an agreed usurper. As the coup attempt degenerated into farce, the press once more began to focus on the supposed ‘intimidation’ being reported by Labour MPs. Nor was it just the red-top tabloids. John Harris, a devotee of the socially conservative Blue Labour faction, argued in The Guardian that, ‘a fetid cloud of acrimony hangs over Labour’, blaming the non-collegiate attitude of Corbyn and his supporters toward those who had instigated and led the coup. These stories, usually nebulous and based on little concrete evidence, were quickly leveraged by the party’s management to justify suspending one constituency branch after another under the guise of investigating reports of bullying.
When a challenger to Corbyn eventually emerged, it was Angela Eagle, a former shadow cabinet member with a record of loyalism in the Blair years. As a gay woman, part of her explicit appeal was that Labour finally needed a female leader. As Theresa May had just won the Tory leadership election, a range of pundits began comparing Labour unflatteringly to its rival. Suzanne Moore of The Guardian lauded May and Eagle as ‘the sensible women’ who could sort out the ego-driven boys’ squabbling. A Financial Times column went so far as to claim that the party had been ‘trumped by the Tories on sex equality’, as if the party of ‘family values’ had ever lifted a finger, without huge pressure from below, to relieve the systematic discrimination against women in all walks of life. But once Eagle stepped aside for the ostentatiously ‘normal’ and hitherto anonymous Owen Smith to be sole challenger, these thematics were quietly dropped.
So it is that an unassuming antiwar socialist has become, for the press, the embodiment of Red Terror. And it cannot be argued that this testerical nonsense is limited to the baron-owned Tory press. Lies, distortion and extraordinary hyperbole spread right from the heart of the ‘neutral’ BBC establishment to the comment pages of the centre-left press. It is as if the media and the political class are one, part of the same circulation of power, the same conversation which has been going on for years and excludes most of the country. It is an object-lesson in how vehemently conservative the London-based media really is, when pushed.
Perhaps some will argue that had Corbyn’s publicity office not been such a shambles, had its press team not been so defensive and hostile in the face of a difficult media, had Corbyn’s presentation just been a little bit more professional, it could have been otherwise — that the media might have cut him some slack. Certainly a more charismatic or media-savvy leader could have exploited opportunities better.
But the history of the media’s treatment of left-wing leaders in the UK is not encouraging. One doesn’t have to mine the archives of the furore over former cabinet minister Tony Benn’s ‘red menace’ days to grasp just how entrenched hatred of the Left is – look at how they treated soft-left leaders like Neil Kinnock (‘welsh windbag’) and Ed Miliband (‘Red Ed’). Only during the New Labour era, when the party was committed to not disturbing the concentrated interests of the country’s ruling class even slightly, did the press extend a modicum of respect.
What the Corbyn moment has shown us is just how openly interventionist the majority of the media becomes when official opposition threatens to become a force for more radical change. In this, as in other ways, the Corbyn leadership has been a revealing pedagogical moment in politics.
Artwork by Brent Stegeman.
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