Mainstream media vs Jeremy Corbyn, Labour – and us

Image: The London Economic

JVL Introduction

One of the Guardian’s saving graces is the occasional column by Gary Younge…

“We have all become so inured to the naked rightwing partisanship of the British press that it barely registers beyond a knowing shrug,” he writes

The mainstream media is part of the corporate world and will protect its own. Recall how Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband were savaged. But never quite like Corbyn today, feared as no other Labour leader before.

Yes, bemoan the power of the right-wing press, but circumnavigate it as well, says Younge. Social media has created new spaces for our voices and  grassroots campaigning gives us the capacity to challenge preconceptions on the doorstep through canvassing.

The system is stacked against us – but we can still win!

This article was originally published by Guardian on Fri 15 Nov 2019. Read the original here.

The Tories can’t win without the press. This isn’t how democracy works

The power of the rightwing press has corroded public debate. But we can do more than just complain about it


In February 2016, a few months before the referendum, Donald Tusk published the European Council’s draft plans for renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU. David Cameron was prepared for the possibility that Tusk’s response would be less than he hoped for – it was a negotiation, after all. But what really shocked the then prime minister were the front pages the next day. “Cameron’s EU deal is a joke”, said the Daily Express; “The great delusion”, barked the Daily Mail; “Ministers defy PM on Europe”, claimed the Telegraph; while the Sun went with “Who do EU think EU are kidding, Mr Cameron?”, which compared the offer to a “steaming pile of manure”.

“The Tories [in the leadership of the remain camp] were about to run a referendum campaign based on a playbook … for winning elections in an environment where the print media was sympathetic,” writes Tim Shipman in his book All Out War. “But this time their natural allies were hostile.” Senior Tories were not used to having their arguments distorted, the facts so hideously disfigured in their opponent’s favour that they were unrecognisable, or blatant falsehoods by the opposition taken seriously. These were not only rules of engagement to which they were unaccustomed – they were rules under which they could not compete. “It pains me to say it,” a member of Cameron’s team told Shipman, “but if the Mail, Sun and the Telegraph had been for ‘In’ we would have romped home.”

Now that we are back in election mode, normal service has been resumed. The Tories’ “natural allies” are back in the trenches alongside them, ready to help them “romp home”. This was to be expected. Indeed, we have all become so inured to the naked rightwing partisanship of the British press that it barely registers beyond a knowing shrug. But somehow we never quite seem to compensate for its effect in our politics. Its persistent power has produced a corrosive democratic deficit.

It is simply not possible to make an informed decision when one is routinely, wilfully and cynically misinformed. When devout remainers insist the referendum was invalid because we were lied to, they talk as though the misinformation of 2016 was a one-off. It wasn’t. On that basis we should revoke all pretence that we live in a

People think they are immune to all of this. They’re not. We can and do, of course, make up our own minds. But we don’t make them up out of thin air. Boris Johnson’s “Teflon qualities”, Labour’s “incomprehensible” Brexit policy or Jeremy Corbyn’s “leadership failings” are all remarked upon as though they are unrivalled facts rather than judgments, all mediated through an almighty filter with extreme prejudice. The framing is so dominant and pervasive, and reproduced so consistently, omnisciently and persistently, that it ceases to feel like a frame at all.

“Inevitably our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe,” wrote Walter Lippmann in his landmark book, Public Opinion. “They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported.”

And a significant amount of what has been reported lately is extremely dubious. With a handful of notable exceptions, what emerges is a kind of political kabuki, where substantive discussion is performed on the basis of an insubstantial script. Take Andrew Marr’s flagship BBC show last Sunday, in which he began with the newspaper review: “Conservative Central Office will be delighted because their analysis of Labour spending hits front page after front page after front page,” he began.

Then he read them all out verbatim. “Sunday Times. £1 trillion in red ink, ‘Labour splurge to bankrupt UK’. The Sunday Telegraph, perhaps not surprisingly, ‘The scale of Labour’s reckless spending revealed’. Then the Daily Mail, ‘£1.2 trillion that’ll cost every UK household £43,000.’” With the Tory talking points duly repeated, Marr continued: “Labour are furious. They say it is complete fake news.”

It was fake. That’s not a partisan point. That figure was arrived at by taking all of Labour’s conference pledges – aspirations that may not even appear in their manifesto – and calculated on the assumption they all would be implemented on day one. Later in the programme, in an interview with the chancellor, Sajid Javid, Marr said the figures amounted to: “Bogus numbers and dodgy accounting.”

But by then the agenda had been set. For the rest of the day you could either decry Labour’s £1tn folly, deny its £1trn folly, contest its £1trn folly or explain its £1trn folly. Either way you’d be discussing it – which means the two things that will cut through the noise are “Labour” and “£1tn”. But this is not the product of genius messaging; it’s the gift of loyal stenographers.

This bias has nothing to do with Corbyn in particular. The media savaged Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband before him. Tony Blair had an easier ride because, according to his No 10 staffer Lance Price, Blair believed he had an unspoken deal with Rupert Murdoch that “if [Rupert] Murdoch were left to pursue his business interests in peace, he would give Labour a fair wind”. It’s a deal we are all still paying for.

But in this, as in so many things, Corbyn has proved a lightning rod. His election as Labour leader has laid bare what was only partially visible during the attacks on Miliband and Brown. Failing to accept him as the legitimate leader of the opposition, the rightwing press fear his premiership as they have feared no other Labour leader before. Over the next few weeks this will likely get worse, particularly if Labour continues to edge up in the polls, as the media class grow ever more shrill and desperate.

It is the challenge of the left not simply to bemoan the power of the rightwing press, but to circumnavigate it. It is a bit like complaining about the right being better funded, or wealthy people buying access. It’s incontestable but it’s not going to change any time soon. It is as baked into the analysis of the system as privilege is baked into the system itself.

Yet there are a few reasons to be hopeful. “Freedom of the press,” wrote the early 20th century American journalist AJ Liebling, “is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Since those who owned them were, by definition wealthy, those were the interests they represented. But new technology and social media have lowered the barriers of publication and distribution and created space for new voices to emerge and be heard. Some have proved incredibly effective. Meanwhile, grassroots campaigning has also created the capacity to challenge preconceptions on the doorstep through canvassing.

In the last election, virtually the entire media class rounded on Labour, only to see its vote share and seat count go up. We can’t say those attacks had no impact, since we don’t know how well Labour would have done otherwise. But we do know that, just because the media team up with their natural allies in the Conservatives, it needn’t mean the Tories get to romp home.

Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist

Comments (7)

  • Richard Hayward says:

    I have great respect for Gary Younge as a journalist.

    But have you noticed the one specific glaring omission in this article on press fabrication? Even Guardian journalists of otherwise impeccable credentials will pay obeisance to the Labour ‘antisemitism’ myth – either by silence, as here, or by casual mention of it as a given founded in truth.

    In many ways, it has become the most astounding illustration of an unfree press in this country, even amongst the so-called ‘liberal’ organs like The Guardian and the New Statesman who operate an implicit censorship worthy of any tin-pot dictatorship.

    How many reviews of ‘Bad News for Labour’ have you read?

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    Absolutely agree with Richard Hayward. Gary Younge stands out for his consistency, his honesty, his meticulously researched material – except when it comes to antisemitism and the British Labour Party, where he too takes it as a given that a/s is a serious problem within the Party. He doesn’t explain, he doesnt justify, doesnt evidence, just assumes. I have written to him about this but have been ignored.

  • Stephen Williams says:

    I agree . I was dismayed when Younge joined the witch-hunt, or at least refused to condemn it.
    He’s leaving The Guardian, by the way.

  • Philip Ward says:

    Your description of the antisemitism myth as something that comes up by “casual mention of it as a given founded in truth” is absolutely spot on. Not only does this occur in liberal journalism (Gary Younge, Owen Jones, George Monbiot (inconsistently) and many other Guardian journalists) , but in mainstream comedy on television and radio.

    This routine acceptance of a lie is one of the things I find most disturbing and presumably Jewish people who are taken in by it will perhaps understandably freak out if Labour manages to get elected. On the other hand, if Labour fails and these smears are perceived to have played a role in that failure (viz, the Campaign Against Antisemitsm demo “against antisemitsm” on December 8th), then there could definitely be a real rise in antisemitism amongst the more ignorant and prejudiced of Labour’s supporters. That would be a disaster and is an indication of the damage several pro-Zionist organisations in Britain are causing.

    It would be interesting to find out from such people as Hugh Dennis and Nish Kumar, to give two examples amongst many, how they have picked up the “meme”, whether they have actually done any research into the issue and what they think has been and will be the effect of propagating these lies over the airwaves.

  • George Pope says:

    Richard Hayward is spot on. The row about anti-Semitism is brilliantly analysed by the “Bad News for Labour” book, yet is has received virtually no exposure in the media. The whole episode is a brilliant example of Gary Young’s excellent argument about media bias. Check out the JVL website for an alternative view!

  • Allan Howard says:

    This excellent piece by Kitty Jones is well worth reading:

    Media misrepresentations of the Labour party are being used strategically to create left wing folk devils and moral panic

  • Mary Davies says:

    Excellent article from Gary Younge.

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