‘Hijacked by Marxists’
‘Hijacked by Marxists’, promised the Sun: Corbyn’s ‘hardline cabal’ exposed! On Saturday, the paper published a network map it claimed was drawn up by ‘former British intelligence officers’, detailing a web of ‘hard-left extremists’ supposed to lie behind the current Labour leadership. It had even coded a natty little chatbot to help its readers decipher the sprawling chart. ‘Who is James Butler?’ I asked it. It told me I co-founded Novara Media, which is at least true – though it got the dates wrong – and that I was connected to various people I’ve never met. I have yet to be invited to any cabal, hardline or otherwise.
I turned on Radio 4’s ‘flagship current affairs programme’ – always an act of mild masochism – in the middle of a debate about the parties’ economic policies to hear Labour’s investment policy described as ‘free stuff’ and the Tories’ as ‘spending plans’. I watched the prime minister grab and pocket a journalist’s phone in order to dodge a difficult question about a sick child lying on coats on the floor in a hospital without a bed for him; I watched the same prime minister then threaten the BBC licence fee, in an eye-catching policy invented on the hoof as a distraction from his botched interview.
I logged onto Twitter – another species of masochism – and watched the BBC’s political editor, along with a senior ITV political correspondent, and ITV’s political editor, repeat a story from a Tory source that Matt Hancock’s adviser had been punched in a rowdy protest – with Labour activitists bussed in by a sinister Momentum rapid response unit – outside Leeds General Infirmary, where the health secretary has been mopping up Johnson’s mess. The police, apparently, had been called. Video emerged of three or four protesters (all of whom had arrived under their own steam), and an adviser vaguely brushing against the arm of someone pointing at Hancock’s departing car.
The briefing had done its job, though, with headlines about violent Momentum thugs already sprouting across tabloid websites. There is something ethically admirable if politically foolhardy about these editors’ attitudes to their Tory sources: having been used not once but dozens of times to plant misleading claims, they still approach each new text message unencumbered by precedent, as if it were a nugget of rare and lambent truth to be communicated immediately. This time, at least, they apologised ,to varying degrees; Laura Kuenssberg, though, was still determined to find something ‘grim’ about the protest in Leeds, tame even by Britain’s relatively placid standards, led by a man in neon cycling lycra. The day was rounded off by the Telegraph’s Allison Pearson – transmogrified by Johnson’s tenure into a credulous latter-day Lady Haw-Haw – sharing conspiracy theories that the photo of the child had been faked.
These examples were collected over a few days in the campaign – most within 24 hours. Not all of them are of equal seriousness: that the bestselling newspaper in the country published a conspiracy theory derived from a mélange of fascist and white nationalist websites, and that it has taken it down, damage done, without explanation or apology, is more serious than slanted framing in an interview, or journalists on six-figure salaries embarrassing themselves by repeating a smear on social media. That the prime minister is deeply hostile to and evasive of media scrutiny, and muses about yanking funding from broadcasters whose coverage he dislikes, concerns me more than Robert Peston’s habit of regurgitating whatever messages he’s sent on WhatsApp. It would be convenient to wave away the Sun’s laundering of fascist conspiracy as mere tabloid dreck, but similar theories – that Corbyn is plotting a sinister Marxist coup – recently found purchase in the Times, a journal still regarded by some as a ‘paper of record’.
Most British political editors regard Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party as aberrant, or even illegitimate; a view that colours their assessment of rumours of Momentum thuggishness, or motivates some of their scepticism towards Labour’s policy programme. The matter of ‘the punch that wasn’t’ is in itself an inconsequential story, but indicative: unlike most anonymous briefings, it concerned something concrete, falsifiable and caught on camera. What, then, of stories which are harder to falsify? What scrutiny is given to claims about motivations, power struggles, ructions in opposing camps, before they’re uncritically repeated to audiences of millions?
Much of the left has long regarded the BBC as too deferential to the government of the day; it has often lamented the rightward mass of Britain’s press, with little to match it from the left. The Guardian, predominantly liberal-leaning but occasionally sympathetic to the left, has broadly approached Corbynism with either bemused incomprehension or hostility. It often assumes the revival of left politics in Britain is a temporary phenomenon, but the factors that have driven it – the consequences of austerity, ever-increasing wealth inequality, the climate crisis, and a broader crisis of capitalist credibility – are not contingencies. The spectre cannot be laid so easily; nor will its perspective be so easily shrugged off.
The standpoint of much British political journalism is insiderish. It too often concerns itself with the conjectured reaction or disposition of voters to a policy or politician – the primary concerns of a politician – rather than exploring the different political visions on offer to voters, which in this election are more sharply distinct than in decades. It is a hard balance to strike: personality matters as well as policy. But it is remarkable that the sharpest and most severe scrutiny of Johnson has come from regional correspondents, or those lower down the professional ladder.
The slipperiness of the Johnson press operation, his evasion of the tougher interview bouts, and occasionally fawning soft press events, have driven many on the left to distraction over the lack of scrutiny his campaign is getting. That is not quite true: the rapid unravelling of the headline manifesto pledges owes a lot to press attention, as does the circulation of NHS crisis stories. The problem is less scrutiny than culpability: the lies never seem to matter, and other fake numbers – £1.2 trillion, 52 extra murders, 800,000 migrants – are circulated just as brazenly as before. This squid ink approach to the truth has two related effects: one is to gradually sour an already curdled public sphere; the other is to reinforce the impression that all politicians are lying, and lie by nature, and can rarely be trusted. That is a greater problem for a politics of transformation than it is for a politics of stasis.
There is a panoply of competing folk explanations for the parlous state of the press, ranging from the political priorities of billionaire owners, to the failings of the Westminster lobby system, to the increasingly rapid circulation of information in the digital age. All are partially illuminating but insufficient. The first may set the broad tenor of coverage, but it is fatuous to imagine Murdoch or the Barclay brothers hovering in the editorial office with a censor’s pen; the lobby is frequently too close to its subjects, too clubbable and incurious; Twitter-led digital speed encourages journalists to tweet first, check later – but competitive speed has always been a feature of journalism.
There are powerful structural factors at play: the collapse in advertising revenues and decline in sales figures incline papers to pander to their core audience; the discipline once imposed by a need to appeal to a broader reader base has loosened. Markus Prior has described the transformation wrought in the US by the fragmentation of the broadcast sphere and rise of cable news – a result as much of the ability of entertainment-oriented viewers to avoid news altogether as of the belligerent and partisan style of channels intended to appeal to the already politically interested. An equivalent transformation in the UK has been hampered by the weight of the BBC, still the most trusted news institution in Britain. But as Andrew Neil suggested in his recent monologue decrying Boris Johnson’s evasion of his traditional grilling, like many British institutions it works only if the good faith it assumes in politicians is reciprocated.