When Labour blames the meejah, it really means the masses
Corbyn and Co see voters as sheeple being herded by evil media masters.
What does Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have in common with Donald Trump’s White House? It seems they share a keen interest in shooting the messenger. Like Trump’s team, leading Corbynistas want to treat the free press as the enemy, and try to blame the mass media for their homegrown political problems.
The most remarkable thing about the public launch of Labour’s election manifesto was not the policy proposals, most of which had been leaked last week. More revealing was the way that journalists were booed by the Labour supporters gathered in Bradford, for daring to do their jobs by asking Corbyn questions.
First the political editor of Channel 5 News, Andy Bell, was booed when he asked a question about Labour’s confused policy on immigration. Then Daily Mirror reporter Jack Blanchard was booed for having the nerve to ask Corbyn why he thought an opinion poll had showed Mirror readers liked Labour’s policies, but not its leader.
At least Blanchard, from the Labour-supporting Mirror, was allowed to ask a question. The only other print journalist even permitted to address the Labour leader was Peter Lazenby, of the Stalinist Morning Star. Lazenby seized the opportunity to put Corbyn on the spot with this hard-hitting question: ‘Can anything be done about the shockingly biased media?’
All of which captured the ‘We blame the meejah’ atmosphere now infusing Labour’s faltering election campaign. It has become a kneejerk reaction for Labour to point the finger at the press and broadcasters for all of its problems.
Len McCluskey – leader of the trade union Unite, Corbyn’s biggest financial backer – made waves this week when he said that Labour would do well to win 200 seats in the election, which would represent the party’s worst result since 1935. McCluskey’s explanation for his grim outlook, however, surprised nobody: apparently it was all down to ‘the constant attack of the media’ and ‘the image that they’ve pinned on Jeremy’.
When the shadow justice spokesman Richard Burgon (no, me neither) appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight in an effort to defend Corbyn’s spending proposals, he became only the latest Labour spokesman to get his figures in an embarrassing twist. Burgon’s response was to protest that Labour was being ‘put on trial’ by the media, because journalists actually had the gall to go through the numbers in the manifesto and suggest that they didn’t add up. Meanwhile, social-media photos show Labour activists waving ‘Fake News’ placards behind BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg.
If anything seems ‘fake’ it is surely this attempt to scapegoat the media for Labour’s meltdown. It could not possibly be the case that Labour’s campaign is failing because of its own, deep-seated crisis of political legitimacy. No, it must be that the media are lying about the party’s brilliant policies and popularity, and ‘pinning an image on Jeremy’ that is at odds with his charismatic and dynamic leadership.
This might look like a bad case of getting your excuses in early, preparing a simplistic readymade excuse for the electoral defeat which even most leading Labourites now seem to accept as inevitable. But it is more than that.
Labour’s obsession with the malign influence of the media is a striking illustration of its detachment from and contempt for ‘ordinary’ voters, whom it views as mere sheeple to be herded by the Pavlovian press barons. And Corbyn’s proposed solution – more rigorous state-backed regulation of the media – demonstrates his party’s detachment from and contempt for the historic left-wing principle of freedom of speech and of the press.
Labour has a long history of concern about the hostility of the ‘Tory press’. But in recent years its attacks on the media have become shriller as it loses the support of its traditional base. Hume’s law of inverse proportion states that the less fulsome support Labour and the left receive from the mass of voters, the more fierce its attacks on the mass media become; the less certain it is of the loyalty of working-class people, the more certain it becomes that the popular press is exerting a malign influence. Labour has effectively projected its own bitter disappointment with the masses on to the mass media.
The ostensible targets in this culture war might be a media mogul such as Rupert Murdoch, or a press baron’s apparatchik such as Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre – whom the Guardian recently suggested might be ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ – or a monolithic corporation such as the BBC. But the underlying attack is on the stupid, gullible people who allow themselves to be manipulated by these Svengali-like supervillains, brainwashed by a media that instructs them what to buy and who to vote for, whether in reality TV shows or General Elections.
Ever since the modern mass media was born, with the industrial production of newspapers in the late 19th century, condemnations of the ‘vulgarity’ of the popular press have always been a coded assault on the vulgar populace who buy and read it. But whereas expressed fear and loathing of the mass media was once the preserve of snobbish intellectuals, nowadays the political left is often to the fore.
Labour’s attempts to rationalise its problems by blaming the tabloid press grew through the postwar era and came to a head around the 1992 General Election. After John Major’s Tories confounded predictions and defeated Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party, the front page of Britain’s best-selling tabloid famously (and rather foolishly) boasted that ‘It’s the Sun wot won it!’. Labour had an anti-tabloid tantrum. Kinnock blamed the press for his defeat and threatened to report the Sun to the Press Complaints Commission, as if that regulatory body could somehow reverse the election result. Meanwhile, with Murdoch handing out a ‘huge bollocking’ over that headline, the Sun changed its tune. It labelled Kinnock a ‘whinger’ and said the notion that the press had duped the electorate was ‘an insult to the intelligence of the 14million people who voted Conservative’. Indeed it was – as big an insult as the original headline. Both endorsed the view of the press as Pavlovian masters making the mutt-like electorate dance to their tune.
Strangely, during the New Labour years, when the Sun and most of the media backed Tony Blair in three General Elections, little was heard from Labour about the evils of the press. Only after the Sun deserted Gordon Brown in the 2010 election did Labour’s media-bashers return with a vengeance, Blair suddenly denouncing his erstwhile media allies as a ‘feral beast’ that ‘hunts in a pack’, while Brown used the cover of parliamentary privilege to accuse his former pals in the Murdoch press of having descended ‘from the gutter to the sewer’ and being part of a ‘criminal-media nexus’. The phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World then provided the pretext for Labour and the Hacked Off lobby to pursue their war on the tabloids through the showtrial of the Leveson Inquiry.
Anybody who seriously believes they would have pursued that ‘ethical’ crusade so zealously if the media had continued to back Labour might note the lack of political outrage generated by more recent revelations about hacking at the Labour-loyal Daily Mirror.
Now, with Labour facing the prospect of a serious electoral hammering, its attempts to blame the media for its plight have become more hysterical still. Why did millions defy their Labour MPs and vote Leave in the EU referendum? Obviously because of the ‘Brexit lies’ and ‘propaganda’ of the press. Why are millions apparently preparing to vote for Theresa May’s Tories next month? See above.
And Labour not only blames the media, it also dreams of punishing the press. In response to the booing of reporters at the manifesto launch this week, Corbyn said that ‘journalists and journalism and free journalism and a free press are intrinsic to a democracy and a free society. But it’s also important to ensure there is responsible journalism.’ Such statements should immediately raise the question: ‘responsible’ to whom? Labour’s manifesto makes clear it wants to impose Lord Justice Leveson’s plans for stricter state-backed regulation of the press. As Corbyn went on to say, ‘And so we will develop Leveson, and Tom Watson is very clear on this, that we will protect the diversity of our free press’. That would be the same Watson, now Labour’s deputy leader, who wrote a ridiculous book called Dial M for Murdoch which fantasised about Murdoch and his media lieutenants running a ‘shadow state’, manipulating ‘prime ministers, ministers, parliament, the police, the justice system’ through an ‘invisible web of corruption’. Watson could somehow see this ‘invisible web’, yet was apparently blind to the suggestion that New Labour’s defeat might have been due to its public political exhaustion and exposure, rather than any secretive media plot.
The ‘free, diverse’ press imagined by the likes of Corbyn and Watson would be a regulated, hobbled, sanitised and conformist one, responsible to official regulators with the state-backed power to boo journalists into order.
The media is of course very important in politics today, especially in an era when other forums for political debate have atrophied. But the notion that the media can dictate political opinions is based on little more than prejudice about the public. It is ironic that Labour’s serious concerns about media influence date from the 1945 election, when the Tory-supporting newspapers ran a relentless campaign against Labour and confidently predicted an easy win for Winston Churchill’s Conservatives. Regardless of all those headlines, however, Labour was elected by a landslide. That did little to alter the party’s low opinion of the popular press – or the populace.
Today, the ‘I blame the meejah’ excuse ought to be even less credible. Can newspapers whose readerships are in long-term decline somehow be less popular and yet more powerful? What about the blossoming of alternative news sources through social media? And how about the recent evidence of the US election? Donald Trump was elected president despite more than 90 per cent of media coverage being hostile to him! That might suggest that many now view the mainstream media as part of the political elite they are revolting against, rather than as a guide to be followed like His Master’s Voice.
From the Levellers in the age of the English Revolution, the best part of 400 years ago, the freedom of speech and of the press was always a radical cause, fought for by those who sought social change as the lifeblood of a free and democratic society. By contrast, the rump of Labour has not only abandoned that goal, but attempts to blame ‘too much’ media freedom for its political problems.
Labour’s opponents in the media have recently had fun taunting Corbyn and his allies for being Marxists. That is unfair. In his first published articles in the German press, a series of essays on ‘The freedom of the press’, the young Karl Marx put forward liberal arguments that Corbyn and Co would reject out of hand. He insisted that the freedom of the press is indivisible, and ‘you cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences. You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns!’ Marx also ridiculed the idea that the ‘evil’ media could dictate public affairs, insisting that the free press is as little responsible for the changing world that it reports on and reflects ‘as the astronomer’s telescope is for the unceasing motion of the universe. Evil astronomy!’
Labour’s media-hating leaders, looking down the wrong end of a telescope for excuses and scapegoats, might do well to take a slightly more ‘Marxist’ attitude to these matters.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and What They’re Afraid of, is published by William Collins. Buy it here.
Picture by: Getty Images.