Category Archives: Media

Burying the dead: the UK media and the government’s response to coronavirus

Burying the dead: the UK media and the government’s response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 April 2020

On 10 April 2020, the UK government announced 980 people had died in hospital in the last 24 hours because of coronavirus. It was the country’s highest daily death toll so far.

It was exceeded in Europe only by France, where 1,417 died in a single day, though France’s numbers, unlike the UK, include deaths in care homes.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the UK figure: 980. How far back in UK history do we have to go to find 980 early deaths in a single day? World War Two? World War One?

With the bodies of the dead barely cold, the front pages of the newspapers the next day felt like a sick, surreal joke. Barring the Guardian and Scotland’s The National, no national newspaper’s main headline focussed on the record death toll. The BBC News website’s headline on 10 April – after the record death toll had been announced – was ‘Herculean Effort’ To Provide NHS Protective Gear, quoting Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the daily coronavirus briefing. There was nothing, nothing, on the BBC News website’s front page about the unprecedented mortality rate, as journalist Jack Seale noted on Twitter that day.

Incredibly, BBC Radio 4’s 08:00 news on 11 April did not mention the previous days’ death toll, though it did find space to report on the number of dead in the United States and the important news that Paul McCartney’s handwritten lyrics for Hey Jude were being auctioned. BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions also seems to living in a parallel universe, with recent episodes finding the guests engaging in polite disagreements, with gentle questioning from host Chris Mason, while thousands of bodies pile up throughout the country.

“I’m told BBC bosses are warning interviewers not to put ministers under pressure”, former BBC veteran journalist John Humphrys recently noted in the Daily Mail.

The 7 April was also a grim milestone for the UK – the 854 recorded deaths a daily record at that point. The newspaper front pages the next day were again a travesty, with nearly all exclusively focussing on the Prime Minister’s time in intensive care. He Stayed At Home For You… Now Pray At Home For Him, instructed the Sun. We Are With You Boris! shouted the Metro. Only the Guardian published a headline about the UK death toll.

Where is the anger? Where is the outrage? Where is the concern for readers’ welfare? Where is the detailed examination and questioning of government policy?

The collective failure of the media to report on the extraordinary number of deaths is even more frustrating when you consider there is voluminous evidence government inaction has led to this catastrophe.

“Something has gone badly wrong in the way the UK has handled Covid-19… there was a collective failure among politicians and perhaps even government experts to recognise the signals that Chinese and Italian scientists were sending”, noted Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, in the Guardian on 18 March.

Appearing on BBC Question Time a few days later he described the government’s poor response to the crisis as “a national scandal.”

“We knew from the last week in January [2020] that this was coming”, he noted, “And then we wasted February when we could have acted. Time when we could have ramped up testing, time when we could have got Personal Protective Equipment ready and disseminated. We didn’t do it.”

Anthony Costello, Professor of Global Health and Sustainable Development at UCL and a former Director of Maternal and Child Health at the World Health Organization, was similarly scathing about the government’s lack of action. “History won’t look kindly on Britain’s response”, he noted in the Guardian last month.

As is perhaps clear already, the Guardian has published important exposes of the government’s failings, aswell as a number of op-eds very critical of the government’s response to the crisis –from Horton, Costello and Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh.

However, it has also published some potentially dangerous, arguably even reckless, articles. With the government being widely criticised for refusing to implement more radical policies to suppress the outbreak, on 14 March the Guardian’s science correspondent Hannah Devlin published an article titled Which Activities Are Safe And Which Should People Avoid? Quoting experts, the article suggested going to the pub, visiting the gym and attending a sports match were all OK. On the question of visiting elderly relatives, the article quoted one expert saying he would not stop visiting elderly relatives, and another saying “I really don’t think that’s a good idea”. Two days later the Prime Minister urged people to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres, and cease all “non-essential” contact with others.

Another serious error was made by the Observer’s science editor Robin McKie in a piece titled Five Months On, What Scientists Now Know About The Coronavirus, published on the Guardian website on 12 April. “As to the transmission of Sars-CoV-2, that occurs when droplets of water containing the virus are expelled by an infected person in a cough or sneeze”, he noted, apparently unaware that academic studies and news reports, including by the BBC, have shown transmission can happen through talking too.

Reuters should also be congratulated for publishing a hugely important, lengthy investigation into the advice and decisions being made at the top of government. Based on interviews with 20 British scientists, key officials and senior Tory Party sources, and a study of minutes of advisory committee meetings, public testimony and documents, the 7 April report highlights how the government’s “scientific advisers concluded early the virus could be devastating.”

Among the eye-popping findings, is that the SPI-M committee, the official committee set up to model the spread of pandemic flu, published a report on 2 March noting up to four-fifths of the population could be infected and one in a hundred might die – “a prediction of over 500,000 deaths in this nation of nearly 70 million”, Reuters note. Despite these alarming findings, Reuters found “the scientific committees that advised [Prime Minister] Johnson didn’t study, until mid-March, the option of the kind of stringent lockdown adopted early on in China”.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked by the British media’s performance. There are many examples of the propagandistic role the media plays, often showing minimal interest in the deadly consequences and victims of UK government policy, especially during times of national crisis. For example, the 2019 Institute for Public Policy Research study linking 130,000 preventable deaths to Conservative-Lib Dem austerity policies did receive some coverage, but has effectively been ignored since it was published. It has certainly not framed the national political debate as it should have. Similarly, the US-UK-led sanctions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis between the two Iraq wars were of little concern to our supposedly free and critically-minded media. Ditto the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed during the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation, with the media watchdog Media Lens recording how the two ‘Lancet’ studies into the death toll were effectively buried by our Fourth Estate.

Returning to the coronavirus outbreak, it is hard to escape a disturbing conclusion that should shame all UK journalists: the huge and unprecedented official death toll – currently standing at 18,738, though the Financial Times estimates the real number to be 41,000 – is, in part, the result of the failure of the media to hold the government to account for its woeful response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Sanders, not Biden, has the best chance of beating Trump

Sanders, not Biden, has the best chance of beating Trump
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 March 2020

If you have followed the race to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States you’ll have heard the argument a lot: Bernie Sanders, the social democratic senator from Vermont, would never beat sitting US President Donald Trump.

Indeed since Super Tuesday, when Democratic supporters in a slew of states voted on who should face Trump in November 2020, this assertion has become more prevalent – with an additional clause: it is former vice-president Joe Biden, not Sanders, who is best positioned to defeat Trump.

Even commentators who profess to support Sanders’ policies make this argument. After telling Channel 4 News he agrees with Sanders on “an awful lot of political issues”, Eric Alterman, a columnist at the left-leaning Nation magazine, said he fears the example of UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. If Sanders ran against Trump “it would be the end of the American republic”, he said.

Addressing the popular argument that Sanders is “sure to be an electoral disaster” a couple of days later, MSNBC host Chris Hayes was unequivocal: “I am just here to tell you that the evidence we have, to the extent we have evidence about an unknowable future, just doesn’t support that at all.”

Summarising the Real Clear Politics polling averages from February on head to head match ups between Trump and the Democratic presidential candidates, Hayes noted Sanders “is consistently, in poll after poll after poll, at or near the top in all of them” – in beating Trump.

Author Steve Phillips, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, concurs. Writing in the New York Times on 28 February, he explained “most of the available empirical evidence shows Mr. Sanders defeating President Trump in the national popular vote and in the critical Midwestern states that tipped the Electoral College in 2016”.

He continues: “This has been the case for nearly a year now, with Mr. Sanders outpolling the president in 67 of 72 head-to-head polls since March [2019].”

Furthermore, Phillips argues Sanders’ “specific electoral strengths align with changes in the composition of the country’s population in ways that could actually make him a formidable foe for the president.”

In a February Reuters/Ipsos poll Sanders led Trump by 18 percentage points among independent voters in a hypothetical general election match-up – the highest score among all the Democratic candidates.

Famously, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claimed “nobody likes” Sanders. In contrast, Peter Beinart, Professor of journalism at the City University of New York notes “polls of Democratic voters show nothing of the sort”. While the Democratic Party elite are deeply sceptical of Sanders, “among ordinary Democrats, Sanders is strikingly popular, even with voters who favor his rivals… on paper, he appears well positioned to unify the party should he win its presidential nomination”, Beinart explains in The Atlantic magazine.

Sanders’ popularity seems to stretch to being relatively personally popular too. Asked for their thoughts on the personal characteristics of several Democratic presidential contenders and of Trump, in a February USA Today/Ipsos poll Americans consistently gave Sanders the highest marks for his values and empathy. 40 percent of respondents said they admired Sanders’ character, well above the 31 percent for Biden and the 26 percent for Trump, while 39 percent of respondents said Sanders “shares my values” compared to 30 percent saying Biden and 31 percent for Trump.

And Alterman’s comparison to Corbyn is a red herring, of course. First, because in 2017 Corbyn led the Labour Party to its best electoral performance since 2001 – before the Brexit issue polarised the party and electorate. And second, because Sanders is a much better political communicator than the often reticent Corbyn. In debate performances the 78-year old Brooklynite is laser-focussed, impressively able to summarise his policies in everyday language and soundbites, and is unafraid to attack his rivals.

Johnny Burtka, executive director for The American Conservative magazine, agrees. “Bernie clearly has the pugnacity”, he told The Hill website in December. “He’s the only one that I think could ultimately take on Donald Trump on the debate stage.”

And it is Sanders, not Biden, who has a young, energetic mass movement backing him – an army of small donations giving Sanders a clear lead in campaign funding over Biden, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics until January.

Frustratingly though, politics, and political change, is never this simple and straightforward – since Biden’s strong performance on Super Tuesday the polling results have shifted. Biden is now favoured as the Democratic nominee by 54 percent of Democratic primary voters, compared to 38 percent supporting Sanders, according to a new Morning Consult poll.

However, the polling data is just one reason Biden would be a disastrous candidate.

Many are concerned about Biden’s long record of being on the wrong side of many political issues – from his 2003 vote for the illegal invasion of Iraq, to his support for the Wall Street bailout, the Rust Belt-decimating NAFTA trade agreement, mass incarceration and cutting social security.

“The Trump people are going to fillet Joe Biden, they are going to fillet him in their ads, and Trump is going to mercilessly fillet him in the debate,” journalist Jeremy Scahill recently argued on Democracy Now! Why? “Because a lot of stuff they will say about him will be true! And Biden is lying, or he doesn’t know what room he is in.”

That last bit is a reference to what journalist Glenn Greenwald called Biden’s “serious issues with his cognitive abilities”. Or, as Scahill puts it: “Joe Biden is not a well man… he can barely complete a sentence.” Recent well-publicised examples include Biden forgetting the “all men are created equal” passage from the Declaration of Independence, telling an audience he was running for the US Senate and his statement that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids”.

So why is Biden, and not Sanders, being presented as the safe pair of hands in the race to be the Democratic presidential candidate?

Beyond the party elite and corporate media falling in line behind the very establishment Biden, arguably a simplistic understanding of politics underpins the belief Sanders is an electoral liability.

This view sees a linear left-right political spectrum, with Sanders on the far left and Biden in the centre. Therefore, it seems obvious the so-called centrist Biden who would be able to appeal to a larger section of the American voting public, rather than the ‘extreme’ Sanders, who would likely alienate much of the political spectrum.

However, what this type of analysis misses is the fact around 13 percent of Trump voters in 2016 backed Obama in 2012, according to the American National Election Study. Interviewing more than a dozen Obama supporters who were planning to vote Trump in 2016, the New York Times reported “a common theme: The message of change that inspired them to vote for Mr. Obama is now embodied by Mr. Trump”.

Adam Ramsay, an Editor at Open Democracy, provides some insight into this seemingly contradictory voting behaviour. “While journalists and pundits and academics tend to see politics as a question of policy and ideology” for the broader public “the first thing they go to is the question of trust”, he noted in a video recently. Turning to the Democratic primaries he argues “the question isn’t really whether voters are looking at these candidates on a left-right spectrum… because most voters right across the Western world don’t really see politics like that. What they look at is whether they think they can trust each of these people to stand up for them or whether they think these people are going to be co-opted by the interests of the rich and powerful.”

Of course, Sanders might end up being a terrible presidential candidate, and Biden may defeat Trump. Nothing is certain. But the majority of evidence we have right now doesn’t support the argument Biden is more electable than Sanders. As The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan recently explained on MSNBC about the Democratic Party elite: “They tried to run a pro-Iraq War, pro-Wall Street establishment Democrat with a history of dubious claims, and dodgy dealings, and dodge comments about incarceration and super predators” in 2016. “Where did that end up? What’s the old saying? Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

US sanctions, Iran and coronavirus

US sanctions, Iran and coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21-22 March 2020

As Morning Star readers know, the BBC largely reflects the interests and opinions of the British establishment. Nevertheless, occasionally discerning consumers can find important, critical information on one of the corporation’s many platforms.

For example, at the end of February BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme broadcast a brief interview about the UK’s response to coronavirus with Dr Bharat Pankhania, a Senior Clinical Lecturer at the College of Medicine and Health, University of Exeter.

Though he wasn’t asked about Iran, Pankhania, who has over 20 years’ experience working as a consultant in communicable diseases, snuck in an inconvenient truth: “What happens in other countries can come to bite us too”, he said. “I am very concerned about Iran and the health sanctions by America against Iran. Because when you have uncontrolled transmission of infection in Iran it will affect the Middle East and it will affect us too.”

As those following the outbreak will know, Iran has been hit particular hard by the virus. Before the Italian outbreak fully took hold, Iran had the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China. “Iran has the highest mortality rate in the world”, ITV News Correspondent John Irvine noted on 13 March. “On a daily basis it fluctuates between eight and eighteen per cent.” As of 19 March the statistics website Worldometer had recorded 18,407 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Iran, with 1,284 deaths.

So what is the connection between US sanctions and Iran’s response to coronavirus?

The US began sanctioning Iran in 1979, following the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran and the subsequent hostage crisis. More recently, President Obama – along with the European Union – implemented a tough sanctions regime from 2012 to 2015, which was largely suspended when the US and Iran agreed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Obama Administration’s sanctions caused mass suffering for ordinary Iranians. “Among those bearing the brunt of the crisis are patients and hospitals reliant on currency for imported medicines and foreign-based services”, the Guardian noted in October 2012. “Iran’s Haemophilia Society, for example, has blamed the sanctions for risking thousands of children’s lives due to a lack of proper drugs.”

Following the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018, the US implemented an even harsher set of sanctions on Iran.

“The sanctions we have imposed are the toughest ever… the Iranian economy this year could contract by as much as 14 percent”, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook stated in January.

“More than 700 individuals, entities, aircraft and vessels” including 50 Iranian banks and their foreign subsidiaries are sanctioned, according to a July 2019 report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman. “The sanctions have hit oil sales, imposed wide ranging restrictions on traders and businesses and significantly contributed to a devaluation of the currency and inflation.” Importantly, the US sanctions regime effectively applies to nations and organisations without any ties to the US doing business with Iran. The effect of these “secondary sanctions” has been “to deter international banks, pharmaceutical companies, NGOs and charities from facilitating the flow of goods and services and money to Iran”, Salil Patel, a junior doctor at Imperial College, explained in the Independent in January.

In his report, the UN Special Rapporteur said he was concerned that the sanctions “will unduly affect food security and the availability and distribution of medicines, pharmaceutical equipment and supplies.”

Similarly, Human Rights Watch raised the alarm in an October 2019 report: “The consequences of redoubled US sanctions, whether intentional or not, pose a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health and access to essential medicines – and has almost certainly contributed to documented shortages – ranging from a lack of critical drugs for epilepsy patients to limited chemotherapy medications for Iranians with cancer.”

In an attempt to understand the link between US sanctions and coronavirus in Iran I spoke to Dr Pankhania. “When you have a completely super-stretched and almost bare-boned healthcare system as a result of sanctions you do not have any reserves for dealing with a surge in the number of patients”, he told me. “Furthermore, you wouldn’t have extensive laboratory facilities”, which are essential in the early stages of an outbreak to “recognise that you had the presence of the coronavirus in your midst – because you only know if you look for it.”

Indeed, earlier his month the BBC reported Ramin Fallah, a board member of Iran’s Association of Medical Equipment, saying he is unable to purchase testing kits for coronavirus due to US-imposed sanctions.

The sanctions have had a broader influence on the Iranian government’s response to the virus, according to Amir Afkhami, an Associate Professor of psychiatry, global health and history at George Washington University, writing for Politico earlier this month: they “have made matters worse by making the Iranian regime more skittish about taking any public health measures – such as reducing contacts with its main trading partners or declaring a public health emergency – that could further damage its already ailing economy.”

The evidence, then, strongly suggests that the US’s barbaric, isolating sanctions regime has caused widespread pain and misery in Iran – and endangered the rest of the world. Many of the first cases of coronavirus registered in other locations, including Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar, New Zealand and New York, have been attributed to individuals who travelled from Iran, a recent Foreign Policy article explained.

As Open Democracy editor Adam Ramsay recently tweeted: “The coronavirus is an important reminder that health isn’t private. As a species we live in herds. Everyone’s health relies to some extent on everyone else’s.”

In addition, to helping to trigger an economic crisis and having deleterious impacts on the Iranian health system during this health emergency, the US sanctions have had a number of other specific impacts on Iran.

First, air safety: “There have been scores of plane crashes in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, mainly because western sanctions for decades limited its ability to purchase spare parts or buy new planes”,  the Guardian reported in February 2018. This was a welcome acknowledgement in the mainstream press of the West’s culpability for hundreds of needless deaths, though, to be clear, this information appeared in paragraph 19 of 21 of the article, so will likely have been missed by many readers.

Second, US sanctions have likely strengthened the hand of hardliners in Iran. In 2013 several hundred Iranian political and human rights activists, academics, and students wrote an open letter to President Obama warning of exactly this. Referring to the deadly US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, they noted “We are deeply concerned about the recurrence of the Iraqi experience for Iran, which would eliminate the only opportunity for peaceful and democratic change in our country. We are certain that economic sanctions will continue to weaken Iran’s civil society and strengthen the hands of extremists.”

Incredibly, on 17 March Reuters reported the US had imposed fresh sanctions on Iran, targetting a number of entities and individuals, “keeping up its economic pressure campaign even as it offered to help Tehran cope with the coronavirus pandemic”.

“The US government is run by sociopaths”, was journalist Mehdi Hasan’s response to the US doubling down on its crippling sanctions regime.

Close observers of Western-Iran relations will be aware historical facts that undermine the official Western narrative, such as the 1953 US-UK led coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, are, conveniently, rarely mentioned in the Western mainstream media (though they are not forgotten in Iran, of course).

With this in mind, it is essential we do not let the key role of US sanctions in the ongoing coronavirus crisis in Iran to be pushed down the memory hole too.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The myth of Labour’s antisemitism crisis: interview with Jamie Stern-Weiner

The myth of Labour’s antisemitism crisis: interview with Jamie Stern-Weiner
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
10 February 2020

In November 2019 Verso Books published the free e-book Antisemitism and the Labour Party, edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner, an Israeli-born, London-raised DPhil candidate in Area Studies at the University of Oxford.

With antisemitism cited by many as a factor in Labour’s defeat in the general election, Ian Sinclair asked Stern-Weiner about the controversy.

Ian Sinclair: What is your assessment of the antisemitism controversy that has engulfed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party since 2015?

Jamie Stern-Weiner: Over the past two decades, whenever Israel’s grotesque human rights violations aroused popular indignation in the UK, Israel’s supporters depicted this reaction as a ‘new antisemitism’. The propaganda offensive against Labour that began in 2016 formed a novel variant of this strategy—a new ‘new antisemitism’. Whereas previous such controversies saw Jewish and pro-Israel networks mobilise against Palestine solidarity activists, the post-2015 campaign saw allegations of antisemitism instrumentalised by the full breadth of the British elite in order to delegitimise, demoralise and ultimately demobilise the Corbyn movement.

The smear campaign was pushed by three distinct but overlapping networks: the Conservative Party, the Labour Right and the pro-Israel Jewish establishment in Britain. Each played an indispensable role. Tory and Labour Right antisemitism allegations would have lacked plausibility without the validation of Jewish leadership groups, which also mobilised their considerable organisational resources behind the campaign. Conversely, the Jewish establishment’s vendetta against the Left would have gained little traction had it not been amplified by other political and media elites.

The allegations against Labour are groundless. Jeremy Corbyn is not an antisemite but among our most dedicated anti-racist politicians, while no persuasive evidence has been presented to show that antisemitism in Labour increased or became widespread under his leadership. Surveys indicate that anti-Jewish prejudices are less prevalent on the Left than on the Right of British politics, while a recent study commissioned (and then misrepresented) by the Campaign Against Antisemitism found traditional ‘anti-Jewish’ stereotypes to be disproportionately concentrated among Conservative voters and supporters of Boris Johnson. Even as the ‘Labour antisemitism’ inquisitors spent years combing through party members’ social media histories for incriminating material, the proportion of Labour members accused of expressing anti-Jewish prejudice rounds to literally zero.

The direct electoral impact of the ‘antisemitism’ smear campaign appears to have been slight. Its indirect contribution to Labour’s defeat was likely more significant: the leadership’s vacillating and defensive response to antisemitism allegations made it look weak—a perception that ranked among the most widely cited reasons for Corbyn’s unpopularity; scarce Leadership Office resources were expended on constant media firefighting; and grassroots enthusiasm was enervated by the failure of any senior party or media figure to defend activists from the sweeping accusations against them.

IS: What has been the media’s role in all of this?

JS-W: The British press is disproportionately sensitive to elite opinion and is itself part of the political establishment. Intense media hostility to the Corbyn project was therefore inevitable. Already in 2015, the Media Reform Coalition described how ‘the press set out to systematically undermine Jeremy Corbyn… with a barrage of overwhelmingly negative coverage’. A London School of Economics study the following year found ‘most newspapers systematically vilifying the leader of the biggest opposition party’. And during the 2019 election campaign, research from Loughborough University indicated that newspaper coverage was overwhelmingly biased against Labour.

The ‘Labour antisemitism’ controversy was the most extreme and protracted manifestation of this vilification campaign. Reporting was replete with factual errors. Rational criteria for assessing newsworthiness were abandoned, to the extent that random Facebook posts by ordinary Labour Party members and factional wranglings over the efficiency of internal Labour Party complaints procedures became headline material. No effort was made to set the allegations against Labour within a broader context, either politically or in terms of what is known about the distribution of racism and prejudice in contemporary Britain. And information which undermined the claims against Labour was effectively suppressed.

More fundamentally, no mainstream reporter ever investigated whether the allegations against Labour were true. Where journalists did not reflexively endorse the accusations against Labour, they were content to uncritically relay them alongside the party’s response. Accusations by Jewish communal figures or anti-Corbyn MPs were considered inherently significant, whether or not they were accompanied by supporting evidence. At the same time, individuals and entities that led the charge against Labour were not themselves scrutinised as political actors, despite the manifestly partisan aspect of the campaign.

The result was to grossly misrepresent the reality of antisemitism in Labour and the UK as a whole. For example, whereas it was widely reported that the 2017 Labour Party conference played host to numerous instances of antisemitism, none of the concrete allegations withstood investigation, while nearly all turned out to implicate people who were themselves Jewish. Perhaps more importantly, the disproportionate attention given the ‘Labour antisemitism’ story, combined with the failure to situate it within any broader statistical or political context, wildly distorted the scale of the phenomenon. Respondents to a 2019 survey estimated that over a third of Labour members had been subject to an antisemitism-related complaint; the real figure was less than one-tenth of one percent. It is difficult to conceive a more damning indictment of British journalism.

IS: There seems to be a broad consensus that the Labour leadership and the Labour Party handled the antisemitism controversy badly. Do you think they should have responded differently?

JS-W: ‘Labour antisemitism’ was never a grievance amenable to resolution through reasonable compromise, but rather the pretext for a campaign to overthrow Corbyn’s leadership and demobilise his base. It follows that nothing Labour might have done, short of total capitulation, could have prevented or moderated the media campaign against it.

It also follows that the strategy of compromise and appeasement was a mistake. None of Labour’s many concessions silenced its critics for even a millisecond. But they did divide supporters, strengthen the other side’s position and make the leadership appear feeble. Every time a senior Labour figure apologised for the party’s antisemitism problem, they merely validated wholly unsupported claims that such a problem existed. The party’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism did not win the leadership any support but did hand its enemies an additional weapon with which to smear and drive out Corbyn’s supporters.

In the course of its misguided attempt to appease unappeasable critics, the party betrayed its libertarian heritage and instituted a regime of censorship. The provision in the Code of Conduct which provided that the party’s disciplinary body ‘shall not have regard to the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions’ was nullified. And whereas the Chakrabarti Report of June 2016 urged a moratorium on trawling members’ social media archives for offensive posts, December 2019 found Labour’s general secretary boasting about the party’s use of algorithms to sift the online histories of not just members but potential members to ‘detect patterns of behaviour’.

What else could have been done? Any response should have aimed not at ending the defamation campaign but at minimising the internal divisions it provoked and the resources it consumed. To these ends, the leadership should have forthrightly stated and held to its view that allegations of a Labour antisemitism ‘crisis’ lacked evidence; that Labour’s critics were acting in pursuit of a political agenda; and that Labour did not intend to use party resources to police the thoughts and utterances of its 500,000 members.

As Norman Finkelstein has suggested, Labour might have established a small rebuttal unit to respond to significant allegations. Otherwise, each and every media story about ‘Labour antisemitism’ should have been met with the stock response: ‘The elected leadership of the Labour Party has made its views on this matter clear. Any information concerning individual misconduct should be referred to our disciplinary mechanism, where it will be dealt with according to our standard procedures. We have no further comment’. Mere expression of an unpopular opinion should not have been considered legitimate grounds for disciplinary action. And complaints statistics should have been released on a routine basis with as much transparency as possible.

Whether the party leadership had sufficient internal leeway to implement a response along these lines, I do not know. But had such an approach been pursued from the outset, it would have equipped members with a consistent and defensible line, minimised consequential internal divisions, reduced the time and money wasted on this non-issue, and—at minimum—avoided the leadership appearing unprincipled and indecisive before the wider public.

Antisemitism and the Labour Party is available as a free download from Verso Books https://www.versobooks.com/books/3215-antisemitism-and-the-labour-party

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 February 2020

“The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data”, US historian Howard Zinn says in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the 2004 documentary about his life.

A good example of this truism is a recent episode of Witness History on the BBC World Service – with US Colonel Andrew Milburn recounting his time fighting in what BBC presenter Alex Last calls “the Battle for Fallujah” in Iraq.

In the short radio piece – each segment of Witness History is just nine minutes long – Last provides some context for listeners: with the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation creating significant opposition, the city of Fallujah, in the western province of Anbar, had become an insurgency stronghold. In an attempt to subdue the resistance, the US undertook a huge assault on Fallujah in November 2004 – involving 20,000 troops backed by tanks and aircraft.

With a population of 250,000, Last notes there was estimated to be around 2,500 fighters in the city at the time of the attack, along with some 20-30,000 civilians.

“Honestly, it was rare that you saw civilians”, Milburn says about the urban warfare he experienced. “There was a kind of feeling ‘Look there aren’t civilians here, we have got tanks, we have got anti-tank weapons, let’s just use these instead of sending guys into buildings.’”

“That is when most of the destruction happened”, he remembers. “By the end of the battle [in December 2004]… it looked like the second world war. It looked like Dresden or Stalingrad”.

The US and Iraqi government forces lost around 100 killed and 500 wounded, notes Last, with “conservative estimates” of “hundreds of Iraqi civilians” killed.

“It was a pyrrhic victory”, Milburn concludes. “Even as we won the city and we killed thousands of the insurgents there were many, many more being recruited – largely by pictures of us rubbling a city”.

As these quotes suggest, critical consumers can occasionally gleam some useful information from BBC reporting. However, Witness History’s focus is on the US experience, with all the problems that comes with this.

Last’s assertion that 20-30,000 civilians were left in Fallujah is a very low estimate, with a statement at the time from the top US general in Iraq, George W. Casey, suggesting the US military believed 60-100,000 civilians remained in the city at the beginning of the attack. The essential 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Newcastle University’s Dr Florian Zollmann also calls into question the BBC’s estimate of civilian deaths. After conducting a detailed analysis of media coverage of Fallujah, Zollmann suggests the total number of civilian dead was likely around 2,000. For example, in January 2005 the director of the main hospital in Fallujah reported there had been 700 bodies recovered from just one third of the city, 550 of them women and children.

Moreover, the programme omitted any mention of arguably the most important aspect of the carnage – that US forces carried out what would be considered war crimes if they were carried out by Official Enemy states like Iran, Syria or Russia. Indeed in the introduction to his 2007 verbatim play Fallujah academic and playwright Jonathan Holmes argues the US contravened 70 individual articles of the Geneva Conventions in Fallujah.

The scene was set for the slaughter by US Lt Col Gary Brandl, who led the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment into the fight with these words: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He’s in Falluja. And we’re going to destroy him.”

Media reports at the time noted the US military and their Iraqi allies cut off the electricity and water supplies to the city, and, in an early operation, targeted Fallujah’s General Hospital. “Considered a refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda”, the New York Times reported US Special forces and Iraqi troops smashed in doors, with patients and medical staff “rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.”

Testifying at the 2008 Winter Solider hearings, US Marine Michael Leduc explained how the rules of engagement changed for Fallujah – “now, we were operating under the assumption that everyone was hostile.” His battalion officer encouraged Marines to kill anyone using a cell phone and anyone they suspected of “manoeuvring against” them. The US implemented “a strict night time shoot-to-kill curfew”, The Times reported, with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights… shot.”

“Every weapon available in our arsenal short of nukes is turned on Fallujah”, US Army Sergeant David Bellavia wrote in his memoir. This included White Phosphorus, with a 2005 edition of the journal Field Artillery confirming its use in Fallujah by publishing testimony from a US officer: “We used it… as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive].”

With the bloodbath in full swing, the US military blocked aid from reaching the city, with a convoy of food and medicine brought by the Iraqi Red Crescent refused entry to the city, according to the Guardian.

Furthermore, Associated Press reported that “hundreds of men trying to flee the assault on Fallujah have been turned back by US troops following orders to allow only women, children and the elderly to leave”.

Also unmentioned by Witness History is the key role played by UK forces. The British infantry battalion The Black Watch was redeployed from southern Iraq to the area surrounding Fallujah – to replace US marines sent into the city. “They have been used to block off insurgents running weapons into Baghdad and to plug escape routes for those fleeing the US assault on Fallujah”, a November 2004 BBC News article reported.

BBC World Service journalists may see themselves as part of an “impartial, accurate, trustworthy” news organisation, as a former World Service director once said. However, in reality their reporting, such as this episode of Witness History, often follows a propagandistic framing of Western foreign policy.

As Warwick University’s Professor Susan Carruthers noted in her 2000 book The Media At War, in wartime “the media have generally served the military rather well”.

Zollmann confirms this maxim very much applies to Fallujah, with his study comparing the US offensive in the Iraqi city to human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

His analysis shows how Fallujah was “framed in terms of reciprocal war and fighting” – remember the title of the Witness History episode: “The Battle for Fallujah”.  There was some critical media coverage, he notes, but this “was placed in an ideological context, which still assumed that ‘allied’ countries constitute legitimate and positive forces.”

This “politicised discourse” has huge ramifications, he argues, serving “to obscure the well-documented fact” US actions in Fallujah “also shared the properties of massacres and war crimes.”

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, is Zollmann’s damning conclusion. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

With the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media downplaying US-UK crimes it falls to those concerned citizens who are aware of the real history of Fallujah to make sure this dark chapter in US-UK foreign policy is never forgotten.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief by Greg Philo et al.

Book review. Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief by Greg Philo et al.
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2019-January 2020

The headline findings from this new co-authored Glasgow Media Group (GMG) study of the anti-semitism controversy in the Labour Party are astonishing.

Between June 2015 and March 2019 eight national newspapers printed a massive 5,497 stories mentioning Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and anti-semitism. A Survation poll commissioned by the authors in March 2019 found “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-semitism” when “the actual figure was far less than one per cent.” The two things are connected, of course, with the results of four focus groups showing “the media and the extensive coverage that the story has received feature very prominently in the reasons that were given” for higher estimates of levels of anti-semitism in the Labour Party.

Summarising the findings of research conducted by the Media Reform Coalition on the issue, Justin Schlosberg, a Senior Lecturer in journalism and media at Birkbeck College, University of London, concludes the media’s coverage of the issue is “consistent with a disinformation paradigm”.

Anthony Lerman, the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, also contributes a chapter – a majestic overview of the media distortions surrounding the controversy over whether Labour should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism. For example, while The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland referred to the definition as “near universally accepted”, Lerman points out only 6 of the 31 member countries of the IHRA have formally adopted the definition.

Presumably published quickly to maximise its impact, Bad News For Labour is perhaps not as comprehensive as previous GMG studies, such as 2004’s Bad News From Israel. Nevertheless it’s an important, myth-busting intervention into the debate. For activists the book should serve as a reminder the mainstream media is a key site of struggle in the fight for a better society: despite the rise of social media the study shows the press and TV news continue to wield significant power when it comes to framing news events and shaping public opinion.

Along with the book’s comprehensive timeline of events, many activists will also find the authors’ proposals for how Labour should combat the media falsehoods very useful. First, Labour should make sure “an effective, rapid and fair process” is in place for dealing with allegations. Second, the party needs “an effective communication infrastructure for both mainstream and new media”, including “a well-resourced rebuttal unit.” And finally, the mass membership needs to be mobilised to defend the leadership and party from erroneous attacks, with face-to-face contact with the public “a very powerful way of countering distorted media messages.”

Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief is published by Pluto Press, priced £14.99.

It’s The Media, Stupid

It’s The Media, Stupid
Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 January 2020

As soon as the general election was called for the Tories, liberal commentators moved quickly to shut down debate about the role of the media in the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

“Blame the media blame the media blame the media”, sarcastically tweeted Janine Gibson, former US Editor at the Guardian and now Assistant Editor at the Financial Times. Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff was equally dismissive, tweeting: “I see the official line is to blame Brexit. Or the media. Anything but the leader & the people who have kept him there.” BBC Director General Tony Hall wrote to the corporation’s staff after the election dismissing accusations of bias as “conspiracy theories”, according to the Guardian.

How do these defensive assertions compare to the actual evidence?

Noting that the British press “is habitually pro-Conservative is news to nobody”, the authors of a Loughborough University study of the press during the general election explain their analysis “challenges the view that 2019 was ‘business as usual’ in partisanship terms.” Writing on The Conversation website, the academics highlight “how substantial the negative coverage of Labour was throughout the formal campaign and how it intensified” as polling day approached. Comparing the findings with a study they conducted of the 2017 general election they note “the results show that newspapers’ editorial negativity towards Labour in 2019 more than doubled from 2017. In contrast, overall press negativity towards the Conservatives reduced by more than half.” As Matt Zarb-Cousin, the Director of Communications for Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign, repeatedly says: being a Tory means playing politics in easy mode.

This study broadly echoes previous research on press coverage of Corbyn. For example, a 2016 London School of Economics study of the first few months of Corbyn’s leadership found he “was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy.”

“The overall conclusion from this is that in this case UK journalism played an attack dog, rather than a watchdog”, the authors noted.

Writing towards the end of the 2019 general election campaign on the Media Reform Coalition website, Dr Justin Schlosberg showed how the supposedly impartial broadcasters often mirrored the reporting of the partisan press. He discusses a number of paired examples, including TV news coverage of the response to the Labour and Tory manifestos by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). With the well-regarded economic research institute critical of both manifestos, Schlosberg notes the IFS response to the Labour manifesto was covered 15 times  by TV news in the two days after its launch, compared to just once in the two days after the Tory manifesto launch.

The role of the media in the election was also underlined by accounts of what people were saying on the doorstep to Labour Party campaigners and journalists. “I had a handful of angry people say, ‘I would shoot him’ or ‘take a gun to his head’, whilst in the next breath calling him an extremist”, Labour MP Laura Piddock, who lost her seat, reported. Sebastian Payne from the Financial Times tweeted quotes from people he had met during the campaign: “Ian in Darlington: ‘I’ve voted for Labour; my family always have. I think he is a traitor, looking after terrorists’.”

This is “a completely sane view from this former Labour voter, which he totally came up with on his own, via his own independent and impartial research, without any help from the British media”, was journalist Mehdi Hasan’s amusing response.

Reflecting on his experience of campaigning for Labour in his home constituency of Bridgend in a blog on Medium, Dan Evans-Kanu recounts “a huge amount of people regurgitated, verbatim, media attack lines about Labour and Corbyn. Many would preface this by saying ‘I seen on the news that…’ or ‘they say that Corbyn is…’” He has an interesting conclusion: “In many ways, I feel that elements of the cultural studies movement and postmodernism, in emphasizing human agency vis a vis the media, have obscured the extent to which the media influences people.”

This far-reaching media influence is confirmed by two recent academic studies.

In last year’s book The Media, The Public and the Great Financial Crisis Dr Mike Berry, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Journalism at Cardiff University, explains how “print and broadcast media were key factors in the development of public understanding and attitudes” during the crash.

Berry was also one of the five co-authors of the 2019 Glasgow Media Group study Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief. The book includes a specially commissioned March 2019 Survation poll, which found “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-semitism” when “the actual figure was far less than one per cent.” Conducting four focus groups around the country to explore this huge disconnect, the authors note “the media and the extensive coverage that the story has received feature very prominently in the reasons that were given” for higher estimates of levels of anti-semitism in the Labour Party.

“Even amongst people who claimed to never read a newspaper and declared themselves completely uninterested in the subject it was clear that the story had cut through because of its sustained prominence in newspaper headlines”, the authors explain. Unsurprising when one considers the authors found a massive 5,497 articles devoted to the topic in a search of eight national newspapers between June 2015 and March 2019.

Indeed, it is worth exploring the media’s coverage of antisemitism – an issue which has dogged Corbyn’s leadership. Conducting a search of the BBC website in June 2018, Evolve Politics found 224 results for “Labour anti-Semitism”. In contrast, their search for “Conservative Islamophobia” uncovered just three articles. Likewise media watchdog Media Lens conducted a search of the main UK newspapers between 1 November and 12 December 2019 using the Proquest database, finding “Boris Johnson” and “Yemen” were mentioned in 30 articles, while “Corbyn” and “anti-semitism” were mentioned in an extraordinary 2,386 articles.

To be clear, it’s not just the right-wing press. A 2018 Media Reform Coalition report by Schlosberg – Labour, Antisemitism and the News: A Disinformation Paradigm – highlighted how the liberal media were often as bad, sometimes worse, when it came to reporting the so-called antisemitism crisis in Labour. The Guardian and BBC News, in particular, come off very badly in their coverage of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism: of 28 examples of inaccurate reporting made in regard to the IHRA definition “half… were found on TheGuardian.com and BBC television news programmes alone”, Schlosberg notes.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that, in many ways, the British media is a sophisticated propaganda system adept at protecting elite interests, rather than the obstinate, questioning fourth estate of journalist’s self-serving fantasies.

Of course, Labour’s election defeat was not solely down to the media, but the evidence shows it played a central role.

Those who wish to see a transformative government of the left in the future need to reflect on this reality and consider ways forward.

As always, it is vital that alternative, left-wing media is expanded, with more readers and more influence.

In addition, the left needs to start seriously challenging corporate media. Echoing the recommendations contained in Bad News For Labour, Long-Bailey has suggested Labour set up a dedicated rebuttal unit to quickly and effectively correct media lies and distortions. The University of East London professor Jeremy Gilbert goes one further, recently tweeting: “We need a mass campaign of regular canvassing, leafletting and counter-propaganda that goes on all the time, way beyond the electoral cycle. Unions should be pressured to bankroll it. Every single one of us would have to commit a couple of hours/week.”

Interestingly another option that has been increasingly raised is for left-wing writers to boycott the Guardian. Why write for a newspaper that played a key role in fatally weakening Corbyn, Media Lens, British historian Mark Curtis, journalist Matt Kennard and David Graeber from the London School of Economics have all asked?

As US media analyst Robert McChesney once said, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Antisemitism and Labour

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Antisemitism and Labour
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
23 November 2019

“Jeremy Corbyn’s anti‑semite army”, read the Times headline in April. “Labour is riddled with anti-semites”, announced the Sun last year. A Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government would pose an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country”, argued the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph in a joint editorial.

With the press having waged an intense campaign against Corbyn and the Labour Party since 2015 over antisemitism, it was only natural the Tories and Lib Dems were going to use it as a stick to beat the Labour leader with during the general election campaign. First up was cabinet minister Michael Gove, who earlier this month started trolling leftist figures on Twitter, including Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani and Ash Sarkar, asking them to denounce antisemitic tweets sent by a Labour Party and Momentum member (the person was neither a member of the Labour Party or Momentum).

The coming attacks will be heard by a public already softened up by media coverage “consistent with a disinformation paradigm”, according to a 2018 Media Reform Coalition report into the antisemitism controversy. It seems the media’s reporting has had a big impact on public opinion, with a March 2019 Survation poll commissioned for the new Glasgow Media Group book Bad News For Labour finding “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-semitism”. How can I say media reporting has played a big role? The authors of Bad News For Labour – Professor Greg Philo, Dr Mike Berry, Dr Justin Schlosberg, Antony Lerman and Dr David Miller – commissioned four focus groups, which showed “the media and the extensive coverage that the story has received feature very prominently in the reasons that were given” for higher estimates of levels of antisemitism in the Labour Party.

With attempts to weaponise antisemitism no doubt being cooked up as you read this, it is worth spending some time reminding ourselves of the facts and evidence on the topic.

However, before we do this I think it is worth emphasising that there is a problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party and on the broader Left, that this should not be minimised, and any allegations should be addressed swiftly, effectively and, most of all, fairly. It is clear Labour’s internal process were not fit for purposes, though the party claims to have reformed and streamlined their disciplinary systems. As many people have already said, as Labour identifies as a progressive, socialist and anti-racist party, just one case of antisemitism is one too many.

So how do we counter attacks on the Labour Party over antisemitism? The first task is to correct the general public’s wild estimates: in reality “the actual figure” for Labour members reported for antisemitism “was far less than one per cent”, the authors of Bad News for Labour note. The general public’s estimate is, incredibly, over three hundred times the real total, Philo notes in a recent Q&A with Jacobin.

Moreover, these figures “could have been used for a publicity campaign defending the integrity of the membership [currently just over 500,000] and the Party as a whole, saying that over 99 per cent of the members were not involved in these allegations”, the authors note.

It is also important to interrogate claims of antisemitism – that is, to consider the actual evidence. It is, after all, a very serious accusation to make about someone, with important consequences for how the public perceive Corbyn and the Labour Party. For example, Labour MP Margaret Hodge repeatedly told the media she had submitted a dossier of over 200 examples of antisemitic abuse directed at her to the Labour Party. After reviewing the evidence, Labour General Secretary Jennie Formby confirmed those complaints referred to 111 individuals, of whom only 20 were members. Still a serious issue to be dealt with but ten times less in size than Hodge was implying.

As these examples suggest, much of the relentless hounding of Corbyn and the Labour Party on antisemitism is based on a number of erroneous, evidence-light assumptions: that it is widespread in the party; that it is worse in Labour and on the Left than in other parties and on other parts of the political spectrum; and that the problem has got worse under Corbyn. We’ve already seen the facts do not support the first claim, and there is evidence to suggest the last two allegations are also inaccurate.

Analysing survey data, a September 2017 report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) found “the political left, captured by voting intention or actual voting for Labour, appears in these surveys as a more Jewish-friendly, or neutral, segment of the population.” Interestingly, the IJPR went on to note “the absence of clear signs of negativity towards Jews on the political left” was “particularly curious in the current context” as there were “perceptions among some Jews of growing left-wing anti-semitism.”

The October 2016 Home Affairs Committee report on antisemitism also highlighted the mismatch between the media coverage and reality: “Despite significant press and public attention on the Labour Party there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”

Citing YouGov polling data from 2015 and 2017, in March 2018 Evolve Politics website noted “anti-semitic views amongst Labour party voters have actually reduced substantially” since Corbyn was elected leader. Moreover, the report highlights the Tories and UKIP “have a far bigger problem with their voters agreeing with anti-semitic statements.”

As the authors of Bad News For Labour argue, “the arguments about the level of antisemitisim in society and the Labour Party can only be resolved by evidence.” And the evidence is on the side of those who refute that Labour is “riddled” with antisemitism. The authors recommend the Labour leadership should have followed the principles of good public relations. “The priorities should have been to establish the scale of the problem, give clear and accurate information, stop exaggerated claims and, crucially, to show that the whole organisation was committed to resolving the issue.”

This is good advice for Labour members and supporters during the election campaign too.

Further reading: Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief by Greg Philo et al, published by Pluto Press.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rather than dismissing it, the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media

Rather than dismissing it the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
15 November 2019

There seems to be an increasing and dismaying tendency amongst some people who self-identify as left-wing to dismiss mainstream media reporting out of hand.

Anything the Guardian or other corporate newspapers report is ridiculed and ignored. For example, I recently tweeted about a Guardian article which gave an overview of the ongoing protests around the world. I quickly received this sarcastic response: “From the newspaper that supports Assange [the Guardian has repeatedly smeared Julian Assange]… The Sun seems honest in comparison.” What part of the article did my correspondent take issue with? “I’d rather ignore that rags liberal pretensions from here on. They’re just a collection of churnalists and presstitutes” they replied.

I agree, of course, that the Guardian and the rest of the mainstream media are horribly compromised and establishment-friendly in much of their journalism and political positions.

Though most journalists do their best to ignore it, there is copious amounts of academic research which confirm this. In his new book The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis, Dr Mike Berry from Cardiff University shows how the British media played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests. Similarly, the new Pluto Press book from the Glasgow Media Group, Bad News For Labour, explains how the often erroneous coverage of the antisemitism controversy by the print and broadcast media has led the general public to massively overestimate its incidence within the Labour Party.

Notwithstanding this strong evidence I would like to make the case for a more nuanced and intelligent engagement with the mainstream media by left-wing and progressive people.

Because while the left should oppose the way the corporate media inevitably sides with elite power, there is nevertheless important information to be gleaned from its reporting through careful and critical monitoring. They are, after all, the news organisations with the biggest budgets, best access to policymakers and largest staff rosters, including journalists reporting on the ground across the world.

Moreover, it is important to understand they are not monolithic structures – radical voices and useful information will often appear. Speaking to Andrew Marr in 1996 for the BBC Big Ideas programme, US dissident Noam Chomsky talked of investigative journalists in the US who “regard the media as a sham” and “consciously talk about how they try to play it like a violin. If they see a little opening, they’ll try to squeeze something in that ordinarily wouldn’t make it through.” Interviewed for the 2016 documentary All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I. F. Stone, US filmmaker Michael Moore said something similar: “He [I. F. Stone] said ‘When you pick up the paper you go to page 17 first. Don’t read the front page. Skip the front page. Go to page 17 because that’s where the truth is. And it’s going to be really small. It might be in a little two paragraph story, or it will be buried in paragraph 78. But that’s where they are putting it, and they know what they are doing.’”

Writing in his 2008 book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies provides a fascinating example of this from 2002-3. Davies records how Observer journalist Ed Vulliamy’s story looking at concerns within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about intelligence on Iraq had been rejected five times by the newspaper, which had taken a strong pro-war position under editor Roger Alton. “At the sixth attempt… Vulliamy had finally managed to slip a small fraction of his story… into the paper – as the final two paragraphs of a 1,200-word story on page 16”, Davies relates.

If you read Chomsky’s work critiquing US foreign policy you will see his arguments are often backed up by mainstream media sources. Likewise UK media watchdog Media Lens often use arguments and information sourced from one part of the mainstream media to criticise the coverage of another part of the mainstream media. Another example is Voices in the Wilderness UK, the grassroots anti-sanctions and anti-war group which produced some of the most well-informed, critical coverage of the US-UK attack and occupation of Iraq. If you take a look at their regular newsletters it’s clear they were buying and reading the Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Guardian and Independent every day – and sometimes tabloids too – to assist in gaining a full understanding of what was going on.

When it comes to ‘defence’ news the Telegraph is well known to be close to the armed forces, and therefore may publish information of interest to those who oppose war. During the occupation of Iraq, for example, it was the Telegraph which published the leaked 2005 internal Ministry of Defence poll which found 45 per cent of Iraqis believed attacks against the US and UK troops were justified (rising to 65 per cent in the British controlled Maysan province).

I myself have collected some of the most damning quotes I’ve heard about UK military aggression abroad from BBC programmes.

It was listening to BBC Radio 4‘s The World Tonight in February 2009 that I caught Colonel Richard Kemp, Commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, saying British forces used White Phosphorus in Afghanistan and Iraq “even in areas that do have a certain amount of civilian population”. Indeed it was in the right-wing Spectator magazine in January 2009 that Daniel Yates, a former British soldier, reported the British military was using White Phosphorus in Afghanistan “almost daily”.

Amidst the colonial-style violence and pro-military propaganda, there was also a hugely telling quote from a British soldier in Our War: Return to Death Valley, the 2012 BBC3 documentary series about Afghanistan. “One of the problems, especially with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the route 611 is that the insurgents aren’t trying to blow up the Ancop [Afghan National Civil Order Police], or even the civilians, they are just trying to blow up us”, Lieutenant Jimmy Clark from 2nd Battalion, Mercian Regiment noted about an operation to secure a road in Helmand province. “So we are actually in a position where we are protecting a route which only needs protecting because we use it.”

A similar sentiment was aired about the British occupation of Iraq on The World Tonight in February 2007: “90 per cent of the attacks here, or the violence levels recorded here, are against the British.  If you took the British out of it 90 per cent would drop, and you would be left with a residual bit”, Major General Jonathan Shaw, Commander of the British Forces in Basra, explained.

Of course, we should read and support alternative, non-corporate media outlets – the Morning Star, Peace News, Media Lens, Tribune magazine and Novara Media to name a few – and we should be vocal in our criticism of the corporate media. However, we shouldn’t forget a careful and critical engagement with mainstream news can often uncover important information and arguments that can be used against elite interests.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review: The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis by Mike Berry

Book review: The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis by Mike Berry
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 November 2019

COMING out of the Glasgow Media Group tradition, Dr Mike Berry from the School of Journalism at Cardiff University has written a quietly devastating academic examination of the impact of the British print and broadcast media on public knowledge and understanding of the 2008 financial crisis.

Focusing on the October 2008 bank bailouts and debates about the national deficit and austerity circa 2009, Berry conducted content analysis, focus groups with the public and interviewed senior journalists producing the news.

With the public’s interest in economic and business news at unprecedented levels in 2008, he found the media “functioned to channel the very real public anger… into largely symbolic issues” while leaving the deep structural faults in Britain’s financial system “largely unexamined.” In particular he notes “City voices dominated core coverage of the [partial] bank nationalisations” on the BBC Today programme.

Similarly, he observed the media “constructed – to varying degrees – a narrative that the deficit represented a major economic threat which necessitated quick and sharp cuts to the welfare state.” Austerity was largely presented as inevitable, with his sample of BBC News at Ten’s output showing no space was given to economists, academics, unions or civil society actors “who might have advocated countercyclical or anti-austerity policies.”

Dismayingly, many of the participants in the focus groups said immigrants and asylum seekers were a primary reason for the rise in public debt caused by the recession created by the financial crisis – an outcome of decades-long misreporting of public spending, welfare and immigration by large sections of the media, Berry argues.

Contrary to the “dominant strand of thinking in both academic and lay circles that the media have relatively little influence” on public attitudes, Berry concludes the media had a “significant impact” on public opinion during the banking crisis and deficit debates. The repercussions of this manufactured ignorance have been immense, ultimately leading to a widespread acceptance of austerity that has devastated large swathes of the country, playing a key role in the 2010 and 2015 elections, the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader.

Helpfully, Berry ends with a few tips for any Labour government interested in significantly increasing public spending, which will almost certainly incur the wrath of influential sections of the media: careful monitoring of public opinion combined with “a proactive and robust system of rebuttal” and utilisation of the mass membership to present the most effective arguments to the general public.

Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand post-crash Britain.

The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis is published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced £22.99.