Tag Archives: Glasgow Media Group

Best books of 2019

Best Books of 2019
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 December 2019

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” From its first sentence The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (Penguin Books) by US writer David Wallace-Wells is a deeply frightening book chronicling the existential threat the climate crisis poses to humanity.

He notes all the commitments made at the 2015 Paris United Nations climate summit by the 195 signatories would still mean a deadly 3.2oC of warming by 2100. If this isn’t terrifying enough, he explains that as of 2018 “not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”.

Answering Amitav Ghosh’s call for more fiction devoted to climate change, John Lanchester’s allegorical novel The Wall (Faber & Faber) considers how British society and politics could react to a climatic event called “the change”. Giving a nod to George Orwell’s 1984, Lanchester imagines a dystopian near future in which a colossal wall has been built along the entire coastline of the nation, manned by conscripted soldiers (“Defenders”) tasked with keeping out climate refugees (“The Others”) trying to get into the country.

Two other novels made an impression on me this year. Set in Chicago, Halle Butler’s The New Me (Orion) is a cutting, pathos-filled exploration of millennial work and social life, the bored and depressed female narrator is full of loathing for her work colleagues, so-called friends and, most of all, herself. Comic novelist Sam Lipsyte’s Hark (Simon & Schuster) also has a laser-like focus on the foibles and hypocrisies of contemporary Western culture, brilliantly skewing self-help gurus, hipsters, liberal parenting and mid-life crises – hell, pretty much everything and everyone is a target for satire. Rarely have I read an author where each sentence is so full of rich, imaginative language. And like the New Yorker’s 2010 novel The Ask it’s also hysterically funny, often in the most dark and delicious ways.

The new Glasgow Media Group (GMG) book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (Pluto Press) is an essential read for anyone interested in the accusations of antisemitism directed at the Labour Party. In addition to showing how the media have played a key role in massively exaggerating the scale of the problem, the authors provide some welcome advice on how Labour can communicate much more successfully to the general public on this crucial issue. Heavily influenced by the GMG tradition, Mike Berry’s The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan) highlights how the British print and broadcast media, including the BBC, played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests.

Taken together these two books have much to teach about contemporary British politics and the hugely negative role played by the media. As US media analyst Robert McChesney succinctly put it, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

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.

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.