Tag Archives: Media Reform Coalition

Book review: The Media Manifesto

Book review: The Media Manifesto by Natalie Fenton, Des Freedman, Justin Schlosberg and Lina Dencik
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2020

A product of the Media Reform Coalition – a group of academics, activists and journalists working for progressive media reform in the UK – The Media Manifesto is a tightly-argued, inspiring call to action.

One of the book’s central arguments is that the misinformation underpinning developments like the rise of Trump, and the media’s failure to adequately challenge power, shouldn’t – as many liberals would have you believe – be blamed solely on fringe ‘fake news’ elements and the right-wing press. All this actually ‘reflects the insulation, complacency and commercial interests of our major legacy news organisations’.

The authors note that ‘levels of concentration of press power are actually increasing’ in the UK.

In 2015, three companies controlled 71 per cent of national newspaper readership. By 2018 it was 83 per cent.

The authors also have little time for the idea that social media and the internet have disrupted and fragmented traditional media power. Instead, they argue that established news organisations dominate the online space, ‘reproducing and intensifying existing patterns of agenda-setting power’.

This has huge repercussions for how journalism addresses our most pressing problems.

Frameworks and solutions that run counter to the establishment will likely be marginalised – see the pro-City coverage of the financial crisis and the ferocious press assault on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party – while the existential threat of climate change is rarely seriously grappled with.

In its current form, Freedman argues, the BBC is part of the problem: ‘far too implicated in and attached to existing elite networks of power to be able to offer an effective challenge to them’.

However, in the last chapter, the authors highlight the importance of independent and devolved public service media, alongside other proposals, including laws to reduce concentration of ownership and alternative ownership models, such as the pioneering media co-op, The Bristol Cable.

Indeed, there are many brilliant media organisations in the UK today – Declassified UK, Novara Media, Media Lens and, yes, Peace News among them.

Historically, though, Left media have been very weak. Arguably, the independent media were incapable of defending the most anti-imperialist leader of a mainstream party since the Second World War from an entirely predictable media onslaught, let alone able to go on the offensive and decisively shift the national conversation on key issues such as climate change, nuclear weapons or UK foreign policy.

There is much work to be done, then. With its unashamedly socialist politics, The Media Manifesto will no doubt become an important primer, perhaps even a foundational text, in the struggle for media justice.

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

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.