Tag Archives: Media

The BBC vs. Jeremy Corbyn

The BBC vs. Jeremy Corbyn
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 May 2017

The morning after a draft of the Labour Party manifesto had been leaked, Andrew Gwynne MP, Labour’s general election co-ordinator, was interviewed on the BBC Today Programme in the high profile 08:10 slot.

Ten minutes earlier, the 08:00 news bulletin had reported that the manifesto promises to “nationalise the railways as franchises expire and to abolish tuition fees in England… to return Royal Mail to public ownership, to bring in an energy price cap and introduce a levy on companies with large numbers of staff on what it calls ‘very high pay’.”

“It looks like a great big wish list… that no government could possibly push through in five years or even fifty years”, stated presenter John Humphrys, interviewing Gwynne. “It is just unrealistic, isn’t it? It’s also far too to the left, far too much to the left for the British public to stomach, don’t you think?”

Some listeners may have swallowed the subtle assumptions behind Humphrys’ question but luckily a poll released the next day inserted some reality into the debate. Far from being “far too much to the left for the British public”, the Independent’s report on the research was titled ‘British voters overwhelmingly back Labour’s manifesto policies, poll finds’.

According to the ComRes survey 52 per cent of people support the state ownership of the railways (22 per cent opposed), 49 per cent support the state ownership of the energy market (24 percent opposed) and 50 per cent of people support the renationalisation of Royal Mail (25 per cent opposed). In addition, 71 per cent said they back Labour’s proposal to ban zero-hours contracts, while 65 percent supported Labour’s plan to increase income tax for those who earn £80,000 or more.

These findings are not a one off – a November 2013 YouGov poll found 67 per cent of people thought the Royal Mail should be run as a public service, 68 per cent supported nationalising the energy companies and 66 per cent wanted to nationalise the railways.

Humphrys’ attempt to dismiss Labour’s policies fits with the broader media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn. Analysing press coverage during the two months after he was elected Labour leader, a 2016 London School of Economics study observed “an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying” Corbyn, “assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.” Other left-wing leaders have received negative press attention, though “in the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred… has arguably reached new heights.” Another study conducted by the Media Reform Coalition “indicated how large sections of the press appeared to set out systematically to undermine Jeremy Corbyn with a barrage of overwhelmingly negative coverage.”

The supposedly neutral and objective BBC, the most trusted news source in the UK, has played a key role in this political denigration and exclusion, with Sir Michael Lyons, the chair of the BBC Trust from 2007 to 2011, arguing in May last year there had been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party”. Lyons continued: “I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this.”

One such senior voice could well be BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, who was found to have erroneously edited a November 2015 interview with Corbyn to make it look like he didn’t support a shoot-to-kill policy during an ongoing Paris-style terrorist attack. The interview breached the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy guidelines, the BBC Trust found.

More recently, the Today Programme’s Nick Robinson dismissively tweeted “No-one should be surprised that @jeremycorbyn is running v the ‘Establishment’ & is long on passion & short on details. Story of his life.”

Rather than being aberrations, this bias against Corbyn arguably reflects the BBC’s wider politics. “Its structure and culture have been profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society”, Dr Tom Mills argues in his 2016 book ‘The BBC: Myth of a Public Service’. Unsurprisingly then, the BBC’s news output “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

Analysing the number and type of guests invited onto the programme, research conducted by Cardiff University’s Dr Mike Berry into the BBC Today Programme’s coverage of the financial crisis, confirms Mills’s thesis. “It was clear that the people who had caused the crisis – the bankers and the politicians – were overwhelmingly the voices charged with defining the problem and putting forward solutions”, Berry told me.

With the Labour Party’s running on a transformational manifesto and Corbyn promising “a reckoning” with the unscrupulous sections of the British elite if he is elected Prime Minister, is it any wonder the establishment-friendly BBC is unable or unwilling to give the Labour leader a fair hearing?




Meeting the Iraqi resistance: interview with Steve Connors

Meeting the Iraqi resistance: interview with Steve Connors
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
February 2009

With several academic studies now published on the subject and public apologies from the two most influential US newspapers, it is now widely understood that in the run up to the invasion of Iraq the mainstream media completely failed to hold government to account on both sides of the Atlantic. As Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post news website accurately pointed out, the “watchdogs acted more like lapdogs”.

Less talked about is the mainstream media‘s subsequent failure to accurately report on the continuing occupation of Iraq, in particular the large, violent resistance that sprang up after the initial US/UK assault in March 2003.

Sheffield-born photojournalist and filmmaker Steve Connors believes most western journalists working alongside him in Iraq just after the fall of Baghdad “weren‘t all that interested in going out and doing this story” because they had “swallowed the party line – we are the good guys, they are the bad guys. The people who are resisting us are dead-enders, it was foreign fighters.” Connors, 50, explains the right to resist is enshrined in the UN Charter, but “when we go and invade somebody‘s country all of a sudden their right to resist is not legitimate in our eyes.”

Working closely with fellow journalist Molly Bingham, Connors soon came to understand it was “ordinary Iraqi people” who were resisting the occupation. Sensing an important story, they started hanging out in the teashops of Adhamiya, a northern suburb of Baghdad, spending ten months speaking to 45 Iraqis involved in the growing resistance movement.

Eleven of these interviews make up Connors and Bingham‘s superb 2007 documentary Meeting Resistance, a much-needed antidote to the crude propaganda that has been disseminated about those resisting the occupation. In the middle of conducting a statistical study of the resistance, a Professor of Political Science at Baghdad University sums up the film‘s main findings: “the vast majority of resistance is a nationalist, popular resistance by Iraqis who have no relationship to the former regime.”

Talking to me at a screening of the film at the British Museum in London, Connors suggests the inconvenient truths they uncovered in Adhamiya are the main reason why they‘ve been unable to get their work out to a wider audience. Both the BBC and Channel Four declined to show the documentary, with the latter refusing to “believe these people were who they said they were.” Despite this setback, Connors is upbeat as joiningthedocs.tv are releasing Meeting Resistance on DVD next month, and there will hopefully be a limited theatrical release in the near future too.

With the interviews occurring more than four years ago, is Meeting Resistance still relevant to the situation in Iraq today? “There were more attacks in 2008 than there were when we finished making the film”, Connors replies. “It peaked and then it went down again.” He also quotes Department of Defence figures off the top of his head: “from May 2003 to May 2008, 73 per cent of attacks that were carried out in Iraq were directed at US forces. 12 per cent against civilians. 15 per cent against Iraqi security forces. So the main violent energy is being directed at the occupation.”

The spike Connors refers to is the much heralded February 2007 US ‘surge‘, seen by many commentators and politicians as a huge success, including the new US president Barack Obama. In contrast, Connors argues the ‘surge‘ itself did little to reduce the overall levels of violence. “It was a set of political conditions that happened at the same time as the surge”, he explains. “You had the Mahdi Army standing down, there was a sectarian cleansing of districts of Baghdad – there was nobody left to kill.” He also points to the creation of the Awakening Movement, presented as a successful counterinsurgency operation by the US forces, as it supposedly increased security in Anbar province, “What they have done essentially is chosen elements from some tribes and promoted them over other elements, upsetting a system that is hundreds of years old”, he says.  “I liken it to handing over Scotland Yard to the Kray twins. For a short-term tactical gain there is going to be a huge price to be paid for this. They are creating the conditions for another civil war, this time among the Sunni tribes.” And Connors attributes the reduction in violence to one more glaring factor – “the Americans started to withdraw in that period, so they were not presenting targets.”

Although he has previously reported from Sri Lanka, the violent break up of Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine, Connors is still shocked by the “state of chaos” in Iraq, the dire security situation making it very difficult to accurately estimate the number of Iraqi dead. He believes the Iraq Body Count figure of around 100,000 – calculated from cross-checked reports of violent deaths in English language media – is a gross underestimate, noting that in Iraq “especially in the summer, you can have someone killed and buried within two hours. There is no report of that death. Most people don‘t go to the morgue.” And although the 2006 Lancet study that estimated 655,000 Iraqis deaths has been criticised by both the US and UK governments, Connors highlights that the epidemiological studies upon which the figures are based “have been accepted in virtually every other conflict throughout the world”.

“The reason we find it so difficult to accept, is because we are the bad guys this time.  We have caused all this pain and suffering”, he says.

Rather than arguing over the exact number deaths, Connors is quick to point out the central question “is the magnitude of the crime is the crime itself – and everything accrues from that. If you go back to the Nuremberg Principles, to commit aggressive war is the supreme crime. And what we did in Iraq is we committed aggressive war.”  Summing up, he laments, “Britain is as guilty as the United States. We are on the wrong side of history.”


New Labour, not Jeremy Corbyn, is to blame for Brexit

New Labour, not Jeremy Corbyn, is to blame for Brexit
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 July 2016

The message pushed by the Labour Party coup plotters through a pliant media has been relentless: Jeremy Corbyn’s half-hearted performance in the European Union referendum, likely because of his dislike of the EU, played a key role in the vote for Brexit. This narrative has resonated widely, with a YouGov poll finding 52 percent of Labour members thought Corbyn performed badly, with 47 percent answering he performed well.

However, there are a number of problems with the ‘Blame Corbyn’ story.

Most important is the fact that, according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling on the referendum, 63 percent of Labour voters supported Remain – just one percent less than the 64 percent of SNP voters who supported Remain. There haven’t been, as far as I’m aware, any calls for Nicola Sturgeon to resign as the SNP leader.

Ten days before the referendum vote, Labour MP Angela Eagle – currently busy threatening to run against Corbyn in a leadership election because of his poor performance during the referendum –told the Guardian “Jeremy is up and down the country, pursuing an itinerary that would make a 25-year-old tired, he has not stopped. We are doing our best, but if we are not reported, it is very difficult. This whole thing is about Tory big beasts having a battle like rutting stags”. Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson – also currently pushing the Labour leader to resign – confirmed in early June that Corbyn was getting a “raw deal” from the media, noting that Corbyn’s many speeches on the referendum were being ignored by the media.

Research by the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture at Loughborough University concurs with the pre-coup analyses of Eagle and Watson on the media’s coverage of the campaign. “The dominance of Conservative party representatives… was sustained throughout”, the study concludes. “The coverage was also highly ‘presidentialised’, dominated by the Conservative figure heads of the IN and OUT campaigns.”

“In truth there is little in the pattern of the results of the referendum to suggest that Mr Corbyn was personally responsible for Remain’s defeat”, notes John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and the BBC’s polling expert. “The referendum outcome looks more like a pretext for an attempt to secure Mr Corbyn’s removal than a reason.”

However, although the ferocious ‘Blame Corbyn’ campaign doesn’t stand up to a cursory look at the actual evidence, what it has succeeded in doing is focusing everyone’s attention on the nine weeks of the referendum campaign itself. This is a huge problem because, as Gary Younge recently noted in the Guardian, the Brexit vote was decades in the making.

“Those who voted for Brexit tended to be English, white, poor, less educated and old. With the exception of the elderly, these have traditionally been Labour’s base”, Younge points out. After criss-crossing the country speaking to the general public for a video series on the referendum for the Guardian, John Harris declared a few days before the vote “England and Wales are in the midst of a working-class revolt… in Stoke, Merthyr, Birmingham, Manchester and even rural Shropshire the same lines recurred… ‘I’m scared about the future’… ‘no one listens to me’… ‘If you haven’t got money, no one cares’.”

Harris noted there was a complete lack of trust in the political establishment. Iraq – along with the expenses scandal and the financial crash – has obviously played a key role in increasing the public’s distrust in those who rule them. Of course, the Iraq war was launched by Tony Blair’s Government, with 92 percent of the Labour MPs opposing Corbyn now who were in parliament in 2003 voting in favour of the illegal and aggressive invasion, according to investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed.

Younge is in no doubt about Labour’s role in the abandonment of large swathes of the country: “The party has been out of touch for some time”, with New Labour’s turn to the right “made with the conscious calculation that its core supporters had nowhere else to go.”

Instead of decisively shifting to a modern social democracy when it was elected on a wave of optimism in 1997, New Labour chose to adapt to the “Thatcherite, neo-liberal terrain” and “set the corporate economy free”, argued the late sociology professor Stuart Hall in 2003. NHS privatisation moved forward with the Private Finance Initiative deals, council house building ground to a halt, tuition fees were introduced, unemployment benefits were kept very low, the benefits system tightened, and claimants stigmatised. At the same time New Labour reduced the ability of working-class communities to resist the increasingly corporate-dominated economy by maintaining the Tories tough anti-union legislation, with Blair proudly stating the UK had the “most restrictive laws on trade unions in the Western world”. Unsurprisingly, income inequality, already sky high after 13 years of Tory rule, rose under New Labour, and the UK continues to have one of the lowest levels of class mobility in the industrialised world.

New Labour also repeatedly attempted to outflank the Tories on the right when it came to immigration and asylum – issues at the heart of the EU referendum debate. Blair used his September 2003 speech to the Labour Party conference to push for a tougher immigration policy – lballed“chilling” by the Immigration Advisory Service. “I don’t want to see footprints left so that the BNP [British National Party] can step into them. I don’t want language used to appease the Daily Mail”, warmed Sir Bill Morris, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, at the time.

The year before Home Secretary David Blunkett had proclaimed asylum seekers were “swamping” some British schools. In 2007 Margaret Hodge MP wrote of “indigenous famil[ies]” missing out when it comes to social housing because we “prioritise the needs of an individual migrant family over the entitlement others feel they have”, a statement cheered on by the BNP. Prime Minister Gordon Brown repeatedly pledged “British jobs for British workers”, criticised by then leader of the opposition David Cameron for using the same language as – yep, you’ve guessed it – a BNP leaflet. Ed Miliband’s party was hardly better. The 2015 General Election campaign brought forth Labour’s infamous ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs, while the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves announced Labour would extend the period for which EU migrants are prevented from claiming out-of-work benefits from three months to two years. “The plans take Labour further than proposals so far announced by the Conservatives”, the Guardian noted.

The effect of all this emotive rhetoric, as Younge notes about Labour’s history of pandering to the Right on immigration, “was not to blunt the rise of organised racism but to embolden it, making certain views acceptable and respectable”.

No matter what he did, Corbyn was never going to successfully turn around these decades-old, arguably now firmly entrenched, social, economic and political shifts in the nine months he had been leader before the referendum.

So, if we are going to start attributing blame in the Labour Party for Brexit, let’s start with New Labour and the Blairite MPs and many of their willing dupes in the so-called centre of the party who repeatedly supported policies and public statements that have effectively led to the abandonment of many poor communities, increased inequality, and shifted national politics to a space that made Brexit more likely.

Context? Who needs context! James Strong, Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion

Context? Who needs context! James Strong, Jeremy Corbyn and public opinion
by Ian Sinclair
Political Studies Association blog
5 November 2015

On 23 September 2015 James Strong wrote a blog titled ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s views on British defence policy lie far outside the mainstream’. I replied to this blog on 15 October 2015. Strong has now replied to my response.

I have a number of criticisms of Strong’s response, which I’ll go through below. However, the key part of this blog is the last part which focusses on what I consider to be the most productive and worthwhile aspect of this debate – trying to move the conversation beyond the basic poll data to look at the context – the hugely unequal power relations and propaganda – that are central to any discussion of Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy positions and public opinion.

You can’t be neutral on a moving train

Strong begins by attempting to subtly undermine my argument by intimating my broadly pro-Corbyn politics have clouded my judgement, leading me to conflate “whether Corbyn’s views are a) right, b) representative and c) likely to shift the mainstream towards his position.” As I think it is the content of one’s argument that should be central to discussions, I won’t respond to this other than to say we are all, of course, biased. As the American historian Howard Zinn was fond of repeating, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train. The world is already moving in certain directions – many of them are horrifying. Children are going hungry, people are dying in wars. To be neutral in such a situation is to collaborate with what is going on.” Indeed, by referring to Trident as an “independent nuclear deterrent” (it’s not, as Corbyn knows), not putting scare quotes around or the words “so-called” before the phrase “war on terrorism”, stating the 2001 attack on Afghanistan was supported by the United Nations Security Council (this is highly debatable – see below) and defining mainstream opinion as mainstream parliamentary opinion (see below), Strong inadvertently highlights his own establishment-friendly sympathies.

Criticising a straw-man

By basing his arguments on ‘my’ assertion that “Corbyn’s views on foreign policy issues are representative of the electorate as a whole” Strong is attempting to knock down something of a straw man. This sentence is not mine, but written by the one of the editors at Open Democracy – presumably to entice readers to read my article. My actual conclusion was more nuanced: “Corbyn’s positions on the big foreign policy questions has the support of significant sections of public opinion, and majorities on Iraq and Afghanistan – arguably the two biggest foreign policy questions since 2001.” My point was to highlight where Corbyn did reflect public opinion – on the two biggest and most intensely felt foreign policy issues of recent times – and also to consider why he may not on other issues. (I should say Strong is correct to point out I misrepresented John Curtice’s quote about public opinion and Trident as being about the UK, when it was about Scotland. This was a mistake and I’ve added a comment at the bottom of my original article correcting this).

Confusion over what constitutes mainstream opinion

Strong seems to be confused about what constitutes ‘mainstream opinion’. For example, he argues “I thought the whole point of Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for Labour Party leader was that he is not mainstream.” I can’t speak for everyone who supported Corbyn, or his campaign team, but Strong’s description doesn’t fit with the debates that I was aware of and wrote about myself. Corbyn supporters commonly had a more nuanced, reality-based understanding than Strong. Far from not being mainstream, many people supporting Corbyn’s leadership bid understood that many of Corbyn’s positions had large scale support amongst the general public but not in the mainstream media or in Westminster. The mainstream media’s ignorance of this paradox was likely one of the reasons why many commentators were shocked when Corbyn started to pick up significant levels of support in the contest.

This explanation goes some way to responding to Strong’s belief that I contradict myself because my point that “Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, if he is given a fair hearing, should significantly widen the debate on foreign policy, bringing long excluded voices, arguments and facts into the public debate” sits in opposition to my belief Corbyn represents mainstream opinion on key issues. Strong: “Corbyn can’t simultaneously represent the mainstream and the marginalised.” To be clear, Corbyn and many of his views have been marginalised for a long time. At the same time his positions on issues like Iraq, Afghanistan and to a lesser extent Libya and Trident, have received large scale public support despite being marginalised by the media and parliamentary politics. This is the key point – and a hopeful one at that, because a widening of the national debate may well increase support for Corbyn’s broad positions.

Strong himself falls into the trap of defining mainstream opinion as mainstream parliamentary opinion when he argues that because Corbyn “was amongst just 2% of MPs who voted against no-fly zones in Libya” it was not “a mainstream stance at the time.” Defining what is mainstream opinion by what is happening in parliament is, of course, a very Westminster-focussed, elitist view of British politics based on the very sweet – but largely evidence-free – assumption that parliament accurately reflects public opinion. In reality, Corbyn’s opposition to the Libyan war was broadly in line with a significant section of the public, according to polls Strong quotes, and a plurality of those who gave an opinion, according to a larger analysis of polling data by six political scientists.

Repeating the British Government’s narrative

It’s not central to the debate but Strong’s straightforward and unquestioning statement that that 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya “had UN Security Council approval” sound like it was lifted from a Ministry of Defence press release. The legality of both interventions is highly dubious.

On Afghanistan, a briefing paper from the House of Commons Library notes “The military campaign in Afghanistan was not specifically mandated by the UN – there was no specific Security Council Resolution authorising the invasion – but was widely (although not universally) perceived to be a legitimate form of self-defence under the UN Charter.” The paper goes on to explain “The USA might conceivably have gained specific legal support from the Security Council for its action in Afghanistan, but in the end did not seek such a Resolution”. The BBC confirms this reading in an online history of the conflict, noting “while it deplored the [9/11] attacks, the UNSC [United Nations Security Council] did not authorise a military campaign.”

Marjorie Cohn, Professor of Law at California’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law and a former president of the US National Lawyers Guild, described the invasion as “a patently illegal use of armed force.” Cohn argued the bombing was not a legitimate form of self-defence under Article 51 for two reasons. First, “the attacks in New York and Washington D.C. were criminal attacks, not ‘armed attacks’ by another state.” Second, “there was not an imminent threat of an armed attack on the US after September 11, or the US would not have waited three weeks before initiating its bombing campaign.” Michael Mandel, Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School, is in agreement on the latter point, arguing “the right of unilateral self-defence does not include the right to retaliate once an attack has stopped.”

Even if one were to agree the West’s attack was legitimate under Article 51, the House of Commons Library paper notes proportionality is central to the use of force in self-defence. “It may not be considered proportionate to produce the same amount of damage” as the initial attack, the paper notes. Writing in November 2001, Brian Foley, Professor of Law at Florida Coastal School of Law, maintained “these attacks on Afghanistan most likely do not stand up as proportional to the threat of terrorism on US soil.” This is because, as Professor Marc Herold from the University of Hampshire found by studying press reports and eyewitness accounts, more Afghan civilians were likely killed during ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ than died on 9/11.

On Libya, the UN Security Council may have approved military action to set up the No-Fly Zones. However, as Strong knows full well, the intervention quickly moved beyond this initial remit, with NATO playing a key role in overthrowing the Libyan Government and killing the Libyan leader. Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton and former United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, described NATO’s key role in regime change in Libya as “mission creep on steroids”. Just over a week into the bombing campaign the Guardian was reporting that “legal experts” – Philippe Sands QC, Professor of International Law at University College London, and Professor Nicholas Grief, Director of Legal Studies at the University of Kent – were concerned “the international coalition may have overstepped what was agreed by the UN resolution sanctioning military action”.

I don’t think it is too much to ask for an International Relations scholar at one of the top universities in the UK to mention the deep grey areas and dodgy politics surrounding the legality of both of these conflicts when he is writing about the legality of these conflicts. That Strong doesn’t feel the need to raise critical questions is telling in itself, of course.

Finally, many readers will no doubt be dumbfounded by Strong’s astonishingly naïve, Alistair Campbell circa 2003-style assertion that “Britain’s armed forces cannot act without a ruling from the Attorney-General that there is at least a ‘reasonable’ legal case for using force. Every time Britain uses force abroad, in other words, a group of experienced international lawyers have concluded there are good legal grounds for doing so.” This is like reading a textbook about the theory of British Government. Back in the real world, those who followed the race to war in 2003 may well point to the almost certain political pressure successfully applied to the Attorney General – not mentioned by Strong, of course – and simply ask “So what?” Again, Strong fails to provide any of the desperately needed political context that is essential if one is to understand the issue at hand. No mention, of course, that the Foreign Office’s Deputy Chief Legal Advisor quit in protest at the Attorney General’s position on legality in 2003, referring to the invasion as “an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression”. Or the fact the Foreign Office’s Chief Legal Advisor also thought the invasion was illegal.

Towards a more productive and useful understanding of Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy and public opinion

As I said in my original reply “Simply comparing current public opinion with Corbyn’s publicly stated views on foreign policy, while of some interest, is a simplistic and limited form of analysis.”

As Strong ignored this and simply provided a more detailed comparison between Corbyn’s views and public opinion, I’m going to try one more time to push the discussion into this more productive and worthwhile area.

Strong’s analysis is particularly limited as it treats the issue as happening in a social, economic and political vacuum, providing very little context. There is certainly no discussion of the establishment-friendly media mediating news and opinion to the public. And no mention that Western governments spend millions of pounds and considerable time and energy producing propaganda to influence public opinion. One wonders how far Strong would take this very unacademic aversion to context and understanding. For example, a January 2003 PIPA/KN poll found that 68 percent of Americans expressed the belief that Iraq played an important role in 9/11. Three years later a Harris Interactive poll similarly found half of Americans believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the US invaded in 2003. Predictably there was a close correlation between misperceptions about the Iraq War and support for the war. These were and continue to be staggering results that immediately bring to mind a number of questions. Not for Strong, who would presumably simply tell us a politician who understood there were no WMDs in Iraq and that Iraq had no connection to 9/11 was out of touch with public opinion. End of story. In contrast a person interested in making the world a better place might ask a number of questions: “Why are a large number of Americans ignorant of the basic facts?” “Has the media played a role in engendering this ignorance?” “What is the government’s role?” And even “Perhaps I should be helping Americans understand what is going on?”

This is an extreme example, of course, but there are similar issues at play in the UK. For example, a 2013 survey conducted by ComRes found 74 per cent of Britons estimated that less than 50,000 Iraqi combatants and civilians had died as a consequence of the Iraq War. Amazingly, 59 per cent of respondents estimated that less than 10,000 Iraqis had died because of the war. Only 6 per cent of the poll’s respondents correctly estimated the death toll to be over 500,000 Iraqis. What lies behind this mass ignorance? Writing about the Glasgow University Media Group’s research into UK media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict back in 2004, Professor Greg Philo noted “Television news is the main source of information on the Israel-Palestine conflict for about 80% of the population. Yet the quality of what they see and hear is so confused and partial that it is impossible to have a sensible public debate about the reasons for the conflict or how it might be resolved.” According to Philo “The gaps in public knowledge closely parallel those in the news”.

I’m not suggesting the general public are unthinking dolts pulled this way and that by competing arguments. But I am suggesting the media, academics and political parties play a key role in informing and shaping the national debate on foreign policy. And very obviously Corbyn’s positions are not presented to the public on a level playing field which allows each citizen to carefully consider all of the facts and arguments from a wide-range of competing opinions. Rather Corbyn, or anyone with his politics, will be opposed by the largely pro-military, pro-NATO, pro-‘special relationship’, pro-Trident establishment who own large sections of the media and who fund political parties. National journalists are overwhelmingly and increasingly from very privileged backgrounds, with Sutton Trust research finding over half of the top journalists were privately educated. The study found 37 percent of the top journalists who went to university graduated from just one institution — Oxford. The dominance of this middle-class, privately schooled, Oxbridge elite is also evident in the legal profession, the civil service, the armed forces, politics and academia. And as I recently noted in another article, this common background likely “produces deeply held, unconscious shared assumptions about the world — how it works, what is possible, who is a credible source, who should be in charge and who should necessarily be excluded from decision-making.” Opposed to classism, private schools and inequality in addition to aggressive Western foreign policy Corbyn is unlikely to receive support from those who run Britain. (Of course, detailed research and analysis may well find that large numbers of well informed, level-headed people simply disagree with Corbyn).

Rather than obsessively focus on poll data, surely a moral and enquiring mind would choose to think and write about the politics, vastly unequal power relations and propaganda that lie behind and have an important influence on pubic opinion? And with nuclear weapons a continued threat to the existence of humanity and over 500,000 Iraqi people dead because of UK-US actions in Iraq it seems to me that academics, with their privileged position, education and expertise have a special responsibility to move beyond such a narrow focus and start looking at the cause of things when it comes to these urgent life and death issues.

An edited version of this blog was first published on Open Democracy on 5 November 2015.

A deviation from the mainstream? Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy positions and public opinion

A deviation from the mainstream? Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy positions and public opinion
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
13 October 2015

In a recent blog for the Political Studies Association James Strong, a Fellow in Foreign Policy Analysis and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, argues:

“A quick perusal of [the new Labour Party leader Jeremy] Corbyn’s track record on foreign and defence policy issues highlights three key areas where his views deviate from the mainstream, over NATO, military intervention and the Trident nuclear weapons system.”

Strong goes on to flesh out his thesis, comparing polling data to Corbyn’s positions on a number of foreign policy questions including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2011 intervention in Libya, the 2013 plan to attack Syria, the bombing of Iraq that started in 2014 and Trident.

As Strong’s argument echoes much of the media coverage of Corbyn, it is worth taking some time to stress test his thesis. Below I highlight a number of serious problems with Strong’s analysis.

Strong chooses to omit any mention of Afghanistan

Shockingly, Strong chooses not to mention the UK’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. With Britain’s combat role formally ending in 2014, the war in Afghanistan was one of the longest campaigns in British military history, with over 450 British soldiers dying.

What was the outcome of the UK’s 13-year occupation of Afghanistan? In his 2013 book ‘An Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War’, Frank Ledwidge, a former Naval reserve military intelligence officer who served as a civilian advisor in Helmand, notes 2,600 British troops were wounded in the conflict, and more than 5,000 have been “psychologically injured”. He estimates the cost of the British intervention to be £37 billion, the deployment leading to the destabilisation of most of Helmand province, hundreds of civilian deaths and an increase in the terror threat to the UK. By 2014 the New York Times was quoting Helmandis as saying “the Taliban have never been stronger in the province.”

We can only speculate why Strong chose to omit any reference to Afghanistan, but one wonders if it has anything to do with the fact that Corbyn’s opposition to the war and his belief that British forces should have been withdrawn earlier than 2014 has been broadly in line with public opinion for a number of years.

Strong is selective and disingenuous when it comes to some of the polling evidence

On Trident, Strong argues Corbyn’s position is “not representative of the electorate as a whole” as he “favours nuclear disarmament while his countrymen (including even the Scots) largely do not.” This difference – along with others – is “large, profound and likely to be problematic”, according to Strong.

In support of his assertion Strong cites a January 2015 YouGov poll which shows just 25% of people favour total disarmament, and an Independent article quoting Glasgow University’s Dr Phillips O’Brien as saying there is “no convincing statistical evidence” that the majority of Scots are actually opposed to Trident.

Citing one poll, as Strong does on Trident, is, very obviously, a deeply flawed way to gain an understanding of national public opinion. John Curtice, a Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University who writes about electoral behaviour and researches political and social attitudes, makes the obvious point that the result of a poll “depends a bit on how you word the question”. Indeed, in the same January 2015 BBC article Curtis notes “For the most part, the majority of polls suggest that there is a smallish plurality opposed to the renewal of Trident.”

Surveying 20 opinion polls on Trident in 2013, Nick Ritchie, a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of York, notes the “Polls suggest British opinion may have moved from majority support for replacing Trident to majority support against replacement.” Ritchie further explains that the polling data shows the vast majority of people do not consider Trident to be an important political issue, with “only a small section of the electorate… likely to allow the issue of nuclear weapons to influence their vote in a general election”.

Presuming Curtice and Ritchie are correct, Corbyn reflects the view of most people who give an opinion on Trident, though the issue is not very high on voters priorities in terms of choosing who to vote for. Hardly the “large”, “profound” and “problematic” difference Strong suggests.

Turning to NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 (which Corbyn opposed inside and outside parliament), Strong notes “the public were divided on the prospect of action against the Gaddafi regime”. To support his argument Strong links to an article summarising the results of two polls taken in the very early stages of the conflict: a YouGov poll which found people supported the military action against Libya by 45% to 36%, and a ComRes poll that “found almost the exact opposite ‒ 35% supported the action but 43% opposed it.”

Strong doesn’t mention them but there were other polls taken during this period, such as two polls by the British Election Survey analysed by six political scientists in a 2014 article published by in British Journal of Political and International Relations. The first poll, taken just after hostilities began, found 30 percent of people approved of British involvement “whereas a plurality 44 percent disapproved”. A month later just 23 percent supported the British involvement with 50 percent opposed. Writing for PSA’s Political Insight blog the six specialists noted “the British population… always opposed Libyan intervention.”

However, let’s assume that Strong’s assertion that the public was broadly divided over the Libyan intervention is correct. The problem with his analysis is that it limits itself to taking the temperature of public opinion at one particularly heightened point of the conflict. A serious analysis would surely expand on this because public support for military intervention tends to be highest at the beginning of a conflict when members of the British armed forces are perceived to be in harm’s way, government and media pro-intervention propaganda is at its height and the outcome of the conflict is uncertain.

The key question, then, is surely this: if the pollster had told those being polled that the NATO intervention would go beyond its initial remit and help to illegally overthrow the Libyan government, be a chief cause of ongoing violent chaos in Libya which would destabilise surrounding nations, empower extremists and play a central role in the refugee crisis – all widely accepted by mainstream scholars as consequences of the intervention – would support for the war have increased or decreased? We don’t need to guess. In October 2011 – just after the Libyan leader was killed and Libyan government forces effectively defeated – 49 percent of the public told YouGov it was right to take military action. By February 2015 – when the disastrous impact of the intervention was better known – YouGov found support for the intervention had plummeted to 30 percent, with 33 percent opposed.

The same broadly applies to Afghanistan. Corbyn opposed the attack on Afghanistan from the start – which set him against the broad support the war had with the British public. However, by the later years of the British intervention and immediately after the official British withdrawal a majority of the British public opposed the intervention.

One can therefore make two important conclusions about Corbyn, public opinion and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. First it is clear the public mood shifted as the public learned more about the conflicts and the negative effect British forces invariably had in each instance. Second, it is clear Corbyn has been an astute analyst in terms of opposing three wars that have had a disastrous effect on the local population, British troops and the wider region, with large sections of the public eventually coming round to his broad position of opposition in each case.

Strong refuses to engage with the likelihood that Corbyn’s election as Labour leader will itself shift public opinion on foreign policy

Simply comparing current public opinion with Corbyn’s publicly stated views on foreign policy, while of some interest, is a simplistic and limited form of analysis. Public opinion shifts constantly and is influenced by various factors, including changing levels of knowledge. Therefore, a more nuanced and mature analysis would highlight the fact that the narrow spectrum of political and media debate in the UK has largely presented the general public with an equally narrow and limited understanding of foreign policy and possible policy options. To take one example, in contrast to the two polls that found the public divided on Libya, fully 98 percent of MPs who voted in the parliamentary debate on the intervention supported the attack. All three of the main political parties supported the intervention. And with the media mapping their spectrum of acceptable opinion and debate to the divisions in parliament, the vast majority of national newspapers also supported the intervention. Anti-war voices and inconvenient facts (such as the attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully that were ignored by NATO and the indiscriminate bombardment of Sirte in the final stages of the conflict), were thus sidelined and did not comprise a significant part of the public debate. The same is broadly the case with Trident. The three main political parties have traditionally supported the retention of some form of Trident and far as I am aware the only national newspaper to support the outright scrapping of Trident is the tiny circulation Morning Star.

Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, if he is given a fair hearing, should significantly widen the debate on foreign policy, bringing long excluded voices, arguments and facts into the public debate. Many of the issues Strong claims Corbyn does not have the support of the public on will now have a strong advocate who has a significant voice in the media. This process occurred during the Labour leadership race itself, with many commentators noticing Corbyn’s candidacy opened up space to discuss issues such as rail nationalisation, whether Blair should face a war crimes trial and the nationalisation of energy – topics unlikely to be have been on the agenda if Corbyn hadn’t received the 35 nominations that allowed him on the ballot.

It is likely a wider debate and a more informed argument will shift public opinion towards Corbyn on many issues. Take Trident. It is likely the public would be less supportive of Trident if they were fully aware of the frightening near misses and many accidents that have occurred over the years. The connection between increased knowledge of foreign policy and what could broadly be termed an anti-war politics is surely confirmed by the fact that as of 2012 the British armed forces employed over 600 people in “communication-related activities” (aka propaganda) with a multi-million pound marketing and communication budget. Commenting on media access in Afghanistan, in 2009 the Guardian’s Luke Harding noted the Ministry of Defence (MoD) “manipulate the parcelling-out of embeds to suit their own ends.” The Sun’s Defence editor concurred: “Downing Street and the Foreign Office are incredibly restrictive about what comes out of Afghanistan.” Harding goes on to explain what this means for public opinion: “We have been constantly told that everything is fluffy and good – and we, and the public, have been lied to.” As a senior British officer told the Sunday Telegraph in 2008 “There is a general policy by the MoD to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons. If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.”

Strong’s focus on individual opinion polls on individual issues fails to engage with the longer term trends on public opinion and foreign policy

Since parliament voted against the UK taking military action in Syria in August 2013, there have been a number of reports of senior politicians and military figures deeply concerned about the public’s opposition to military interventions abroad. Speaking about the British armed forces in December 2013, Chief of Defence Staff Sir Nicholas Houghton noted “the purposes to which they have most recently been put has seldom been more deeply questioned. As a nation we have become a touch sceptical about the ability to use force in a beneficial way.” General Sir Peter Wall, the Chief of the General Staff from 2010-14, provided a blunter assessment earlier this year: “Our national appetite for military intervention has been diminished by the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a sense of campaign fatigue, which is reflected in low political appetite for the UK to engage to protect our longer term interests.” The former Defence Minister Lord Browne concurs, noting last year “The British public have made it clear that there is very little support for new expeditionary wars of choice”. (As an aside, it’s interesting to compare these quotes from the military’s top brass with Strong’s description of Corbyn as someone “deeply sceptical about the utility of military force as a tool of British foreign policy.”)

Some polling evidence suggests the military and politicians are right to be worried. After reminding respondents of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali, a February 2013 ICM poll found 48 percent of people believed “military interventions solve little, create enemies and generally do more harm than good”, while 45 percent believe that “through its armed forces, Britain generally acts as a force for good in the world”. Similarly a June 2013 Opinium poll found 69 percent of people believe that the UK should restrict the military to protecting UK territory and providing humanitarian aid in times of crisis.

Like with Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the British public’s view of British military intervention abroad – increasingly sceptical and unsupportive – seems to be moving closer to Corbyn’s long-held position.

Strong fails to mention international law and global public opinion

Though it is perhaps outside the parameters of Strong’s blog it is surely unwise to discuss British foreign policy and public opinion in a vacuum. For example, on Iraq and Trident and the recent drone strike in Syria Corbyn strongly supports the idea that Britain should adhere to international law and act with the support of the United Nations. Similarly polling evidence suggests there is broad support amongst the British public for the government to abide by international law and to act with the support of the United Nations. During the run up to the war in Iraq in 2003 polling showed the invasion would be far less popular it did not have the support of the United Nations. So, the key questions are these: would there be more or less support for Trident among the public if it was more widely known that the UK is clearly contravening the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons? Would there be more or less support for the proposed UK bombing of Syria if the media persistently raised questions about whether the intervention was in accordance with international law?


Though public opinion is often complex, contradictory and constantly changing, we can see Corbyn’s positions on the big foreign policy questions has the support of significant sections of public opinion, and majorities on Iraq and Afghanistan – arguably the two biggest foreign policy questions since 2001. And the evidence suggests Corbyn should be able to increase his level of support with the public if he is successful in opening up the narrow spectrum of what passes for political debate in this country, reframing the conversation to get previously largely ignored voices, arguments and facts into the national conversation.

This is an exciting and uncertain time in British politics. In their engagement with wider politics academics can, like Strong, selectively quote polls, decontextualize, obfuscate and therefore help to shut down honest and informed discussion. Or they can use their expertise and experience in good faith to enlighten the general public and help to inform and widen the national debate on this hugely important subject.

The West’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria

The West’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 September 2015

In a recent editorial the Guardian argued that “when debating the Syrian war, it is important to discriminate between the various external state involvements.” For the Guardian “Russia has a special responsibility” because it is “much more implicated – directly and indirectly – in the massacre of civilians.”

By arming Bashar al-Assad’s government and protecting him diplomatically, Russia certainly bears significant responsibility for the thousands of Syrians slaughtered by their government forces in airstrikes, artillery bombardments, small arms fire and summary executions – all extensively documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. However, as a British citizen I share responsibility for the actions of the UK Government and its allies. This is because I pay my taxes and, more importantly, have immeasurably more power to influence UK Government policy than I do the Russian Government. As the US dissident Noam Chomsky noted: “It’s a very simple ethical point: you are responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions, you’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of somebody else’s actions.” The same logic, of course, should apply to British journalists and British newspapers.

So what has the UK and its allies been up to in Syria? And do we bear any responsibility for the on-going war that has killed more than 220,000 people and forced over four million to flee the country.

According to Ian Black, the Guardian’s Middle East Editor, “Russia has supported Assad, while the US advocates a political transition to end his rule while backing armed opposition groups.” Compare this subtle propaganda to a recent report – also in the Guardian – that noted Russia proposed a peace deal in February 2012 in which Assad would step down. According to the person leading the negotiations, the former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, the US, UK and France ignored this offer because they “were convinced that Assad would be thrown out of office in a few weeks.” Hugh Roberts, the former Director of the North Africa Project at the International Crisis Group, echoed Ahtisaari’s testimony in the London Review of Books in July 2015. “The Western powers… sabotaged the efforts of the UN special envoys, Kofi Annan and then Lakhdar Brahimi, to broker a political compromise that would have ended the fighting”, Roberts wrote. “Western policy has been a disgrace and Britain’s contribution to it should be a matter of national shame.”

As Black mentions, isolated media reports have shown the US, often supported by the UK and working with Turkey and many of the Gulf monarchies, has been helping to arm and train the Syrian rebels since summer 2012. For example, in September 2013 the New York Times explained “Saudi Arabia, quietly cooperating with American and British intelligence and other Arab governments, has modestly increased deliveries of weapons to rebels fighting in southern Syria”. This was done covertly, Syrian rebel groups told the New York Times, because US and UK intelligence did not want their support publicly known.

Moreover, the West has been arming the rebels in the full knowledge that the insurgency was increasingly dominated by extremist groups. After “extensive interviews with Syria policymakers from the Obama Administration” McClatchy’s Hannah Allam recently noted Obama’s government “was warmed early on that al Qaida-linked fighters were gaining prominence within the anti-Assad struggle.” Similarly, a recently released formerly classified US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) report noted that from atleast August 2012 the West knew “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al-Qaeda in Iraq]” were “the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria”. The US’s support for “the crazies” in Syria was confirmed by General Michael T. Flynn, the Director of the DIA from 2012-14, in an interview with journalist Mehdi Hasan on Al-Jazeera in July 2015.

By 2013 an analyst with the private intelligence firm Stratfor had already concluded that “the current level of external intervention in Syria is similar to the level exercised against the Soviet Union and its communist proxies following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.” Two years later in June 2015 the Washington Post was quoting US officials as saying “the CIA has trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years.”

These inconvenient facts are presumably why in April 2015 Peter Ford, a former UK ambassador to Syria, argued “we are… arsonists, causing the situation to deteriorate by indirectly giving succour and encouragement to the Islamists.”

Not that you would know all of this from reading British newspapers. Other than a few honourable exceptions, journalists have repeatedly downplayed the scale of Western intervention in Syria. A Guardian editorial earlier this month referred in passing to “the refusal [of the West] to intervene against Bashar al-Assad”, while in August 2015 the Guardian’s foreign affairs commentator Natalie Nougayrède chastised Obama because he had “refrained from getting involved in Syria.” In the US Matt Schiavenza wrote an article in the Atlantic magazine titled Why The US Can’t Build An Opposition Army in Syria which, incredibly, failed to mention the 10,000 rebels the US claims to have armed. Over at the Brookings Institution Shadi Hamid argues the US has been “opting to remain disengaged in Syria”. How, I wonder, would these commentators describe a foreign power arming and training thousands of rebels intent on overthrowing the UK or US governments?

Contrary to the actual actions of the West in Syria, much of the reporting and analysis of the mainstream press has presented a false narrative of Western inaction and benevolence. This blackout of reality raises huge questions about the quality and purpose of our so-called free and rambunctious media, our democracy and our foreign policy. How, for example, is the general public supposed to understand our own role in exacerbating the refugee crisis if they are not aware of it? As David Yelland, the former editor of the Sun, once said “People attack papers for what they print. But what they don’t print is often the bigger story.”

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.