As Britain’s Labour Party lost ground, in Thursday’s local elections, to a spectacularly inept and – even by tory standards – venal party led by a serial liar, The Canary ran this cartoon:
Actually this is an oversimplification in its implication that the sole problem with ‘our’ media is oligarchic ownership. Media barons like Murdoch, Rothermere and the Barclay Brothers are the visible tip of an iceberg. More insidious – less obvious hence more toxic – is the 200 year old business model of media dependency on advertising. As Noam Chomsky put it:
Media are large corporations selling privileged audiences to other large corporations. Now the question is: what pictures of the world would a rational person expect from this set up?
On matters of real import to our rulers – think Assange, Corbyn, Putin, Xi – media not owned by oligarchs do vital service. A liberal intelligentsia which would never have bought the character assassinations of Julian or ‘Jezza’ from Mail, Sun or Telegraph lapped up the vilest trashings of both men in the Guardian.
Here too Chomsky gets to the heart of the matter:
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.
Because the Guardian (and other liberal media like NYT, HuffPo, Le Monde, Independent etc) do run pieces critical of the establishment on important but ultimately secondary matters, they can cash in the credibility gained to spend it where it most counts. On matters of core concern to our rulers – like demonising persons and/or states posing a challenge to the Western investors whose interests most shape deep state policy – they can be relied on to back the status quo.1
That closing of media ranks is never more evident than in psyching us up for war. Even writers who formally oppose war, against states which directly or indirectly thwart Wall Street hence Washington, do their bit. As Jonathan Cook said of the Guardian’s George Monbiot:
[He] has repeatedly denied he wants a military attack on Syria. But if he weakly accepts whatever narratives are crafted by those who do – and refuses to subject them to meaningful scrutiny – he is decisively helping to promote such an attack.’ 2
We saw similar in Guardian hand-wringing, way too little and way too late, re that extradition request – after it had led the pack in eroding ‘woke’ support for Julian Assange.
What’s that? We have non commercial broadcasters like the BBC? True, these are not directly subject to market forces via advertising – hence to ruling class agendas pursued, without need for conspiracy, by a mix of: ideology absorbed as common sense, business realism and career focus.3 To which I say two things. One, the Beeb relies on licence fees set by politicians who themselves fear the editorial fulminations of the Mail, and/or are in bed with Murdoch et al.4
Two, the BBC’s upper echelons are disproportionately Eton/Oxbridge. Once more Chomsky is on the nail. In his now famous 1996 interview with the Beeb’s Andrew Marr, the latter objects:
How can you know I’m self censoring?
To which Chomsky replies:
I don’t say you are self censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you say. But what I am saying is that if you believed something different you would not be sitting in that chair.
Last but not least, should all of the above seem insufficient, the state may be minded to assert itself directly. Here’s Media Lens on the subject:
Readers of the Guardian woke up last Tuesday (November 1, 2016) to find the newspaper and website had been given over to promoting MI5. To be more precise: the paper was trumpeting a fearmongering ‘exclusive’ with MI5 Director-General, Andrew Parker. It was billed as ‘the first interview of its kind’ and conducted by the paper’s deputy editor, Paul Johnson, and the diplomatic editor, Ewen MacAskill. However, it quickly became clear that this ‘interview’ consisted largely of the two senior Guardian journalists listening to the MI5 chief and diligently writing down what he said with no discernible challenge or scrutiny.
Ex-Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook summed up perfectly the contents of the ‘interview’:
• the Russians under Vladimir Putin are an evil empire;
• Islamic jihadists are everywhere but MI5 is brilliant at foiling their terror attacks;
• the increased budget MI5 has received is entirely justified because it is doing such a brilliant job of foiling terror attacks;
• MI5’s extra powers to surveil us all are necessary to foil those terror attacks;
• whatever happens with Brexit, MI5 will continue doing a brilliant job protecting the British people;
• MI5 is determined to become a friendlier place for women and minority ethnic applicants.
This was state ideology masquerading as robust reporting; in Britain’s ‘flagship’ newspaper of liberal journalism, no less. The front page of the Guardian website, with an accompanying photograph of two armed policemen, was a model example of propaganda that should be pored over by journalism students for decades to come …
One last observation. None of the above should be read as my claiming Labour’s problems are all down to hostile media. (In this regard see my January post on the tragedy of Corbynism.) As the recriminations fly, above and below the line, between left and right of the party, I’m holding my tongue the way I do when asked (this happens all the time) whether I’ve stopped beating my wife or buggering choir boys. While my sympathies lie more with the left of the party – and with a shamefully vilified Jeremy – I’m conscious of two things.
One, such is the extent of the divide within Britain today that Blair’s successes (and it should be remembered his 1997 majority declined in 2001 and again in 2005) is for the foreseeable future unrepeatable by a left or right leader. Blair’s (hat) trick was to reach out to the middle classes, knowing the heartlands had no feasible alternative to voting Labour. That is no longer the case. The interests, real and perceived, of the Islingtonians and those most shafted by neoliberalism are no longer reconcilable.
Two, objectively speaking – the undoubted sincerity and passion of many on the Labour left notwithstanding – the role of left reformism has always been to sanitise the brand after each betrayal. On this subject I can recommend a classic by Ralph Miliband (Ed and David’s dad) – Parliamentary Socialism: a Study in the Politics of Labour. Though first published in 1961, and last updated in 1972, it contains little that is not instantly recognisable today.
Nevertheless, and back to the main thrust, I can think of no more cogent argument for insisting that Western democracy is ninety-five percent bogus than that (a) democracy implies consent, (b) consent is meaningless if not informed, and (c) informed consent implies truly independent media. That last we do not have when they are “large corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations”.
Counter arguments, ladies and gentlemen?
* * *
- “Relied on to back the status quo”. See Friday’s self-serving Guardian 200th birthday piece, What we got wrong, and ask yourself .. Iraq? .. Syria? .. Venezuela? .. Corbyn? .. Assange? .. Manafort? …
- See also Jonathan Cook: criticising Monbiot isn’t demonisation ... I value Monbiot’s environmental writing – and at times the output of fellow house leftist, Owen Jones. (On Syria both are out of their depth.) But just as the Guardian exemplifies Chomsky’s point about vigorous debate within a strictly limited range of acceptable opinion, and abets the illusion of truth spoken to power, so do Jones and Monbiot abet the illusion of the ad-and-donor dependent Guardian as a fearless pursuer of truth. Both sanitise the Guardian, which in turn sanitises a world run by and for the criminally insane.
- Business realism and career focus? Journalists who know what’s good for them please editors. Editors who know what’s good for them please owners. Owners not only love honours, and a place at the high table which part explains Guardian/MI5 collusions way beyond that sycophantic ‘interview’. More fundamentally they need advertisers and/or, in a now transatlantic Guardian’s case, wealthy, East Coast liberal donors. (On that last it should but doesn’t go without saying that stinking rich individuals like Bill Gates and George Soros not only personify a world order toxic as much in practical as in moral terms. Through their largesse such men wield power at its least accountable. Witness the ‘colour revolutions‘ which just happen to advance US/Nato aims.)
- The BBC, licence fees set by the British Government in a form of regressive taxation, is the state model I’m most familiar with. In the case of Australia’s ABC the government makes direct grants. Either way my wider point stands.
Locally we now have the dubious distinction in our Ward of returning the first Tory Councillor in Sheffield for twenty years.
Previous elections in this Parish have seen the vote which would normally be harvested by the Tory Party split between the Conservatives, UKIP/Independent, and the Yorkshire Party. Which meant the Labour vote just had to be maintained at a particular level.
Despite winning the seat their percentage of the vote was actually around 2.5% lower than the percentage of the Labour winner in 2019 (even though that was down on the 2018 result).
UKIP/Independent have yo-yoed over the past four elections here and more or less collapsed this time around. Greens were slightly down percentage wise even though they got exactly the same number of votes (596) as in 2019. That’s down to 5% increase in turnout to 39%. Though that is based on totting up all the valid votes received for each of six candidates and does not factor in voters who spoiled their ballot.
However, this time around the Tory candidate benefited from a split in the non Tory vote with the Lib-Dem candidate – a local who was in the last Lib-Dem administration which ran Sheffield for a while some years back – coming in eight votes behind the Labour candidate.
Which is in a way somewhat ironic.
The Lib-Dem candidate ran a very negative campaign targeting Labour. With at least one leaflet containing a map of North Sheffield with a crudely drawn sketch of a parachutist – the Labour candidate – being parachuted in from my old patch of Firth Park. A factor which several other leaflets from the Lib-Dems made great play on throughout the campaign.
The result of this split in the non Tory vote arising from this negative campaigning is that instead of getting a Councillor ‘parachuted in from Firth Park’ we have a Councillor parachuted in from the leafy and wealthy suburb of Dore. A twenty something who with the best will in the world lacks all the qualities of experience, nous and gumption at that age which is necessary to carry out such a function.
So I suppose someone should congratulate the Lib-Dem candidate in this patch for this achievement. We have obviously dodged a bullet there getting some lacking in gorm resident of Dore rather than some oick from Firth Park representing a steel town.
Hi Dave. Since you made your comment I’ve added to this post – the final section, below the single asterisk and beginning, “one last observation …”
That said, I’ve always respected you as a real rarity: a man who follows international politics – and shares my disgust at wholesale media distortions as much when directed against a Putin or Assad as a Corbyn – and yet has a detailed grasp of Labour Party politics. Once more I’m indebted to you for your finger on the pulse.
I totally agree with you.
But the issue for me is: what to do?
In the past Doug I’ve dodged that question – fairly I think – by saying that not having a solution is no reason to hold back from articulating the problem as clearly as we can.
More recently, however, I’ve had a scintilla of uplift from the rise of China. Here’s what I wrote in response to a reader of my post on pig farming for profit. Rightly incensed by the gangsters who rule us, she’d spoken of the temptation to take up arms. I responded:
I don’t say this is remotely satisfactory. Just the best I can do right now.
PS – I missed out the direct anarcho-style action of such as Occupy and XR. I love it for its innovation and chutzpah. But history shows time and again that such responses – tactically dazzling but strategy-lite – to entrenched evil are easily contained, just as the rainbow alliances they seek are easily divided.
My looking to China may be seen as naive or, worse, a call for resistance in the belly of the beast to lay down its banners and placards; to sit back and wait for Beijing to free us. No, that’s not what I advocate – else I’d take my own advice, pull down the shutters on steel city scribblings and take up stamp collecting.
I was particularly struck by the closing remarks of the third of my three China reads in April:
In regard to the drop in the Labour vote following the 1997 election it is notable that that the number not voting in 1997 was around 12.5 million (28.7% of eligible voters). By 2001 this had increased to just over 18 million (40.6% of eligible voters). The increase in eligible voters between the two elections was around half a million.
Between those two elections the Tory vote actually fell from around 9.6 million to just above 8.5 million.
Even the Lib-Dem/SDP vote fell from 5.2 to 4.8 million. The UKIP vote only went up by 111K from 105,000 to 216,000.
The Labour vote dropped by around 2.8 million.
The 2005 figures were not much better. The number not voting only dropped by less than a million from 2001 (38.6% of an eligible electorate which had actually reduced by just under 200,000).
Even though they got a Parliamentary majority in 2005 the LP vote dropped by a further 1.2 million. The Tory vote only increased by around 230,000; Lib-Dems increased by around 1.1 million; UKIP increased by only just under 400k.
By 2010 the number not voting fell by a further 2 2 million or so (just under 35% of an electorate which had increased by around 1.4 million). A figure which has barely shifted since. Dropping only appreciably in 2017.
What I am picking up is reminiscent of an occasion I experienced on the first day back at work after the New Year back in 1987. As workplace and Branch Committee Union Rep. we were gearing up for the early stages of the Telecom Strike. The previous evening at an emergency Branch Committee meeting we had been given instructions the Union National Executive to advise members of the first escalation stage of the ensuing industrial action.
So I stood up in front of around 120 engineers to tell them that as from now we were all instructed to ‘work without enthusiasm. At which point I involuntarily looked around because the peals and guffuws of laughter suggested that Billy Connelly had just walked through the door. And then the penny dropped.
Because these guys who I saw and worked with every day had been working without enthusiasm for most of the previous year (though some had been doing that all their working lives). They had already been voting with their feet with no need for any outside direction.
The days of the “left” in the Labour Party operating as though they were suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and busting their bollocks for talentless incompetent right wing/extreme centerist numpties who are parachuted in to areas and who deliberately throw elections are clearly over.
The present managerialist hierarchy and bureaucracy seem to be operating under the illusion they are in Schrodinger’s Labour Party. One in which they suffer the delusion that its possible to abuse volunteer members via expulsions, witch hunts, vilification, false accusations etc etc and still expect them to carry out ALL the donkey work.
The picture currently going the rounds which sums this up shows a still from the well known Python dead parrot sketch featuring very young looking Michael Palin and John Cleese. No elaboration required.
The point being that the penny had dropped for a sufficiently sizable chunk of people, both active members and voters. Faced with no positive choices Non of the Above will remain the largest voting block in British politics until an option outside of a rapidly narrowing Overton Window becomes available. Blair and his fellow criminal acolytes within the Party hierarchy and bureaucracy have made clear they do not want to win any power on what they consider are anything near “left” policies.
They are getting what they wished for. Because the message has been received and there now exists no possibility of the LP ever achieving power under present conditions and criteria the extreme centerists at every level of the Party are imposing as conditional for accepting power.
Under such constraints, as the author of this blog implies, the only current feasible avenue to break the log jam is likely to be some massive external shock which forces a complete top to bottom systemic re-organisation of the body politic and social/economic relationships on these islands in particular and the equally ossified West in general.
Something of the order of magnitude of the Norman Conquest or the collapse of the Third Reich.
Thanks Dave. Your opening paragraphs, on declining electoral turnout, are instructive. I spoke of the heartlands in 1997 having “no feasible alternative to voting Labour” and of that being “no longer the case”. I was thinking UKIP, and Scottish/Welsh nationalism but the stats you assemble point to the biggest alternative of all: disgusted abstention.
More ephemeral but a big factor at the time was that the tories, prior to and during the Blair years, were at an exceptionally low ebb. Europe was a hugely divisive issue and the main reason why, following Major’s resignation, they chose a string of electorally unappealing leaders – Howard, Haig and IDS – because the obvious choice, Ken Clark, was unacceptable – not least to Rupert – as a Europhile and a ‘wet’ on the party’s ‘left’.
Labour Party votes in Hartlepool
Blair, 2005 – 18,251
Brown, 2010 – 16,267
Miliband, 2015 – 14,076
Corbyn 2017 – 21,969
Corbyn, 2019 – 15,464
Starmer, 2021 – 8,589
Yes. Clear evidence of the appeal of an anti austerity message in the Labour heartlands, though this does not negate my bigger point that no Labour leader can repeat Blair’s feat of uniting those heartlands with a Remainer/idPol obsessed middle class in an electoral front against a tory party racked by incompetence and even more greed than usual, and whose leader many of its rank and file – and party grandees – loathe.
The Blair-Campbell successes were down to a mix of lesser factors – tories in disarray over Europe, a nation sick of them, and the media savvy of the Blair-Campbell-Mandy machine – with the real biggie. Britain was still sufficiently ‘together’ that a shotgun wedding between Islington and Hartlepool was still – temporarily at least – doable.
The now yawning gulf between the two constituencies is not uniquely British – think East Coast Dems versus Hillary’s ‘deplorables’ – but a consequence of a globalisation project inextricably linked to imperialism and the export not only of monopoly capital to the global south, but of jobs too. It nevertheless finds uniquely British expression in such as Brexit and the looming break up of a not so United Kingdom.
This would seem to adequately summarise the situation:
Former UK Diplomat Craig Murray
What is ironic, certainly for the author of that quote, is that in terms of Scottish Independence the name Starmer could be substituted by Sturgeon and the resulting quote would be equally true and valid.