Intellectuals are a “herd of independent minds”[i] wrote the art critic Harold Rosenberg.
Few things chime with the phrase like the reaction of mainstream journalists to Keir Starmer’s first Prime Minister’s Questions as leader of the Labour Party:
“Watching PMQs there’s one clear conclusion: after a 5 year absence, Britain has an opposition again” tweeted ex-Chancellor George Osborne, now editor of the London Evening Standard.
“After today’s exchanges at PMQs it is clear that the United Kingdom now has a functioning, probing, measured, informed Official Opposition”[ii] said the BBC’s Andrew Neil.
“Curious to watch @KeirStarmer making his PMQS debut in such strange circumstances. No less striking is how good it is to have a functioning Opposition for the first time since 2015”[iii] tweeted Matthew d’Ancona, editor at Tortoise and a contributor to papers such as the Telegraph and Guardian.
The similarity in language used by journalists with a right of centre track record is instructive. Presumably the three did not have a prior conversation in which they decided that Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition didn’t function and Starmer’s, after mere weeks, functions serenely. Yet they appear to be trampling in each other’s footsteps.
The propaganda model, highlighting, as it does, the connection between journalistic opinion and the financial concerns of corporate media owners, offers some important insights into the movement of the herd.
Firstly, it would call into question the basis of their claim that the prior Labour opposition was ineffective. How journalists operating from within the confines of the corporate-dominated media measure the value of “political opposition” is questionable.
Corbyn led Labour from 2015-2020. In this period the Tories changed leaders three times, with David Cameron and Theresa May leaving under a cloud, and Corbyn recording the biggest vote share increase at a single election since 1945[iv] (in 2017). Corbyn presented a clear and consistent policy platform: continually arguing for an end to austerity, against military interventions in the Middle East and for a fairer, greener economy.
The Tories were well aware of the appeal of Corbyn’s anti-austerity standpoint to the public. “I personally think that an election would be disastrous, I think we’d let Corbyn into Number 10”[v] said Jeremy Hunt during the 2019 Tory leadership campaign.
It is worth remembering, in the current climate, that in 2017 the Tories voted to block an amendment put forward by Corbyn that would have increased the pay of nurses and other public sector workers. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and Dominic Rabb[vi], virtually the entire coterie running the country and hailing nurses as heroes, voted against the rise.
A video showing the Tories cheering in the House of Commons when the result was announced has gone viral in recent weeks. Why cheer if the opposition present no threat?
Fortunately for Johnson, Hunt et al the media ensured that Corbyn was severely hampered when it came to the 2019 election. As we detailed in our January issue[vii], perhaps the greatest ever sustained effort from the “herd of independent minds” – over 5,000 articles linking a committed anti-racist and his party to anti-Semitism – tainted Corbyn and led voters to believe that 34% of Labour members had been investigated for anti-Semitism (when the true total was less than 0.1%).
Again, it is worth highlighting that the writers of those articles did not gather in a room and decide to damage Corbyn in this way. As predicted by the propaganda model, mainstream journalists will hold to the consensus views of the economic elite (e.g. privatisation, low tax rates) so when a political figure emerges that threatens these values it is only natural that the journalists will be drawn to narratives that harm them.
After years of determined struggle the media finally inflicted maximum harm on Corbyn, unseating him as Labour leader, and the outpouring of relief is palpable.
The first thing to note about Keir Starmer is his full title – Sir Keir Starmer. If you are a part of the Establishment, as mainstream journalists are, the title is likely to be more reassuring than “Red” Jeremy
Of course, it is a leader’s policies that should be important in a democracy. Strange, then, how the BBC’s Laura Kuenessberg appeared to celebrate Starmer’s lack of stance. “For now (Starmer’s) particular personal politics are something of a mystery,” she wrote in a blog on the day of his election. “Firm ideologies have been the source of many Labour woes in the last few years, so competence and internal calm seem like real prizes[viii]”.
Starmer’s “competence and internal calm” may have been shaken by the leak of a report which suggested that a group of high-ranking Labour bureaucrats were so determined to undermine Corbyn that they hoped their own party would lose the 2017 election.
Novara Media report that the party’s general secretary Ian McNicol “and a tight, unelected circle around him – made every effort to undermine and denigrate (the 2017) election campaign, frequently stating how they hoped it would fail while simultaneously planning to replace Jeremy Corbyn from as early as January.”[ix]
Stand out quotes, picked out by Media Lens, include the group referring to Corbyn’s ex-chief of staff Katie Murphy as a “bitch face cow” that would “make a good dartboard” and their hope that a young pro-Corbyn activist “dies in a fire”[x]
The media reaction to the leak of the report is instructive. Most mass media outlets covered the story, but two surprising motifs emerged in the coverage: the notion that the report was “a last-minute bid to “smear whistleblowers” and “discredit allegations” of antisemitism in the Labour Party”[xi] and that the leak itself was the story.
The BBC website’s original article[xii] on the issue devotes around 50% of its space to discussion of the report and the remaining 50% to the leak and the potential smearing of whistleblowers. None of the malicious quotes from high-ranking party officials are published or closely alluded to.
We can only speculate on how the media would have covered the story were a report leaked during Corbyn’s reign that included quotes from officials wishing his opponents would “die in a fire.” In fact, the Labour anti-Semitism narrative was fed by an apparently unending stream of leaks, gossip and off-record briefings. How often did the media turn the “leak” – or the motive behind it – into the main issue of concern in their reports?
Moreover, while these leaks and discord were used as a stick to beat Corbyn, Starmer appears to have survived a hugely significant leak in his first few weeks in charge with no concerns about his competency – certainly according to Messrs Osborne, Neill and D’Ancona.
Boris Johnson, in contrast, is coming under increasing fire. Having assisted Johnson to his parliamentary majority through their disproportionate focus on anti-Semitism in Labour, the media now watch with the rest of us as his inner circle mismanage the Covid-19 crisis.
The Sunday Times published a highly damaging article[xiii] in which they suggested that Johnson skipped key early meetings on coronavirus and present him as highly complacent about the threat. The Guardian have also become increasingly critical, noting in a recent editorial that “damaging ideas within the Conservative party have weakened our ability to defeat the (corona)virus”[xiv].
The herd is turning once again. With Labour now in the hands of a “principled pragmatist”[xv] rather than a man with a “firm ideology”, the media elite can flock to the good ship Starmer and leave BoJo’s leaky ark to sink beneath the waves.
It isn’t Starmer’s opposition that Osborne, Neil and the rest of value, it is the lack of opposition.
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