Biased and Belligerent: The Media, The Movements and War
Chris Nineham analyses the media's attitude to mass movements
It has to be said the media has rarely been kind to mass movements. This is Richard Littlejohn writing in the Sun about a demonstration against the first Gulf War in 1991;
‘As the UN deadline passed out crawled the usual collection of ‘students’, god botherers, Guardian readers, gays, Communists, Trots, men with beards and duffle coats, men with ponytails, wimmin in men’s shoes and old hippies with worn-out Country Joe and the Fish LPs’.
But media treatment of popular campaigns has recently reached new lows. The usual indifference or the kind of casual contempt shown by Littlejohn are being replaced by a rather more serious and sometimes sinister attitude. At the end of last year, a series of false allegations were made against the anti-war movement in the run up to the vote to bomb Syria, including the lie that protestors threatened MP Stella Creasy's workers in her constituency and another that a march intimidated Labour Party office workers, There were fabricated claims that Stop the War supported Assad and a forensic trawl through our website to turn up quotes that could be used out of context to discredit the movement.
One of the alarming things was the extent to which the ‘case’ against the movement appeared co-ordinated. Hysteria peaked with a media chorus denouncing Jeremy Corbyn for going to Stop the War’s Christmas dinner.
This time its serious
This is no longer just about prejudiced attitudes, though the left and the movements continue to be grossly under represented and condescended to when we do make it on air. Parts of the media – notably the BBC - have moved beyond bias and become protagonists in a campaign against progressive politics in general and the Corbyn leadership in particular. Movement spokespeople or left wing politicians are invited in to the studio simply to be attacked for their views and right wingers are lined up to vilify them. Laura Kunessburg notoriously went one better last year when she persuaded Corbyn opponent Stephen Doughty to resign from the shadow cabinet live on air.
General disapproval of radical campaigns comes fairly naturally to senior journalists who are disproportionately priveleged. Over half of the country’s leading news journalists were educated in private schools, which account for 7% of the school population as a whole. For these people, establishment figures are inherently more reliable and trustworthy than anyone radical, elected or otherwise.
But the particular venom on display against progressives at the moment is a product of a quite extraordinary political situation. Over the last few decades the official political spectrum, always limited, narrowed to almost nothing. Under Blair, Labour openly embraced the free market at home and neo-colonial attitudes and adventures abroad. The establishment celebrated ideological victory and commentators and pundits bought the idea that age of class antagonism was over, the left was finished, and that there was indeed no alternative to free market economics. The media became more and more firmly embedded in an establishment ever more confident in its own power.
The last couple of years have been a rude awakening. Growing numbers have reacted against what was always an elite consensus around war and austerity, and that rejection has found its expression in widening protest, a general shift to the left and the resulting Corbyn ascendancy. Suddenly, radical ideas are common currency and the status quo is under attack with anti-war sentiment a central element of the upsurge. The ruling class is startled. The commentariat is affronted and digging in, no keener to give up on its comforting post-ideological utopia than the Labour right.
All this raises big questions about the limits of our democracy. The main centres of power in society are democracy-free zones, and this includes the media. It is run either by unaccountable corporations or unelected state bureaucrats. Any progressive movement needs to develop a strategy for dealing not just with a hostile media, but a host of other undemocratic state institutions designed to defend the ruling elites; the judiciary, the civil service, the military and so forth, if it is to make any real headway. The kind of furore that has greeted Corbyn’s success thus far will be as nothing compared to the assault unleashed should he get anywhere near office.
And the attitude we take to media power is important. The idea of an all-powerful media with the capacity to mould opinion at will is a self-fulfilling analysis. It leads to calls to avoid boat rocking, to drop opposition to Trident or to NATO for example, because the issues are just too difficult. Often a confusion is made between establishment priorities and what the population actually thinks, either way the result is an easy win for the other side.
The difference we make
The truth is, if we take the attitude that our job is to try and win arguments and influence opinion rather than just reflect it, it is amazing how much progress we can make. In the run up to the Iraq War, the movement was so strong that it not only helped to generate a majority against the invasion in the teeth of pro-war propaganda, it caused turmoil in the media itself. The Mirror came over to our side and promoted the February 2003 demonstration on its front page, and even produced placards for the demonstration. Most papers carried maps before the march and souvenir supplements after it. The night before the demo, the BBC weather man recommended wrapping up warm for the demo because of a cold snap.
The demonstrations didn’t stop the Iraq War but the movement then and since has helped created a widespread popular hostility to foreign wars. Every time the government considers a new military adventure they know they will face protest and a potential crisis. We need this kind of movement once again to confront an establishment that is doing everything possible to close ranks.