When Populism Is Dangerous For Democracy – To The Media Gallows With ‘Controversial’ George Galloway

George Galloway’s stunning victory in last week’s Bradford West by-election afforded a rare opportunity to witness naked imbalance, establishment scorn of any challenges, and blatant anti-Muslim propaganda in the corporate British media.

The excellent News Sniffer website exposed how the Guardian hurriedly fixed political editor Patrick Wintour’s ugly analysis of Galloway’s 10,140 majority win, with a staggering swing of 36 per cent from Labour to the Respect party. Wintour’s shoddy journalism had initially focused on how the constituency’s ‘Muslim immigrant community’ had largely abandoned Labour. The offensive trope of ‘immigrant’ Muslims appeared three times in his piece. And Galloway’s popular call for the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and ‘a fightback against the job crisis’, was disparagingly cast as ‘fundamentalist’.

It was shocking to see such elitist disdain for majority British views and for ‘immigrant’ communities expressed by a senior Guardian journalist. Someone on the newspaper, perhaps spotting the danger of the nation’s flagship ‘liberal’ newspaper appearing so illiberal, acted swiftly to hide the evidence. Too late, News Sniffer was on the trail. This is what Wintour wrote:

‘It appeared that the seat’s Muslim immigrant community had decamped from Labour en masse to Galloway’s fundamentalist call for an immediate British troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a fightback against the job crisis.’

This was amended to:

‘It appeared that the seat’s Muslim community had decamped from Labour en masse to Galloway’s call for an immediate British troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a fightback against the job crisis.’

Further key changes are easily visible here.


‘The Muslim Vote’

It is customary for the media to cast an honest, uncompromising political voice as ‘controversial’ and ‘maverick’ (or worse). And journalists did not disappoint. On the News at Ten, celebrity presenter Fiona Bruce, reportedly on a BBC salary of half a million pounds per year, referred blithely to ‘controversial ex-Labour MP George Galloway’. (March 30, 2012). The British public will wait in vain for her to refer to the ‘controversial’ Prime Minister David Cameron or  the ‘controversial’ President Barack Obama.

In a News at Ten ‘analysis’, the BBC’s Iain Watson reported, with the broadcaster’s version of impartiality, that Galloway had compared his victory to the Arab Spring and ‘cheekily suggested he was challenging the entire British establishment’. (March 30, 2012)

But perhaps Galloway’s suggestion was accurate, ‘cheeky’ or no. Galloway was, in fact, pretty devastating in challenging the British media establishment in interview after interview. On Channel 4 News, Midlands correspondent Darshni Soni asserted that Galloway’s ‘fiery rhetoric on Iraq and Afghanistan specifically targeted young Muslims’; as though only ‘young Muslims’ should be concerned about Iraq and Afghanistan. (‘“Young Muslims defied elders to vote for Galloway”’, C4 News, March 30, 2012)

Soni tried to trip up Galloway:

Soni: ‘But what do you say to people who say you played that race card –  you specifically targeted young Muslim men?’

George Galloway: ‘Well, I think it was Labour that put up the Pakistani Muslim candidate, not us. So that’s a ludicrous charge, to be honest.’

Soni: ‘But you talked a lot about Iraq, Afghanistan.’

Galloway: ‘Well, Iraq and Afghanistan are not issues only for Muslims.’

Also on Channel 4 News, Cathy Newman sought, like so many before her, to outwit Galloway – only to come out of the encounter with egg on her face. (‘Cathy Newman interviews George Galloway’, C4 News, March 30, 2012)

Newman: ‘George Galloway – you’ve described this as the most sensational upset in history. I think you got a little carried away – there were two previous results with bigger swings. But it is pretty sensational nevertheless. What do you put it down to?’

Galloway: ‘No I don’t think I was exaggerating, if you’ll forgive me, I’m a bit of a student of these matters. No party to the left of Labour has ever taken a Labour seat in a period when Labour has been in opposition.’

Newman pressed on:

‘You’re defining your terms very clearly and quite narrowly, but within those terms a sensational victory – what do you put it down to?’

Galloway responded amicably:

‘I don’t know why you’re being so churlish about this. I know more about left-wing history than you do, I assure you. But anyway, I put it down to a tidal wave of alienation in the country, and not just in Bradford, against the Tweedledee-Tweedledum politics of the major parties.’

This is surely right. When much that matters is so clearly going wrong in this country and the world at large, no wonder the public is thoroughly sick of the fodder that is dished out as ‘responsible’ policies, debate and reporting.

Galloway continued:

‘I think we saw what I described last night as “a Bradford Spring” moment – a kind of uprising, a peaceful democratic uprising of especially young people.’

Newman responded with barely disguised disdain:

‘Isn’t it slightly presumptuous or even arrogant though to describe a … to compare a by-election victory with a revolution that has claimed tens of thousands of lives across the Arab world?’

Galloway exposed the biased stance of C4 News:

‘Well I can see you and I are not getting on very well and probably that’s a sign that I should go and do one of the many other interviews that are waiting for me. You obviously weren’t listening or you’re not hearing me …’

Newman: ‘I’m hearing you perfectly well…’

Galloway: ‘…I said a peaceful democratic uprising, a peaceful democratic uprising – that’s what I think it was. You evidently don’t. We’ll see if it comes to anything. Thanks very much – because I really do have a lot of very important interviews to do.’

As one of our regular readers later reminded us on the Media Lens message board, the encounter was reminiscent of Jeremy Paxman’s remarkable May 2005 interview with Galloway after he had won the Bethnal Green and Bow seat from the war-supporting, Blairite MP, Oona King. In a dismal lowlight of a long BBC career, Paxman repeatedly asked Galloway:

‘Are you proud of having got rid of one of the very few black women in Parliament?’

Galloway rightly disparaged Paxman’s question as ‘preposterous’ saying that: ‘I don’t believe that people get elected because of the colour of their skin. I believe people get elected because of their record and their policies.’

There was more to come from the BBC. In an extraordinary segment on BBC Radio Five Live, reporter Anna Foster fired a series of hostile and loaded questions at Galloway. Just hours after his electoral victory, Foster kept asking why he had come to Bradford – an issue that he rightly said he had dealt with on numerous occasions before the election. Galloway took her to task for focusing on ‘the’ Muslim vote, as though Muslim voters were a homogeneous mass:

‘This is very incendiary and inflammatory language which the BBC keep using.’

After giving Foster several more minutes of his time, Galloway rightly described the interview as ‘a hatchet job’ and left the studio, leaving the BBC reporter flabbergasted.

Later that day on BBC2’s Newsnight, reporter Peter Marshall recycled the same discredited language:

‘It’s said you’ve relied very heavily on the Muslim vote. I mean, you yourself have said in the past that you used (sic)… you have the Muslim vote…’

Galloway responded:

‘I really reject this concept of “the” Muslim vote. Muslims are individuals just like everyone else. You wouldn’t say that there’s a “Christian vote” because Christians vote in all sorts of ways. And the Labour candidate, I remind you, was a Pakistani Muslim. So I really don’t think that’s a valid question. Every voter is an individual and every voter has to be appealed to.’

Marshall managed to include the standard description of Galloway as ‘a singular figure, a political maverick’ who ‘in triumph’ is ‘unrepentant’. What he was supposed to be ‘unrepentant’ about wasn’t made clear. Perhaps for appearing on Celebrity Big Brother, pretending to be a cat licking milk from Rula Lenska’s cupped hands: stock footage that news broadcasters are seemingly obliged to repeat whenever Galloway is mentioned.


The Wolf Man

The Observer played its part as well, publishing not just one but two anti-Galloway comment pieces. The first, by Andrew Rawnsley, set the tone, referring acerbically to Galloway’s ‘blushing modesty which makes him such an appealing character’. This was a dig at the Respect politician supposedly acclaiming Bradford West ‘the most sensational victory in British political history’. But, shooting himself in the foot, Rawnsley had got the quote wrong. Galloway had called it ‘the most sensational result in British by-election history’, not ‘political history’ – a crucial distinction. As we have seen, Galloway had clearly explained the basis for his claim.

For Galloway to draw any kind of comparison with the Arab Spring was, said Rawnsley, ‘a very advanced form of narcissism’. The Observer columnist then added the sly comment that Galloway had ‘declined to offer his fusion of Marxism and Islamism to voters at the five previous byelections of this parliament’. Whatever counts as a ‘fusion of Marxism and Islamism’ was not spelled out. It was instead left hanging in the air as something to be regarded by right-minded people as dangerously anti-capitalist and un-Christian; perhaps even unpatriotic and anti-British. But arguably the most blatant propaganda element of the Observer piece was the accompanying sinister-looking photograph of Galloway, reminiscent of Lon Chaney Jr as The Wolf Man.

By an amazing coincidence – or not – a second Observer hit piece by Nick Cohen deployed a similarly sinister photograph of Galloway. The Observer’s picture editor had obviously been busy scouring the pictorial archives and struck gold not once, but twice. The comment piece also had a cartoon-like flavour. For example, Galloway’s ‘claim’ that his by-election victory was the ‘Bradford spring’ exhibited, Cohen said, ‘contemptible willingness to exploit the suffering of others for the purposes of self-aggrandisement’ which ‘no politician can beat’. No politician? Not even Cohen’s hero Tony Blair, who exploited the deaths of millions in the Middle East for his own self-aggrandisement as a ‘peace maker’?

Almost in a parody of himself, Cohen wrote that:

‘Galloway and others on the far left believe that Muslims can replace the white working class that let them down so badly by refusing to follow their orders to seize power.’

One had to check the date of publication. Yes, it was published on April 1. But, nonetheless, Observer readers were forced to accept that this was indeed not a spoof piece by a spoof Cohen.

The attitude was summed up by the title of a Liberal Conspiracy blog, run by Sunny Hundal: ‘When populism is dangerous for democracy‘. Hundal, the Guardian’s ‘blogger of the year’ in 2006, was himself busy on Twitter. He referred to Galloway in responding to a questioner: ‘I don’t want any part of a left that supports dictators thanks. Maybe you do.’

We were intrigued by this and responded: ‘Yet you write that Obama’s re-election “is worth fighting for”. Does Obama not support, indeed arm, dictators?’

The following day, Hundal replied. Here are some highlights from the subsequent exchange:

Sunny Hundal (SH): ‘answer to that question is simple: as Us Prez Obama can’t easily call for dictators to go. But Galloway isn’t leader: he can.’

Media Lens (ML): ‘You can’t reject George Galloway for dictator “support” and then back Obama who arms them, actually helps them kill.’

SH: ‘can you name me one dictator that one Obama has cheerleaded for?’

Writer and activist Ian Sinclair replied:

‘Mubarak “is a stalwart ally… a force for stability and good” – Obama to BBC, 2009 http://bit.ly/H2ZeLg

We responded to Hundal:

ML: ‘Simple questions 1) Has Obama armed dictators? 2) Is that more or less important than what he/Galloway says about dictators?’

SH: 1) ‘Has he personally sanctioned arming of dictators? No. They can buy weapons from China/Russia too, as Libya did.’

SH: ‘he [Obama] didn’t support Mubarak.’

We replied with a quote from 2011 in The Times on US aid to Egypt:

ML: ‘”the Mubarak regime is still receiving $1.3 billion of military aid each year from America.” (The Times, January 31, 2011)’

SH: ‘Just for your info, since you guys set yourself up as a major source of info and critique: “military aid” is not guns/ammo.’

ML: ‘True. Do F-16 jets, M-1A1 tanks, Harpoon, TOW, Hellfire, and Stinger missiles count? http://tinyurl.com/5rwx7zf

SH: ‘might help if you recognised that most of it referred to stuff over a decade, not during Obama. Now, answer my question?’

ML: ‘Details here: http://tinyurl.com/2ekorm9 May 2009 Apache attack helicopter sale here: http://tinyurl.com/7djfdzl

And indeed Hundal’s position was completely untenable. To sample at random, the Washington Post reported last December:

‘The Obama administration on Thursday announced an arms deal with Saudi Arabia valued at nearly $30 billion, an agreement that will send 84 F-15 fighter jets and assorted weaponry to the kingdom.’

And so on. Hundal wriggled and dug himself ever deeper. For us, it was another encounter with the curious capacity for ‘selective inattention’ found at the intellectual fringe otherwise known as ‘the mainstream media’. For Hundal, Galloway’s words really are far worse crimes than Obama’s active participation in the arming and diplomatic protection of murderous dictators who use his support to kill large numbers of people.


Closing Remarks

In our 2005 media alert, Ambushing Dissent, also analysing media treatment of Galloway, we noted how ‘across the spectrum, “rogue” thinkers, politicians and parties are relentlessly smeared and mocked by the elite media. The effect is as inevitable as it is intended – to persuade the public to revile and turn away from radical voices threatening established privilege and power.’

The response to Galloway’s latest electoral victory from the Guardian, the Observer, Channel 4 News and the BBC piles on the evidence. It shows – once again – that the supposedly liberal media, purveyors of ‘open journalism’, will fight tooth and nail to neutralise anyone who challenges the establishment status quo.

And yet it could hardly be more obvious that the British political system has degenerated into a grotesque, neo-feudalist fraud representing the same elite interests under different brand names. Our politics is structurally addicted to greed-based ‘humanitarian’ militarism, to exacerbating the catastrophic threat of climate change, and to denying the public any serious choice on the major policy issues of the day. An honest media would welcome any small sign of hope that the iron grip of this corrupt and oppressive system might be subject to serious challenge.



The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Please write to:

James Stephenson, BBC News at Ten editor

Email: [email protected]

Patrick Wintour, Guardian political editor

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @patrickwintour

John Mulholland, Observer editor

Email: [email protected]

Jim Gray, Channel 4 News editor

Email: [email protected]

Sunny Hundal, blogger and Guardian columnist

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @sunny_hundal

Please copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at:

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