In bygone years, defenders of the Guardian’s supposed ‘progressive’ credentials would typically cite the presence of Seumas Milne, Owen Jones and George Monbiot. The newspaper’s cupboard is looking decidedly threadbare now. After a year’s leave of absence, Milne left the paper permanently in January to continue leading Jeremy Corbyn’s media team. Jones has been notable for his, at best, conflicted support of Corbyn having, for two years, turned a blind eye to his paper’s relentless opposition to Corbyn’s leadership. Jones has also allowed himself to be used by the Israel lobby. Meanwhile Monbiot, notwithstanding years of valuable environmental journalism, has shown consistently poor judgement when writing about foreign policy. There are now no plausible fig leaves to hide the Guardian’s liberal gatekeeper role in suppressing, marginalising and smearing the required radical challenges to established power.
This insidious role was highlighted once again in a woeful piece by Jonathan Freedland in the wake of last week’s council elections. Titled, ‘No more excuses: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for this meltdown’, the Guardian sage and BBC contributor pointed to a projected national figure of 27% support for Labour, ‘the worst recorded by an opposition since the BBC started making such calculations in 1981.’ This time it was not ‘a judgment delivered by the hated mainstream media’: the pejorative phrase suggesting that the ‘hate’ is unjustified or overwrought. ‘The verdict of the electorate’, the former Guardian opinion editor intoned, ‘was damning’.
We will examine the thinking behind Freedland’s sweeping dismissal in what follows. But first, we need to remind ourselves of the incessant media vitriol and opposition faced by Jeremy Corbyn since he first ran for the Labour leadership in 2015. Extensive evidence of this corporate media bias has been presented in studies published by Media Reform Coalition and Birkbeck, University of London and by the London School of Economics.
Why should there be such huge media – indeed establishment – opposition towards Corbyn? Des Freedman, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, puts it succinctly:
‘Jeremy Corbyn represents – and, crucially, is seen to represent – a potential threat to vested interests in a way that right-wing Labour figures never did. This is what underlies the extraordinary hostility to his leadership. Any radical individual or movement that refuses to abide by the usual consensus on austerity, immigration or foreign policy can expect to be either marginalised or ridiculed, misrepresented or ignored.
‘This tells us a lot about the balance of power in the mainstream media: you depart from the rules, you should expect to be punished.’
‘The leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has been subject to the most savage campaign of falsehood and misrepresentation in some of our most popular media outlets. He has, at different times, been derided, ignored, vilified and condemned.’
Let’s now turn to Jonathan Freedland’s article. A key piece of his ‘evidence’ for pinning Labour’s ‘meltdown’ on Corbyn comes from Dave Wilcox, a former Labour group leader in Derbyshire, who said that he was repeatedly told by ‘genuine Labour supporters’ when canvassing that ‘we are not voting for you while you have Jeremy Corbyn as leader.’
‘He will be howled down, of course, by the online Corbynista army who will tell Wilcox that what he heard with his own ears never happened, that it’s an invention of the media, that it’s really the fault of the media and plotting Labour MPs.’
The sneering reference to an ‘online Corbynista army’ reveals the smug condescension at the core of Freedland’s mindset. From his superior perspective, there is simply no need to take seriously the ample evidence of intense media and political antagonism towards Corbyn and his policies; likewise, the barrage of opposition from many Labour MPs whose views often lie to the right of their own constituents and local party members. As Graham Bash of Labour Briefing observes, when Corbyn won the Labour leadership in September 2015:
‘the parliamentary Labour party shamefully refused to accept the party’s overwhelming verdict, briefed against Corbyn, forced a second leadership contest, acted as a party within a party and feared a Corbyn government more than another Tory government.’
Rather than point to any of this, Freedland instead wants to emphasise the views of two focus groups in Birmingham, largely consisting of Labour voters. This was an event co-organised by Huffington Post and Edelman Communications, a huge PR company (clearly with no vested interest in shaking up society):
‘They described Jeremy Corbyn as a “dope”, “living in the past”, “a joke”, as “looking as if he knows less about it than I do”. One woman admired Corbyn’s sincerity; one man thought his intentions were good. But she reckoned he lacked “the qualities to be our leader”; and he believed Corbyn was simply too “soft”.’
Freedland belittled Labour’s John McDonnell for supposedly turning a blind eye to the facts of the election:
‘When the best that shadow chancellor John McDonnell can offer is that the party has not been completely wiped out, you glimpse the scale of the disaster.’
But Corbyn and his team do not dispute the mammoth task that lies ahead if success at the General Election on June 8 is to be achieved. And, unlike Freedland, McDonnell has rightly pointed to the role of the media in blocking fair and open debate which is, we are so often told, a prerequisite for genuine democracy:
‘We expect all the usual abuse and bias from the Mail and Sun, but the Guardian and BBC are just as biased, but in a more subtle way.’
In a piece titled, ‘The media are trying to destroy Jeremy Corbyn,’ McDonnell expanded about the press coverage he and Corbyn had received during the Labour leadership campaign:
‘None of them, except the Morning Star, supported us. Even the liberal left Guardian opposed us and undermined us at every opportunity.‘ (Our emphasis)
‘It can sound like we’re paranoid but the reality is that the treatment Jeremy has had across the media has been appalling. It’s the worst any politician has been treated. The problem with the BBC and other broadcasters is that because of the cut backs that have gone on with journalists, they are taking their stories from newspapers rather than investigating and reporting for themselves and therefore the bias of the press infects the broadcast media too… It’s an object lesson about the establishment using its power in the media to try and destroy an individual and what he stands for.’
As we saw above, there is ample evidence of this vitriolic media opposition towards Corbyn and what he stands for. But Freedland, a well-rewarded journalist with a typically complacent liberal Guardian/BBC worldview, has no interest or incentive in seriously exploring this ‘savage campaign’. The disdain, indeed contempt, for socialism in Guardian/BBC circles has been made ever more apparent by the direct threat posed by a Corbyn-led Labour party.
No wonder, then, that historian Mark Curtis, author of important books on UK foreign policy including ‘Web of Deceit’ and ‘Unpeople’, described Freedland’s article as ‘a visceral hate-piece’. There were so many possibilities for the most ridiculous or laughable lines from Freedland. Curtis proposed this one:
‘Having finally won control of the Labour party after three decades of Stakhanovite effort, what radical programme have these great revolutionaries pledged to the nation? Four extra bank holidays.’
One of our readers, Rob Newton, begged to differ with Curtis, nominating these lines instead:
‘Corbyn’s defenders will blame the media, but what was striking about these groups was that few of the participants ever bought a paper and they seldom watched a TV bulletin.’
As Newton pointed out, Freedland was apparently proposing a remarkable phenomenon of ‘opinions informed by osmosis’. Or is it a complete coincidence that people might believe Corbyn is supposedly ‘unfit’ to be Prime Minister after nearly two years of the ‘mainstream’ media constantly hyping this ‘truth’?
But what about these lines?
‘Blaming others won’t do. Instead, how refreshing it would be, just this once, if Corbyn and McDonnell put their hands up and took even a small measure of responsibility for this calamitous result.’
This is also surely a strong candidate for most risible comment. There is the added irony that Freedland has completely buried the role of his own newspaper in opposing Corbyn from the very moment he ran for the Labour leadership. To not even mention this fact, is to betray the intellectual dishonesty at the heart of Freedland’s ‘analysis’. He even makes a ludicrous claim for Tony Blair’s ‘leftwing’ credentials:
‘Corbyn and McDonnell’s programme includes nothing remotely as leftwing as, say, the £5bn windfall tax on the utilities promised, and implemented, 20 years ago by the supposed evil neoliberal Tony Blair.’
It appears that Freedland is just not ready to let go of one of his lifetime heroes. Then again, it seems that hardly a week goes by without the Guardian wheeling out the blood-soaked war criminal to promote the former PM’s views; not least if it means another chance to try to land a punch on Corbyn.
Ironically, just a few days after Freedland’s egregious article was published, his erstwhile colleague Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s former media commentator, now Professor of Journalism at City University London, had a generally good piece titled, ‘Prince and commoner: one rule for Philip and another for Jeremy’. Greenslade rightly noted that:
‘Mainstream media as a whole took its gloves off and Corbyn’s electoral hopes have been doomed from day one. He was “a great leap backwards”, said the Mail. Beware this “absurd Marxist”, said the Express, while the Daily Telegraph referred to his “divisive ideology” and “atavistic hostility to wealth and success”. And the Sun? It just called him “bonkers”. There was scepticism too from the liberal left. The Independent thought he would not persuade middle England to accept his policies. Neither the Daily Mirror nor the Guardian greeted him with open arms.’
‘the overall anti-Corbyn agenda, repeated week upon week, month after month, was one that broadcasters were unable to overlook, despite their belief in balance and adherence to impartiality. News bulletin reports reflected the headlines. Current affairs programmes picked up on the themes. That’s how media narratives are constructed.
‘Aside from a general antagonism towards his brand of socialist politics and the gleeful exploration of internal party dissension, overlapping themes of inconsistency, incompetence and incoherence have emerged.’
‘In such a climate, was anyone in the least bit surprised by Labour being stuffed in the local elections?’
This was a rare example of honest commentary in stark contrast to the Guardian’s shameful campaign against Corbyn (which has appalled many of their readers). Inevitably, Greenslade did not go anywhere near far enough in acknowledging his old paper’s endless attacks on Corbyn. To say merely that the Guardian did not greet Corbyn with ‘open arms’ was conspicuously mealy-mouthed in an otherwise admirable piece. But, to his credit, at least Greenslade recognises a real media phenomenon that his ex-colleague Freedland seems desperate to bury.