Since Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, the media attacks have been relentless. T. J Coles, author of new book Real Fake News, examines
Those in power seek to turn the general public against itself for fairly obvious reasons: an aware, united, and motivated public outnumbers the comparatively small elite that dominates any given society. Consequently, those in power try to convince the majority that “there is no alternative” to the given system, as the late PM, Margaret Thatcher, infamously said.
Historically, mass media have been one of the methods of marginalising public concerns. When a political leader with a proven track-record inspires a mass movement, as is happening with Corbyn, the given systems of power have and will put their social control agenda into high gear. There is no conspiracy (though conspiracies certainly do exist), but rather, the convergence of shared interests. The result is the spreading of fake news on a scale which eclipses that of the alternative, online media. Mainstream fake news is more important than alternative fake news because the quality of life for millions of impoverished Britons depends on the success or failure of a Corbyn-led government coming to power and reversing the brutal Tory cuts. Anti-Corbyn fake news has had some success in discrediting him and thus in hindering the movement.
Turning the public against itself
As I argue in my new book, Real Fake News (Red Pill Press), the attacks against Corbyn amount to a case-study in the mainstream media’s ability to spread fake news. When we say attacks against “Corbyn,” we really mean attacks against the ordinary people who support his policies. By making Corbyn the individual look anything from comically incompetent to dangerously deranged, the mainstream media are serving their own class interests by discouraging the broader acceptance of Corbyn (whose policies aren’t, in reality, particularly radical). Attacks against “Corbyn” (i.e. ordinary people) have emanated, as we might expect, from the political opposition and from rival parties, as well as from the right-wing media (Britain’s media being, on average, more right-wing than any in Europe).
But more interestingly, though perhaps not too surprisingly, attacks have also come from “centrists” within the Labour Party and from the so-called “centre” and “left” mainstream media (i.e., the BBC, Guardian, Independent, and Mirror). This has only served to further alienate more liberal-minded voters from Corbyn. Polls suggest that Labour is, at present, more popular than the Tories, but that Corbyn, personally, is not.
The antisemitism smears continue, despite the publication of a recent Media Reform Coalition study. Co-published by BirkbeckUoL and co-authored by a member of Jewish Voice for Labour, the report finds that the vast majority of journalists across the spectrum have almost completely ignored the “complexities” concerning how to define antisemitism (e.g., should criticism of Israel count, and if so, how?), and that:
almost all of the problems observed in both the framing and sourcing of stories were in favour of a particular recurrent narrative: that the Labour Party has been or is being lost to extremists, racists and the ‘hard left’.
Smears from the start
When Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 any pretence of media objectivity vanished.
The London School of Economics Media and Communications Department analysed the content of eight British newspapers for a two-month period, ending in late-2015. “Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement,” says the report. Anti-Corbyn sources were used more often than neutral or pro-Corbyn sources. Corbyn’s own voice was often missing. The broadsheets and tabloids alike treated Corbyn “with scorn and ridicule,” portraying him “as a friend of the enemies of the UK.” The press became an “attack dog” instead of a “watchdog.”
56% of the newspapers analysed in that two-month period gave Corbyn no voice. Of the so-called left-wing papers, only 40% featured statements by Corbyn. Even fewer articles would have allowed Corbyn to voice his policies and views, were it not for the high number of opinion columns (i.e. those written by mainstream Corbyn supporters like Owen Jones and Paul Mason). By excluding Corbyn’s statements from articles about him, media delegitimised his politics. In total, 57% of all articles were critical or antagonistic. 67% of opinion pieces were critical/antagonistic.
Of the “left-wing” papers, just over 10% of the Independent’s coverage was positive, with a small majority being neutral. Interestingly, the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror contained more negative coverage (including antagonistic) than the Guardian, at close to 35%. This outweighed the Mirror’s positive reporting of Corbyn, at over 20%. The rest of the coverage was neutral. At under 20%, the Guardian had slightly fewer positive things to say about Corbyn. The majority of Guardian coverage was neutral (again, largely thanks to Jones and Mason).
The Media Reform Coalition also conducted a study of the same 8 newspapers and their coverage of Corbyn’s first week as leader of the party. 60% of articles were negative, 13% were positive, and 27% neutral. Of the news articles, as distinct from opinion pieces, 6% were positive. 60% of editorials were negative. In the Sun and Sun on Sunday, 32 out of 36 articles were negative. Of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday’s articles, 50 out of 52 stories were negative. Turning to editorials, 100% of the Express, Mail and Sun’s stories were negative.
The fake news continues
The Media Reform Coalition updated their research with Birkbeck University. This time, research included broadcast media. There is a “[s]trong tendency within BBC main evening news for reporters to use pejorative language” in reference to both Corbyn and his supporters. Both BBC and ITV headlines and content were biased towards Corbyn’s critics. The state-run BBC was twice as likely to feature unchallenged criticism than its commercial rival, ITV. “Corbyn himself made almost daily public statements and responses” to the leadership crisis, so bias was clearly avoidable.
Following the terror attacks in Paris in late-2015, the BBC aired an interview with Corbyn. Political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, claimed that she asked Corbyn about a police shoot-to-kill policy in order to prevent a hypothetical Paris-style attack in the UK. “I am not happy with a shoot to kill policy in general,” he was quoted as saying. But what Corbyn also said is that, as PM, he would indeed order security forces onto the streets in the event of a terror attack. That part of Corbyn’s statement was excised from the broadcast.
The BBC Trust’s own report concludes that “[it] was wrong in this case to present an answer Mr Corbyn had given to a question about ‘shoot to kill’ as though it were his answer to a question he had not in fact been asked.” Ironically, the BBC News Online article reporting the Trust’s findings was tucked away in the Entertainment and Arts section of the website. This didn’t stop the Tories from using the shoot-to-kill clip out of context in their anti-Corbyn campaign video in 2017.
Patriotism and ludicrous hypocrisy
On Remembrance Sunday 2016, when the nation was supposed to be mourning the fallen and remembering those who had sacrificed their lives, supposedly for our alleged freedoms in the so-called Great Wars, the “radical”, “communist”, “lunatic” Jeremy Corbyn burst into dance. Corbyn disrespected the fallen and shamed the nation. Or so the Mail Online and Sunday Sun reported when they published a photo of Corbyn appearing to do a jig.
The photo was taken by veteran photographer Steve Back, who earned a reputation for snapping cabinet members holding classified documents. With Corbyn prancing around at the sombre event, Back got a scoop. The media narrative of Corbyn as a Britain-hater was further cemented.
The trouble with the photo is that it was fake. Corbyn was actually walking with a war veteran, George Durack, and making some moves as if he was telling a story. Back (or someone) had cropped the image to exclude Durack and the fact that both men were walking through a gate together. By removing the background, Back made Corbyn’s walk seem as if he was standing on the spot. Each new footstep was likewise cropped and put side by side in a montage. Back Tweeted: “Corbyn attends Remembrance Sunday and breaks into a dance – showing no respect for the event whatsoever – disgraceful.”
When the uncropped images surfaced and Back was called out, he Tweeted: “I witnessed him [Corbyn] break into a dance.” Even if that is true, the context was removed by Back’s cropping and media’s subsequent montage. The real disrespect is that the right-wing used a Remembrance service to attack a political rival.
What was also disrespectful was then-PM David Cameron’s poppy scandal. In 2013, Cameron posed for a generic “official” photo in a suit and tie. On Remembrance Sunday 2015, the same photo was used by Cameron’s managers who digitally added a red poppy (a symbol of remembrance) to the old photo. Aside from the two images being otherwise identical, the poppy was very poorly photoshopped. It was slightly too big and more pixelated than Cameron’s jacket, suggesting that it had been added from a lower-resolution image. Number 10 Downing Street fessed up to the lie and later removed the photo. And let’s not forget the Tories getting caught in 2015, fabricating testimonies from social security claimants (actors in reality), who supposedly thanked the Department for Work and Pensions for cutting their meagre incomes and “helping” them to find work.
Despite relentless and largely debunked claims that the Corbyn-led Labour Party is inherently antisemitic, the Labour Party’s popularity currently surpasses that of the Conservatives’, as far as polling suggests. Corbyn as a political individual, however, has seen his approval rating among the general public decline, suggesting that the mainstream media’s shared interest in spreading fake news has been only marginally effective in deterring voters from Labour.
The significant cultural changes that are being forced by grassroots political activism, primarily via Momentum and the mass movements, have the potential to take root and perhaps, in the future, place more power into the hands of the general public. In that context, perhaps the mass media could one day become democratised, too? A democratic media would reflect common interests and concerns, not operate as a weapon of the powerful against those whom they like to portray as powerless.
T.J. Coles is a postdoctoral researcher at Plymouth University’s Cognition Institute and the author of several books, including The Great Brexit Swindle (2016, Clairview Books) and Human Wrongs: British Social Policy and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2018, iff Books). His latest is Real Fake News (2018, Red Pill Press).