Corbyn Challenges Cosy Consensus

Tom Mills argues the media has meted out special treatment for the ‘enemy inside’

At the beginning of October the Complaints Committee of Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) – the sham regulatory body set up by the big news corporations in response to, and deviance of, Leveson – ruled on a complaint from Ivan Lewis MP. The Labour right-winger had featured in a Telegraph front page story on 15 August with the headline ‘Labour grandees round on ‘anti-Semite’ Corbyn’.

The offending article quoted from his New Statesman op-ed the previous day. In it, he had written Labour needed ‘a leader who can build a new vision’ so it could ‘hold the Tories to account for their attacks on working and vulnerable people’. His proposed visionaries were Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, in that order – anyone but Jeremy, whom he accused of being soft on anti-Semitism.

Lewis had not though, he noted in his complaint, actually accused Corbyn himself of antisemitism as the Telegraph implied. IPSO upheld the complaint, ruling the article was ‘significantly misleading’, thus breaching of Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice, which states the press ‘must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information’.

It was a curious ruling in some ways because though plainly misleading, the article was not in the least bit unusual. Taking the same standards applied by IPSO, and examining coverage of Corbyn’s campaign and his subsequent Labour leadership, would lead to the conclusion the media has cheerfully violated its most basic ethical and professional standards on an industrial scale.

Most of us are too weary to be outraged by the political and moral depravity of the press. But if we take the professed values of the media seriously – Guardian and BBC included – then what we have witnessed is remarkable.

The overall message seems to have been Corbyn and his supporters – who make up the majority of Britain’s largest political party – are simply beyond the pale. This is not just a question of unfavourable coverage. One can disagree with Corbyn and his supporters. There has been a general failure to engage in any serious way with the policy ideas they advocate.

Many of the Corbyn and his allies’ views and positions have been attacked and ridiculed are based in international law or mainstream macroeconomics. A good number have significant public support, and some are completely uncontroversial. This has led to some curious lines of attack. One article, by the Telegraph‘s political editor, Peter Dominiczak, in September, for example, reported Corbyn ‘appeared to blame George Bush and Tony Blair for using the September 11 attacks in New York to allow them to go to war’. This, he suggested ‘raise[d] questions about his suitability to lead’ Labour.

A BBC Panorama programme broadcast shortly before Corbyn was elected blamed him for the death of British troops in Iraq, despite Cooper and Burnham voting for the illegal war, and Corbyn against. The BBC’s rationale was that a conference in Cairo, which it transpired Corbyn had not even attended, affirmed the right of Iraqis to resist occupation – a right which happens to be recognised in the Geneva conventions.

Corbyn has been attacked for opposing the renewal of Trident despite the UK being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which commits signatories to undertaking ‘effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament’, and steps towards ‘complete disarmament’.

Corbyn has also been attacked for lamenting the extra-judicial execution of Osama Bin Laden, despite his arguing Bin Laden should have instead stood trial being in clear accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Bin Laden smear was echoed by Cameron in his Tory conference speech so it’s important to recognise the media is not operating in isolation here. There has been two-way traffic with the ‘political class’, with much of the ammunition coming from MPs like Ivan Lewis. The corporate friendly, pro-war faction of Labour seems as yet unwilling to concede defeat handed out by democracy to it.

The reaction of the news media to Corbyn’s rise has to be understood in this broader context. The corporate press is by its nature hostile to more democratic and egalitarian politics, and in that respect its reaction is not in the least bit surprising.

The BBC is supposed to be impartial and the Guardian is, by reputation, left-wing. Yet both have looked not to ‘civil society’ to define reasonable boundaries of politics, but to the state and the cluster of corporate friendly institutions and networks in and around it. The hold these networks have over Labour suddenly, and unexpectedly, collapsed this year.

Tom Mills has a PhD in sociology from the University of Bath where he works as a researcher. His thesis examined how the end of social democracy and rise of neoliberalism impacted on the BBC. His forthcoming book on this is published by Verso in 2016.​ He is a former New Left Project editor.