It is normally impossible for us to regard the leader of a major British or American political party without cringing at their compromised, corporatised, plastic personalities.
We like the fact that Jeremy Corbyn wears uncool shorts and sandals, that he doesn’t look ‘prime ministerial’ or ‘presidential’. We have always reviled Blair’s self-assured, Clintonian head-waggle; Obama’s all-knowing, fatherly smile. We never understood how anyone could be deceived by Thatcher’s sonorous, strident ‘sincerity’.
We might disagree with Corbyn on any number of issues, but he is at least recognizably human. He seems more like the people we know, less like the people with serious suits and unserious souls who view themselves as ‘The Masters of Mankind‘.
In three earlier media alerts, we described how media futurologists have been tirelessly informing their long—suffering readers that Corbyn will be ‘catastrophic’ for the Labour party, the country, the world. Every last one of the claims has been rooted in the assumption that they truly know what is good for UK democracy, what is the limit of possible political change. But the fact is they don’t know – nobody does. Consider a couple of simple thoughts:
1) Let’s assume that, before Corbyn’s victory on September 12, the press was correct in arguing that deep political change was impossible in the UK. After all, journalists were writing at a time when voters had been without hope for decades, when they believed the political system was 100% sewn up and locked down by the 1%. But even if the press was right then, it does not mean that radical political change is impossible now when hope has clearly been restored, when people can see that that an honest and compassionate leader can be voted into a position of genuine influence. Nobody can know what might happen now because the hopelessness of several decades really has been overthrown. The cat is out of the bag, democracy has broken free from its establishment box of choice-as-no-choice. People were given a fleeting chance to vote for someone real and they jumped at it.
2) Even if a hopelessly unelectable, flawed and uncool individual was elected leader of the opposition, he or she might nevertheless bring huge benefits to democracy. Why?
One of the default assumptions of the corporate media is that it is their democratic responsibility to cover the full range of ‘mainstream’ political opinions. Specifically, it is their job to report what the party of government and the major opposition parties are saying and doing.
Since Tony Blair’s New Labour/’Red Tory’ coup of the 1990s, this default position has required that the press report the views of two establishment parties saying much the same thing. This has been disastrous for the range of honest and compassionate opinion. ‘Presentational’ politics has meant ‘presentational’ journalism pitifully denuded of anything challenging powerful interests at a time when those challenges have been desperately needed.
One of the potentially far-reaching consequences of Corbyn’s success is that it obliges the corporate press to pay attention to views that have previously been marginalised or ignored. More optimistically, it gives progressive journalists within the corporate media an excuse to push a more positive agenda.
It seems to us that evidence for a radicalising effect on the media is already visible within just a few days of Corbyn’s leadership victory.
A Guardian editorial was more reasonable, respectful and upbeat now that Corbyn is leader:
‘Mr Corbyn’s win speaks to many things. The biggest is the extraordinary excitement which was fired by his campaign and of which he was in some ways an improbable beneficiary.’
Not much ‘excitement’ was visible in the Guardian this summer – just a few islands of dissent in a sea of smears.
In July, we discussed Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s radical Podemos party:
‘One might think that, in discussing the popularity of Corbyn’s leadership bid, a rational media would give serious attention to the visions, strategies and success of Podemos, Syriza and the SNP. For example, we can imagine in-depth interviews with Iglesias… on Corbyn’s prospects’.
We noted that the Lexis media database recorded 1,974 articles in the national press mentioning Corbyn over the previous month. Our search of articles mentioning both ‘Corbyn’ and ‘Iglesias’ yielded zero results.
This week, two days after Corbyn’s success, Iglesias was not only mentioned in the context of Corbyn’s popularity, he was allowed an opinion piece to comment in the Guardian.
A BBC article this week observed: ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s victory cannot be understood with reference only to British politics.’ Syriza was mentioned, as was Podemos – Iglesias was pictured. Again, a significant change for the BBC.
According to an editorial in the Independent:
‘The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is the most extraordinary event in British politics since the universal franchise. Whatever else it does, it sends a powerful message to the establishment that there is an appetite for doing politics differently. An uninspiring field of conventional candidates has been swept aside by an insurgent who breaks all the rules.’
This was positive by Independent standards. It is easy to imagine that the paper’s editors feel obliged to represent this popular strand of thought among many of its readers now that it has ‘mainstream’ party political support. The editorial even added:
‘As the newspaper that opposed the war in Iraq most vigorously [sic], we also welcome Mr Corbyn’s weight tilting the scales of public debate further towards proper scepticism about military intervention abroad. While we are uneasy about Mr Corbyn’s reflex anti-Americanism, if he makes Mr Cameron more cautious about military action, that would be no bad thing.’
This from the newspaper group that, just three years ago, devoted its front-page to this question:
‘THE WORLD LOOKS THE OTHER WAY
This week, the Independent published a piece under the title: ‘Ignore the attacks, here are fifteen things that Jeremy Corbyn actually believes in.’
This already makes the point that the presence of a comparatively honest, compassionate leader of a major party has an impact shifting media performance and public discussion in a more progressive direction.
Now, of course, we are being told that Corbyn could not possibly win a general election. This is declared ‘reality’, everything else ‘fantasy’. The late historian Howard Zinn once wrote:
‘Realism is seductive because once you have accepted the reasonable notion that you should base your actions on reality, you are too often led to accept, without much questioning, someone else’s version of what that reality is. It is a crucial act of independent thinking to be sceptical of someone else’s description of reality.’ (Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader – Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.338)
And the current version of ‘realism’ is based on a fatal flaw:
‘There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.’ (Zinn, A Power That Governments Can’t Suppress, City Lights, 2007, p.267)
The success of Podemos, Syriza and the SNP suggest that Corbyn’s success is no isolated event, that it is symptomatic of deep changes across European society and beyond. It seems to us that the age of the great corporate media monopoly is coming to an end. At last, through internet-based websites, blogs and social media activism, any number of smart, dedicated, non-corporate individuals and groups are seriously challenging the output of elite journalism. Corbyn’s defiance of ‘mainstream’ media opinion shows how corporations have lost their ability to completely dominate the debate and impose their version of reality. Competing versions are now on offer and the tired, compromised corporate version is being exposed for what it is. Newly-appointed Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP, said this week:
‘We’ve managed to break through to have a proper political debate, but largely as a result of the public meetings we’ve held and the social media. Years ago we never had Twitter, we never had emails on this scale, we never had websites. Now we’ve created our own media and that’s enabled a better political debate.’ (‘John McDonnell: Corbyn’s shadow chancellor speaks to Jon Snow’, Channel 4 News, 14 September 2015)
We are continuing to do our best to support this freedom of speech. The British historian Mark Curtiswrote this week:
‘The fear of Corbyn on the part of the elite is palpable in the literally hysterical right wing and “liberal” media coverage, well documented as ever by Medialens.’
After 14 years of the Media Lens project, it feels quite odd for us to be working in a context of hope. For much of the time we have been ‘jousting with toothpicks‘ against the corporate behemoth with no way of knowing if anything really substantial could be achieved. While our gloom over inaction on climate change remains, the surge of radical politics across Europe really is an inspiration.
In our case, the optimism is slightly offset by a decline in donations supporting our work. This may partly be our own fault – as we rarely send appeals, readers may have assumed we don’t need their support. Whatever the reason, donations have declined substantially. If the current trend continues, we will be back doing other paid work by the end of next year, which would be a major blow. We have also recently lost one of our two accounts accessing the Lexis newspaper archive – the second account expires later this month. This will leave us without access to the archives for the first time in 14 years, inflicting real damage on our work. If anyone is willing to donate, or help us access, two guest accounts, that would be a great help.
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The objective of Media Lens is “to challenge the claim that the corporate media system is either willing or able to report honestly or accurately on a world dominated by corporate power. Our aim is to encourage the general population to challenge journalists, editors and media managers who operate a de facto propaganda system for establishment/elite interests. We hope to promote non-corporate media offering a more honest and compassionate response to the world. Fundamentally, we wish to reduce suffering wherever it occurs.”