September 16. Central Criminal Court, London. Proceedings today at the Old Bailey regarding Julian Assange’s extradition returned to journalistic practice, redaction of source names and that ongoing obsession with alleged harm arising from WikiLeaks releases. John Goetz of Der Spiegel added his bit for the defence, making an effort to set the record straight on the events leading up to the publishing of un-redacted US diplomatic cables on September 2, 2011.
The picture that emerges from Goetz is not Assange the reckless cavalier indifferent to human life but of a more considered publisher, working with news organisations to redact the names of informants, insisting on the use of encrypted communications, cognisant of the risk of harm facing them. Goetz noted that WikiLeaks had a “very rigorous redaction process”, evident in its approach to the Afghanistan files; Assange was “very concerned with the technical aspect of trying to find the names in this massive collection of documents.”
Der Spiegel itself had interviewed Assange on the process in 2010, a point remarked upon by Goetz. As Assange said at the time. “We understand the importance of protecting confidential sources, and we understand why it is important to protect certain US and ISAF sources.” Cases “where there may be a reasonable chance of harm occurring to the innocent” were identified. “Those records were identified and edited accordingly.” The practice seemed to have paid off. Goetz noted that the trial of Chelsea Manning, based on her disclosures to WikiLeaks, revealed no cases of harm to any informant.
Mark Summers QC sensed a chance to interrogate another aspect of the prosecution case on Assange’s supposed callousness about the fate of informants, captured by the alleged remark, “They’re informants, they deserve to die.” That now infamous dinner at London’s Moro restaurant is recorded by The Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding in WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (2011). It supposedly took place in early July 2010 a few weeks prior to the publication of the Afghan War Diaries. Goetz had been in attendance. Leigh, also at the dinner, was mistaken: Assange had never said anything of the sort.
James Lewis QC for the prosecution spluttered in alarm at this course of questioning from the defence. Goetz had not mentioned this in his written testimony; a supplemental witness statement would have to be submitted. Judge Vanessa Baraitser agreed, amputating a potentially fruitful line of inquiry.
A picture of tussling between authorities and media outlets emerged, with WikiLeaks and partner media outlets having communications with the US government prior to publication. Efforts were made to identify areas of sensitivity; officials were variably bemused. A delegation of New York Times reporters made their way to the White House ostensibly to discuss the imminent release, with Eric Schmitt informing Goetz of the conveyed message that 15,000 documents within the Afghan War Diaries would not be published. The call to assist with redactions was met with “derision”.
The bungle that led to the publication of the entire trove of un-redacted cables was also re-visited. It gave Goetz a chance to patiently point out that the password to the unencrypted file with the cables had found its way into the aforementioned book by Leigh and Harding. The magazine Die Freitag got wind of it, publishing the details, despite, according to Goetz, Assange’s efforts to stop it. Publishing outfits such as Cryptome capitalised with abandon. With the train set in motion, Assange and WikiLeaks contacted the State Department’s emergency phone line. The cat had scurried out of the bag; sources had been named. The response from Washington was cool, dismissive. WikiLeaks subsequently published what had already been released. During the examination of Goetz, Lewis got muddled over the Afghan War logs and diplomatic cables. The journalist was happy to correct him.
The Goetz testimony also spoke to the value of the WikiLeaks disclosures. Details had been sparse on the fate of kidnapped German national Khalid el-Masri, who had been captured by the Central Intelligence Agency in Macedonia in 2004. A search of the trove by Goetz revealed that CIA abductors had “forced el-Masri onto a military plane, sodomized him and sent him” to Afghanistan. The revelations led to the issuing of an arrest warrant by a state prosecutor based in Munich for 13 CIA agents. Another search of the cables found that pressure from Washington had been brought to bear on the prosecution to defang the process, issuing a warrant in a jurisdiction where the agents did not live.
With Goetz’s testimony done, the defence attempted to incorporate a statement by el-Masri into the court record. The prosecution took issue, claiming that he did not feature in the charges against the WikiLeaks publisher, making such evidence irrelevant and inadmissible. An agitated Lewis suggested that the defence, in reading the statement, would be wasting half-an-hour of the court’s time. Judge Baraitser was put out at the manner of the prosecutor’s objection; such an approach might mean her accepting the evidence “unchallenged”. After much discussion Lewis suggested edits. The statement seems to remain in legal limbo.
The other blazing feature of today’s proceedings was the appearance of Daniel Ellsberg, the aged whistleblower of Pentagon Papers fame. Over the years, he has become a grandfatherly presence in the debates on disclosing classified material for public consumption and debate. The documents he passed on to the New York Times in 1971 shed light on the futility of US involvement in the Vietnam War while revealing habitual public mendacity on the part of various administrations. “My own actions in relation to the Pentagon papers and the consequences of their publication have been acknowledged to have performed such a radical change of understanding. I view the WikiLeaks publications of 2010 and 2011 to be of comparable importance.”
Before the court, Ellsberg attested to the common beliefs he shared with Assange: opposing wars, holding to those cardinal principles of keeping the powerful accountable and the state transparent. Common ground was also shared about the invasion of Iraq (a “crime” and “aggressive war”); and Afghanistan, a modern Vietnam redux of infinite stalemate. Over time, attitudes had changed to documents discussing such behaviour in war. The killings, abuses and war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq had been buried in “low-level field reports” so as to be banal. The Pentagon Papers had been seen as the palace jewels of secrecy; the Iraq and Afghan war logs were merely classified as “secret”.
Such leaks as the Collateral Murder video, the infamous portrayal of a war crime committed by an US Army Apache helicopter in New Baghdad, shed light on this culture of lethal normalisation. Murder it was, but “the problematic word in the title was ‘Collateral’, implying that it was unintended.” Chelsea Manning was also to be praised for “willing to risk her liberty and even her life to make this information public. It was the first time in 40 years I saw someone else doing that, and I felt kinship towards her.”
The Espionage Act, Ellsberg reflected, discouraged such acts of informing disclosure. He found this much to his chagrin during his 1973 trial, in which motivation was dismissed as irrelevant. “The Espionage Act,” rued Ellsberg, “does not allow for whistleblowing, to allow you to say you were informing the polity. So I did not have a fair trial, no one since me had a fair trial on these charges, and Julian Assange cannot remotely get a fair trial under those charges if he were tried.”
In cross-examination, the prosecution brought up the straw man argument used by critics of WikiLeaks, including Floyd Abrams, an attorney who represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case. The argument seeks to distinguish Ellsberg’s conduct and the right of the paper to publish, as distinct from that of Assange. Ellsberg found such views ignorant of motive, whether of his or Assange’s. Abrams had not troubled himself to go through the entirety of the Pentagon papers, nor discuss motivations with him.
From this distinction arose the idea of the noble, ennobled Ellsberg, and the wicked, fallen Assange. Exempting him from criticism while criticising Edward Snowden, Manning and Assange involved “a distinction which in my view is entirely misleading.” Apart from “the computer aspects which didn’t exist back then, I see no difference between the charges against me and the charges against Assange.” He also challenged the distinction (white Ellsberg, dark Assange) by suggesting he had not done as Assange had in terms of care: redacted names, withheld 15,000 sensitive documents, or approached the Pentagon and State Department for assistance in making further redactions. The refusal to accept such offers from WikiLeaks might have been purposely done, suggested Ellsberg, to enable a future prosecution.
Ellsberg attempted to set Lewis straight in his contention that withholding four volumes of the Pentagon Papers at the time was a saintly gesture to prevent harm to the US. The whistleblower disagreed. The move was intended to prevent a disruption to ongoing peace talks. “I want to get in the way of the war, I don’t want to get in the way of the negotiations.” To have redacted the papers would have risked compromising their accuracy.
The prosecution, desperate to nab their quarry, insisted on pushing Ellsberg on the issue of harm that the disclosures might have had. Lewis seemed incredulous that any witness could claim that “there is no evidence that WikiLeaks put anyone in danger.” He also read the contents of Assistant US Attorney General Gordon Kromberg’s affidavit at some length, a crude recycling of many of the claims made at the Manning trial that failed to stick on the charge of “aiding the enemy”. Ellsberg snorted, claiming such assertions to be the mark of high cynicism. “Am I right in that none of these people actually suffered physical harm?” Lewis tartly responded: “The rules are that you do not get to ask the questions.”
Ellsberg, however had decent answers. He could also point to the findings of the US Defense Department that no demonstrable harm had arisen from the releases. At the Manning court martial, the prosecutors similarly conceded that not a single death could be identified as a result, a point made by Brigadier General Robert Carr under cross-examination.
Ellsberg also suggested that US authorities had done little by way of assisting the concealing of informant identities when approached by WikiLeaks. US wars in the Middle East over the last two decades, the sort that Assange had tried to end, had caused a million deaths and 37 million refugees.
This did not prevent Lewis from speculating about those who had disappeared in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. It was “common sense” to suggest that they had either been murdered or forced to flee. “I’m sorry sir,” came the reply, “but it doesn’t seem to be at all obvious that this small fraction of people that have been murdered in course of both sides of the conflicts can be attributed to WikiLeaks disclosures.” A truly palpable hit.
The use and misuse of George Orwell’s truth-telling is so widespread that we can easily miss his intended meaning. For example, with perfect (Orwellian) irony, the BBC has a statue of Orwell outside Broadcasting House, bearing the inscription:
‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
Fine words, but suitably ambiguous: the BBC might argue that it is merely exercising its ‘liberty’ in endlessly channelling the worldview of powerful interests – crass propaganda that many people certainly ‘do not want to hear’.
Orwell’s real intention is made clearer in this second comment:
‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.’
In this line attributed to him (although there is some debate about where it originated), Orwell was talking about power – real journalism challenges the powerful. And this is the essential difference between the vital work of WikiLeaks and the propaganda role performed by state-corporate media like the BBC every day on virtually every issue.
On September 6, the Mail on Sunday ran two editorials, side by side. The first was titled, ‘A sinister, shameful attack on free speech’. It decried the Extinction Rebellion action last Friday to blockade three newspaper printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch’s UK News. The second editorial, as we will see below, was a feeble call not to send Julian Assange to the US, on the eve of his crucial extradition hearing in London.
Extinction Rebellion’s protest, lasting just a few hours, temporarily prevented the distribution of Murdoch newspapers, such as the Sun and The Times, as well as other titles printed by Murdoch’s presses, including the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and the Daily Telegraph.
The Mail on Sunday editorial predictably condemned the protesters’ supposed attempt at ‘censorship’, declaring it:
‘a throwback to the very worst years of trade union militancy, which came close to strangling a free press and which was only defeated by the determined action of Rupert Murdoch.’
The paper fumed:
‘The newspaper blockade was a shameful and dangerous attempt to crush free speech, and it should never be repeated.’
This was the propaganda message that was repeated across much of the ‘mainstream media’, epitomised by the empty rhetoric of Prime Minister Boris Johnson:
‘A free press is vital in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account on issues critical for the future of our country, including the fight against climate change. It is completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news in this way.’
Johnson’s comments could have been pure satire penned by Chris Morris, Mark Steel or the late Jeremy Hardy. Closer to the grubby truth, a different Johnson – Samuel – described the ‘free press’ as ‘Scribbling on the backs of advertisements’.
As Media Lens has repeatedly demonstrated over the past 20 years, it is the state-corporate media, including BBC News, that has endlessly ‘limited the public’s access to news’ by denying the public the full truth about climate breakdown, UK/US warmongering, including wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the arming of Saudi Arabia and complicity in that brutal regime’s destruction of Yemen, UK government support for the apartheid state of Israel even as it crushes the Palestinian people, the insidious prising open of the NHS to private interests, and numerous other issues of public importance.
When has the mythical ‘free press’ ever fully and properly held to account Boris Johnson or any of his predecessors in 10 Downing Street? Who can forget that Tony Blair, steeped in the blood of so many Iraqis, is still held in esteem as an elder statesman whose views are sought out by ‘mainstream’ news outlets, including BBC News and the Guardian? As John Pilger said recently:
‘Always contrast Julian Assange with Tony Blair. One will be fighting for his life in court on 7 Sept for the “crime” of exposing war crimes while the other evades justice for the paramount crime of Iraq.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has presided over a national public health disaster with soaring rates of mortality during the coronavirus pandemic, had the affront to tweet a photograph of himself with a clutch of right-wing papers under his arm, declaring:
‘Totally outrageous that Extinction Rebellion are trying to suppress free speech by blockading newspapers. They must be dealt with by the full force of the law.’
It is Hancock himself, together with government colleagues and advisers – not least Johnson and his protector, Dominic Cummings – who should ‘be dealt with by the full force of the law’. As Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet medical journal, said of Boris Johnson in May:
‘you dropped the ball, Prime Minister. That was criminal. And you know it.’
Extinction Rebellion (XR) explained succinctly via Twitter their reason for their ‘totally outrageous’ action:
An article on the XR website, simply titled, ‘We do not have a free press’, said:
‘We are in an emergency of unprecedented scale and the papers we have targeted are not reflecting the scale and urgency of what is happening to our planet.’
One of the XR protesters was ‘Steve’, a former journalist for 25 years who had worked for the Sun, Daily Mail, the Telegraph and The Times. He was filmed on location during the protest. He explained that he was participating, in part, because he is worried about the lack of a future for his children. And a major reason for how we got to this point is that journalists are:
‘stuck inside a toxic system where they don’t have any choice but to tell the stories that these newspapers want to be told.’
‘Every person who works on News International or a Mail newspaper knows what story is or isn’t acceptable for their bosses. And their bosses know that because they know what’s acceptable to Murdoch or Rothermere or the other billionaires that run 70 per cent of our media’.
Steve said he left that system because he ‘couldn’t bear the way it worked’.
The most recent report by the independent Media Reform Coalition on UK media ownership, published in 2019, revealed the scale of the problem of extremely concentrated media ownership. Just three companies – Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, Daily Mail Group and Reach (publisher of the Mirror titles) dominate 83 per cent of the national newspaper market (up from 71 per cent in 2015). When online readers are included, just five companies – News UK, Daily Mail Group, Reach, Guardian and Telegraph – dominate nearly 80 per cent of the market.
‘Before anyone denounces this as an attack on the “free press” – there is no free press. There is a billionaire-owned, profit-maximising, ad-dependent corporate press that has knowingly suppressed the truth of climate collapse and the need for action to protect corporate profits.’
Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, indicated her support too:
‘A tiny number of billionaires own vast swathes of our press. Their papers relentlessly campaign for right-wing politics, promoting the interests of the ruling class and scapegoating minorities. A free press is vital to democracy, but too much of our press isn’t free at all.’
By contrast, Labour leader Keir Starmer once again demonstrated his establishment credentials as ‘a safe pair of hands’ by condemning XR’s protest. Craig Murray commented:
‘At a time when the government is mooting designating Extinction Rebellion as Serious Organised Crime, right wing bequiffed muppet Keir Starmer was piously condemning the group, stating: “The free press is the cornerstone of democracy and we must do all we can to protect it.”’
‘Denying people the chance to read what they choose is wrong and does nothing to tackle climate change.’
But denying people the chance to read what they would choose – the corporate-unfriendly truth – on climate change is exactly what the corporate media, misleadingly termed ‘mainstream media’, is all about.
Media activist and lecturer Justin Schlosberg made a number of cogent observations on ‘press freedom’ in a Twitter thread (beginning here):
‘9 times out of 10 when people in Britain talk about protecting press freedom what they really mean is protecting press power’.
He pointed out the ‘giant myth’ promulgated by corporate media, forever trying to resist any attempt to curb their power; namely that:
‘Britain’s mainstream [sic] press is a vital pillar of our democracy, covering a diversity of perspectives and upholding professional standards of journalism…the reality is closer to the exact inverse of such claims. More than 10 million people voted for a socialist party at the last election (13 million in 2017) and polls have consistently shown that majority of British public oppose austerity’.
‘The “diversity” of our national press [… ] covers the political spectrum from liberal/centre to hard right and has overwhelmingly backed austerity economics for the best part of the last 4 decades… [moreover] the UK press enjoys an unrivalled international reputation for producing a diatribe of fake, racist and misogynistic hate speech over anything that can be called journalism’.
He rightly concluded:
‘ironically one of the greatest threats to democracy is a press that continues to weave myths in support of its vested interests, and a BBC that continues to uncritically absorb them.’
Assange In The US Crosshairs
Alongside the Mail on Sunday’s billionaire-owned, extremist right-wing attack on climate activists highlighting a non-existent ‘free press’, the paper had an editorial that touched briefly on the danger to all journalists should WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange be extradited from the UK to the US:
‘the charges against Mr Assange, using the American Espionage Act, might be used against legitimate journalists in this country’.
The implication was that Assange is not to be regarded as a ‘legitimate journalist’. Indeed, the billionaire Rothermere-owned viewspaper – a more accurate description than ‘newspaper’ – made clear its antipathy towards him:
‘Mr Assange’s revelations of leaked material caused grave embarrassment to Washington and are alleged to have done material damage too.’
The term ‘embarrassment’ refers to the exposure of US criminal actions threatening the great rogue state’s ability to commit similar crimes in future: not embarrassing (Washington is without shame), but potentially limiting.
The Mail on Sunday continued:
‘Mr Assange has been a spectacular nuisance during his time in this country, lawlessly jumping bail and wasting police time by taking refuge in embassy of Ecuador. The Mail on Sunday disapproves of much of what he has done, but we must also ask if his current treatment is fair, right or just.’
The insinuations and subtle smears embedded in these few lines have been repeatedly demolished (see this extensive analysis, for example). And there was no mention that Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, as well as numerous doctors, health experts and human rights organisations, have strongly condemned the UK’s appalling abuse of Assange and demanded his immediate release.
Melzer has accused the British government of torturing Assange:
‘the primary purpose of torture is not necessarily interrogation, but very often torture is used to intimidate others, as a show to the public what happens if you don’t comply with the government. That is the purpose of what has been done to Julian Assange. It is not to punish or coerce him, but to silence him and to do so in broad daylight, making visible to the entire world that those who expose the misconduct of the powerful no longer enjoy the protection of the law, but essentially will be annihilated. It is a show of absolute and arbitrary power’.
Melzer also spoke about the price he will pay for challenging the powerful:
‘I am under no illusions that my UN career is probably over. Having openly confronted two P5-States (UN security council members) the way I have, I am very unlikely to be approved by them for another high-level position. I have been told, that my uncompromising engagement in this case comes at a political price.’
This is the reality of the increasingly authoritarian world we are living in.
The weak defence of Assange now being seen in even right-wing media, such as the Mail on Sunday, indicates a real fear that any journalist could in future be targeted by the US government for publishing material that might anger Washington.
In an interview this week, Barry Pollack, Julian Assange’s US lawyer, warned of the ‘very dangerous’ precedent that could be set in motion with Assange’s extradition to the US:
‘The position that the U.S. is taking is a very dangerous one. The position the U.S. is taking is that they have jurisdiction all over the world and can pursue criminal charges against any journalist anywhere on the planet, whether they’re a U.S. citizen or not. But if they’re not a U.S. citizen, not only can the U.S. pursue charges against them but that person has no defense under the First Amendment.’
In stark contrast to the weak protestations of the Mail on Sunday and the rest of the establishment media, Noam Chomsky pointed out the simple truth in a recent interview on RT (note the dearth of Chomsky interviews on BBC News, and consider why his views are not sought after):
‘Julian Assange committed the crime of letting the general population know things that they have a right to know and that powerful states don’t want them to know.’
‘This week, one of the most important struggles for freedom in my lifetime nears its end. Julian Assange who exposed the crimes of great power faces burial alive in Trump’s America unless he wins his extradition case. Whose side are you on?’
Pilger recommended an excellent in-depth piece by Jonathan Cook, a former Guardian/Observer journalist, in which Cook observed:
‘For years, journalists cheered Assange’s abuse. Now they’ve paved his path to a US gulag.’
Peter Oborne is a rare example of a right-leaning journalist who has spoken out strongly in defence of Assange. Oborne wrote last week in Press Gazette that:
‘Future generations of journalists will not forgive us if we do not fight extradition.’
He set out the following scenario:
‘Let’s imagine a foreign dissident was being held in London’s Belmarsh Prison charged with supposed espionage offences by the Chinese authorities.
‘And that his real offence was revealing crimes committed by the Chinese Communist Party – including publishing video footage of atrocities carried out by Chinese troops.
‘To put it another way, that his real offence was committing the crime of journalism.
‘Let us further suppose the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture said this dissident showed “all the symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture” and that the Chinese were putting pressure on the UK authorities to extradite this individual where he could face up to 175 years in prison.
‘The outrage from the British press would be deafening.’
‘There is one crucial difference. It is the US trying to extradite the co-founder of Wikileaks.
‘Yet there has been scarcely a word in the mainstream British media in his defence.’
At the time of writing, neither ITV political editor Robert Peston nor BBC News political editor Laura Kuenssberg appear to have reported the Assange extradition case. They have not even tweeted about it once, even though they are both very active on Twitter. In fact, the last time Peston so much as mentioned Assange on his Twitter feed was 2017. Kuenssberg’s record is even worse; her Twitter silence extends all the way back to 2014. These high-profile journalists are supposedly prime exemplars of the very best ‘high-quality’ UK news broadcasters, maintaining the values of a ‘free press’, holding politicians to account and keeping the public informed.
On September 7, John Pilger gave an address outside the Old Bailey in London, just before Julian Assange’s extradition hearing began there. His words were a powerful rebuke to those so-called ‘journalists’ that have maintained a cowardly silence, or worse. The ‘official truth-tellers’ of the media – the stenographers who collaborate with those in power, helping to sell their wars – are, Pilger says, ‘Vichy journalists’.
‘It is said that whatever happens to Julian Assange in the next three weeks will diminish if not destroy freedom of the press in the West. But which press? The Guardian? The BBC, The New York Times, the Jeff Bezos Washington Post?
‘No, the journalists in these organizations can breathe freely. The Judases on the Guardian who flirted with Julian, exploited his landmark work, made their pile then betrayed him, have nothing to fear. They are safe because they are needed.
‘Freedom of the press now rests with the honorable few: the exceptions, the dissidents on the internet who belong to no club, who are neither rich nor laden with Pulitzers, but produce fine, disobedient, moral journalism – those like Julian Assange.’
It is simply astonishing that the first attempt by the Guardian – the only major British newspaper styling itself as on the liberal-left – to properly examine the contents of a devastating internal Labour party report leaked in April is taking place nearly four months after the 860-page report first came to light.
If you are a Labour party member, the Guardian is the only “serious”, big-circulation paper claiming to represent your values and concerns.
One might therefore have assumed that anything that touches deeply on Labour party affairs – on issues of transparency and probity, on the subversion of the party’s democratic structures, on abuses or fraud by its officials – would be of endless interest to the paper. One might have assumed it would wish both to dedicate significant resources to investigating such matters for itself and to air all sides of the ensuing debate to weigh their respective merits.
Not a bit of it. For months, the leaked report and its implications have barely registered in the Guardian’s pages. When they have, the coverage has been superficial and largely one-sided – the side that is deeply hostile to its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
That very much fits a pattern of coverage of the Corbyn years by the paper, as I have tried to document. It echoes the paper’s treatment of an earlier scandal, back in early 2017, when an undercover Al-Jazeera reporter filmed pro-Israel Labour activists working with the Israeli embassy to damage Corbyn from within. A series of shocking reports by Al-Jazeera merited minimal coverage from the Guardian at the time they were aired and then immediately sank without trace, as though they were of no relevance to later developments – most especially, of course, the claims by these same groups of a supposed “antisemitism crisis” in Labour.
Sadly, the latest reports by the Guardian on the leaked report –presented as an “exclusive” – do not fundamentally change its long-running approach.
Kicked into the long grass
In fact, what the paper means by an “exclusive” is that it has seen documents responding to the leaked report that were submitted by Corbyn and his team to the Forde inquiry – Labour’s official investigation into that report and the circumstances of its leaking. The deadline for submissions to Martin Forde QC arrived last week.
Setting up the Forde inquiry was the method by which Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer, hoped to kick the leaked report into the long grass till next year. Doubtless Starmer believes that by then the report will be stale news and that he will have had time to purge from the party, or at least intimidate into silence, the most outspoken remnants of Corbyn’s supporters.
Corbyn’s submission on the leaked report is an “exclusive” for the Guardian only because no one in the corporate media bothered till now to cover the debates raging in Labour since the leak four months ago. The arguments made by Corbyn and his supporters, so prominent on social media, have been entirely absent from the so-called “mainstream”.
When Corbyn finally got a chance to air the issues raised by the leaked report in a series of articles on the Middle East Eye website, its coverage went viral, underscoring how much interest there is in this matter among Labour members.
Nonetheless, despite desperately needing clicks and revenue in this especially difficult time for the corporate media, the Guardian is still spurning revelatory accounts of Corbyn’s time in office by his former team.
One published last week – disclosing that, after winning the leadership election, Corbyn arrived to find the leader’s offices gutted, that Labour HQ staff refused to approve the hiring of even basic staff for him, and that disinformation was constantly leaked to the media – was relegated to the OpenDemocracy website.
That Joe Ryle, a Corbyn team insider, either could not find a home for his insights in the Guardian or didn’t even try says it all – because much of the disinformation he laments being peddled to the media ended up in the Guardian, which was only too happy to amplify it as long as it was harming Corbyn.
A political coup
Meanwhile, everything in the Guardian’s latest “exclusive” confirms what has long been in the public realm, via the leaked report.
Through its extensive documentation of WhatsApp messages and emails, the report shows conclusively that senior Labour officials who had dominated the party machine since the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown eras – and were still loyal to the party’s centre-right incarnation as New Labour – worked at every turn to oust Corbyn from the leadership. They even tried to invent ways to bar him from standing in a rerun leadership election a year later, in 2016, after Owen Smith, the Labour right’s preferred candidate, challenged him.
Corbyn and his supporters were viewed as dangerous “Trots” – to use a derisive term that dominates those exchanges.
The messages show these same officials did their level best to sabotage Labour’s 2017 general election campaign – an election that Corbyn was less than 3,000 votes from winning. Party officials starved marginal seats Corbyn hoped to win of money and instead focused resources on MPs hostile to Corbyn. It seems they preferred a Tory win if it gave momentum to their efforts to rid the party of Corbyn.
Or, as the submission notes: “It’s not impossible that Jeremy Corbyn might now be in his third year as a Labour prime minister were it not for the unauthorised, unilateral action taken by a handful of senior party officials.”
The exchanges in the report also show that these officials on the party’s right privately gave voice to horrifying racism towards other party members, especially black members of the party loyal to Corbyn.
And the leaked report confirms the long-running claims of Corbyn and his team that the impression of “institutional antisemitism” in Labour – a narrative promoted in the corporate media without any actual evidence beyond the anecdotal – had been stoked by the party’s right wing, Blairite officials.
They appear to have delayed and obstructed the handling of the small number of antisemitism complaints – usually found by trawling through old social media posts – to embarrass Corbyn and make the “antisemitism crisis” narrative appear more credible.
Corbyn’s team have pointed out that these officials – whose salaries were paid by the membership, which elected Corbyn as party leader – cheated those members of their dues and their rights, as well as, of course, subverting the entire democratic process. The submission rightly asks the inquiry to consider whether the money spent by Labour officials to undermine Corbyn “constituted fraudulent activity”.
One might go even further and argue that what they did amounted to a political coup.
The bogus ‘whistleblower’ narrative
Even now, as the Guardian reports on Corbyn’s submission to the Forde inquiry, it has downplayed the evidence underpinning his case, especially on the antisemitism issue – which the Guardian played such a key role in weaponising in the first place.
The paper’s latest coverage treats the Corbyn “claims” sceptically, as though the leaked report exists in a political vacuum and there are no other yardsticks by which the truth of its evidence or the plausibility of its claims can be measured.
Let’s start with one illustrative matter. The Guardian, as with the rest of the corporate media, even now avoids drawing the most obvious conclusion from the leaked report.
Racism was endemic in the language and behaviours of Labour’s senior, right wing officials, as shown time and again in the WhatsApp messages and emails.
And yet it is these very same officials – those who oversaw the complaints procedure as well as the organisation of party headquarters – who, according to the corporate media narrative, were so troubled by one specific kind of racism, antisemitism, that they turned it into the biggest, most enduring crisis facing Corbyn during his five-year tenure as leader.
To accept the corporate media narrative on this supposed “antisemitism crisis”, we must ignore several things:
the vehement racism expressed by Labour officials, as well as their overt and abiding hostility to Corbyn;
moves by party officials forcing Corbyn to accept a new definition of antisemitism that shifted the focus from a hatred of Jews to criticism of Israel;
and the fact that the handling of antisemitism complaints dramatically improved once these right wing officials were removed from their positions.
And yet in its latest reporting, as with its earlier coverage, the Guardian simply ignores all this confirmatory evidence.
There are several reasons for this, as I have documented before, but one very obvious one is this: the Guardian, like the rest of the British media, had worked hard to present former officials on the right of the party as brave “whistleblowers” long before they were exposed by the leaked report.
Like the BBC’s much-criticised Panorama “investigation” last year into Labour’s alleged “antisemitism crisis”, the Guardian took the claims of these former staff – of their supposed selfless sacrifice to save the party from anti-Jewish bigots – at face value.
In fact, it was likely even worse than that. The Guardian and BBC weren’t just passive, neutral recipients of the disinformation offered by these supposed “whistleblowers”. They shared the Labour right’s deep antipathy to Corbyn and everything he stood for, and as a result almost certainly served as willing, even enthusiastic channels for that disinformation.
The Guardian hardly bothers to conceal where its sympathies lie. It continues to laud Blair from beyond the political grave and, while Corbyn was leader, gave him slots in its pages to regularly lambast Corbyn and scaremonger about Labour’s “takeover” by the supposedly “extreme” and “hard” left. The paper did so despite the fact that Blair had grown ever more discredited as evidence amassed that his actions in invading Iraq in 2003 were crimes against humanity.
Were the Guardian to now question the narrative it promoted about Corbyn – a narrative demolished by the leaked report – the paper would have to admit several uncomfortable things:
that for years it was either gulled by, or cooperated with, the Blairites’ campaign of disinformation;
that it took no serious steps to investigate the Labour right’s claims or to find out for itself what was really going on in Labour HQ;
that it avoided cultivating a relationship with Corbyn’s team while he was in office that would have helped it to ascertain more effectively what was happening inside the party;
or that, if it did cultivate such a relationship (and, after all, Seamas Milne took up his post as Corbyn’s chief adviser immediately after leaving the Guardian), it consistently and intentionally excluded the Corbyn team’s account of events in its reporting.
To now question the narrative it invested so much energy in crafting would risk Guardian readers drawing the most plausible conclusion for their paper’s consistent reporting failures: that the Guardian was profoundly opposed to Corbyn becoming prime minister and allowed itself, along with the rest of the corporate media, to be used as channel for the Labour right’s disinformation.
Stabbed in the back
None of that has changed in the latest coverage of Corbyn’s submission to Forde concerning the leaked report.
The Guardian could not realistically ignore that submission by the party’s former leader and his team. But the paper could – and does – strip out the context on which the submission was based so as not to undermine or discredit its previous reporting against Corbyn.
Its main article on the Corbyn team’s submission becomes a claim and counter-claim story, with an emphasis on an unnamed former official arguing that criticism of him and other former staff at Labour HQ is nothing more than a “mythical ‘stab in the back’ conspiracy theory”.
The problem is that there are acres of evidence in the leaked report that these officials did stab Corbyn and his team in the back – and, helpfully for the rest of us, recorded some of their subversive, anti-democratic activities in private internal correspondence between themselves. Anyone examining those message chains would find it hard not to conclude that these officials were actively plotting against Corbyn.
To discredit the Corbyn team’s submission, the Labour right would need to show that these messages were invented. They don’t try to do that because those messages are very obviously only too real.
Instead they have tried two different, inconsistent strategies. First, they have argued that their messages were presented in a way that was misleading or misrepresented what they said. This claim does not hold water, given that the leaked report includes very lengthy, back-and-forth exchanges between senior staff. The context of those exchanges is included – context the officials themselves provided in their messages to each other.
Second, the self-styled “whistleblowers” now claim that publication of their messages – documenting efforts to undermine Corbyn – violates their right to privacy and breaches data protection laws. They can apparently see no public interest in publishing information that exposes their attempts to subvert the party’s internal democratic processes.
It seems that these “whistleblowers” are more committed to data concealment than exposure – despite the title they have bestowed on themselves. This is a strange breed of whistleblower indeed, one that seeks to prevent transparency and accountability.
In a telling move, despite claiming that their messages have been misrepresented, these former officials want the Forde inquiry to be shut down rather than given the chance to investigate their claims and, assuming they are right, exonerate them.
Further, they are trying to intimidate the party into abandoning the investigation by threatening to bankrupt it through legal actions for breaching their privacy. The last thing they appear to want is openness and a proper accounting of the Corbyn era.
Shrugging its shoulders
In its latest reporting, the Guardian frames the leaked report as “clearly intended to present a pro-Corbyn narrative for posterity” – as though the antisemitism narrative the Guardian and the rest of the corporate media spent nearly five years crafting and promoting was not clearly intended to do the precise opposite: to present an anti-Corbyn narrative for posterity.
Peter Walker, the paper’s political correspondent, describes the messages of former, right wing Labour officials as “straying” into “apparent” racism and misogyny, as though the relentless efforts revealed in these exchanges to damage and undermine prominent black MPs like Diane Abbott are open to a different interpretation.
According to Walker, the report’s evidence of election-scuppering in 2017 is “circumstantial” and “there is seemingly no proof of active obstruction”. Even assuming that were true, such a deficiency could easily be remedied had the Guardian, with all its staff and resources, made even the most cursory effort to investigate the leaked report’s claims since April – or in the years before, when the Corbyn team were trying to counter the disinformation spread by the Labour right.
The Guardian largely shrugs its shoulders, repeatedly insinuating that all this constitutes little more than Labour playground bickering. Starmer is presented as school principal – the one responsible adult in the party – who, we are told, is “no stranger to managing Labour factions”.
The Guardian ignores the enormous stakes in play both for Labour members who expected to be able to shape the party’s future using its supposedly democratic processes and for the very functioning of British democracy itself. Because if the leaked report is right, the British political system looks deeply rigged: there to ensure that only the establishment-loving right and centre-right ever get to hold power.
The Guardian’s approach suggests that the paper has abdicated all responsibility for either doing real journalism on its Westminster doorstep or for acting as a watchdog on the British political system.
Typifying the hypocrisy of the Guardian and its continuing efforts to present itself a hapless bystander rather than active participant in efforts to disrupt the Labour party’s internal democratic processes and sabotage the 2017 and 2019 elections is its lead columnist Jonathan Freedland.
Outside of the Guardian’s editorials, Freedland’s columns represent the closest we have to a window on the ideological soul of the paper. He is a barometer of the political mood there.
Freedland was among the loudest and most hostile opponents of Corbyn throughout his time as leader. Freedland was also one of the chief purveyors and justifiers of the fabled antisemitism narrative against Corbyn.
He, and the right wing Jewish Chronicle he also writes for, gave these claims an official Jewish seal of approval. They trumpeted the narrow, self-serving perspective of Jewish organisations like the Board of Deputies, whose leaders are nowadays closely allied with the Conservative party.
They amplified the bogus claims of the Jewish Labour Movement, a tiny, pro-Israel organisation inside Labour that was exposed – though the Guardian, of course, never mentions it – as effectively an entryist group, and one working closely with the Israeli embassy, in that detailed undercover investigation filmed by Al-Jazeera.
Freedland and the Chronicle endlessly derided Jewish groups that supported Corbyn, such as Jewish Voice for Labour, Just Jews and Jewdas, with antisemitic insinuations that they were the “wrong kind of Jews”. Freedland argued that strenuous criticism of Israel was antisemitic by definition because Israel lay at the heart of any proper Jew’s identity.
It did not therefore matter whether critics could show that Israel was constitutionally racist – a state similar to apartheid South Africa – as many scholars have done. Freedland argued that Jews and Israel were all but indistinguishable, and to call Israel racist was to malign Jews who identified with it. (Apparently unaware of the Pandora’s box such a conflation opened up, he rightly – if inconsistently – claimed that it was antisemitic for anyone to make the same argument in reverse: blaming Jews for Israel’s actions.)
Freedland pushed hard for Labour to be forced to adopt that new, troubling definition of antisemitism, produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, that shifted the focus away from hatred of Jews to criticism of Israel. Under this new definition, claims that Israel was “a racist endeavour” – a view shared by some prominent Israeli scholars – was treated as definitive proof of antisemitism.
If anyone gave the weaponisation of antisemitism against Corbyn an air of bipartisan respectability it was Freedland and his newspaper, the Guardian. They made sure Corbyn was hounded by the antisemitism claims while he was Labour leader, overshadowing everything else he did. That confected narrative neutralised his lifelong activism as an anti-racist, it polluted his claims to be a principled politician fighting for the underdog.
Freedland and the Guardian not only helped to breathe life into the antisemitism allegations but they made them sound credible to large sections of the Labour membership too.
The right wing media presented the Corbyn project as a traitorous, hard-left move, in cahoots with Putin’s Russia, to undermine Britain. Meanwhile, Freedland and the Guardian destroyed Corbyn from his liberal-left flank by portraying him and his supporters as a mob of left wing Nazis-in-waiting.
Corbynism, in Freedland’s telling, became a “sect”, a cult of dangerous leftists divorced from political realities. And then, with astonishing chutzpah, Freedland blamed Corbyn’s failure at the ballot box – a failure Freedland and the Guardian had helped to engineer – as a betrayal of the poor and the vulnerable.
Remember, Corbyn lost by less than 3,000 votes in a handful of Labour marginals in 2017. Despite all this, Freedland and the Guardian now pretend that they played no role in destroying Corbyn, they behave as if their hands are clean.
But Freedland’s actions, like those of his newspaper, had one inevitable outcome. They ushered in the only alternative to Corbyn: a government of the hard right led by Boris Johnson.
Freedland’s choice to assist Johnson by undermining Corbyn – and, worse, to do so on the basis of a disinformation campaign – makes him culpable, as it does the Guardian, in everything that flowed from his decision. But Freedland, like the Guardian, still pontificates on the horrors of the Johnson government, as if they share no blame for helping Johnson win power.
In his latest column, Freedland writes: “The guiding principle [of the Johnson government] seems to be brazen cronyism, coupled with the arrogance of those who believe they are untouchable and that rules are for little people.”
Why should the Tories under Johnson be so “arrogant”, so sure they are “untouchable”, that “rules are for little people”, and that there is no political price to be paid for “cronyism”?
Might it not have much to do with seeing Freedland and the Guardian assist so willingly in the corporate media’s efforts to destroy the only political alternative to “rule by the rich” Toryism? Might the Johnson government have grown more confident knowing that the ostensibly liberal-left media were just as determined as the right wing media to undermine the only politician on offer who stood for precisely the opposite political values they did?
Might it not reflect an understanding by Johnson and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, that Freedland and the Guardian have played a hugely significant part in ensuring that Britain effectively has a one-party state – and that when it returns to being a formal two-party state, as it seems to be doing once again now that Starmer is running the Labour party, both those parties will offer the same establishment-worshipping agenda, even if in two mildly different flavours?
The Guardian, like the rest of the corporate media, has derided and vilified as “populism” the emergence of any real political alternative.
The leaked report offered a brief peek behind the curtain at how politics in Britain – and elsewhere – really works. It showed that, during Corbyn’s time as leader, the political battle lines became intensely real. They were no longer the charade of a phoney fight between left and right, between Labour and Conservative.
Instead, the battle shifted to where it mattered, to where it might finally make change possible: for control of the Labour party so that it might really represent the poor and vulnerable against rule by the rich. Labour became the battleground, and the Guardian made all too clear where its true loyalties lie.
Jeremy Corbyn, the former left-wing leader of Britain’s Labour party, is once again making headlines over an “antisemitism problem” he supposedly oversaw during his five years at the head of the party.
This time, however, the assault on his reputation is being led not by the usual suspects – pro-Israel lobbyists and a billionaire-owned media – but by Keir Starmer, the man who succeeded him.
Since becoming Labour leader in April, Starmer has helped to bolster the evidence-free narrative of a party plagued by antisemitism under Corbyn. That has included Starmer’s refusal to exploit two major opportunities to challenge that narrative.
Had those chances been grasped, Labour might have been able to demonstrate that Corbyn was the victim of an underhanded campaign to prevent him from reaching power.
Starmer, had he chosen to, could have shown that Corbyn’s long history as an anti-racism campaigner was twisted to discredit him. His decades of vocal support for Palestinian rights were publicly recast as a supposed irrational hatred of Israel based on an antipathy to Jews.
But instead Starmer chose to sacrifice his predecessor rather than risk being tarred with the same brush.
As a result, Labour now appears to be on the brink of open war. Competing rumors suggest Corbyn may be preparing to battle former staff through the courts, while Starmer may exile his predecessor from the party.
Corbyn’s troubles were inevitable the moment the mass membership elected him Labour leader in 2015 in defiance of the party bureaucracy and most Labour MPs. Corbyn was determined to revive the party as a vehicle for democratic socialism and end Britain’s role meddling overseas as a junior partner to the global hegemon of the United States.
That required breaking with Labour’s capture decades earlier, under Tony Blair, as a party of neoliberal orthodoxy at home and neoconservative orthodoxy abroad.
Until Corbyn arrived on the scene, Labour had become effectively a second party of capital alongside Britain’s ruling Conservative party, replicating the situation in the US with the Democratic and Republican parties.
His attempts to push the party back towards democratic socialism attracted hundreds of thousands of new members, quickly making Labour the largest party in Europe. But it also ensured a wide-ranging alliance of establishment interests was arrayed against him, including the British military, the corporate media, and the pro-Israel lobby.
Unlike Corbyn, Starmer has not previously shown any inclination to take on the might of the establishment. In fact, he had previously proven himself its willing servant.
As head of Britain’s prosecution service in 2013, for example, his department issued thinly veiled threats to Sweden to continue its legal pursuit of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who had sought political asylum in London’s Ecuadorian embassy, even as Swedish interest in the case waned.
With his background in realpolitik, Starmer appears to have grasped quickly the danger of being seen to share any common ground with Corbyn – not only should he pursue significant elements of his predecessor’s program, but by challenging the carefully crafted establishment narrative around Corbyn.
For this reason, he has refused to seize either of the two chances presented to him to demonstrate that Labour had no more of an antisemitism problem than the relatively marginal one that exists more generally in British society.
That failure is likely to prove all the more significant given that in a matter of weeks Labour is expected to face the findings of an investigation by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The highly politicized watchdog body, which took on the probe into Labour while refusing to investigate plentiful evidence of an Islamophobia problem in the Conservative party, is expected to shore up the Corbyn-antisemitism narrative.
Labour has said it will readily accept the Commission’s findings, whatever they are. The watchdog body is likely to echo the prevailing narrative that Corbyn attracted left-wingers to the party who were ideologically tainted with antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. As a result, or so the argument goes, Jew hatred flourished on his watch.
Starmer has already declared “zero tolerance” of antisemitism, but he has appeared willing – in line with pro-Israel lobbyists in his party – to conflate Jew hatred with trenchant criticism of Israel.
The barely veiled intention is to drive Corbynite members out of Labour – either actively through suspensions or passively as their growing disillusionment leads to a mass exodus.
By distancing himself from his predecessor, Starmer knows no dirt will stick to him even as the Equality Commission drags Corbyn’s name through the mud.
Sabotaged from within
Starmer rejected the first chance to salvage the reputations of Corbyn and the wider Labour membership days after he became leader.
In mid-April, an 850-page internal party report was leaked, stuffed with the text of lengthy email exchanges and WhatsApp chats by senior party staff. They showed that, as had long been suspected, Corbyn’s own officials worked hard to sabotage his leadership from within.
Staff at headquarters still loyal to the Blair vision of the party even went so far as to actively throw the 2017 general election, when Labour was a hair’s-breadth away from ousting the Conservatives from government. These officials hoped a crushing defeat would lead to Corbyn’s removal from office.
The report described a “hyper-factional atmosphere”, with officials, including then-deputy leader Tom Watson, regularly referring to Corbyn and his supporters as “Trots” – a reference to Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of a violent Communist revolution in Russia more than a century ago.
Corbynites were thrown out of the party on the flimsiest pretexts, such as describing those like Blair who led the 2003 attack on Iraq as “warmongers”.
But one early, favored tactic by staff in the disciplinary unit was to publicize antisemitism cases and then drag out their resolution to create the impression that the party under Corbyn was not taking the issue seriously.
These officials also loosened the definition of antisemitism to pursue cases against Corbyn’s supporters who, like him, were vocal in defending Palestinian rights or critical of Israeli policies.
This led to the preposterous situation where Labour was suspending and expelling anti-Zionist Jews who supported Corbyn on the grounds that they were supposedly antisemites, while action was delayed on dealing with a Holocaust denier.
The narrative against Corbyn being crafted by his own officials was eagerly picked up and amplified by the strong contingent of Blairites among Labour legislators in the parliament, as well as by the corporate media and by Israel lobbyists both inside and outside Labour.
Effort to bury report
The parties responsible for leaking the report in April did so because Labour, now led by Starmer, had no intention of publicizing it.
In fact, the report had been originally compiled as part of Labour’s submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, effectively giving Corbyn’s side of the story against his opponents.
But once Corbyn stepped down, the party bureaucracy under Starmer preferred to shelve it. That decision meant there would be no case for the defense, and Corbyn’s opponents’ claims would go unchallenged.
Once leaked, Starmer stuck to his position. Rather than use the report as an opportunity to expose the ugly campaign against Corbyn and thereby question the antisemitism narrative, Starmer did his level best to bury it from sight.
He vowed to investigate “the circumstances in which the report was put into the public domain”. That sounded ominously like a threat to hound those who had tried to bring to light the party’s betrayal of its previous leader.
Rather than accept the evidence presented in the leaked report of internal corruption and the misuse of party funds, Starmer set up an inquiry under QC Martin Forde to investigate the earlier investigation.
The Forde inquiry looked like Starmer’s effort to kick the damaging revelations into the long grass.
The British media gave the leaked report – despite its earth-shattering revelations of Labour officials sabotaging an election campaign – little more than perfunctory coverage.
A second, related chance to challenge the Corbyn-antisemitism narrative reached its conclusion last week. And again, Starmer threw in Labour’s hand.
In July last year – long before the report had been leaked – the BBC’s prestige news investigation show Panorama set out to answer a question it posed in the episode’s title: “Is Labour Antisemitic?”
The program presented eight former staff as “whistleblowers”, their testimonies supposedly exposing Corbyn’s indulgence of antisemitism. They included those who would soon be revealed in the leaked report as intractable ideological enemies of the Corbyn project and others who oversaw the dysfunctional complaints process that dragged its heels on resolving antisemitism cases.
The Panorama program was dismal even by the low standards of political reporting set by the BBC in the Corbyn era.
The show made much of the testimony of pro-Israel lobbyists inside the Labour party belonging to a group called the Jewish Labour Movement. They were not identified – either by name or by affiliation – despite being given the freedom to make anecdotal and unspecified claims of antisemitism against Corbyn and his supporters.
The BBC’s decision not to name these participants had nothing to do with protecting their identities, even though that was doubtless the impression conveyed to the audience.
Most were already known as Israel partisans because they had been exposed in a 2017 four-part al-Jazeera undercover documentary called The Lobby. They were filmed colluding with an Israeli embassy official, Shai Masot, to bring down Corbyn. The BBC did not identify these pro-Israel activists presumably because they had zero credibility as witnesses.
Nonetheless, a seemingly stronger case – at least, at the time – was made by the eight former Labour staff. Their testimonies to the BBC suggested they had been hampered and bullied by Corbyn’s team as they tried to stamp out antisemitism.
Panorama allowed these claims to go unchallenged, even though with a little digging it could have tapped sources inside Labour who were already compiling what would become the leaked report, presenting a very different view of these self-styled “whistleblowers”.
The BBC also failed to talk to Jewish Voice for Labour, a group of Labour party members supportive of Corbyn who challenged the way the Jewish Labour Movement had manipulated the definition of antisemitism in the party to harm Palestinian solidarity activists.
And the BBC did not call as counter-witnesses any of the anti-Zionist Jews who were among the earliest victims of the purge of supposed antisemites by Labour’s apparent “whistleblowers”.
Instead, it selectively quoted from an email by Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s chief adviser, to suggest that he had interfered in the disciplinary process to help antisemites avoid suspension.
Proper context from the BBC would have revealed that Milne had simply expressed concern at how the rule book was being interpreted when several Jews had been suspended for antisemitism – and that he had proffered his view only because a staff member now claiming to be a whistleblower had asked for it.
This section of the Panorama show looked suspiciously like entrapment of Milne by Labour staff, followed by collusion from the BBC in promoting their false narrative.
Despite these and many other serious flaws in the Panorama episode, it set the tone for subsequent discussion of the “antisemitism problem” in Labour.
The program aired a few months before a general election, last December, that Corbyn lost to Boris Johnson and the ruling Conservative party.
One of the key damaging, “gotcha” moments of the campaign was an interview with the veteran BBC interviewer Andrew Neil in which he repeatedly asked Corbyn to apologize for antisemitism in the party, as had been supposedly exposed by Panorama. Corbyn’s refusal to respond directly to the question left him looking evasive and guilty.
With the rest of the media amplifying the Panorama claims rather than testing them, it has become the accepted benchmark for judging the Corbyn era. The show has even been nominated for a Bafta award, the British equivalent to an Oscar.
Shortly after the program aired, Corbyn’s team disputed the Panorama narrative, saying it had contained “deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public”. They also described the “whistleblowers” as disaffected former staff with “political axes to grind”.
Ware and seven of the former staff members who appeared in the program launched a defamation action against the Labour party.
After the internal report was leaked in April, the legal scales tipped decisively in Labour’s favor. Starmer was reportedly advised by lawyers that the party would be well-positioned to defeat the legal action and clear Corbyn and the party’s name.
But again Starmer preferred to fold. Before the case could be tested in court, Starmer issued an apology last week to the ex-staff members and Ware, and paid them a six-figure sum in damages.
Admitting that “antisemitism has been a stain on the Labour Party in recent years”, the statement accepted the claims of the ex-staff to be “whistleblowers”, even capitalizing the word to aggrandize their status.
It said: “We acknowledge the many years of dedicated and committed service that the Whistleblowers have given to the Labour Party … We unreservedly withdraw all allegations of bad faith, malice and lying.”
Threat of bankruptcy
With typical understatement, Corbyn said he was “disappointed” at the settlement, calling it a “political decision, not a legal one”. He added that it “risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour party in recent years.”
Starmer’s decision also preempted – and effectively nullified – the Forde inquiry, which was due to submit its own findings on antisemitism in Labour later in the year.
Many in the party were infuriated that their membership dues had been used to pay off a group of ex-staff who, according to the leaked report, had undermined the party’s elected leader and helped to throw a general election.
But in what looked disturbingly like a move to silence Corbyn, Ware said he was consulting lawyers once again about launching a legal battle, personally against the former Labour leader, over his criticism of the settlement.
Mark Lewis, the solicitor acting for Ware and the whistleblowers, has said he is also preparing an action for damages against Labour on behalf of 32 individuals named in the leaked report. Among them is Lord Iain McNichol, who served as the party’s general secretary at the time.
Lewis reportedly intends to focus on staff privacy breaches under the Data Protection Act, disclosure of private information and alleged violations of employment law.
Conversely, Mark Howell, a Labour party member, has initiated an action against Labour and McNichol seeking damages for “breach of contract”. He demands that those named in the leaked report be expelled from the party.
He is also reported to be considering referring named staff members to the Crown Prosecution Service under the 2006 Fraud Act for their failure to uphold the interests of party members who paid staff salaries.
This spate of cases threatens to hemorrhage money from the party. There have been warnings that financial settlements, as well as members deserting the party in droves, could ultimately bankrupt Labour.
Corbyn to be expelled?
Within days of the apology, a crowdfunding campaign raised more than £280,000 for Corbyn to clear his name in any future legal actions.
Given his own self-serving strategy, Starmer would doubtless be embarrassed by such a move. There are already rumors that he is considering withdrawing the party whip from Corbyn – a form of exile from the party.
Pressure on him to do so is mounting. At the weekend it was reported that ex-staff might drop the threatened case over the embarrassing revelations contained in the leaked report should Starmer expel Corbyn.
Quoting someone it described as a “well-placed source”, the Mail on Sunday newspaper set out the new stakes. “Labour says they have zero tolerance to anti-Semitism. Zero tolerance means no Corbyn and no Corbynistas,” the source said.
Starmer has committed to upholding “10 Pledges” produced by the Board of Deputies – a conservative Jewish leadership organization hostile to Corbyn and the left – that places it and the pro-Israel lobbyists of the Jewish Labour Movement in charge of deciding what constitutes antisemitism in the party.
Starmer’s decision about who can serve in his shadow cabinet is a reminder that the storm over Corbyn was never about real antisemitism – the kind that targets Jews for being Jews. It was a pretext to be rid of the Corbyn project and democratic socialism.
Starmer quickly pushed out the last two prominentCorbynites in his shadow cabinet – both on matters related to criticism of Israel.
By contrast, he has happily indulged the kind of antisemitism that harms Jews as long as it comes from members of his shadow cabinet who are not associated with Corbyn.
Starmer picked Rachel Reeves for his team, even though earlier this year she tweeted a tribute to Nancy Astor, a supporter of Hitler and notorious antisemite. Reeves has refused to delete the tweet.
And Steve Reed is still the shadow communities secretary, even though this month he referred to a Jewish newspaper tycoon, Richard Desmond, as a “puppet master” – the very definition of an antisemitic trope.
Starmer’s “zero tolerance” appears to be highly selective – more concerned about harsh criticism of a state, Israel, than the othering of Jews. Tellingly, Starmer has been under no serious pressure from the Jewish Labour Movement, or from the media or from Jewish leadership organizations such as the Board of Deputies to take any action against either Reeves or Reed.
He has moved swiftly against leftists in his party who criticize Israel but has shrugged his shoulders at supposed “moderates” who, it could be argued, have encouraged or glorified hatred and suspicion of Jews.
But then the antisemitism furor was never about safeguarding Jews. It was about creating a cover story as the establishment protected itself from democratic socialism.
After years of successfully drawing attention away from Israel’s intensifying crimes against the Palestinian people by citing a supposedly growing “antisemitism crisis” in Britain’s Labour Party, Jewish community leaders in the UK are exasperated to find themselves unexpectedly on the defensive.
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled the rug out from under leading British Jewish organisations by appointing Tzipi Hotovely as Israel’s next ambassador to the UK. She is expected to take up her position in the summer.
Recently made Israel’s first settlements minister, Hotovely does not appear to have a diplomatic bone in her body. She is a rising star in Netanyahu’s Likud Party – and at the heart of the Israeli far-right’s ascendancy over the past decade.
‘This land is ours’
She is openly Islamophobic, denying the history of the Palestinian people. She supports hardline racial purity groups, such as Lehava, that try to stop relationships between Jews and non-Jews. And she flaunts a religious Jewish supremacism that claims title to all of historic Palestine.
In a 2015 speech on her appointment as deputy foreign minister, she rejected a two-state solution, saying: “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that.”
She was given responsibility as settlements minister for overseeing what is widely feared will be the imminent annexation of up to a third of the West Bank promised by Netanyahu, destroying any last hope of a Palestinian state.
But she goes further. She favours full West Bank annexation, implying support either for Israel’s explicit and direct apartheid rule over millions of Palestinians or renewed mass ethnic cleansing operations to remove Palestinians from their homes.
Hotovely also supports Israel’s takeover of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem, one of the most important Islamic sites in the world. Such a move could set the Middle East on fire.
Hotovely is an undoubted rupture from recent ambassadors.
From 2007 until 2016, the post was held successively by career diplomats Ron Prosor and Daniel Taub. They followed the traditional embassy playbook: rhetorical efforts to take the spotlight off Israel and its systematic oppression of Palestinians.
They focused instead on a two-state solution that no one in the Israeli government was actually interested in, and blamed the lack of progress on supposed Palestinian intransigence and Hamas “terrorism”.
In early 2016, another diplomat, Mark Regev, was appointed, though in a more politicised capacity. He had previously served as Netanyahu’s most trusted spokesman.
Regev’s arrival coincided with a much more aggressive – if covert – role for the London embassy in interfering directly in British politics. He had to deal with the recently elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who was seen as a major threat to Israel because of his outspoken support for Palestinians.
An undercover investigation aired by Al Jazeera in early 2017 revealed that an Israeli embassy official was secretly coordinating with Jewish organisations to undermine Corbyn. One such group, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), had been recently revived inside the Labour Party to oppose Corbyn.
Evidence emerged to suggest that the embassy’s efforts to damage Corbyn were being directed from Israel, by the strategic affairs ministry. The ministry’s main mission has been to discredit overseas solidarity with Palestinians, especially the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel.
Zionism and antisemitism
As the documentary underscored, one of the main weapons in Israel’s arsenal has been to tar Palestinian solidarity activists as antisemites.
This has been achieved by muddying the differences between antisemitism and opposition to Zionism, an extreme political ideology that – even in its secular varieties – assumes that Jews have a biblically inspired right to dispossess the native Palestinian population.
Corbyn found himself increasingly under attack from the JLM and the UK’s main Jewish leadership organisation, the Board of Deputies, for supposedly unleashing a “plague” of antisemitism in Labour. While antisemitism in the UK has been rising overall in recent years, statistics revealed this accusation against the Labour Party in particular to be entirely groundless.
Keir Starmer, Corbyn’s successor as Labour leader, gives every impression of having learned from Corbyn’s devastating run-in with the Israel lobby. He has declared himself a Zionist and signed up to “10 Pledges” from the Board of Deputies that take meaningful criticism of Israel off the table.
Late last month he sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet for supposedly indulging an antisemitic “conspiracy theory” after she retweeted an article that criticised Israel’s well-documented involvement in training US police forces.
Netanyahu now appears confident that the political threat to Israel from the UK has been neutralised, and that neither of Britain’s two main parties will pay more than lip service to Palestinian rights.
That has been underscored by the fact that Hotovely’s appointment coincides with the expected move by Netanyahu to annex swaths of the West Bank over the coming weeks under licence from US President Donald Trump’s recent “peace” plan.
Last month, some 50 United Nations human rights experts described Israel’s proposed annexation as the harbinger of “21st century apartheid”.
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, has voiced opposition to annexation, as has Starmer. But neither has indicated that he would take any meaningful retaliatory action.
The fact that Hotovely, a champion of maximalist annexation, will represent Israeli government policy in the UK suggests that Netanyahu understands that British party leaders will offer no more than empty threats.
But while Netanyahu may be happy to have Hotovely selling West Bank annexation to the British public and defending Israel’s ever-greater abuses of Palestinians, prominent Jewish figures in the UK are up in arms.
They have spent the past five years changing the optics in the UK. Zionism – Israel’s settler-colonial ideology – has been repackaged as innocuous, even wholesome: a benevolent political movement that simply empowers Jews, liberating them from antisemitism.
But this illusion has depended on erasing Palestinians – and their oppression – from view.
So successful has the campaign been that those who try to remind Britons of the circumstances of Israel’s establishment and its subsequent history have been decried as antisemites.
The creation of Israel, sponsored by British governments starting more than a century ago, depended on the ethnic cleansing of some 80 percent of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and the continuing exclusion of millions of their descendants. Israel still subjects millions more to a belligerent occupation.
Hotovely threatens to disrupt all of these achievements, and expose the pro-Israel lobby – as well as some of the biggest names in Britain’s Jewish community – as charlatans.
Passionate about Israel
Jewish leaders in the UK were already panicking over Netanyahu’s promises to annex parts of the West Bank. That would bring into sharp focus a decades-long Zionist programme of Palestinian dispossession they have quietly supported.
Early last month, before Hotovely’s appointment had been announced, around 40 of Britain’s most prominent Jews, including historians Simon Schama and Simon Sebag Montefiore, philanthropist Vivien Duffield and former Conservative cabinet minister Malcolm Rifkind, wrote to Regev urging the Israeli government to rethink annexation.
They observed that, as “committed Zionists and passionately outspoken friends of Israel”, they had worked hard to “nurture a more sympathetic environment for Israel” in the UK. But annexation, they warned, would tear apart the country’s Jewish community and “pose an existential threat to the traditions of Zionism in Britain”.
It was notable that key figures in the campaign to oust Corbyn over his support for Palestinian rights signed the letter, including former Labour MP Luciana Berger; Trevor Chinn, a major donor to Starmer’s campaign; Daniel Finkelstein, associate editor at the Times newspaper; Julia Neuberger, a prominent rabbi; and Anthony Julius, a celebrated lawyer.
Annexation is not new
But annexation is not a new policy, as these Jewish notables suggest. Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, in violation of international law, condemning more than 370,000 Palestinian residents to permanent Israeli apartheid rule. Israel did the same to the Syrian Golan Heights a year later.
And is annexation really worse than the mass ethnic cleansing operations Israel carried out not only in 1948, but again in 1967? Ever since, Israel has pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing by stealth in the occupied territories – the flip 0side of its “creeping annexation” policy – as it has taken over more Palestinian land to settle it with Jews.
Did these war crimes not lead Jewish community leaders in Britain to rethink their “passionate commitment” to Israel?
And why is it only this latest phase of annexation that makes them question “Israel’s status as a liberal democracy” – not the legal structures codified in dozens of laws that privilege the citizenship rights of Jews over Israel’s 1.8 million-strong Palestinian minority, a fifth of its population?
Formal annexation is simply the logical conclusion of more than a century of Zionist colonisation of Palestine, one that was always premised on the replacement of the native population with Jews. Getting the jitters at this late stage in Israel’s settler-colonial mission, as though some imaginary red line has suddenly been crossed, is self-delusion of the highest order.
Sparing allies’ blushes
But if annexation poses a severe blow to the image these “passionate Zionists” have of themselves as fair-minded, sensitive liberals, Hotovely’s appointment as ambassador may yet sound the death knell.
Earlier Israeli governments were aware of the need to put a rhetorical gloss on their oppression of Palestinians to spare the blushes of supporters in western states. That was one of the tasks of Israel’s foreign ministry and its diplomatic corps. It was also the aim of the Israeli hasbara industry – state propaganda masquerading as neutral “information”.
Successive Netanyahu governments have found propping up such deceptions increasingly untenable in an era in which Palestinians have phone cameras that can document their abuse. The resulting videos are all over YouTube.
Many British Jews have averted their eyes, claiming instead that strenuous criticism of Israel is demonisation motivated by antisemitism. But the self-deceptions so beloved by many in overseas Jewish communities are increasingly unpalatable to the Israeli right’s Jewish supremacist instincts. Hotovely is simply the latest choice of envoy who cares little for indulging the cognitive dissonance of local Jewish allies.
Back in 2015, before the ultra-nationalist Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president, Netanyahu tried to foist a settler leader, Dani Dayan, on Brasilia. Notably, Hotovely, who was then Israel’s deputy foreign minister, was outspokenin defending Dayan’s appointment, even threatening to downgrade relations with Brazil.
After a diplomatic row, Dayan was eventually reassigned as Israel’s consul general in New York.
Some in the UK’s Jewish community appear to believe they can enjoy similar success. Many hundreds of British Jews have signed a petition launched by an anti-occupation group, Na’amod, urging the UK to reject Hotovely as ambassador. Others appear to be contemplating a boycott if she is accredited.
Liberal Jewish community leaders have joined them in opposition. Labour peer Lord Beecham told the Jewish Chronicle that Hotovely’s appointment would “do nothing to win friends in the UK – or indeed any other reasonable country”.
Laura Janner-Klausner, the senior rabbi of the Reform Movement, echoed him: “[Hotovely’s] political views on Palestinians, annexation and religious pluralism clash with our core values.”
Except that all the recent evidence suggests Janner-Klausner is wrong. Yes, Hotovely’s unadorned “values” are ugly and openly racist. She does not veil her Jewish supremacist worldview; she wears it proudly.
But her policies in support of Jewish settlement on Palestinian land have been the bedrock policy of every Israeli government since 1967, when the occupation began. And the logical endpoint of the ever-expanding settlements was always annexation, either by legal fiat or by creating a mass of facts on the ground.
The majority of Britain’s Jewish community, as its leaders keep reminding us, are fervent Zionists. Jewish publications described Na’amod, which launched the petition against Hotovely, as a “fringe” group because it “campaigns against the occupation and [is] in favour of Palestinian rights”.
Living a lie
For many years, some in the British Jewish community have served as cheerleaders for the settlements. One such group, the Jewish National Fund UK, welcomed Hotovely’s appointment, noting what they called her “many positive attributes and achievements”.
Others have cynically turned a blind eye to developments in the occupied territories over more than half a century. The Board of Deputies – the nearest the UK’s Jewish community has to an establishment – has said it will work with Hotovely. Concerning annexation, it has said: “We don’t take sides in Israeli politics.”
Others have paid lip service to opposition to the settlements, while living a lie they concealed even from themselves. The more Israel moved to the right and the more it expanded settlements to displace Palestinians, the more these “liberals” entrenched their support for Israel, and the more they refused to countenance dissent.
Blind support for Israel became a measure of whether they would back a political party, as Ed Miliband, himself Jewish and Corbyn’s predecessor as Labour leader, found to his cost.
An ultra-nationalist id
The Labour Party was lost to the majority of Britain’s Jewish community long ago – long before Corbyn. Anything but uncritical support for Israel – even as Israel moved ever further into an ultra-nationalism bordering on what Israeli experts have described as fascism – was denounced as proof of left-wing “antisemitism”.
“Antisemitism” became a way to avoid thinking about Israel and what it stood for. It became a way to reject Israel’s critics without addressing their arguments. It served as a comfort blanket, reassuring many British Jews that their politics were defensive, rather than ideologically extreme and offensive.
Now, Hotovely will serve as the Israeli ultra-nationalist id to their liberal egos. With Corbyn the bogeyman gone, liberal British Jews will finally have to face truths about Israel they have deeply buried.
It is a moment of reckoning – and one long overdue.
The “lost child” endures as motif and theme, the stalking shadow of much literature, the background to a society’s anxiety. The child, often deemed innocent, becomes the ink blot of loss in such disappearance. In Australia, it was captured by Peter Pierce’s The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety(1999). In wide spaces, innocence has much room to go wrong in, to vanish and encourage judgment.
Madeleine McCann was never merely a lost child who disappeared in the Algarve from her family’s holiday apartment on May 3, 2007. She remains a fixation of the British media stable, and, it should be said, to an unhealthy degree. Her disappearance was a fire that burned with little Englander, flag-waving rage, often directed against the Portuguese and judgmental about any efforts in investigation. The McCann story was, in Giles Tremlett’s words, “a snapshot of Britain and its poisonous media culture”, but also those indifferent Britons who were happy to enjoy the sun of the Iberian Peninsula without much care for their host countries. Such tourists, and residents, could often be beastly, preoccupying local police and emergency units with their overdoses, intoxicated late night swims, night club fighting and the occasional drowned toddler in a villa swimming pool.
The McCann furnace tended to burn most of its participants, including the grieving parents, who were a daily feature of news bulletins till saturation, stepping out of their Praia da Luz apartment and photographed with paparazzi enthusiasm. For a brief spell, police interest shifted to them, more out of formality than anything else. An interest was registered in their parenting skills and their lifestyle. Should they have left their three-year old daughter unattended in an easily accessible flat as they feasted on tapas with friends who did the same? Did they sedate their child? It would explain why there were no screams, no howls of despair, as a stranger carted the child away.
As novelist Anne Enright weighed in, “If someone else is found to have taken Madeleine McCann – as may well be the case – it will show that the ordinary life of an ordinary family cannot survive the suspicious scrutiny of millions.” (Worth noting here is the savage attack on Enright for her generally balanced reflection. Janet Street-Porter, editor-at-large at The Independent raged, calling her “charmless”, a hater of Kate McCann “who is guilty of no crime, except being fit and attractive”.)
In covering the disappearance, and the vain investigation to recover her or find a culprit, views and commentaries flourished with speculative detail, malicious mauling, and mawkish reverence. The reputation of Kate and Gerry McCann served to shift in the sands of public consciousness, a projection of class and status. Initially, as was to be found in the Daily Mail, they were the perfect, unsullied parents, both of medical background, their daughter being blond and insufferably cute. Brimming of the middle class ethic, they were to be seen and judged through such eyes, with their daughter fulfilling a role akin to caricature about what innocence would look like. “This kind of thing doesn’t usually happen to people like us,” bleated Allison Pearson of the Daily Mail.
But things did turn on them, with a sort of reverse snobbery. The Daily Express was particularly keen on that front, with their reporters encouraged to target the McCanns for unsubstantiated responsibility for their daughter’s demise. The same attention had not been paid to, for instance, the vanishing of British toddler Ben Needham in Kos in 1991. As Owen Jones noted in sharp fashion in Chavs (2012), “Kidnappings, stabbings, murders; those are things you almost expect to happen to people living in Peckham or Glasgow. This sort of tragedy was not supposed to happen to folks you might bump into doing the weekly shop at Waitrose.”
The McCanns could always count on their defenders. Des Spence found himself performing that role in the British Medical Journal, finding it impossible to presume that the parents were culpable in any way. (Sod the police; we know better.) “The McCanns merely did as countless thousands of other parents have done. Any blame of guilt is grossly misplaced and unkind, for they are victims of an act of utter malevolence. No one has the right to question the McCanns’ parental commitment.”
The case had been on a slow burn, embers visible to those caring to watch. In addition to personal efforts on the part of the McCanns to hire personal investigators, Scotland Yard also committed its own resources in Operation Grange. Several police forces have been preoccupied with the investigation.
Now, a blast of air has been given to the matter, with the grim announcement by the Braunschweig Public Prosecutor’s Office about the latest developments. “We are assuming,” stated a solemn Hans Christian Wolters, “that the girl is dead. With the suspect, we are talking about a sexual predator who has already been convicted of crimes against little girls and he’s already serving a long sentence.” The suspect in question, one Christian D., had been a regular resident of the Algarve between 1995 and 2007, working in the catering industry and doing his bit of drug dealing and burgling of holiday flats. To date, the prosecutor general’s office in Portugal have yet to find a record of any crimes committed by the suspect, though they are re-opening their investigation on that front.
Despite the news, family spokesman Clarence Mitchell revealed that he could not “recall an instance when the police had been so specific about an individual. Of all the thousands of leads and potential suspects that have been mentioned in the past, there has never been something as clear cut as that from not just one, but three police forces.”
While the German stance on this has settled upon the view that Madeleine is no longer alive, the Met Police in Britain hold to the view that this remains a “missing persons” investigation. In doing so, another offering to perpetuate the McCann mystery has been made, one that has become self-propagating, ceaseless and remorselessly vulgar.
The wrong conclusions are being drawn about Emily Maitlis’s comments on Dominic Cummings on the BBC flagship Newsnight show this week. Her remarks are not evidence of her courage, or that journalists are being gagged, or that the BBC is suddenly capitulating to the government.
The problem is caused by our desire to focus on whether Maitlis was right or wrong about Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, breaking the lockdown rules. But it is actually a distraction to fixate on the issue of whether Maitlis should or should not have been allowed to express the widely shared view – supported by a police investigation – that Cummings broke his own government’s rules by driving around the UK when he suspected he and his family were infected with Covid-19.
Even narrowly concentrating on the matter of whether the BBC was justified in hurriedly reprimanding Maitlis for criticising Cummings’ behaviour – and then seemingly forcing her off air the next night as punishment – limits our understanding of what the incident signifies, what it means.
The BBC, the rest of the media, even Maitlis herself, would all prefer that we restrict ourselves to debating the rights and wrongs of this particular row – and that we continue to see it chiefly as a “row”, with two sides arguing over what was the right thing to do in the circumstances.
But viewing the incident in this way is to personalise the “row” into a question simply of whether Maitlis is a good journalist or a bad one, or whether BBC bosses were too submissive towards the government on this occasion or are really trying to uphold standards of “impartiality”. Neither “debate” gets us very far.
Maitlis is a senior BBC journalist who got where she is today by doing with flair what the BBC is supposed to do – and consistently does. This week something went wrong. There was a very brief glitch in the BBC’s well-oiled machine. Studying that glitch in isolation really won’t clarify things. The glitch must be seen in relation to the well-oiled machine – in that way we can throw light on what the BBC does so effortlessly the rest of the time.
The usefulness of the Maitlis “row” is not in weighing whether she was impartial or partial on this occasion, or conversely whether her BBC bosses were enforcing impartiality rules or being partial. Rather, it helps to shed light on whether the BBC and its journalists ever actually aspire to be impartial, and whether impartiality is even possible.
Mocked and berated
The almost-immediate reprimand issued by the BBC, chastising Maitlis for failing to uphold the corporation’s supposedly strict standards of impartiality, helps in this regard because it is so clearly nonsense that Maitlis usually prioritises impartiality, or that BBC bosses usually hurry to issue reprimands when such standards are broken.
Here to remind us that Maitlis has no qualms about being partial – and the BBC no qualms about letting her be partial – is another short clip of her in action, from a broadcast 14 months ago. On this occasion she interrupted, berated and ridiculed Barry Gardiner, then the shadow secretary for international trade, as he tried to explain Labour’s Brexit policy:
Notice the differences in that segment compared to her comments this week. Her criticisms of Cummings were delivered in sombre tones, as if in disappointment, as though Cummings had fallen below the high standards normally set by the government. Her comments were carefully ascribed to the national mood. And she restricted herself to critiquing Cummings’ behaviour (criticisms echoed by the police investigation) and Johnson’s commitment to standing by him. She did not stray into wider territory that risked targeting the government’s political policies or its priorities.
The Gardiner interview is something else entirely. She rolls her eyes at the camera, she mocks him with barely concealed disdain, she laughs at him, and her body language is openly hostile. She explicitly ridicules the Labour party’s policy on Brexit while a representative for the government sits grinning next to Gardiner in pleased disbelief at her outburst – all remember at a time when the Conservative party, then led by Theresa May, was in a complete shambles, tearing itself apart over a Brexit mess it had created and ensuring near-complete political paralysis.
Analyse those two videos of Maitlis and then decide in which one she appears more partial. Were you a visitor from Mars watching those two clips, which one might you expect the BBC to have hurriedly apologised over for breaking its supposed impartiality rules?
And yet I can find no indication that the BBC ever issued a reprimand to Maitlis over the Gardiner interview, either at the time or later.
In fact, the interview was in many ways so normal by the BBC’s standards – especially in the days when Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader – that I have yet to see anyone on my very active social media feeds about the Maitlis incident refer to it. Unlike the Cummings comment, Maitlis’s public bullying of, and contempt for, Gardiner went critically unremarked outside of the usual leftist circles. Instead, the interview was generally celebrated. On its Youtube page, the “liberal” Guardian even implicitly lauds her “exasperation” at Gardiner as capturing the “national mood”, again as if Labour was more responsible for the chaos of Brexit than the government whose policy it was.
A matter of power
Just to underline the point, here is another image of Maitlis on Newsnight, this time being politically “impartial” about Corbyn himself. The photomontage backdrop two years ago was meant to suggest that the Labour leader was a Kremlin stooge, at a time when Russia hysteria was at its height.
(In a laughable effort to defend this montage, a Channel 4 “fact-check” argued that it could not have been politically motivated because the same backdrop had earlier been used for the then defence secretary Gavin Williamson. That ignored the glaringly obvious point that in Williamson’s case the backdrop was used to contrast him with the “Russian menace” and indicate the dangers the UK government faced. This was even emphasised by accentuating the blue hues in Williamson’s cut-out image. In Corbyn’s case the montage was clearly meant to imply a sympathy between the Labour leader and the Kremlin, including the addition of a red hue to Corbyn’s face and the manipulation of his peaked cap to make it look like a Brezhnev-style pie hat.)
The difference in the BBC’s treatment of the Cummings comments and the Gardiner interview relates not to the question of partiality but to the matter of power. Cummings is at the very heart of power, at the centre of a government unabashedly representing the interests of the establishment. He is the indispensable “brain” – the Svengali – behind the dull-witted, vacuous but amiable prime minister. Without Cummings, the government would be rudderless, which is exactly why Johnson is determined to try to keep Cummings, despite the damage it is causing him and the party. It is why Johnson was so incensed, and frightened, by Maitlis’s comments. And it is why the BBC realised that in the circumstances the stakes were far too high to back their star journalist.
The mistake made by Maitlis and the Newsnight team was not appreciating just how important Cummings is to the government. He is not just an adviser. In many senses, he is the government.
‘Free press’ for billionaires
One of the mistakes people outside journalism often make is to imagine that journalists are primarily seeking to hold power to account. Most journalism, in fact, do the very opposite. Journalists crave their own little slice of reflected power – exclusives, inside scoops, the story behind the story – and that depends on access to those who really wield power. Access journalism dominates in politics, business, crime, showbiz, royal reporting, sport – in fact, in every part of the media.
If that were not bad enough, the main task of senior newspaper journalists is to understand very precisely the interests and worldview of their proprietors – and of similarly minded corporations that advertise in those papers. The journalist’s job is then to reflect that worldview back to the owners and advertisers. Which is why newspaper journalists share the concerns of billionaires over those of ordinary people.
For a shocking and amusing example of quite how tightly scripted journalists’ performance can be in promoting corporate interests, watch this short clip showing reporters for 11 different US television stations recite word for word the same “news” about how wonderful Amazon has supposedly been during the pandemic:
The room for ideological manoeuvre enjoyed by newspaper journalists is a narrow window on issues either that the billionaires and advertisers do not care strongly about or that they disagree among themselves about. This is what journalists are typically referring to when they speak of “freedom of the press”.
Two parties of capital
The job of a senior journalist like Maitlis in a state-funded broadcaster like the BBC is similar: it is chiefly to reflect back to the political establishment its interests and worldview. Nowadays newspaper proprietors and the state broadcaster are driven by almost identical agendas, given that government parties are funded by the billionaires and corporations that own newspapers and advertise in them and that corporate money and the corporate media’s support largely determine the outcome of elections.
Once the editorial room for manoeuvre at the BBC was a degree wider than it is today. Back in the 1970s, for example, when workers could place some limitations on establishment power through organised trade unions, and Labour governments sought to represent that power, the BBC had to balance these competing demands, between the political elite and the labour movement.
Those balances have largely gone. After Tony Blair created New Labour as a second party of capital, remaking Britain’s system in the image of the US one, the counter-pressures on the BBC largely evaporated. Blair and New Labour came to enjoy the same craven support as the Conservatives from the BBC’s star reporters – remember Andrew Marr’s fawning panegyric to Blair’s war crimes in Iraq back in 2003?
The BBC only found its journalistic policy of “impartiality” – big rows over marginal issues, non-ideological scandals, celebrity news – disrupted with Corbyn’s shock election to lead the Labour Party by the mass membership in 2015. That was an event to which the media class reacted with instant, utter and sustained horror until Labour managed to restore Blairite normal service this year under a new leader, Keir Starmer.
Real and charade journalism
For some time, the BBC has barely bothered to make even a pretence of even-handedness in the selection of its personnel. Its board is regularly chaired by senior Conservative politicians, including until recently by Lord Patten, and stuffed with people who have worked for major corporations.
BBC editors are nowadays interchangeable with their counterparts at the Daily Mail, Times and the Telegraph, where they have often worked before (James Harding, Sarah Sands). Many have been, or go on to be, advisers to the Conservative party (Thea Rogers, Robbie Gibb, Craig Oliver, Will Walden, Guto Harri). And aside from the fact that many senior BBC journalists were born into a social elite (Laura Kuenssberg), some started their careers as explicit cheerleaders for the Tory party (Nick Robinson, Andrew Neil). These journalists are indisputably an elite media class, part of the establishment, and their journalism is there to defend their privilege.
That is the proper context for understanding Maitlis’s comments. She does not represent some standard of courageous BBC journalism separate from her colleagues. She did not pick a fight with the media establishment. And she was not trying to hold the Johnson government to account. None of those things is true, or indicated by the “row” about her Cummings comment.
Remember that Maitlis’ tepid comments about Cummings were much less forceful than those of the far-right, Boris Johnson-supporting, billionaire-owned Daily Mail. If she is waging a battle for a truly free press or rigorously holding the powerful to account, then so – very improbably – is the Johnson-adoring Daily Mail.
Maitlis’s mistake was to use the BBC – whose job is to do the very minimum to look credible journalistically to itself and its audience as it avoids challenging the political establishment – as a platform to vent her own, and a widely shared, anger at Cummings’ decision to abandon his own lockdown rules when they didn’t suit him.
The Mail did it – because the billionaire proprietors and advertisers don’t especially care about Cummings, and because they know their readers are riled by Cummings’ behaviour – so Maitlis and Newsnight assumed they could do it too. Maitlis didn’t properly understand that a BBC journalist is even more tied to defending the establishment worldview than the redtops.
Like her colleagues, family and friends, Maitlis felt personally angry. She let that anger cloud her normal judgment. Her emotion trumped her astute journalistic instincts to avoid ruffling the features of those who paved her career path to the top of the BBC. She made the mistake – for once – of doing real journalism when what is expected of her is charade-journalism.
On a leash, sitting by the peg
Such moments are rare for most journalists. As Michael Parenti, the US media critic, once famously observed of corporate journalists: “You say what you like, because they like what you say.” He added:
You don’t know you’re wearing a leash if you sit by the peg all day. It’s only if you then begin to wander to a prohibited perimeter that you feel the tug, you see. So you’re free because your ideological perspective is congruent with that of your boss. So you have no sensation of being at odds with your boss.
Most of the time Maitlis sits by the peg. For once, her anger – an anger shared by all normal people outraged by double standards, by privilege and by lies – drove her to forget what her job entails. She momentarily forgot what she has been socialised to do through her education and her class, and further trained to do through her journalistic career: to create the illusion for herself and her viewers that she is holding power to account. For once, she did real rather than charade journalism – and instantly found herself reprimanded for it.
The public rebuking of Maitlis by the BBC is an extreme version of the rewards-and-punishment training all corporate journalists go through. Mostly such admonishments are suffered by staff when they are employed at junior levels, as they “find their feet” and learn from their elders and betters what journalism requires of them. Maitlis’s reprimand served a similar purpose. Its usefulness was not just to remind Maitlis of the tight limits on what her job allows, but to demonstrate to those in the lower ranks that, if this is what can happen to someone like Maitlis, they need to be more careful still.
Thousands of BBC journalists contemplating doing real journalism learnt this week the price of disobedience. This episode tamed them a little more, ensured they understood a little more clearly that they are expected to be subservient to power. As a result, they will move a little closer to the peg.
Next time you wonder why BBC reporters are so timid, so feeble when confronting the establishment; when they so obviously miss stories or angles clear to the rest of us; when blow up small issues into big issues; when they grandstand to no obvious effect or benefit; when they focus on stories about celebrity and trivia; when they choose to hit down rather than up; when they unite to attack and vilify the rare politician who dares to question the verities of today’s neoliberal order; when any of that happens, remember this moment.
Because all the BBC’s journalists, including our future Emily Maitlises, watched her chastisement this week. They learnt their lesson from her error.
Leaving crises to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s management skills will never disappoint those who favour chaos and the attractions of vague direction. The double standard is to be preferred to the equal one. With the United Kingdom sundered by death and the effects of COVID-19 (the PM himself having had his battle with the virus), the population was hoping for some clarity. When, for instance, would the lockdown measures be eased?
On May 10, Johnson delivered an address from his comically staged desk which had the appearance of being trapped in the door during a bungled removal effort. “We have been through the initial peak – but it is coming down the mountain that is often more dangerous,” he tried explaining. “We have a route, and we have a plan, and everyone in government has the all-consuming pressure and challenge to save lives, restore livelihoods and gradually restore the freedoms that we have.” Seeds of confusion were sowed with promise. People would be allowed to do “unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise”, and the “Stay Home” message had changed to “stay alert, control the virus and save lives.” The broader citizenry were puzzled.
Mixed messaging was not the only problem facing Johnson, whose preferable default during any emergency is the behaviour of the reasonable Briton, characterised by patience and common sense. Within his own circles, abiding by the rules has been a lax affair. His chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has been defiant before the lockdown rulebook.
In a statement and press address, Cummings laid out his explanation for his recent bad behaviour. The heart-tugging element was important. So was the ignorance that he had done nothing to niggle the ethical. Johnson had just been found out to have contracted COVID-19. Arrangements of how to handle the emergency were discussed. Then came the urgent call from Cummings’ wife. “She’d vomited and felt like she might pass out. And there’ll be nobody to look after our child. None of our usual childcare options were available.”
What followed that April, with most of the UK in mandated self-isolation, was travel – some 260 miles in all – that involved leaving his London home on a trip to County Durham, accompanied by his wife and child. The decision had been made to stay in a cottage on the farm of Cummings’ father. It was there that Cummings fell ill, as did his son, who spent a stint in hospital. It subsequently surfaced that Johnson’s aide had also repaired to Barnard Castle, a visit reported to Durham police by Robin Lees, a retired chemistry teacher. That visit raised eyebrows for falling within the category of non-essential travel.
The aide’s conclusion for breaching such rules were self-exculpatory, which cannot excite any surprise from those familiar with those behind the law and policy of the state apparatus. The higher up the food chain of power, the more likely the powerful will misbehave and change the meals. Andre Spicer puts it in a dull though accurate manner: “a large body of research […] shows that it is people in positions of power that are most likely to take excessive risks.” Such risks are minimised, if not ignored altogether. The one who assumes, and presumes to be in a position of power, is likely to cheat, bend and break the order.
Cummings, in his reasoning, might have done unreasonable things in the past, but thought that what had transpired over those 14 days was reasonable. “The regulations make clear, I believe the risks to the health of small children were an exceptional situation, and I had a way of dealing with this that minimised risk to others.”
Such a statement of behavioural latitude, in times when those in the United Kingdom, for the most part, have complied with the coronavirus lockdown, looks politically indulgent. Johnson has added to that indulgence, claiming that Cummings merely “followed the instincts of every father and every parent, and I do not mark him down for that.” The “right kind of childcare” was not available” at that time; both Cummings and his wife “were about to be incapacitated by coronavirus”.
Staying with Cummings is courting a grand risk. And such risks compound when they are given the Johnson touch. Professor Stephen Reicher of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) furnishing Downing Street with advice on how the public might best respond to the lockdown measures, seethed on hearing about the prime ministerial defence. “I can say that in a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson had trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control Covid-19.” Honesty had been “trashed”, as had respect for the public, equity, equal treatment, consistency and the message “we are all in this together”.
Even conservative commentary on the subject is wary of the prime minister’s loyalty to Cummings, showing that this is no ordinary row in the halls of Westminster. Former Johnson adviser Tim Montgomerie expressed embarrassment for having “ever backed Boris Johnson for high office.” Chair of the Northern Ireland select committee, Simon Hoare, was baffled. “With the damage Mr Cummings is doing to the government’s reputation, he must consider his position. Lockdown has had its challenges for everyone.” The prime minister “is a populist who no longer understands the populace,” suggests Nick Cohen in The Spectator. “Dominic Cummings pretends to be an anti-elitist but cannot see how lethal the slogan ‘one rule for me and another for everyone else’ is to him and the elite he serves.” That about sums it up.
Any notion that the UK government actually considers that its primary responsibility is to protect the health and security of the country’s population ought to have been demolished in 2020. The appalling death toll that continues to mount during the coronavirus pandemic is largely rooted, not merely in government ‘incompetence’, but in criminal dereliction of its core duties in a supposedly democratic society.
The UK has the highest death toll in Europe, and the second highest in the world (the US has the highest). On May 12, the death toll from official UK figures exceeded 40,000 for the first time, including almost 10,000 care home residents. A study by academics at the London School of Economics estimates that the actual death toll in care homes is, in fact, double the official figure: more than 22,000.
Government ministers have been scrambling to protect themselves from such damaging facts by spouting empty rhetoric. Health Secretary Matt Hancock actually declared on May 15:
‘Right from the start we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes. We set out our first advice in February… we’ve made sure care homes have the resources they need.’
Palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke, author of the bestselling book Your Life In My Hands, rejected his deceptive claim:
‘This is categorically untrue. Care homes were left without testing. Without contract tracing. Without PPE [personal protective equipment]. Without support. You can deny it all you like, Matt Hancock, but we were witnesses – we ARE witnesses – and believe me you will be held to account.’
It is important to note that the coronavirus death toll is even higher than official figures because people are dying from heart disease, cancer, strokes and other illnesses that would otherwise have been treated had there been no ongoing pandemic. Chris Giles, the Financial Times economics editor, has been tracking the number of total excess deaths, issuing regular updates via Twitter. He noted that ‘a cautious estimate’ of excess deaths linked to coronavirus up to May 15 was an appalling 61,200. The FT has published an extensive analysis here with regular updates.
University of Edinburgh researchers have estimated that at least 2,000 lives would have been saved in Scotland – a staggering 80 per cent of the total – if the government had introduced the lockdown two weeks earlier. Rowland Kao, professor of epidemiology and lead author of the study, said there had ‘definitely’ been enough information about the coming pandemic in mid-February. If the lockdown had been imposed across the whole of the UK on March 9, rather than March 23:
‘you would expect a similar effect to the one seen in our research on Scotland.’
In other words, there would have been an 80 per cent reduction in the death toll across the whole of the UK: around 26,000 lives saved (assuming the official undercount by May 3 of 32,490 fatalities). This is a truly shocking statistic and a damning indictment of the Tory government.
Countries outside the UK have looked on aghast while the pandemic death toll here rose quickly, given the advance warnings of what was happening abroad, notably in Italy and Spain. Continental newspapers have been highly critical of the UK government’s response to the pandemic. The German newspaper Die Zeitnoted that:
‘the infection has spread unchecked longer than it should have. The wave of infections also spread from the hospitals to the old people’s homes, which could also have been avoided. The government is now trying to pretend to the public that it has the situation under control.’
The Dutch newspaper de Volkskranttold its readers:
‘the British were insufficiently prepared for the pandemic, despite the presence of expertise in this area. The country has been catching up in recent weeks. Much of the harm has already been done.’
‘Despite Europe’s worst mortality, probably too late entry into confinement and a blatant lack of preparation, the British have so far supported Johnson.’
Here in the UK, honest and responsible journalism would have made it clear, regularly and prominently, that many deaths were avoidable and a consequence of damaging government policies including:
* the imposition of ‘austerity’ in past years
* the deliberate corporate-driven break-up of the National Health Service
* the government’s lack of preparedness for a pandemic
* the belated move to lockdown and the present rush to ‘open up the economy’ and send children back to school
If we had an actual functioning ‘mainstream’ media, it would be holding this disgraceful government to account, properly and comprehensively. BBC News, as the country’s well-funded ‘public service’ broadcaster, would be to the fore of critical and forensic journalism. In a piece published on the progressive ZNet website, Felix Dennis dissected the government-friendly propaganda campaign in the UK media, including the BBC:
‘On April 10, as UK daily deaths became higher than any recorded in Italy or Spain, media coverage led with Boris’ recovery [after being in intensive care], while BBC News’ main headline was about the “herculean effort” of the Government to provide NHS with PPE. Subsequent headlines featured nurses describing treating Johnson as “surreal”, something they’d “never forget” and that he was “like everybody else”; orchestrated artificial grassroots support to boost public opinion about Boris and his government seem likely. The notions of supporting the country and supporting its leader are being conflated.’
In a small concession to the damning truth, BBC News aired Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from the University of Cambridge, who was granted a moment on the Andrew Marr Sunday programme to call the government’s daily press briefings ‘completely embarrassing’. They are ‘not trustworthy communication of statistics’ and no more than ‘number theatre’. But this was a deviation from the broadcasting norm which has regularly seen BBC correspondents, notably political editor Laura Kuenssberg, serving up meek accounts of the crisis on prime-time BBC News at Six and Ten. An article in TheEconomist was actually titled, ‘The BBC is having a good pandemic’, even as it quoted one unnamed senior BBC journalist who let slip that:
‘the [BBC] bosses are keen that we come out of this with the sense that we looked after the interest of the nation, not just our journalistic values.’
In effect, there should not even be the pretence of ‘impartiality’, but a shoring-up of state propaganda by the BBC on behalf of the government. In fact, this has long been the reality of BBC performance ever since BBC founder John Reith wrote in his diary during the 1926 General Strike that ‘they [the government] know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.’
One welcome exception was the Panorama programme investigating the appalling lack of preparation for the pandemic; not least the inadequate provision of PPE for NHS staff and workers in care homes. But, in yet another sign that any dissent will not be tolerated, Tory Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden then attacked the BBC for straying momentarily from the state-approved script.
‘You Dropped The Ball Prime Minister. That Was Criminal’
Piers Morgan has been a strong and sustained voice challenging government ministers about their policies in his role as a lead presenter on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, and on his Twitter account which is followed by over seven million people. In a devastating indictment of the government, Morgan wrote:
‘the virus isn’t like Brexit.
‘It’s not a political ideology that can be open to debate, or an argument that can be won with buffoonery, bluster and Churchillian soundbites.’
Morgan has been so robust in his challenges to the government that ministers, including Boris Johnson, now appear to be afraid of being interviewed by him, refusing to appear on ‘Good Morning Britain’. As journalist Peter Oborne observed:
‘It is disgraceful that the Johnson government boycotts a major national TV news show during a national emergency.’
‘Once we allow the Govt to boycott news outlets like @GMB for asking ministers tough questions, it’s a slippery slope to a totalitarian state. Other news organisations should share our disgust at this, because they could be next. Or they will soften criticism to avoid a ban…’
In anticipation of Boris Johnson’s much-trailed speech to the nation on Sunday, May 10, ludicrous celebratory press headlines appeared a few days in advance: ‘Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons’ (Mail), ‘Happy Monday’ (Sun) and ‘Magic Monday’ (Daily Star). This highlighted widescale press subservience to the government’s foolish and dangerous agenda of getting the country ‘back to work’ as soon as possible, putting working-class employees, those most dependent on public transport, at particular risk.
Indeed, when Johnson actually delivered his speech that Sunday evening, having been carried aloft by heaps of hype from billionaire-owned newspapers, he declared:
‘We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.’
‘People will be bullied, threatened, starved back to work when it is not safe and they are risking their lives and the lives of those they are close to. Neoliberalism has reached its pinnacle of selfish individualism sacrificing the lives of others to feed its greed’.
The muddled and deluded address to the nation was greeted with confusion, scepticism and even derision in many quarters, with the Mirror saying on its front page: ‘Lockdown Britain: It’s chaos’. The prime minister’s speech was, however, acclaimed by the usual suspects of the extremist press, including the Mail, Express and Sun, as well as by the more ‘respectable’ billionaire Murdoch-owned Times and billionaire Barclay brothers-owned Telegraph.
The Mailwaxed lyrical about the prime minister setting out ‘the first steps to free Britain’, while cautioning, ‘Boris keeps handbrake on’. The Express, as though copying and pasting from the same government press release, headlined: ‘Boris: our route to freedom… in baby steps.’ The Telegraph, also reading from the government ‘freedom’ script, went with: ‘the long road to freedom’.
Rational commentary had to be found elsewhere. Richard Horton, Lancet editor, tweeted after Johnson’s speech:
‘My interpretation of Boris Johnson this evening: the pandemic of COVID-19 in the UK is much more serious than we have been led to believe. Johnson was unusually serious, fists clenched, no jokes about squashing sombreros.’
‘Finally, you saw our Prime Minister preparing his defence for the public inquiry: “We didn’t fully understand its effects.” I’m afraid that argument won’t succeed. A PHEIC [Public Health Emergency of International Concern] was called [by the World Health Organisation] on January 30. And then you dropped the ball Prime Minister. That was criminal. And you know it.’
Recall the now infamous ‘Superman’ speech that Johnson gave in Greenwich on February 3 when he extolled the supposed virtues of competition and ‘free’ trade, even in the face of the alarming threat of the pandemic. Here is the relevant extract, available on the government’s own website:
‘we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.’
Never mind ‘bizarre autarkic rhetoric’. What is truly bizarre is that as late as February 3, when Johnson was ignoring WHO advice and wider medical calls to ‘test, test, test’ and to move into lockdown, and during a period when he missed five emergency Cobra meetings, he was proclaiming inanities about Superman. (For an excellent detailed timeline of events, see the regularly updated resource by Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read). Instead, Johnson’s focus – if he can ever be accused of possessing ‘focus’ – was on Brexit and avoiding any measure that might impinge on ‘free trade’.
Suppressing Evidence Of Public Distrust Of UK Press
Last month, as pandemic-related deaths mounted alarmingly, a Sky News poll unsurprisingly showed deep public distrust of British television and newspaper journalists. Only 24 per cent said they trust TV journalists, while 64 per cent said they do not, giving a net score of minus 40. Meanwhile, a mere 17 per cent said they trust newspaper journalists, while 72 per cent said they do not, giving an overall net score of minus 55. The figures were tucked away at the bottom of Sky’s article.
Also last month, a Press Gazette poll showed that around half of those who responded believed public trust in journalism had fallen since the outbreak of the pandemic (around one third believed it had risen, and the rest said it had remained the same). Press Gazette also reported that a new survey by PR firm Kekst CNC showed a collapse in confidence in the media in the four countries surveyed: the UK, US, Germany and Sweden. The UK and Sweden both saw the biggest fall in confidence in the media with a net loss of 21 per cent. Moreover, a special report by Edelman Trust Barometer covering ten countries, including the UK, showed that journalists are the least trusted source (43 per cent) for information about the pandemic, below ‘most-affected countries’ (46 per cent) and government officials (48 per cent).
Of course, this lack of public trust in the media is not limited to coverage of the pandemic. Given the narrow-spectrum right-wing and establishment press dominated by rich owners, and edited by compliant editors with ideologically-aligned views, and given that BBC News so often slavishly conforms to UK press reporting, it is no surprise that overall British public trust in the media is so low. In fact, a recent extensive annual Eurobarometer survey by the European Union across 33 countries reveals that the UK public’s trust in the press is once again rock bottom, even below the former Soviet Union countries of Lithuania and Latvia. As Brian Cathcart, a professor of journalism at Kingston University in London, observes, it is the ninth year out of the past ten that the UK has been last.
The survey results were met with the usual tumbleweed non-response from the British press. Our search of the ProQuest newspaper database yielded just one passing mention in the national press by Alan Rusbridger, former Guardian editor, referring to last year’s survey. (Inevitably, Rusbridger also praised the BBC for its ‘all-round and in-depth excellence’ on coronavirus coverage.)
‘so predictable that an industry with an appalling trust problem chooses to address it by suppressing the evidence of distrust.’
But then, press ‘freedom’ is a cruel sham; only highlighted even more sharply on the recent World Press Freedom Day. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had the temerity to tweet his support:
‘a strong and independent media is more important than ever for transparency.’
Peter Oborne rightly highlighted Raab’s hypocrisy, pointing out the glaring case of Julian Assange:
‘The Wikileaks founder continues to rot in Belmarsh jail as the US demands his extradition on espionage charges. If there was an ounce of sincerity in the foreign secretary’s claim that he is a supporter of media freedom, he would be resisting the US attempt to get its hands on Assange with every bone in his body.’
Oborne also lambasted the British press:
‘British newspapers will not fight for Assange. Whether left or right, broadsheet or tabloid, British papers are agreed on one thing; they’ll fall over each other to grab the latest official hand-out about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his fiance Carrie Symonds’ baby. Or the new Downing Street dog.
‘They will, however, look the other way when it comes to standing up for press freedom and Julian Assange.’
‘How pathetic. What a betrayal of their trade. Client journalism. An inversion of what newspapers stand for. If the British foreign secretary is two-faced about a free press, so are British newspaper editors who say they care about press freedom. With even less excuse.’
Lancet editor Richard Horton, mentioned earlier, says that the British government’s response to the pandemic is ‘the biggest science policy failure in a generation’. As noted at the outset of this media alert, this has not been mere government incompetence, but a fundamental failure of its supposed commitment to protect the public. The truth, of course, is that the government is ‘elected’ to represent the elite interests of its principal backers: financial muscle and corporate power, backed by its propaganda wing misleadingly labelled the ‘mainstream’ media.
A longstanding feature of the state has been its reliance on secretive state and military institutions working hard to preserve the status quo. You may recall the threat of a military coup from a senior serving UK army general in 2015 should Jeremy Corbyn ever be elected Prime Minister. In December last year, investigative journalist Matt Kennard reported that UK military and intelligence establishment officials had been sources for at least 34 major national media stories, following Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015, that had cast him as a danger to British security.
As Noam Chomsky has long pointed out, supposedly democratic states regard their own populations as the state’s greatest threat, even in so-called ‘free’ societies:
‘Remember, any state, any state, has a primary enemy: its own population.’ 1
This is why surveillance of the public is such a priority for governments, as we have previously observed (e.g. here and here).
In a recent in-depth article as part of the exemplary Declassified UK series, Kennard and Mark Curtis note that:
‘There is money and power in identifying Russia and cyber attacks as the key security threats facing Britain — but not in addressing the more important issues of pandemics and climate change.’
Former heads of UK intelligence agencies are personally profiting from the ‘revolving door’ between government and business, report Kennard and Curtis. They cite examples:
• Former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove has earned more than £2-million from a US oil company.
• Another former MI6 chief, Sir John Sawers, has earned £699,000 from oil giant BP since 2015.
• Sir Iain Lobban, former head of GCHQ, has become director or adviser to 10 private cyber or data security companies since leaving office in 2014; his own cyber consultancy is worth over £1 million.
Kennard and Curtis write:
‘Since 2000, nine out of 10 former chiefs of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ have taken jobs in the cyber security industry, a sector they promoted while in office as key to defending the UK from the “Russian threat”.’
‘The British government has been told for over a decade that the “gravest risk” to the country is an influenza pandemic, which its National Security Strategy identifies as a “tier one priority risk”. Yet the security services have largely ignored health threats, despite claiming they are guided by the UK’s security strategy.’
If successive UK governments were genuinely serious about boosting the public’s security, they would be working flat out to protect the population from pandemics and climate breakdown. But then they would be protecting the interests of the majority. And that is not why they are in power.
Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, The New Press, 2002, p. 70.
Following the court decision in the US to award in favour of Dewayne Johnson (exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer and its active ingredient, glyphosate, caused Johnson to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma), attorney Robert Kennedy Jr said at the post-trial press conference:
The corruption of science, the falsification of science, and we saw all those things happen here. This is a company (Monsanto) that used all of the plays in the playbook developed over 60 years by the tobacco industry to escape the consequences of killing one of every five of its customers… Monsanto… has used those strategies…
Johnson’s lawyers argued over the course of the month-long trial in 2018 that Monsanto had “fought science” for years and targeted academics who spoke up about possible health risks of the herbicide product. Long before the Johnson case, critics of Monsanto were already aware of the practices the company had engaged in for decades to undermine science. At the same time, Monsanto and its lobbyists had called anyone who questioned the company’s ‘science’ as engaging in pseudoscience and labelled them ‘anti-science’.
We need look no further than the current coronavirus issue to understand how vested interests are set to profit by spinning the crisis a certain way and how questionable science is again being used to pursue policies that are essentially ‘unscientific’ — governments, the police and the corporate media have become the arbiters of ‘truth’. We also see anyone challenging the policies and the ‘science’ being censored on social media or not being given a platform on TV and accused of engaging in ‘misinformation’. It’s the same old playbook.
The case-fatality ratio for COVID-19 is so low as to make the lockdown response wholly disproportionate. Yet we are asked to blindly accept government narratives and the policies based on them.
Making an entire country go home and stay home has immense, incalculable costs in terms of well-being and livelihoods. This itself has created a pervasive sense of panic and crisis and is largely a result of the measures taken against the ‘pandemic’ and not of the virus itself. Certain epidemiologists have said there is very little sturdy evidence to base lockdown policies on, but this has not prevented politicians from acting as if everything they say or do is based on solid science.
The lockdown would not be merited if we were to genuinely adopt a knowledge-based approach. If we look at early projections by Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in the UK, he had grossly overstated the number of possible deaths resulting from the coronavirus and has now backtracked substantially. Ferguson has a chequered track record, which led UK newspaper The Telegraph to run a piece entitled ‘How accurate was the science that led to lockdown?’ The article outlines Ferguson’s previous flawed predictions about infectious diseases and a number of experts raise serious questions about the modelling that led to lockdown in the UK.
Ferguson’s previous modelling for the spread of epidemics was so off the mark that it may beggar believe that anyone could have faith in anything he says, yet he remains part of the UK government’s scientific advisory group. Officials are now talking of ‘easing’ lockdowns, but Ferguson warns that lockdown in the UK will only be lifted once a vaccine for COVID-19 has been found.
It raises the question: when will Ferguson be held to account for his current and previously flawed work and his exaggerated predictions? Because, on the basis of his modelling, the UK has been in lockdown for many weeks, the results of which are taking a toll on the livelihoods and well-being of the population which are and will continue to far outweigh the effects of COVID-19.
According to a 1982 academic study, a 1% increase in the unemployment rate will be associated with 37,000 deaths [including 20,000 heart attacks], 920 suicides, 650 homicides, 4,000 state mental hospital admissions and 3,300 state prison admissions. Consider that by 30 April, in the US alone, 30 million had filed for unemployment benefit since the lockdown began. Between 23 and 30 April, some 3.8 million filed for unemployment benefit. Prior to the current crisis, the unemployment rate was 3.5%. Some predict it could eventually reach 30%.
Ferguson – whose model was the basis for policies elsewhere in addition to the UK — is as much to blame as anyone for the current situation. And it is a situation that has been fueled by a government and media promoted fear narrative that has had members of the public so afraid of the virus that many have been demanding further restrictions of their liberty by the state in order to ‘save’ them. Even with the promise of easing the lockdown, people seem to be fearful of venturing out in the near future thanks to the fear campaign they have been subjected to.
Instead of encouraging more diverse, informed and objective opinions in the mainstream, we too often see money and power forcing the issue, not least in the form of Bill Gates who tells the world ‘normality’ may not return for another 18 months – until he and his close associates in the pharmaceuticals industry find a vaccine and we are all vaccinated.
In the UK, the population is constantly subjected via their TV screens to clap for NHS workers, support the NHS and to stay home and save lives on the basis of questionable data and policies. Emotive stuff taking place under a ruling Conservative Party that has cut thousands of hospital beds, frozen staff pay, placed workers on zero-hour contracts and demonised junior doctors. It is also using the current crisis to accelerate the privatisation of state health care. In recent weeks, ministers have used special powers to bypass normal tendering and award a string of contracts to private companies and management consultants without open competition.
But if cheap propaganda stunts do not secure the compliance, open threats will suffice. For instance, in the US, city mayors and local politicians have threatened to ‘hunt down’, monitor social media and jail those who break lockdown rules.
Prominent conservative commentator Tucker Carlson asks who gave these people the authority to tear up the US constitution; what gives them the right to threaten voters while they themselves or their families have been exposed as having little regard for lockdown norms. As overhead drones bark out orders to residents, Carlson wonders how the US – almost overnight – transformed into a totalitarian state.
With a compliant media failing to hold tyrannical officials to account, Carlson’s concerns mirror those of Lionel Shriver in the UK, writing in The Spectator, who declares that the supine capitulation of Britain to a de facto police state has been one of the most depressing spectacles he has ever witnessed.
Under the pretext of tracking and tracing the spread of the virus, the UK government is rolling out an app which will let the likes of Apple and Google monitor a person’s every location visited and every physical contact. There seems to be little oversight in terms of privacy. The contact-tracing app has opted for a centralised model of data collection: all the contact-tracing data is not to be deleted but anonymized and kept under one roof in one central government database for ‘research purposes’.
We may think back to Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook data to appreciate the potential for data misuse. But privacy is the least concern for governments and the global tech giants in an age where ‘data’ has become monetized as a saleable commodity, with the UK data market the second biggest in the world and valued at over a billion pounds in 2018.
Paranoia is usually the ever-present bedfellow of fear and many people have been very keen to inform the authorities that their neighbours may have been breaking social distancing rules. Moreover, although any such opinion poll cannot be taken at face value and could be regarded as part of the mainstream fear narrative itself, a recent survey suggests that only 20% of Britons are in favour of reopening restaurants, schools, pubs and stadiums.
Is this to be the new ‘normal’, whereby fear, mistrust, division and suspicion are internalized throughout society? In an age of fear and paranoia, are we all to be ‘contact traced’ and regarded by others as a ‘risk’ until we prove ourselves by wearing face masks and by voluntarily subjecting ourselves to virus tests at the entrances to stores or in airports? And if we refuse or test positive, are we to be shamed, isolated and forced to comply by being ‘medicated’ (vaccinated and chipped)?
Is this the type of world that’s soon to be regarded as ‘normal’? A world in which liberty and fundamental rights mean nothing. A world dominated by shaming and spurious notions of personal responsibility that are little more than ideological constructs of a hegemonic narrative which labels rational thinking people as ‘anti-science’ — a world in which the scourge of authoritarianism reigns supreme.