Whited Tombs of Dead Men’s Bones

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones…

Matthew 23:27

Whenever people on the left criticise ‘the West,’ a customary response on social media and from Britain’s inky flock is to demand damnation of some other sinner. Condemn British connivance with Saudi atrocities in Yemen and it’s ‘whatabout Iran?’ Castigate Israel for grinding Palestinians to sand and it’s ‘whatabout about Assad?’ Demand the US closes its trespassing torture chamber at Guantanamo and it’s ‘whatabout about IS?’ The Stop the War Coalition (STWC) have borne these ‘yeah, buts’ for years, latterly from Peter Tatchell. Back in 2002-03, ‘Stoppers’ were routinely badgered to condemn Saddam Hussein’s well-documented and uncontroversial atrocities as part of a grimy ploy to daub anyone who opposed dropping explosives on children as a friend to tyranny. This scuttling rhetoric shrivels under the light of reason, of course. Indeed, I’m confident that seasoned practitioners of this swindle understand quite clearly the ruse they’re perpetrating. But I’ll sum up my objections, presuming Noam Chomsky’s maxim, that the duty of the intellectual (or blogger) is to tell the truth, about things that matter, to the right audience.

TatchellSTWCMy first objection is ethical: that the individual’s first concern should always be with their own misdeeds and those done by others with their help or acquiescence. Applying this to affairs between nations, their scrutiny should fall chiefly on the behaviour of their own government and of its allies. They can of course decry (and should not defend) the outrages of other states but if they support them with neither vote nor tax, they share no responsibility for them. Applied to the world today, this means my most pressing concern should always be with the actions of the UK government and its imperial master. Vassals and allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, are also my concern because their litany of crimes is committed with British arms, aid and advice. Indeed, as Prof. Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institute said recently, ‘if the United States of America and the United Kingdom — tonight — told King Salman that this war [on Yemen] has to end, it would end tomorrow because the Royal Saudi Air force cannot operate without American and British Support.’ Israel is not nearly so dependent but has still benefited from arms, including sniper rifles, worth £320m since 2014.[1] Passing over these crimes to rail at others in which we have no part is cossetted posturing; ‘virtue signalling,’ to use a vogue expression. When our government is not terrorising the world, directly or indirectly, when we can plausibly claim to be ‘intervening’ out of something other than venal calculation, then we may concern ourselves with the crimes of other nations and hope for a spark of legitimacy.

My second objection concerns the practical responsibility to use one’s energy and opportunities to the greatest effect. Where can the British anti-war movement, a progressive journalist or an angry tweeter hope to leave even the most fleeting mark? Not on foreign governments, certainly. The thump of feet marching on British streets is barely heard in Whitehall, so why imagine it will rattle the walls of the Kremlin? I certainly don’t write in the expectation of being read by members the British Government, let alone those of North Korea. In any case, as Chomsky put it, ‘speaking truth to power’ is an overrated pursuit when power knows the truth. The most recent exception to this I can think of was the great anti-war march in February 2003. But even millions freezing in Hyde Park didn’t shake the Blair camarilla from their murderous fealty to the Bush Regime (though we perhaps came closer to averting that war than with any other).

No, the greatest effect the dissident can have is on her own community and, through that, the state. I write hoping to be read by my fellow citizens and hoping to affect, if only in some microscopic way, their thinking, their voting, and their organising. STWC march and hold street stalls to educate and inform the British people about our government’s crimes because they are something we share responsibility for and have the ability to affect. That should always be our priority, even were ‘their’ crimes to be large and ‘ours’ small (instead of the reverse). If we can do something about our crimes but can only shout about theirs, then our smaller crimes should still be our foremost occupation. Journalists would do better to keep this principle but, since they do not, it is up to citizens to shine light where it is needed and not waste time doing work that, honest or not, is already being done. Why should STWC run stalls denouncing Putin for the villain he undoubtedly is when the media does that daily with vastly greater volume? It’s like working one’s way to the front at a gig and humming the baseline for benefit of the crowd. What’s more, when it’s an official enemy and not an ally, it’s indulgent. My condemnation of Russian human rights abuses would have no material effect on that country’s leaders, would not educate a British public who are told of them weekly, and could not bring about any beneficial change in a British government that already considers Russia an enemy (though it might persuade the Tories to return their donations). Contrast that with the Chagos Islands scandal, where the media are usually silent, the public know little, and our government’s behaviour over fifty years has been contemptible.

Nor does the demand for balance go both ways: the domesticated journalist who spends his career reviling whichever of Eurasia or Eastasia is being liberated this year will never be asked to reserve any ink for Oceania. Well trained journalists care, cry, and condemn only when it is convenient to their governments; hearts bleed but eyes remain closed. They absorb this conditioning unconsciously through years of socialisation until they know instinctively when they ‘cannot stand idly by’ and when they must. Our ‘responsibility to protect’ the Kurds, for example, depended on who was attacking them (e. g. Saddam Hussein or the Turkish government). The real measure of the dishonesty of these calls for even-handedness is that they are never made of the dissidents who live in enemy states. The people who demand that STWC condemn Putin never demanded Pussy Riot call out Obama’s drone terror. Even if legitimate grounds for criticism were admitted, the idea that they should make those criticisms would rightly be seen as an absurd waste of their limited resources.

Everyone instinctively understands all of this when matters are confined to every day personal relationships. To borrow from Wilde, we know to respect the person who never says a moral thing and never does a wrong thing more than we do the whisky priest. Campaigning groups like Amnesty International aside, most who rail at the misdeeds of other nations are using their freedom merely to say moral things, knowing they’ll pay no price and the victim will gain no benefit. The trade of journalism needs this lesson most of all. The press bears the greatest responsibility for informing the public and theirs is the greatest failure. Until they learn this lesson, or rather carry it from their personal lives and put in on the page, newspapers will continue to be whited sepulchres: now gilded with print but still full of dead men’s bones.

Notes.

_________________________

Image: Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (James Tissot French, 1836-1902 )

[1] Senior fellow for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Video of his remarks is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2W55QaV8bWw For a report on British arms sales to Israel, see Jamie Merrill ‘Exclusive: UK sells $445m of arms to Israel, including sniper rifles,’ Middle East Eye, 24 April 2018, available at https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/exclusive-uk-sells-more-500m-arms-israel-including-sniper-rifles-718473139 (accessed 11/09/18).

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Beware the Few

The newspapers received the elevation of Perkins with unprecedented hysteria. “Go back to Moscow,” screamed the Sun, unable to come to terms with the fact that ‘Red Harry’ (as the papers insisted on calling him) had never actually set foot in Moscow… in the run-up to polling… newspapers published lists of ‘Communist-backed’ Labour candidates. By way of evidence they offered an article in the Morning Star or a platform shared by a Labour MP and a member of the Communist Party. A week before election day… newshounds ‘discovered’ documents purporting to show that four senior Labour leaders were paid-up members of a Trotskyist cell.

Not to be outdone, the Express took to publishing a picture of Perkins daubed with a Hitler moustache… Another paper splashed on its front page an internal Labour Party document outlining plans to abolish tax relief on mortgages and confiscate all personal wealth over £50,000. Enquiry revealed that the document was a forgery, but the retraction was tucked away at the bottom of an inside page.[i]

The passage above is from the novel, ‘A Very British Coup,’ by the former Labour MP, Chris Mullin. Though published in 1982 and dated, it’s a stingingly prescient work that, if Labour forms the next government, should become required reading for anyone who still harbours any affection for democracy. The novel was a success and, later, playwright Alan Plater wrote a (loose) adaptation for Channel Four.

CorbynPutinStoogeIn his opus, Mullin imagines the various phases of an establishment coup mounted in response to the election of a socialist government led by his protagonist, newly minted Labour PM Harry Perkins. Naturally, Mullin portrays the corporate media as one of the principal fronts in his imaginary battle between democracy and the state and, last month, I touched on this subject when I argued that it is foolish to believe that a genuinely socialist Labour Party could win over the corporate capitalist media. One has only to look at the batterings meted out to Labour under Foot, Kinnock, ‘Red Ed’ Miliband, and Corbyn to see the entirely understandable hostility of private power to anything other than the mildest social democracy.[ii] New Labour, which was substantially (though in fairness not totally) a capitulation to neoliberalism, received a much fairer wind; particularly from the Murdoch press.

The establishment campaign to destroy the Corbyn project, which is currently veiled as a furore over antisemitism, began before he was elected when, in July 2015, senior Labour MPs briefed the press that ‘Corbyn would never be allowed to remain in the job long enough to fight the 2020 general election’ and that ‘a coup could be launched within days of the result.’[iii] Three years later, for all its digging, the establishment has so far found very little to work with, as the paucity of the ‘scandals’ so far illustrate. When your enemy is cropping photos to make it CorbynJigMaillook like you’re dancing at the Cenotaph, you know their battery’s down to one bar. The insinuations and allegations concerning Corbyn’s associations with Sinn Fein and Hamas before the 2017 election fell flat, especially with younger voters, for whom the 80s are not even a memory. Indeed, such was the failure that many were tempted to see it as another portent of the collapse of redtop influence.[iv] This year, allegations that Corbyn was a Kremlin agent, a traitor, or a Czech spy proved so obviously absurd that even Andrew Neil bridled at them, demolishing the Brexit Minister, Steve Baker, in an interview so bloody it could have been directed by Eli Roth.

Inevitably, if Labour win the next election, the media will gain new material. Instead of rummaging through Corbyn’s bins, they’ll be able to blame everything that goes wrong in the country on Labour and on him (and sometimes they may actually be right to do so). As with Corbyn’s election as leader, the media will show scant regard for fairness, honesty or intellectual self-respect. And this will be only one front. In office, a Labour government will find itself having to fight on a much broader battlefield if it also wants to be in power.

LabourSpiesIt’s easy to forget how much any government relies on consent: not merely that of an electorate it has to win over every five years but rival power centres that it has to win over every day. It’s easy to confuse ‘the government’ with the wider apparatus of the state.  It’s worth us remembering exactly what a Labour Government would be in actual physical terms: approximately 120 people running twenty-five ministerial departments.[v] That would be the Labour Government: 120 people. Add to that a further 20 non-ministerial departments and 300+ executive agencies of one sort or another; all of which is staffed mostly by the 560,000 civil servants. Think of 120 people against that. And that of course is just the formal government. To this, we must add all the other centres of power in the country – the finance sector, large multinational corporations (and their media arms), and even the diminished but still influential trades unions. The Government for the Many against the (not so) Few.

And we live now in an incomparably more globalised world with far faster CorbynCollaboratorcommunication than that envisaged by Chris Mullin. Internationally, we are subject to the ‘virtual senate’ of investors and lenders, who ‘conduct moment-by-moment referendums’ on government policies;[vi] what the press refers to euphemistically as ‘the markets’. Capital is capable of ‘staging a general political strike’ against the policies of any nation, with even the US not immune from its ‘veto power.’[vii] A number of studies have shown that ‘the markets’ punish left wing governments and reward right wing administrations. The reason for this is obvious: ‘the probability of policies that are harmful for returns on investments increases under left governments, while right governments are more likely to choose policies that are beneficial for financial returns.’[viii] In other words, financial institutions punish any government that puts people over profit.

I’d argue that much of what is commonly portrayed as the competence of a government is, in reality, the degree to which other actors within the system play ball. Once Labour is in office, its enemies will have countless opportunities to jam the mechanisms of the state and frustrate Labour’s mandate. We’ve already seen the drama acted out on the smaller stage of the Labour Party itself, when Corbyn found himself in office but not in power; a predicament described by his political biographer, Alex Nunns:

The staff wore black for the day of the result… There was minimal help for the new leader — the campaign’s press officer James Mills had to organise an impromptu round of media interviews. There was no car arranged to transport Corbyn through the thronging streets… On member of staff approached Mills and said: “See those three files over there? That’s how the Labour Party works. See you Monday morning.”[ix]

CorbynLungeIndeed, we saw a foreshadowing of the likely problems ahead in September 2015, when an anonymous ‘senior general’ briefed that a Corbyn government would face a mutiny if it ‘tried to scrap Trident, pull out of NATO or announce “any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces.”’[x] It’s no secret that Labour are conducting strategy sessions to, as John McDonnell put it, ‘answer the question about what happens when, or if, they [the establishment] come for us.’ In the first instance, that will very likely take the form of a TimesRussiaSwingrun on the pound (currency traders selling the pound so that its value against other currencies drops) or sudden capital flight (people pulling their money out of the country).[xi] In the longer run, there will be a steady war of attrition between a Labour government and institutions that have a vested interest in obstructing even Corbyn’s comparatively mild programme of social democracy. Increased propaganda against the domestic (and foreign) population, non-cooperation, and active sabotage: power protects itself.

Finally, while I’ve concerned myself here with institutions, allow me to suggest that theseExistential Threat are not the fundamental enemy that the Corbyn project faces. That is the class identity, values, and interests shared by that tranche of society we call ‘the establishment’. The institutions are merely the semi-permanent expression of the establishment, accumulated over decades and centuries.  The substance is the people — they are the bricks that make up the buildings, bound by the cement of their common ideology. We might demolish the buildings but the bricks themselves scatter and slot themselves into new buildings (or parties). The longer struggle of socialism will always be to bring about a change in collective wisdom: a ‘battle for hearts and minds’ (but without the bombing). That will take time and the battle for the buildings is a necessary step in winning the war for the bricks. It’s vital that Labour and its supporters don’t under estimate this challenge. Getting elected is not the summit but a foothill on the journey. I’ll leave you with some words Chris Mullin gave to Harry Perkins, which could be as true the morning after the next election as they were in 1982:

All we have won tonight is political power… [b]y itself that is not enough. Real power in this country resides not in Parliament, but in the boardrooms of the City of London; in the darkest recesses of the Whitehall bureaucracy and in the editorial offices of our national newspapers. To win real power we have first to break the stranglehold exerted by the ruling class on all the important institutions of our country.[xii]

Notes

___________________

[i] Chris Mullin (1982) ‘A Very British Coup,’ Hodder & Stoughton pp. 44-45.

[ii] The treatment of Tony Blair was far kinder, as I discussed in my previous article. John Smith was leader only two years before his untimely death at 55.

[iii] Tim Ross and Emily Gosden, ‘Jeremy Corbyn Faces Coup Plot if He Wins Labour Leadership,’ The Telegraph, 27th July 2015, available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/11764159/Jeremy-Corbyn-faces-coup-plot-if-he-wins-Labour-leadership.html (accessed 03/09/18); The Guardian reports that ‘ [The] argument about antisemitism in the party threatens to turn into a battle over its future…’ neatly reversing the actual events, in which the battle by the Labour right to wrest control of the Party back from the membership has recently morphed into an antisemitism-flavoured souffle (Dan Sabbagh ‘Antisemitism row: Hodge and Brown pile pressure on Corbyn,’ The Guardian 2nd September 2018, available at https://amp.theguardian.com/news/2018/sep/02/margaret-hodge-jeremy-corbyn-problem-labour-antisemitism-crisis (accessed 03/09/18).

[iv] See, for example, Suzanne Moore ‘The Sun and Mail tried to crush Corbyn. But their power over politics is broken, The Guardian 9th of June 2017, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/09/tabloids-crush-corbyn-power-politics-sun-mail-labour (accessed 03/09/18). Steven Barnett reports that ‘commentators, pollsters, politicians and voters alike, some media pundits were quick to pronounce the end of tabloid power. “This election proves that media bias no longer matters” announced Peter Preston, suggesting that while the printed press “has seldom seemed more overwhelming” in its pro-Tory bias, 2017 heralded the final supremacy of social media over the dinosaurs of the printed press. Veteran media commentator Ray Snoddy also proclaimed “the decline in power and influence of the right-wing tabloids”. Nonetheless, Barnett cautions that this judgement may be ‘simplistic’ (Steven Barnett ‘Is our national press a fading dinosaur? Don’t bank on it’ in Einar Thorsen, Daniel Jackson, Darren Lilleker (eds) (2017) UK Election Analysis 2017: Media, Voters and the Campaign, p. 55.

[v] I’m basing this on the assumption that a Labour government would be broadly the same size and configuration as the current one, which is described (in fairly ‘Janet & John’ terms) here: https://www.gov.uk/government/how-government-works

[vi] Two phrases from the economics literature used frequently by Noam Chomsky, for example in his ‘The high cost of neoliberalism,’ The Spectator 28th June 2010, available at  https://www.newstatesman.com/south-america/2010/06/chomsky-democracy-latin (accessed 02/09/18).

[vii] Timothy A. Canova, ‘The Transformation of U.S. Banking and Finance: From Regulated Competition to Free-Market Receivership,’ Brooklyn Law Review Vol. 60 No. 4 Winter 1995, pp. 1295-1354.

[viii] Thomas Sattler, ‘Do Markets Punish Left Governments?’ The Journal of Politics 75, no. 2 (2013): 343-56. In Sattler’s study, he qualifies this central assertion by demonstrating that the reaction of markets to left governments depends on their assessment of how otherwise constrained that government is. In other words, a left government that has little room to operate will not be punished so heavily as one with more latitude.

[ix] Alex Nunns (2016 [2018]) “The Candidate. Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power,” OR Books, London.

[x] Caroline Mortimer, ‘British Army ‘could stage mutiny under Corbyn’, says senior serving general,’ The Independent 20th September 2015, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/british-army-could-stage-mutiny-under-corbyn-says-senior-serving-general-10509742.html#comments (accessed 02/09/18).

[xi] Jim Pickard, ‘Labour plans for capital flight or run on pound if elected,’ Financial Times 26th September 2017, available at https://www.ft.com/content/e06aa3a6-a2c5-11e7-b797-b61809486fe2 (accessed 02/09/18).

[xii] Mullin (1982) p. 10.

I See No Ships…

Very often, when one points out the incessant and almost exceptionless thumping the mainstream media has given Jeremy Corbyn since (before) he was elected Labour leader, the response from his detractors is to blame Corbyn’s team for their poor media management. That the press is against Corbyn is a conspiracy theory or, if it is true, it’s a founding block in the edifice to ineptitude that is ‘Compo Corbyn.’ A savvier leader,  one with sharper suits and no bicycle clips, wouldn’t suffer so; he’d simply caress the jackals’ bellies until they sang ‘The Red Flag’ — while still finding time to single-handedly stop Brexit.

On Twitter, I’ve several times seen the following quotation from Enoch Powell invoked in support of this view:

For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.

But it’s a poor metaphor and a poor argument. Yes, the sea can be choppy and destructive; it can run you aground, leave you in the doldrums, or sink you altogether; but it has no agency or will. Whatever it does to you, it’s nothing personal. To think otherwise is the same superstitious ascription of intent that has led people to worship both sun gods and sons of god. So the metaphor fails because the press is not like the sea. My guess is old Enoch was never a sailor, not even on a river of blood.

The press most certainly can sink a politician and will often mean to do just that. Despite its name, the media is not a neutral medium, bestowing fair winds and misfortune without favour, through which politicians chart their course. To think that buys into the fish tale of the press as the ‘Fourth Estate,’ some more or less fair arbiter between political competitors. In fact, the media is largely the corporate media  — not an independent power centre but one largely subordinated to big business.

I’m not going to spend several thousand words unpacking this argument. If you’re new to it, read Manufacturing Consent by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky or look at the work produced by Media Lens. In short (and to simplify) the media is a sub-department of business and is structured by its imperatives. This happens in two ways. The first is its structural dependence on advertising revenue. Looked at in simple, institutional terms, the bread and butter of a newspaper company is not selling newspapers but selling readers to advertisers. That’s why newspapers can be given away and why news websites hate ad-blocking. A celebrated historian of British newspapers, Francis Williams, asserted in 1958 that the press ‘would never have come into existence as a force in public and social life if it had not been for the need of men of commerce to advertise. Only through the growth of advertising did the press achieve independence.’[i] Note the use of the word ‘independence,’ there. It’s only intelligible when we recall that the principal threat to press freedom was once the state. There’s a whole history of state control and the radical ‘unstamped’ press that I shan’t go into here. It’s enough to say that the press gained its freedom from government at the expense of being owned by rich men.

The same criticism applies to the commercial broadcast media – it sells viewers’ attention to advertisers on whose revenue it depends. This view was endorsed as long ago as 1989 by the Economist, which noted that, since projects ’unsuitable for corporate sponsorship tend to die on the vine,’ the media ‘have learned to be sympathetic to the most delicate sympathies of corporations’.[ii]  In a 2000 Pew Centre for the People & the Press poll, about one-third of the 287 US reporters, editors, and news executives who responded said that stories that would ‘hurt the financial interests’ of the media organization or an advertiser go unreported. 41% admitted avoiding or moderating stories to benefit their media company’s interests.[iii] Even the influential right wing US radio pundit, Rush Limbaugh, hardly a fellow traveller of Noam Chomsky, agrees. A ‘turning point’ in his career came when he realized that ‘the sole purpose for all of us in radio is to sell advertising’.[iv]  In 2004, Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant TF1, described the purpose of his company thus:

…let’s be realistic: fundamentally speaking, the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product … If an advertising message is to register, the viewer’s brain needs to be made available. The object of our programmes is to make it available: that is to say to entertain the viewer, to relax him and prepare him between the adverts. What we sell to Coca-Cola is an availability of human brain time.[v]

The second way that the media is subordinate to business is through a process of ideological filtering of its staff, which occurs from school through higher education and into the workplace. There is little need for advertisers or owners to actually tell journalists what they may or may not write because by the time they’re in the job for a while they will have internalised the ‘correct’ values. As Alan Rusbridger, late editor of the late Guardian, conceded several years ago in an interview with Media Lens,

I’m sure… that the pressures of ownership on newspapers is, is pretty important, and it works in all kinds of subtle ways – I suppose ‘filter’ is as good a word as any; the whole thing works by a kind of osmosis. If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, ‘Rupert Murdoch’, or whoever, ‘never tells me what to write’, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write… It’s understood. I think that does work, and obviously the general interests of most of the people who own newspapers are going to be fairly conventional, pro-business, interests.[vi]

Or, as Noam Chomsky once said to Andrew Marr, ‘I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.’[vii]

It’s not a perfect system, as Hermann and Chomsky concede, but it is very effective.[viii] There will be occasional deviations by a few more independently-minded journalists, but the overwhelming weight of the system still favours the neoliberal consensus of the past forty years. And this isn’t to touch on the personal preferences of many journalists at the higher end who have done very well out of the current system and so have a class interest in keeping it.

It should be obvious, then, that the idea that a socialist party simply needs to manage the press better is a nonsense. The corporate media is not there to be won over, it can’t be ‘managed’ into giving Corbyn a fair hearing. In fact, once one understands how the media works, the burden of proof would rest with anyone those who claimed that it  wouldn’t be biased against Corbyn.

The only time the media has approached even-handedness with Corbyn was during the imposition of impartiality rules on broadcasters during the 2017 General Election campaign. For the BBC, these came into force on 3rd May, although for commercial broadcasters, they began with the announcment of the dissolution in Parliament, which was  27th April. Their coincidence with the upturn in Labour polling, as shown in the Britain Elects poll tracker, is striking. The Blue and Red horizontal lines represent Tory and Labour polling and my addition of the green vertical line shows when the OFCOM broadcasting rules came into effect.

Opponents of this line of thought will point to the Blair Governments and their far better treatment from the corporate media when compared with both Foot, Kinnock, and Smith before, and Brown, Miliband, and Corbyn afterward. It’s certainly true that Blair and Alasdair Campbell employed a thorough and systematic approach to managing the media, from the ‘Rapid Rebuttal Unit’ and the Excalibur computer, to combative press briefings and a deliberate campaign to ‘woo’ newspaper editors and previously ignored areas like women’s magazines. Yet Rupert Murdoch besieged Labour before and after Blair; it’s not tenable to believe that this changed merely because his editors had been bought a good lunch. Rather, New Labour were the Sun on Sunday to the Tories’ News of the World. New Labour’s real success was not to win over business but to capitulate to it. A genuinely socialist party can make no such concessions, which is why a cellar-full of Krug won’t win editors over to Corbyn. Hence, we see that, once again, old Enoch was wrong. The press is not the sea on which Corbyn sails, it’s a fleet of enemy ships.

Correction 9th August 2018

Following feedback in the comments, I have corrected a typo in which I incorrectly stated that Theresa May called the election on 27th of May. I have also clarified the timeline of events. For more details, see Eleanor Bley Griffiths ‘Here’s why the media is banned from reporting on general election campaigning while the polls are open,’ Radio Times 8th June 2017, available at https://www.radiotimes.com/news/2017-06-08/heres-why-the-media-is-banned-from-reporting-on-general-election-campaigning-while-the-polls-are-open/

For OFCOM rules, see the ‘Election Reporting’ section of the Channel Four Producers’ Handbook: https://www.channel4.com/producers-handbook/media-law/other-laws-affecting-broadcasting/election-reporting

 

Notes.

[i] Quoted in James Curran and Jean Seaton (1981 [2010]) ‘Power Without Responsibility. Press, broadcasting and the internet in Britain,’ p. 4.

[ii] ‘Castor oil or Camelot?’ in The Economist, 5th December, 1987, quoted in Noam Chomsky (1989) ‘Necessary Illusions. Thought Control in Democratic Societies,’ p. 8.

[iii] ‘Fear & Favor 2000: How Power Shapes the News’, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting Annual Report available at  https://fair.org/extra/fear-amp-favor-2000-the-first-annual-report/ (accessed 06/08/2018).

[iv] Quoted in Pratkanis & Aronson (2001), ‘Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion’ p. 56.

[v] Cited in Ignacio Ramonet, ‘Final edition for the press’, in  Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition), January 2005,  available at  http://mondediplo.com/2005/01/16press (last accessed 06/08/2018); Full quote available at https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temps_de_cerveau_humain_disponible (last accessed 06/08/2018). The full quote in French reads: ‘Mais dans une perspective business, soyons réaliste : à la base, le métier de TF1, c’est d’aider Coca-Cola, par exemple, à vendre son produit… Or pour qu’un message publicitaire soit perçu, il faut que le cerveau du téléspectateur soit disponible. Nos émissions ont pour vocation de le rendre disponible: c’est-à-dire de le divertir, de le détendre pour le préparer entre deux messages. Ce que nous vendons à Coca-Cola, c’est du temps de cerveau humain disponible’. My thanks to Daniel Simpson for the translation.

[vi] Media Lens (2000) Interview With Alan Rusbridger, Editor,The Guardian, available at   http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/interviews/80-interview-with-alan-rusbridger-editor-the-guardian.html (accessed 06/08/2018).

[vii] Andrew Marr interviewed Noam Chomsky for a series called ‘The Big Idea,’ which was broadcast on the BBC in February 1996. The thirty minute programme can be viewed here:  https://youtu.be/GjENnyQupow

[viii] The model proposed by Herman and Chomsky has been criticised. James Curran (2002), for example, argues that the radical critique is ‘bedevilled by a simple “system logic”’, which assumes that ‘business-controlled media serve business’ thus ignoring or downplaying countervailing influences such as the need to maintain audience interest to remain profitable, the need to preserve their legitimacy, and the need to consider the ‘professional concerns of their staff.’ (James Curran ‘Media and Power’ p. 223).

Blighted are the Shelf-Makers

I’m old enough to remember video tape with affection. My family acquired its first video cassette recorder around 1982 when the novelty was still vivid. It was VHS, front-loading, the size of a small family hatchback and by modern standards almost Heath-Robinson in it brute mechanical beauty.

It’s hard to explain why I feel such nostalgia for what objectively was a clumsy cacophony of rubber, metal, and plastic but I do. For the six year old me, it was irresistibly encrusted with buttons, knobs, sliders, and dials. The customary shopfront of its principal controls – play, rewind, and pause – were pleasure enough but other treasures were hidden beneath a hinged flap on the lower front and a detachable panel inset in the top. Beneath these glittered the more exotic controls like ‘tracking’ and ‘input,’ eight mechanical  tuning dials and the ‘AFT’ button.[i] When Channel Four was born in November 1982, my dad had to get on his hands and knees, pop the top panel and seek out primordial Countdown through the crashing surf of static.

I can remember pressing the Standby button, opening the door and seeing tantalising glimpses of the illuminated heads, capstans, and spindles within. I can hear in my head, as clearly as you can remember your favourite song, the refrain of its mechanism as I pressed a tape into the front door and watched as it was drawn inside the beast. Sometimes it was a video mechanism, other times its was the landing bay door of a secret base.

It even had a ‘remote’ control: play, pause, fwd, rew, and rec attached via a 3ft cable that plugged in at the back and, once passed over the machine, afforded one the luxury of operating the machine from about 18 inches away. I’m even fond of the problems that afflicted its dotage (and my teenage years when it became mine alone) – the way it would sometimes crimp the edge of the tape, irreparably knackering the sound on some of my favourite tapes.

These were the days when I had a library of blank cassettes, some labelled (most not) and packed with recordings of Doctor Who and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The E120, the workhorse E180, the mighty E240s. The Scotch ‘lifetime guarantee’ fronted by an amiable skeleton. The etheric and unrepeatable[ii] magic of TV, captured and tamed in a shiny box like a ghost trapped by Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Zeddemore.

I remember, into the 90s, the archaeological pleasure of watching old tapes, especially those borrowed from friends, through to the end. The first recording would finish, there’d be a wash of static, and then the fag end of the recording beneath would slide into view. Then another and another. I’d often watch tapes through right to the point when they’d click off and rewind. One minute, you’re watching ITV’s bowdlerised 90s cut of Heartbreak Ridge (complete with the minced oath, ‘maggot farmer’), then you’re transported into the technicolour fantasy of an 80s ad for Kellogg’s Fruit n Fibre (with one with Ross Kemp) or those weird 80s Weetabix commercials in which booted and braced skinhead biscuits of wheat would intimidate other cereals (and we accepted this as normal).

At the weekends, I was allowed to accompany my dad to the Six Hills Video Shop and choose a title from the seemingly enormous array of display cases that bejewelled its walls. Only from the Us and PGs, of course, although I was obviously far more enticed by the 15s and 18s, which all had far more exciting and stimulating covers (especially some on the top shelf in one corner) and were alluring because they were forbidden.

It’s all gone now. Funai Electric manufactured the last video recorder in July, 2016. While there is a small but enthusiastic market for old video tapes, particularly the more obscure horror movies, I doubt there’ll ever be a ferrous oxide resurgence to mimic that of vinyl. Yet, our language is an analogue recording of history. I still hear people talk about ‘taping’ and ‘rewinding’ and we’ll still be discussing the medium of film long after celluloid takes its place next to wax cylinders and daguerreotypes. One day film will exist only in films.

The big selling point of video recorders was convenience and, notably, control. Watch what you want to watch, when you want to watch it. Don’t be a slave to those damned TV channels but the master of your own viewing pleasures. As Troy McClure said to Delores Montenegro (in ‘Calling All Quakers’) ‘have it your way, baby.’

Fast forward thirty years and we’re now in another revolution of convenience and ‘control.’ The age of the DVD and the brief blu dawn are coming to an end and now we are dipping our toes in the Great Stream. We now watch even more of what we want to watch, when we want to watch, and without a chilly walk to the video shop or the need to endure the crunching, chattering rabble at the local flicks. We watch, listen, chat, and shop online. But how much of the new control is real?

It’s easy to focus on the petty irritations of the digital world. Netflix’s co-founder recently

adric 4

Silent credits attend the death of Adric in the 1982 Doctor Who story, Earthshock

declared their aspiration that one day it would ‘get so good at suggestions that we’re able to show you exactly the right film or TV show for your mood when you turn on Netflix.’[iii] But what if I aspire to read the credits uninterrupted? What if I think that the programme makers might sometimes use the credits for dramatic effect? Instead Netflix, like an overeager waiter, whips away the programme and algorithmically catapults me toward the next course. It’s not wholly new, of course; even on terrestrial TV credits have been squeezed for years by the cajolery of continuity chatterers. But it’s still annoying.

Trailers have always been part of home media. They were there in the VHS days but at least fast forwardable. Nevertheless, imagine visiting a Blockbuster and having a doorman compel you to watch one before you even reached the shelves. This is now what the Android Amazon Video app does at least once per day. Yes, one can stop it once it has started but one cannot stop it from starting. At least at the cinema people can use the adverts and even the trailers to have a conversation, check their phone, or return to the foyer to secure yet more food. Much as they do with the eventual film.

We tolerate behaviour online that we would likely never put up with in person and here I’m not discussing the hourly scorching belligerence of ‘social’ media so well summed up in this video. I mean the behaviour of companies online. Imagine for instance that, near the end of your weekly shop, a store assistant blocked your path and wouldn’t let you get to the checkout until you’d accepted or rejected a list of items in which she thought you might be interested. I think most people would find that hectoring and coercive yet it’s precisely what one has to accept in order to shop online with Sainsbury.

Worse still, imagine the indignity, the sense of violation you would feel if someone broke into your house and stole your CDs. Imagine then instead how much worse you’d feel, how much more soiled, degraded and sullied, if instead of perpetrating such a theft – or merely having a shit on your couch – they left you an album by U2.

Speaking of music, some of you who’ve used the Amazon Music Player might have noticed that it has a subsidiary function, carefully hidden, of allowing you to actually play the music you’ve purchased. Its core function, of course,  is to pelt you with inducements to buy more music, preferably via a subscription. This is quite reasonable since, putting chummy marketing aside, Amazon’s sole objective is to persuade you to take money out of your account and put it in theirs. The product itself  is a mechanism for selling you more products (again, not new but accelerated online). Helping you to actually listen to your music is very much a secondary concern in what should really be called the Amazon Music Seller. Apps are less like faithful servants and more like pestering children.

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2) Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3) Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Douglas Adams –The Salmon of Doubt.

 

Lest I simply sound like a grumpy old man adumbrating a litany of my peeves, let me make clear that there’s a political edge to my grousing; namely increased control masquerading as choice. The range of baubles for us to play with has increased but the price is that our leisure time – socialisation, entertainment, education and consumption – occurs conveniently on something else’s property. We’re shopping, playing, watching, chatting and searching by their rules. We’re steered where they allow us to go, finding what they want us to find, knowing what they want us to know. Our physical space has already been colonised – what isn’t owned by government is owned by private capital, public town squares have already become private malls. Now cyberspace is heading the same way (and with a massive in-built head start). Sound overblown and conspiratorial? Perhaps today -but tomorrow?

One of the great sleights of hand in recent years, for instance, has been the promotion of ‘the cloud’ – with all the connotations of ownerless neutrality this inspired piece of thought-steering conjures. After all, nobody owns a cloud; it must just float above us like some beneficent 21st century commons. In fact, the cloud is a network of servers belonging to commercial companies ranging from relatively modest independents to the GAFA behemoths of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. Of course, invitations to store one’s data in ‘the cloud’ sound much more  benign that ‘on our servers.’

Well, OK, storing one’s property on someone else’s turf isn’t necessarily a one way ticket to Oceania, is it? After all, people dump their shit in Big Yellow Storage all the time without having to affirm that they love Big Brother. Except that it’s no longer your property. No, that film you bought last night from Amazon isn’t yours. In fact, you’ve merely leased it for an indefinite period. Now, you might argue that it was never really yours before. The contents of DVDs, books, CDs, and VHS were all copyrighted – yours to own but subject to strict conditions – so what’s really changed? Well, check Amazon’s T&Cs – they can remove your purchase at any time. Unless you download it to your own storage, you don’t have the unconditional possession that you had over an Amaray-enclosed disc. You’re not purchasing anymore. You’re renting -on a very long term, granted – but you’re renting. Soon, there’ll be no more borrowing a DVD or a book from a friend and you won’t be taking yours  down your favourite charity shop when you’re done, either. Like the message, the medium is now theirs. Your shelves of DVDs, CDs, and books  will evaporate into a cloud library hosted (held) within someone else’s property. One day, all visitors will have to judge you by will be some misguided ornaments and your personality.

And the capacity to monitor our viewing habits has also increased. The obvious concomitant of Netflix being able to suggest what we might want to watch is that it knows what we have watched. For most people this is no real practical concern but it’s another piece of infrastructure for a surveillance state, another category of data to add to all the others potentially allowing for a detailed picture of us to be constructed and – ask any lecturer wanting to talk about Brexit – some people are just itching to know as much about us as possible. The next time you binge-watch The Handmaid’s Tale remember that you might be munching Doritos in the prologue.

And what happens when Amazon goes bust? Where will your prized collection go when the company no longer exists? True, other companies might buy out the rights and the infrastructure but they don’t have to and won’t if they don’t think there’s money in it for them. Amazon use a proprietary format for Kindle, for example, so there’s no guarantee you’d be left with anything other than what’s stored on your hardware. And when that dies?

Video tapes, CDs, and even books are standards based. So long as your equipment complies with those standards you can read the content. A CD manufactured to the Red Book standard should play on any CD player. Region codes aside, a DVD of The Force Awakens will play on any machine. The latest Dan Brown novel is accessible to anyone who can read, although obviously appreciated to its fullest extent by those who cannot. Streaming and download services rely heavily on proprietary file formats to ensure that material isn’t shareable. There are presently exceptions but how long will they last? Look at the stranglehold (now slipping) that Microsoft has had on word-processing by making sure its file .doc and .docx formats are as opaque as possible.

Digital content such as films, audio files and eBooks are effectively software with all the (potential for) control and restriction that implies. The apps on a smart TV can be withdrawn during forced ‘upgrades’ when licensing deals expire. So, that £700 set you bought with iPlayer and YouTube built in could be without both one day and there won’t be anything you can do except buy a new TV. And this isn’t a hypothetical -it already happens. Let’s not be in any doubt what this is – the company from whom you think you’ve bought something has taken it back from you. Of course, this may be because of genuinely unavoidable incompatibility but it’s hard to believe that this isn’t also another mechanism for enforced functional obsolescence.

Holodeck-800x420There’s no easy answer to this. The technology isn’t inherently wrong but it is massively corruptible. Nor is it going to go away: people will always be lulled by convenience. Alternatives to digital online consumption as part of our increasingly shut-in economy will wither unless we take positive action to keep them alive. They’ll be seen as troublesome, archaic eccentricities, like wanting to travel around New York without a car or live near an A&E.  Being offline and off social media will never be forbidden, merely absurdly inconvenient. You’ll always be allowed to walk off the holodeck but why would you want to when beyond lies only isolation, and dark, dark silence?

 

Notes

__________

[i] ‘Automatic Fine Tuning.’

[ii] Well, repeated a lot less in those days.

[iii] Unknown author, Streaming on screens near you. Can Netflix stay atop the new, broadband-based television ecosystem it helped create?’ The Economist https://www.economist.com/news/business/21705353-can-netflix-stay-atop-new-broadband-based-television-ecosystem-it-helped-create-streaming