Corbyn and the MSM: Thoughts on left-wing media discussions

Peter Marshall considers the popular trope that “journalists just lie” against a more structural take on the production of media as propaganda.

The largest hole in left-wing discussion of Jeremy Corbyn in the media is the lack of a theoretical model in comparison to the idea that journalists just lie, and I think this can be found in the propaganda model of media which argues that the structure of creation has a large impact on the production of media.

Corporate media

I think if we are to accuse the mainstream press of lying then we have to prove they are using arbitrary and varied judgments made by individuals with weak morals. So this requires we have to know the principles normally used to make editorial judgments within the mainstream British media. This has already been largely done for the US in Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, but in Britain there has been a lack of work to decide whether the media uses consistent principles, or if there is a combination of individuals with a lack of professional ethics.

The propaganda model for this paper can be imagined as the three corners of a triangle: they are corporate, nationalistic and flat. The first is the corporate mind-set (highly individualistic, lacking memory, extremely narrow interests); the second is a nationalistic mind-set (a high-level but abstract set of interests alongside an extremely localised and abstracted sense of values).The third is co-operative media, which maximises the mind-set’s ability to imagine and create change.

I will start with the enlightenment, with John Locke and David Hume, then the periods I judge as having had most impact which are post-Napoleonic wars, the 1800s, the First World War and the Second World War, and finally the conclusion.

In the Enlightenment period there are two particularly important philosophers for our purposes, Hume and Locke. Propaganda’s necessity was discussed by Hume where the problem with democracy is how “the more capable men” can stay in charge and control the resources to rule society benevolently. A large number of powerful ideas around manipulation of language meanwhile can be found in Locke. This is one of the roots of a powerful idea of Western propaganda, essentially any word is a representation of an individual’s idea. This is at the root of doublespeak, if you are dealing with a noun you can touch you have direct experience of a thing, if you go beyond this then the conversation about it is changeable. Doublespeak is most famously mentioned in George Orwell’s 1984, where officially it’s called deliberately obscure language. The degree to which this is problematic is a cliché. Noam Chomsky has made large parts of his career out of it, but immigration policy has been a haven for doublespeak, where the term “control” over immigration is used to imply law and order, but boils down to numbers.

19th century conflict

Next we will look at the broader sociological changes around the 1820s, where there is a shift that happened that intensified the class war. Symbolic of this is the repeal of combination laws of 1824 and Combination Act of 1825, another notable event was the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and it was in 1822 that the police force was created in law. These events are linked within the context of the late 1700s, amid a series of conflicts between the lower merchant class and their workers and specific aristocrats. They were generally thought of as civil unrest and the military was sent in, if it was considered serious, but the military acted more to maintain order and allow the magistrate to act. Legislative redress was taken by either local or central government and to this end wages were commonly set, prices were commonly set in law annually by magistrates using local and national powers. Not a perfect system.

But the turning point was probably the post-Napoleonic war and the change in the impetus of the class war. Combination acts, which outlawed unions, had been common before this time, although how useful they were is arguable because employers, employees and magistrates routinely came to negotiated agreements. I will say there was class conflict before this time but it is not of interest in this essay.

The 1800s saw a ferocious class conflict, and in short was a fight to create a right to vote for the poor, but there was also a fight about how Enlightenment and socialist ideas could be used to maintain living standards for the majority. The ideas brought in by the Enlightenment were an advance for legal rights, but they tended to reduce social rights. A major battlefield in this discussion was the media — which largely created the modern view of the Victorian world. It was largely a class conflict which drove innovation and self-identities on both sides.

The most complex concept is of the working class as opposed to the proletariat — there is an important distinction because although it allows workers to sneer at aristocrats (empowerment) and it defines them by employment — mostly stable employment; an example of how this becomes important is the early history of the NHS only male workers could pay national insurance and have free access to doctors. This was the conception that largely won, creating multiple rifts from stifling discussion around families and flexible working to housing and the lack of ideological dedication in the parties that came out of it (the Labour Party was never an anti-imperialistic party) — even the homogenisation of the working class.

Another element was the legalisation and increasing importance of charities, with the largely middle class response being to help those who were not being helped by the lack of social and economic rights. Another innovation was in journalism, with a perspective of bringing injustices to the mainstream. Even great authors like Charles Dickens were created from this “moral journalism” combined with working class literature. The great debates of the age such as Gladstone vs Disraeli achieved many things and much reform but it could also be argued that especially Gladstone created the modern party structure, the idea of speaking to large crowds. You find this in slavery abolitionist groups, unions and the religious houses (politically radical groups).

Other innovations were large scale production of political pamphlets, the blending of the media as political pamphlets and authoritative big other voice. It’s worth bearing in mind though that journalism in this era was more about making society middle class than it was about rethinking moral standards from the bottom up. We can of course debate about how small and disinterested the number of interests involved, but undoubtedly it was people with money trying to convince everyone of their perspective or at least keep things within an acceptable range. So the technologies to reproduce the mind-set of the middle class and disrupt the working class were developed to allow for a larger voting population whilst keeping the two main parties in power (the Whigs and the Tories) this was predominantly by appropriating working class political culture.

World War I

During the Great War there was largely a nationalistic conflict taking place, but it continued previous trends. There was a great fear of a revolution, so they used public meetings and newspapers as a counterrevolutionary force. The discussion against the Germans was done using moral and patriotic language (a highly nationalistic mind-set), by painting the Germans as barbaric and immoral. By fighting against them Britain was portrayed as the civilised and moral side and we mirrored the discussions ahead of any imperialist war.

This worked to a large extent even against the struggle for female emancipation, which was largely brought over to be pro-war, and those who retained the class/gender war mind-set were side-lined. This divide was largely along class lines, with those who worked with female unions being more likely to disagree with pro-war positions than those who worked with middle-class groups.

It’s worth talking about the legal and policy infrastructure in place during World War I. David Loyd George said there was “autonomous propaganda” — this was by existing groups such as the Navy League, the Victoria League, the Fight for Right Movement and other autonomous leagues. But more was required by 1916 and the National War Aims Committee was created by the political parties. They organised speakers, printed pamphlets, handpicked experts, organised events and they already had five different unofficial organisations writing for government positions in the mainstream press. The power of this came from the skillful interweaving of already used patriotic symbols, pillars of the community speaking for a war until victory (three of the political parties supported and had their members speak for these positions). They had films shot and special vans made so people in small communities could see patriotic films and “documentaries” on top of showing them at cinemas. It’s worth mentioning that two of the three had existing political weight largely through the Liberal Party, but also the Labour and Conservative parties were supported in ideological terms by imperialist leagues.

World War II

This was again a two-dimensional media conflict with both class and national aspects. The basic strategy used was largely the same as in World War I, with radio and a few people with TVs (these were banned early in the war) but broadly the same principles apply. The most interesting thing is Britain used the same methods already honed on its own population to propagandise the US population as well. That and Pearl Harbour brought them into the war — Franklin Deleno Roosevelt had been elected specifically to keep the US out of it (he got elected on with the motto “victory without war”).

Freud and Leni Riefenstahl brought emotionality and especially increased the dynamism and sexuality of movies and speeches. In September 1939 the Ministry of Information was created and defence acts were applied to everything from weather reports to troop movements. Although the press was partially self-censoring through this period there were also guidelines and the media could get prosecuted for breaching them. By 1940 however this situation collapsed and they integrated the creation of positive propaganda and direct control of news. Foreign journalists found it harder to get press passes in the UK than in Nazi Germany. But there is an interesting article by George Orwell about how the left was trying to push their position during the Second World War. The Ministry of Information was only abolished in 1946.

The present era

This brings us largely to the present, where Edward Bernays brought British and European ideas together especially to cooperate propaganda which became mainstream in the US. Manufacturing Consent remains the best book on this impact.

The Advertising Act of 1957 was important for the corporatizing of the media, because it changed the relationship print media had with the public — advertising brings in more money than people buying the paper and can be predicted, so it’s more valuable to the corporation. The population (us) is thus sold to advertisers.

This distorts the marketplace, but as a matter of record there have been 13 different national newspapers since 1900 showcasing two different types of effects. The papers with middle-class audiences are largely unaffected compared to those with working-class audiences, which get far less financing so produce comparatively much lower quality papers and are comparatively more expensive. Post-Act, corporate media came to have much wider reach because advertisers influence investment and thus the paper’s capacity to attract customers. This impacts the truth, and mind-set, of all mainstream papers, such as with the repeated cover-ups of Harvey Weinstein.

What are the basic things to conclude from this? First there is the definition of truth; here the main source of a truth is the British government and its official documents (nationalistic propaganda). For example it defines how the Iraq war happened. And when is fact checking necessary if you have a trustworthy (defined as something like popular with the elite’s corporate propaganda) government (or person or corporation)? There is no reason to look deeper unless they are not to be supported, at which point they can be criticised. It’s worth mentioning that the same pattern applies in the Windrush scandal, where the “hostile environment” policy was not to be actively criticised until high commissioners in the Commonwealth and members of Parliament came out against it — then it became front page news. The same applies to the #metoo movement.

Anti-Semitism is another recent hot topic and I would say there are two problems here. The first is a rise in anti-Semitic hate crime, the second is the impact and culpability of the Labour Party. As this is an essay on the media I will write in other places and times on crime, except to say I have yet to see the name of one victim or one discussion about why it’s happening. Labour has repeatedly been said by multiple academic sources to have a lower than average rate of anti-Semitism and no change from when Tony Blair was the party leader. The only apparent change is that due to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership there has been an increase in discussions on Israel recently in negotiations with “Jewish leaders” (chosen by the media) where the mainstream definition of anti-Semitism explicitly includes Israel as a Jewish institution. Therefore any discussion of their actions in Palestine has to be discussed in that context, which he refused. Here it’s worth saying not every Jewish individual or leader supports the actions of Israel, not every Israeli citizen supports the actions of Israel. This undermines the moral power of the anti-Semitism that the media cares about so much, creating a situation where it may become less of an attack to be called anti-Semitic. They are a sovereign state, we can’t say opposing specific states is immoral. I won’t say anything more about the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it’s worth discussing and the current climate means the British government can’t decide against the Israelis’ position.

Broadly, for the mainstream to declare an article as bad is “conspiracy theory” or “fake news”. Now a moral media system might use “conspiracy theory”, the definition is: we can’t establish more facts and it is suspicious to socialise under many circumstances. This is not the current use and that weakens its use when it’s necessary. “Fake news” meanwhile is a phrase the means a story to oppose our story — notice I don’t make a judgment on truthfulness, because it’s irrelevant. Currently the highest value is to be mainstream, which is not honest but that does not guarantee that when our opponents attack us they are lying.

Generally believing the media is in our interests as long as the state serves us; this makes the withering of the socialist state problematic, because then it’s not in the population’s interest to believe it. What’s the answer? Being for Jeremy Corbyn is intrinsically no more honest than the current system. The honesty of any system should be judged by how they treat the least privileged sectors of society, which always have the most difficulty with the justice system and the most difficulty getting political representation; combined with the fact that journalism is an elite occupation so they will have the most difficulty understanding the perspective of the least fortunate.

From a birds-eye view I would advise these flaws and reforms.

What are the major flaws:

  • There is no exact topic title so any opinion article can be defended and it can be very difficult to work out how comprehensive the article might be.
  • Advertising reduces the number of newspapers and changes the relationship between the reader and the editor.
  • To distinguish truth we need to compare similar information, if we don’t get context then the assumption is being made that the information is similar even if it’s not.

What are the conclusions;

  • There are three useful types of article: What does the world look like, what are the facts about a person, place or time. Opinion articles are not falsifiable so its impossible for the reader to decide on the article’s value or whether they want to read it from the title.
  • Advertising should be banned in order to make the reader the consumer instead of the product.
  • Consistency is vital to allow readers to use their critical thinking.