Morning Star: Nothing to see here
A journalist’s angry resignation has been followed immediately by the departure of its editor and company secretary. Paul Demarty doesn’t believe in coincidences
News reaches us of odd goings-on at the headquarters of the Morning Star, Britain’s “daily paper of the left”.
The Star, formerly the paper of the ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain and now semi-detached from the Communist Party of Britain, a sleepy crew of semi-reformed tankies, is known primarily for its absolute avoidance of controversy. The editorial approach is more or less to act as an advertising sheet for trade union bureaucrats, which serves both as a political method for the desiccated life-long opportunists of the CPB, and also as cover for the occasional paeans to Stalino-capitalist China and the like.
Additional cover is provided by mouthpieces of the broader left and progressive milieu. John Rees writes sometimes to tout the People’s Assembly, despite having a little too much of the whiff of Trotskyism about him for the CPB faithful. Colin Fox, convenor of the rump Scottish Socialist Party and a member of the ‘yes’ campaign’s advisory board, writes occasional columns, against the grain of the CPB’s and Morning Star’s unionist position.
Further down the food chain, there are the journalists themselves. They are journalists in the strong sense - paid writers on current affairs, not drawn overwhelmingly from the CPB’s own ranks, but from the larger pond of the British left. It is perhaps surprising how doggedly they stick to this admirably catholic hiring policy, given how restive the assembled hacks can prove on occasion. The Star’s National Union of Journalists chapel has surely seen more industrial action than any other paper in the last 20 years; perhaps any other NUJ chapel, if one excludes the BBC.
So we consider the story of comrade Rory MacKinnon, who joined the paper in 2011, and has now left. “I was proud to represent a ‘broad paper of the left’,” he writes: “a paper that saw feminism, LGBTQ issues, racial politics and the like as integral to its coverage of class struggle.”
What follows is comrade MacKinnon’s version of the story.1 He was bedding down in Scotland as a Star correspondent, when he heard troubling news from the Rail, Maritime and Transport union. This was, of course, the Steve Hedley affair - Hedley, the assistant general secretary, faced allegations of violent abuse from a former partner, which were investigated by the RMT and the police with no action being taken. His accuser went public, whereupon Hedley responded by accusing her of domestic violence.
In the more feminist sphere of the British left, the Hedley affair has taken on the character of a litmus test, despite its general murkiness, and organisations like the Socialist Party in England and Wales (of which Hedley was briefly a member, before resigning during this controversy) have faced hostile receptions for continuing to put him on their platforms. Hedley’s ambition to replace the late Bob Crow as RMT general secretary keeps the issue in the sights of the left.
According to MacKinnon, his troubles at the Star began when he was dispatched to cover the RMT women’s conference, some months after this scandal went public. In a session on “recruiting women organisers and combating sexism in the workplace”, he asked RMT official Alan Pottage “whether he thought the lack of formal investigation into the allegations against Hedley had affected women members’ perceptions of the union”. Pottage didn’t bite; after the session was concluded, comrade MacKinnon found himself forcibly ejected from the conference by equalities officer Jessica Webb and Denis Connor of the union’s executive.
Sniffing around in this milieu for a scoop might have won him friends at a paper with any editorial backbone, but MacKinnon was shocked (shocked!) to get more or less the same treatment from the Star hierarchy. Editor Richard Bagley suspended him for “gross misconduct”, and warned him that public comment on the affair would “risk bringing the paper into disrepute” and reflect badly in subsequent disciplinary procedures.
When these came, Bagley and Tony Briscoe, People’s Press Printing Society company secretary, wanted to leave him in no doubt as to the paper’s mission: “The role of a Morning Star reporter is to progress the policies of the paper, which includes building good relationships with trade unions,” said Briscoe. There is a difference between “inter-union” and “internal union” matters, chides Bagley (the latter, of course, are off limits). “The question feels more like something a Daily Mail reporter would ask than someone from the Morning Star,” Briscoe grumbled - yes, Tony, like something an actual journalist would ask. In the end, MacKinnon was given a “final warning” and put on 12 months’ probation.2
A couple of weeks ago, on July 26, comrade MacKinnon resigned, signalling his intention to go public on his reasons why - which he has now done on a feminist blog. To leave it at that, it would be a bit of a ‘dog bites man’ story - MacKinnon’s testimony tells us what we already knew - the Morning Star is loath to interpose itself in the affairs of trade unions, who after all make significant financial contributions to the paper. Woe betide the naive journalist who takes it upon him or herself to do otherwise!
The plot rapidly thickened, however - by the following Monday, both Bagley and Briscoe had stepped down from their posts. Bagley has resigned the editorship for “family reasons”, while Briscoe has retired.
It is, of course, possible that this is merely a striking coincidence - that two men who expect a public beating over their treatment of a journalist just happened on the same day to decide to leave their posts. We consider it, on balance, unlikely. The two comrades - Bagley, certainly - were concerned that public reporting of MacKinnon’s censure would damage the good name of the Star. When such things happen, in the bourgeois media at least, it is not the luckless staff writer who carries the can, but their superiors.
There is also the matter of the strike-happy journalists themselves. They successfully forced out one regime - the Mary Rosser-Mike Hicks team - in the late 1990s, after all. And, as noted, they are not necessarily a politically ‘safe pairs of hands’ (I can think of at least one other comrade on their staff who has promoted anti-Hedley petitions and activities). A “broad paper of the left”, alas, is less likely to have the stomach for an industrial dispute than, say, Rupert Murdoch, who stared down newsroom dissent at the closure of the News of the World.
Both Briscoe and Bagley, meanwhile, were in an awkward position. Briscoe had been PPPS company secretary for many years, which included the last serious pay dispute at the Star. And the position of editor is hardly a comfortable one at the best of times. A grimly amusing spat between Bagley and one comrade, Norman Hill, which erupted over the festive season, illustrates the problems inherent in the position.
Jesus is not the only messiah figure to have been born around the winter solstice - Joseph Stalin’s birthday, too, falls in that slot. Comrade Hill - clearly something of an old-schooler - wanted to take out a half-page advert in the Star in Koba’s honour. Comrade Bagley spiked it. Their correspondence was leaked to an ultra-Stalinist blog, and is quite a read - Bagley has to explain to an uncomprehending Hill that throwing pictures of Stalin around is not the best way to build a “broad democratic alliance” against monopoly capital. A Star editor has to balance, on the one hand, the demands of CPB members - in embarrassingly large numbers, quite unreconstructed individuals - and, on the other, the paper’s appeal to the ‘broad left’. If Bagley is unable to keep the soft left happy, as in the MacKinnon debacle, why should the likes of comrade Hill, and hardliners higher up the CPB, put up with him?3
However, exactly what is going on is hard to divine, at least in part because the Star and the CPB are laughably non-transparent about the whole affair. Bagley and Briscoe got a bland, flatulent send-off on July 28. A “statement regarding Rory MacKinnon” manages that classic manoeuvre of dishonest bureaucrats the world over: vociferously objecting to allegations without actually refuting them. The Star “completely and utterly rejects the allegations that Mr MacKinnon was disciplined for attempting to raise allegations of domestic abuse … [He] was properly disciplined on charges of breaking the trust and confidence expected of him as a Morning Star reporter and of bringing the paper into disrepute.”4 The statement does not mention the tranche of formal communications, including minutes of meetings and written judgments, which MacKinnon has leaked, and which directly contradict the Star statement.
On one specific point, they respond directly: “The Morning Star wholly rejects Mr MacKinnon’s offensive claims that ‘the paper’s senior staff have an explicit policy of suppressing such allegations’.” This is deviously slippery: in the context of the Star statement, the phrase “such allegations” implicitly refers to allegations of domestic abuse; in MacKinnon’s statement, the quoted phrase refers to allegations against the RMT for not holding a formal investigation. In any case, Bagley made it quite clear that the paper’s “news priorities … do not include reporting internal union rows or personal controversy”, which presumably would cover both.
Where he is wrong is in a technical detail - such policies are not, indeed, explicit: MacKinnon was expected to deduce them from the general nature of the Star’s coverage (in fairness to comrade Bagley, not exactly a tough job).
Indeed, they cannot be explicit - any more than the BBC can be honest about the laughable nature of its so-called ‘impartiality’. To have down in writing ‘We do not meddle in union affairs’ would be to admit that the paper is an utterly compromised, prostituted rag.
Thus, also, the Star cannot really defend itself from MacKinnon. When Lenin returned to Russia on a sealed train, courtesy of the German high command and Alexander Parvus, he faced endless accusations of being an enemy agent. Indeed, presumably both the Germans and Parvus hoped he would, indeed, prove helpful to the German war effort! The Bolshevik response was to refute each and every allegation and excoriate the hypocrisy of those who put about such slanders for social-chauvinist purposes.5
In order to do the same here, however, the Morning Star would have to argue that the job of the left is to defer to trade union bureaucrats and assist in the concealment of dirty laundry. (The guilt or innocence of Hedley is immaterial here, simply because it does not enter into the Star’s calculation.) Such an admission would be a plain abrogation of the duty of a journalist, let alone a communist.
Wrapped up in this sad little story is the sorry state of the Morning Star. Its predecessor, the Daily Worker, was a pioneering publication in the history of British newspapers: quite apart from its political importance, it won awards for its journalism and production values. What award could the Star possibly win now?
That is ultimately a matter of politics. The refusal to dig into anything that might embarrass some left bureaucrat (or even the Chinese state!) makes the paper pretty dull. The lack of controversy, of any cutting edge, deforms also its journalists. It breeds, to borrow a phrase of Trotsky’s, “short-beaked pigeons”.6 The Star selects for sycophancy and naivety: not exactly virtues of great journalism.
And, while mainstream bourgeois journalists are hopelessly uncritical within their blind spots, the Star rather takes the cake with its grovelling inanity, applied in its case to union machines and the remnant Stalinist regimes elsewhere. Yes, MacKinnon was asking a question more like the Daily Mail than the Morning Star - because the Mail, vile as it is, would have the courage to ask such an awkward question of the Tories just as much as the RMT.
Courage, alas, is not, and has never been, counted among the Star’s “news priorities”.
2. Bagley’s decision is here: http://mediadarlings.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/hearing-decision.pdf.
5. A representative example is Lenin’s ‘Against the riot-mongers’ - www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/14b.htm.