Smear tactics and our response
To combat the lies, we need our own independent working class media, argues Mike Macnair
In the campaign for the May 5 election for London mayor, Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith is running behind Labour’s Sadiq Khan in the polls. A ComRes poll for LBC, published on April 6, showed Khan on 44%, Goldsmith on 37 and, after the elimination of other candidates (Liberal Democrats 7%, UK Independence Party 5%, Green 4%, Respect 2%, any others 1%), Khan on 55% and Goldsmith on 45%.
The UK Polling Report blog comments: “As with all the other recent London polling, we’ve seen it puts Sadiq Khan in a relatively comfortable first place” - that is, other polls also show Khan ahead. London, in fact, is unusually pro-Labour overall: a March 31 general voting intention poll for London showed Labour on 45%, Conservative 34%, Ukip 10%, Lib Dem 7%, Greens 4%, while an April 4 national poll had the Conservatives on 33%, Labour 32%, Ukip 17%, Lib Dem 5% and Green 4%.1
Naturally enough, the Tories and the advertising-funded ‘bought media’ have responded by attempting to smear both Sadiq Khan and Labour more generally as ‘soft on terrorism’. Theresa May attacked him for - in his professional capacity as a human rights lawyer - defending a terrorism suspect (who pleaded guilty).Shock, horror - lawyer acts according to professional ethics!
Michael Gove dug up Khan’s suggestion in a 2004 discussion that Sharia inheritance rules might be used in English cases. Not referenced have been Khan’s 2008 argument that Sharia is “not fit for the UK”; nor his November 2015 speech complaining that Muslims are “growing up in this country” without ever “knowing anyone from a different background”.2 Since both were published in Conservative papers at the time, the current spin is plainly dishonest.
Various ‘sources’ have been deployed, notably in The Sun, to complain about the fact that Khan’s sister’s ex-husband is a Salafist and has links to real jihadists - three degrees of influence, anyone? TheSun too complained - already in February - about Khan sharing a platform with Azzam Tamimi of the Muslim Association of Britain (in relation to the affair of the Copenhagen cartoons).3
Boris Johnson used his Sunday Telegraph column (for which, it turns out, he was paid £266,667 last year, or at his own estimation of the time involved, £2,200 per hour) to argue that Sadiq Khan’s “extremist links” are connected to (sigh!) anti-Semitism scandals in the Labour Party. “We can’t let the Corbynistas plant the red flag back on top of City Hall” his piece is headlined - as if Sadiq Khan was a Corbynista ...4 The Sunday Mail article similarly crudely combines the Sadiq Khan smears with ‘Labour anti-Semitism’ stories.
What Johnson calls the “cancer in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party” brings us to another very recent event. Some person or persons unknown, who must have connections in Labour’s central offices - told The DailyTelegraph that Tony Greenstein was being suspended on charges of anti-Semitism - before Greenstein had been told himself.5 (As is the normal Spanish Inquisition method - or that of other medieval heresy trials - favoured by advocates of ‘safe spaces’ policies, the detail of allegations and the names of the accusers are not revealed to the person against whom they are made.)
This allegation was a plain actionable libel, and a very serious one in today’s context - unless a court could be somehow (bizarrely) persuaded that Jewish opposition to Zionism, combined with open campaigning against real anti-Semitism, could count as “anti-Semitism”. Faced with threats of legal action, on April 9 the Telegraph added to its story the statement: “Clarification: Since this article was published, we have been asked to make clear that we had not intended to imply that Tony Greenstein is anti-Semitic. We are happy to do so.” And on April 11 the paper published Tony Greenstein’s letter making clear his position.6
The question, of course, is whether this retraction without equal prominence will undermine the effects of the original smear. The answer is, regrettably, that it probably will not. I made this point back in 2004, when the Telegraph was forced to pay damages to George Galloway over its allegations - at the moment of the invasion of Iraq - that Galloway had for personal profit taken money from the Iraqi Ba’athist regime. No doubt the judgment gave Galloway justified ‘vindictive satisfaction’; but the delay meant that the smear could be out there doing its political work at the moment - the early stages of the war - when it could potentially undermine political opposition to the war.7
The Telegraph’s retraction without equal prominence does, however, cast into focus the weasel words offered by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (probably better called the ‘Alliance for Foreign Office Liberty’) in its newspaper, Solidarity (probably better called ‘Western Solidarity’). Here the AFOL, while condemning the secret character of the proceedings against comrade Greenstein, throws its little bit of kindling onto the execution fire for the heretico comburendo by not pointing out the obvious falsity of the charge of anti-Semitism against Greenstein.
Indeed, the AFOL in recent issues of Western Solidarity has been actively contributing to promoting the idea that anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic, and that the only way to escape anti-Semitism is to accept ‘Israel’s right to exist’. They tell us that rejection of the Zionist colonising project amounts to double standards in relation to the Turkish state’s oppression of the Kurds.
The argument would be plausible if the Turkish state was not only oppressing the Kurds, but also expropriating Kurdish-inhabited land in Syria or Iraq with a view to settling colonists of European or US origin on it ... The reality is that the Zionist project is today the only continuing, active - as opposed to completed or defeated - project of European ethnic-cleansing settlement colonisation. That does not mean that it is right to call for the expulsion of the Hebrew-speaking inhabitants of Israel, but it does mean that opposition to the Zionist project is not inherently anti-Semitic. Indeed, as Tony Greenstein has repeatedly pointed out, the Zionist project presupposes that the world’s Jews must separate from the goyim to have their own state, and this idea is perfectly consistent with classical anti-Semitism.
The AFOL view on Zionism is merely part of the same politics which produced ‘Why we should not denounce intervention in Libya’ (2011) (look at the results of the intervention ...) and similar claims. Libya illustrated the fundamental nature of the AFOL’s politics: for US and British military and diplomatic operations, not against ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, which these operations backed. With the current smear campaign around ‘anti-Semitism’, the chickens are coming home to roost in terms of British politics, aligning the group with Boris Johnson and the rest. The AFOL, in short, has made itself part of the Tory and Blairite smear machine.
Tony Greenstein has secured a partial withdrawal of the Telegraph’s libel, and a letter in reply to it, by threatening legal action. But it is necessary to be clear that this method will not work generally. The libel against Tony Greenstein is an exceptionally obvious one; and comrade Greenstein has a legal qualification and experience in fighting defamation claims as a litigant in person, not shared by most of us. Moreover, what is involved is - as I explained in 2004 when writing about the Galloway judgement - a gamble. On average, deep pockets win in litigation (the media are more likely to tell us when the little guy wins, precisely because this way round is a ‘man bites dog’ story).
The judiciary, moreover, is part of the state apparatus, and when the interests of the state are directly engaged and uncontroversial, is unlikely to give judgments which would directly interfere with state interests (even if judges are uncomfortable, they can and will postpone, or find a ‘minimalist’ or procedural ground for a decision which will avoid directly interfering with state interests. Delay, as I have already indicated, is sufficient for the smears to still have political effect. In this context, creating a culture of suing for defamation over political smears is dangerous to us. Such a culture is more likely to be used against the workers’ movement than to be effective in its favour.
Paul Mason has recently argued for dropping opposition to Trident on the ground that to do so will let Labour win on economic issues.8 OK, to reframe the point, suppose we admit that Leon Trotsky really was a fascist. In that case, we will be able to ‘apply the transitional method’ by concentrating on the ‘real’ (economic) issues ... No doubt a similar motivation informs Jeremy Corbyn’s and John McDonnell’s simple denunciations of ‘anti-Semitism’ without enquiring into whether real anti-Semitism is at stake; and the expulsion of Gerry Downing from the Labour Representation Committee without any form of due process.
This approach effectively concedes to the smear campaign. The Miliband leadership pursued this policy in relation to the media’s big lie about Labour’s economic mismanagement. It categorically failed.
Equally, a commonplace line among Labour ‘centrists’ and journos is that Labour gets bad media because of Corbyn’s, or his team’s, failure to understand the media or incompetent media management. The reality is that this is complete BS. It reflects the bad conscience of media types and their consequent unwillingness to believe that they are paid to write fraudulently in order to serve their proprietors and the advertisers. It is also a conscious strategy directed against the possibility of the revival of something which was a perfectly well understood necessity in the past: the need for independent working class media.
It is by building independent working class media that it is possible to combat the politics of smears. Fraud works by walling off the defrauded from alternative voices. By building up independent working class media to the point that it can actually compete with the corrupt, advertising-funded mainstream, it is possible to prevent big-lie stories like ‘Gordon Brown’s profligacy caused the crisis’, ‘Ed Miliband is incompetent’, ‘Labour is full of anti-Semites’, and so on, taking hold as unquestioned common sense. It is, incidentally, for this reason that the Bolsheviks’ decision to ban factions - even if it really was, as some claim, intended only to be temporary - led inexorably to ‘Leon Trotsky was a fascist’.
The use of ‘social media’ is not a sufficient alternative. Consider the last few years: the left (and other dissident voices) have made extensive use of social media. But it is the mainstream, advertising-funded press which continues to set the news and policy agenda. This is not to say that social media and so on are useless. But the necessity is to go beyond the single-issue campaign - beyond even the peculiar form of single-issue campaign which is the campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party or that to win the Democrat presidential nomination for Bernie Sanders.
We could do it. The CPGB produces this weekly paper with miniscule backing. The Morning Star is not a very exciting paper, and (partly because) it depends on backing from sections of the trade union bureaucracy and on overseas support. But it does succeed in keeping going as a daily even with very limited finances. Hence the trade unions certainly have the resources that could back an effective daily, and so could the Labour Party.
To make that choice they just need to grit their teeth and recognise that the advertising payments to the corrupt media are subsidies paid by capital to these loss-making outlets for the sake of a loyal political voice. Hence the labour movement needs to raise equivalent funds to create its own political voice.
It also needs to abandon the bureaucratic controls which make the far-left press (Socialist Worker, The Socialist and so on), as much as the Morning Star and the existing trade union house journals, grey and uninspiring.
The underlying question is one of choice. Do we want a working class party which is capable of acting independently of capital and of capital’s media, or just one which ‘represents’ the working class within the framework of capitalist veto powers over what may be said?
Labour under Tony Blair was the latter. It was not a purely capitalist party, and Gordon Brown’s policy as chancellor was in a limited way redistributive in favour of the poor. The fact that New Labour still remained Labour was reflected in Brown’s ousting of Blair, in Ed Miliband’s defeat of his brother, David, and most recently in Jeremy Corbyn’s victory.
But Labour under Corbyn is not yet a fully independent working class party: not just because of the strong presence of the right in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the apparatus; nor just because of the continued existence of bans and proscriptions under rule 2 (5) and of witch-hunting; but also (among other reasons) precisely because Labour lacks the means of going outside and against the dictatorship of the capitalist class, operated - at a very immediate level - through the corrupt media.
We need a party which has more radical aims than even the Labour left; and to such a party it would be obvious that it needed to promote independent working class media.
1. All from http://ukpollingreport.co.uk.
2. Daily Mail October 12 2008; The Daily Telegraph November 19 2015.
3. Eg. Sunday Mail April 10 2016; Gove: The Sunday Times April 10 2015 has more details. The Sun: www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/6927497/London-Mayor-candidate-Sadiq-Khans-links-to-Islamic-extremist-revealed.html. The story was broken by the Evening Standard February 12 2016. Also: www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/6917684/Sadiq-Khan-attended-rally-with-extremist-Muslim-leader-who-threatened-fire-throughout-the-world.html.
4. The pay appears from his disclosed tax return, and the hourly rate is calculated by The Times diarist, April 12 2016. The column, The Daily Telegraph April 10 2016.
5. The Daily Telegraph April 1 2016. More detail on Tony Greenstein’s blog http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk.
7. ‘Galloway and libel’ Weekly Worker December 9 2004. The expression, ‘vindictive satisfaction’, is originally Jeremy Bentham’s, but has some current use in relation to the theory of punishment.