Bloodied, but not broken
Paul Demarty examines the media’s role in May’s humiliation
As the dust settles after the June 8 election, as wrong-footed pundits (including your humble, and humbled, correspondent) scramble for explanations, and as anonymous ‘senior Tories’ sharpen their best stabbing knives, a story is doing the rounds, most especially in the liberal media.
The story is one of hubris, but not of Theresa May’s - rather of her snarling cheerleaders in the tabloid press. The calumnies against Labour, increasing in venom with every passing day, seemed to make no difference at all. The intervention of Islamist terrorists in the final weeks provided an excellent opportunity to rehash Jeremy Corbyn’s old Provo sympathies, but it came to naught. The Daily Mail’s final contribution was to hand off no less than 13 pages to foaming vituperation against the Labour leadership, rehashing its classic accusation against Stephen Lawrence’s killers beside a picture of Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott: “Apologists for terror - the Mail accuses this troika of befriending Britain’s enemies and scorning the institutions that keep us safe.” TheSun settled for the “shock revelation” that Corbyn had spoken at a rally also attended by Anjem Choudhary and his merry band of Salafist trolls, recently linked to the London Bridge attack. No matter - Labour, though not victorious, so radically outperformed expectations that you could almost be forgiven for expecting to see Corbyn in Downing Street after all.
All this has been interpreted, around and about the left and liberal media, as a nail in the coffin of the press barons. Once they had the sort of power that left politicians cowering, but that power has been eroded by new technology. New generations of people (those ‘tech-savvy millennials’ so beloved of marketing gurus and the sub-caste of journalists wholly subsumed into the marketing Weltanschauung) have grown up with a streak of impudence towards the gutter rags of their elders and betters. Suzanne Moore writes, in TheGuardian, that the attack-dog tabloids’ “power over politics is broken”:
The sudden thrust in the direction of the future, youth and possibility means that the dictum that politicians have to crawl to the Sun or the Mail is overturned ... Increasingly it appears people may look at the pregnancy- and cellulite-policing of the sidebar of shame for a laugh, but have no truck with the actual politics of [the Mail].1
John Cassidy strikes a similar note on the website of The New Yorker:
To circumvent a largely hostile print media, he relied on social media and television appearances. That didn’t prevent the Tory newspapers from trying to smear him ... [but] in defying such gutter tactics, Corbyn demonstrated the limits of Fleet Street’s influence in a fractured media age.2
By moving the centre of gravity of their campaign away from the mainstream media, Corbyn’s allies were able to better master their message. Momentum full-timer Emma Rees boasted to the Financial Times that the group’s YouTube videos “had been viewed by nearly a quarter of UK Facebook users in the last week, [showing that] slick, timely content that speaks to the issues people care about can match the millions the Tories are spending.”3
This interpretation of the election result has two parts - a positive claim that social media platforms offer a vastly more fertile terrain for progressive politics, allowing left politicians to address their audiences relatively directly; and a negative claim that the press barons are in perhaps terminal crisis. Both these ideas have elements of reality to them, but are rather too rosy.
To take the power of the press barons first of all: it was certainly a poor day at the races, on the face of it. If we make the assumption - empirically unimpeachable, surely - that the best outcome for the bourgeoisie on June 8 was a majority Tory government (that is, a government of the party of the state also directly in the pockets of the capitalists), then we have to say that the press has, indeed, failed in its job. Thus we must take the oddly personal execration of Theresa May in the pages of the press currently as at least in part an exercise in blame-shifting (after all, who among them was calling May a tedious robot in the actual course of the campaign?).
It seems to many that this represents a major change. After all, 25 years ago, TheSun ran its infamous one-two punch of front-page headlines - “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?” on the morning of the April 9 1992 election day; and then a triumphant “It’s TheSun wot won it” the following Saturday, when John Major’s continued premiership was assured. If not in so many words, that assessment of events was shared by many in the Labour right’s upper echelons, and when Tony Blair scrambled to the leader’s job, he immediately courted Rupert Murdoch to avoid a repeat showing. It seemed to work, and Blair won three elections with the backing of the Murdoch papers; Labour left office only after it lost the good graces of the Australian mogul. The phone hacking affair provoked a severe curtailment of the Murdoch empire’s power over the political class, but one that ended up being pretty brief.
TheSun is the very avatar of the idea of the salt-of-the-earth reactionary, opposed to the liberal elite - anti-Marxist as in anti-matter, an equal and opposite view of the working class in toto. According to Nick Davies, Kelvin MacKenzie - who edited the paper in its terroristic pomp - had a very clear idea of who its ideal reader was: “the bloke you see in the pub, right old fascist, wants to send the wogs back ... afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and the weirdos and drug dealers.”4 This status is appropriate, since TheSun - in its ancient prehistory - started life as a strike bulletin, of all things, which became a paper of the labour movement.
The Mail is a somewhat different case, having never gone over to support for Labour even under Blair (despite the latter’s most strenuous efforts). Its role is far from the vanguard of the electoral battle, deep in the psychology of the core Tory voter: that bigoted petty bourgeois obsessed with civilisation’s decline. Its power is to denounce certain Tory leaders for their modernism, their friendliness to liberal causes like gay marriage; the picture it paints is of a world dominated by a metropolitan liberal elite, living in a smug little echo-chamber, whose ranks - the horror! - extend deep into the Tory leadership. (Just as TheSun has a bizarrely perfect working class lineage, so the Mail is evergreen in its petty bourgeois enragé extraction, having begun in quite that fashion a century or so ago and notoriously been a supporter of Hitler, Mussolini and Mosley.) It is less the Mail’s influence over potential Labour voters, then, but rather its ability to make mischief within the Tories, that is the source of its true power.
Like the members of the Holy Trinity - and alongside other papers with whom we shall not deal in detail, such as TheTimes, which supposes itself to speak directly for ‘British interests’, but is, of course, a weapon in the hands of its proprietor - these gutter rags are distinct in their narrow purpose and mode of intervention, but united in their essence as an ideological pillar of bourgeois rule. Thus we must proceed, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, “neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance”.
This is important in the current connection because the turning point of May’s campaign must undoubtedly be the infamous manifesto launch, which saw widespread outrage at the so-called ‘dementia tax’, which was to expand the number of people liable to pay for social care (surely dead in the water now, with not a Tory in parliament sad to see it go after last week’s result). One aspect of this interests us here: TheSun supported the government, but the Mail did not. It was pressure from the Mail, above all else, which spooked sufficient Tory MPs to force a U-turn; after that the polls started to tighten.
That tells a story of the power, not the weakness, of the traditional media: the Mail, after all, convinced much of the Tory core vote that their homes were at risk. Just as the Tory front bench might have toughed it out regardless, the Mail might not have raised a fuss. Media organisations are not some demiurgic anonymous power, but agents, capable of making mistakes, of using their power erroneously. Thus the Mail’s reflex-twitch into petty bourgeois rabble-rousing presented an unexpected gift to Corbyn and his supporters. The nature of that gift was merely a crack in the consensus, that May was a (yawn) “strong and stable” leader - an impression basically laughable after the dementia tax U-turn. Everything subsequently cited as a weakness of hers goes back to this; her avoidance of leaders’ debates, for example, did her no harm until she seemed to have something to hide.
The point is simple. It is true that the traditional media is under serious strain; but its key weakness in the recent campaign was actually a long-standing one, which is that its power and foresight has never been absolute or beyond challenge. Part of Murdoch’s genius, as he drives the political lines of his papers, is being on the winning side without revealing how much that is a matter of creating the outcome and how much a matter of anticipating it. He is not careless, and knows that he needs the politicians as much as they need him; his demands of them are forthright, but never unmanageable. (That TheTimes and Sunday Times took different lines on the Brexit vote is perhaps a bellwether of how unpredictable British politics had already become.) The idea that the power of the press empires is somehow absolute was always reactionary: it signifies either a Blair, deciding that Murdoch’s consent was indispensable, or the sort of comfortable failure of those whose projects would have been perfectly successful ‘if it wasn’t for the biased media’. The advent of new technology does not change this either way.
So far as the latter goes: the kernel of truth in our optimists’ assessments is that we genuinely are at a moment of transformation in the history of the media. We do not need to belabour the point with the sort of starry-eyed descriptions of the internet that serve charlatan futurologists so well today. Existing business models for the capitalist media are in crisis. The trivial ease with which all other media productions can be shared, legally or otherwise, and returned to repeatedly, has had a real effect on the ability of the press to live down its errors and blatant untruths.
The problem is that this phenomenon is identified as a matter of technology in the narrow sense. It is ‘the internet’ (or, more narrowly, ‘social media’) that has broken the power of the press barons. In reality, of course, social media companies are - by definition - media companies, just like News Corporation. They are, in many cases, poorly-run media companies - Twitter is an egregious example - and they have not yet been put very much at their proprietors’ direct political service, although the increasing readiness of Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and the like to declare it their solemn intention to banish the absurd racist verbiage of the alt-right and ‘fake news’ from their platforms suggests that this may be starting to change.
The incentives, underneath it all, are actually the same: in the narrow, pounds-and-pence sense, both old and new media are advertising-subsidised and thus in hock to the capitalist class as a collective purchaser of marketing space; and in the more expansive sense, the likes of Twitter are a very tempting potential platform for influence-mongering, for anyone with the readies to buy it (a private-equity raid would surely make short work of that malfunctioning noise generator). Murdoch was ahead of the curve on this one, splashing out for Myspace 10 years ago; that was a disaster, to be sure, but future moguls will learn from his mistakes.
The conclusion, despite all this, ought to be encouraging. It is not the case that the mainstream media was once powerful, but is currently weak; it was always powerful, and still is, but it can be defeated anyway. The idea of declaring independence from it, meanwhile, is a good one, but it must go further than merely enthusing about (say) YouTube videos, which are not in the end a replacement for the mainstream media, but a new mainstream medium, as yet imperfectly ‘socialised’ into the decorum of its older siblings.
3. Financial Times June 10.
4. N Davies Hack attack: how the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch London 2014, p84.