In enemy hands
The barrage of lies about Labour’s anti-Semitism ‘problem’ shows we badly need an alternative labour movement media, argues Paul Demarty
Two items on the current news agenda ought to raise questions - for the left and Labour Party - about whether our media strategies are working.
The first is the ongoing fallout from the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. I dealt with this story at length in the last Weekly Worker, and do not propose to repeat much of that analysis here1; suffice to say, the shiny new world of social media is not so shiny and new any more, and the behaviour of the major social media companies is now unavoidably a matter of contention in general politics. We shall see how, exactly, a little later on.
The second item, of course, is the increasingly bizarre and hysterical pitch of the allegations of anti-Semitism against Labour members - and against Jeremy Corbyn for failing to deal ‘robustly enough’ with the supposed swarms of Jew-haters. At this paper, of course, we assert that these allegations are largely fabricated and that even the true ones are used dishonestly, merely by being packaged up with the fakes into a sort of ideological equivalent of the dodgy mortgage derivatives of the mid-2000s.
How lying works
Still, it is a good moment to take stock of just how spectacularly dishonest the smears have become. Case in point: TheSunday Times “bombshell” investigation into - ahem - “Jeremy Corbyn’s hate factory”. Whatever could they mean? Merely that “Twelve senior staff working for the Labour leader and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, are members of [Facebook] groups containing anti-Semitic and violent comments, including praise for Adolf Hitler and threats to kill Theresa May, the prime minister.” These groups, with over 400,000 total membership, produced over 2,000 such comments.2
Of course, the brave “whistleblowers” who alerted the paper (what an insult to Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg and the like to refer to these saboteurs in that way!) were also members of all these groups, and therefore for however long complicit in anti-Semitism; and TheSunday Times has helpfully compiled a photo-montage of all the offensive comments, which presumably makes it guilty of anti-Semitism too. If some porn-spam bot had left a comment in one of these groups, no doubt John McDonnell would be complicit in running prostitution rings.
In truth, of course, what the intrepid investigative journalists of TheSunday Times have discovered is ... the internet, on which one can find all sorts of peculiar people. In the early 2000s, I was a regular poster on a web forum dedicated to the ‘straight-edge’ subculture (we listened to hard-core punk, while not drinking, smoking or taking drugs, if you must know). At a certain point, as - alas - happens routinely, it was invaded by 10 or 15 neo-Nazis, after which it became impossible to have a discussion about anything without the Protocols of the elders of Zion creeping in; eventually the owner of the board shut it down. Small, well-tended online communities might manage to avoid such invasions, but any large one will not, and will of necessity end up in an undignified game of whack-a-mole with fascist trolls. I suggest, one day, that the staff writers who came up with this bilge walk upstairs in the News Building to talk to the people whose job it is to moderate the comments on TheSun website; from my memory of working there, those unlucky men and women see many things that cannot be unseen.
So we can well imagine how these postings came about. Some person - let us call him Dave - will approach a moderator of a pro-Corbyn group asking to join; he will be let in; he then posts some piece about Jewish involvement in sex slavery, and leaves five dubious comments around in various threads; he is kicked out, but not before the ‘whistleblowers’ have beamed this material off to their paymasters in SE1.
Only game in town
On one level, it is almost appropriate to shrug one’s shoulders at all this. TheSunday Times (and all the other rightwing papers) can be expected to sling calumnies at their enemies, and are not notable for any noble history of scrupulous factual accuracy. ‘Haters gonna hate’, as the rap cliché goes. The fact that such behaviour is inevitable, however, does not make it harmless.
Such foghorn-blasts of slander do a certain amount of damage in and of themselves, by (presumably) convincing some number among the gullible of the falsehoods thereby promoted. There is a more insidious kind of damage, however, which actually requires the collusion of the victim to work.
Media power is fundamentally rivalrous - media organisations fight over the limited amount of attention available, there being only 24 hours in a day and so many people to scream at (robot armies of fraudulent Twitter accounts notwithstanding). Carried on under a capitalist basis, the arc of ‘progress’, as always with capitalism, bends towards concentration and monopoly.3 For politicians of all kinds, access to some of that attention is vital - whether your message is superficial or complex, conservative or revolutionary, it may as well not exist if nobody has access to it. There are then two kinds of strategy available: either displace the incumbent media organisations; or find ways to transmit your messages through them.
The second approach is the one typically taken by mainstream politicians. The constraints of the ‘Overton window’ impinge on all aspects of the imagination; and, even if the politician herself does not exactly believe everything she reads in the papers, she sees little alternative than to make nice with the papers and TV channels and hope to look nice to readers and viewers at large. It may be a crooked game, as legendary con-artist Canada Bill Jones is supposed to have said, but it’s the only game in town.
In the initial stages of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, he toyed with taking the other approach. Having been declared overwhelmingly victorious in 2015, he eschewed the usual tour of post-match interviews to go directly to a protest demonstration in support of refugees - a very Corbynish afternoon activity, but also a calculated snub, that was received as such. After a series of set-piece scandals, however (Would he wear a poppy? Would he sing the national anthem? Would he bow before the queen? How dare he not do these things?), the true shape of the leadership’s media strategy would become clear. Ground could be given on almost everything; it was on the single issue of austerity that Labour could hope to win, and getting that message across was paramount. So, quietly, did the Labour leadership come to depend on the very media organisations undermining it at every turn. There is no creature on god’s earth less gracious than a media baron.
Thus, faced with the most scandalous barrage of outright lies and half-truths, Corbyn has chosen to retreat, and offer capitulation after capitulation. Still the lies come. For retreating only tells the liars that their lies are working, and they may proceed to tell more of them with impunity, and expect the same results. On the basis of the polling data, however, it does not really seem to be working - 80% or so of Labour members think Corbyn is doing a good job - but, the more he throws his supporters to the baying wolves, the greater the danger of demobilisation.
Of course, we are in an interesting period of transition as regards the media, such that the ‘traditional’ outlets do find themselves jostling for attention with the social networks and the bewildering array of small media organisations that compete for clicks on Facebook, Twitter and co.
Certainly the Corbyn regime has made a great deal of use of social media: its most reliable friends, such as they are, are blogs-cum-websites like TheSkwawkbox and TheCanary. Given both the violent bias of the mainstream media in the 2017 general election and the fact that Labour radically outperformed expectations, we must assume that this has worked to a point; that social media platforms have provided some sort of alternative to the incumbent media for people outside the political mainstream (a matter of great assistance also to the radical right, most spectacularly in the form of Donald Trump’s electoral victory).
The difficulty in analysis here is the fact that we are still, precisely, in the period of transition; we do not know exactly what the capitalist media will look like economically when this technological revolution is complete. Nonetheless, we have often had cause to voice scepticism as to the supposedly socially transformative nature of social media - a scepticism which recent events have tended to confirm. The first matter is that the social networking companies themselves are by far the dominant force in new digital media, but are not producers of content themselves; rather they are distributors. (It is as if Rupert Murdoch was at the mercy of some incomprehensibly powerful printing consortium, without whose say-so nothing could get done.) The dominant producers of content, then, tend to carry the benefits of their incumbency onto these new platforms, rather than losing them.
Let us say that social media was full of people expressing outrage at the fakeness of the anti-Semitism scandal; nonetheless, that is what they are expressing outrage about - nothing else - and so social media is dragged onto the traditional media agenda. It is striking, really, how little this happens in the other direction: while the papers furnish us with no end of tediously lazy articles composed entirely of celebrity tweets about some issue, the latter are invariably selected according to the paper’s line; the line is not driven by the content of the tweets.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal, meanwhile, is relevant here for two reasons. Firstly, it shone an unflattering spotlight on the means by which Facebook and friends actually make money - with targeted adverts. This, as I argued last week, is exactly the same business model as the traditional media, albeit on a vastly increased scale. (The small web outlets which use social media as their principal means of distribution are also, overwhelmingly, advertising-funded.) Thus, ultimately, social-networking platforms are subject to the same economic constraints as the incumbents - the possibility of a generalised advertising boycott, acting as a form of collective discipline exercised by the capitalist class on its media.
Secondly, the scandal was genuinely damaging to Facebook, generating a significant short-term hit to the share price, a federal investigation into its data-sharing practices, and a serious hit to staff morale, as evidenced by the torrent of leaks of internal memos and so on. Who drove it? The traditional media, which are in no mood to be disintermediated quietly by these hoodie-toting upstarts. In spite of the good Democrat (and Tory) connections of Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants, the greater share of establishment political influence remains with the traditional media barons. A change in that layout is probably dependent, in reality, on the bringing of things ‘under control’ on the social media platforms, so they are no longer such fertile hunting grounds for political mavericks of all stripes.
So we have ruled out relying on the traditional media, then - but also the new digital media. The search for a real alternative must lead us elsewhere.
And it must necessarily lead us to a different political economy of media production and distribution. People genuinely pursuing socialism - frankly, even most weak-tea Keynesians nowadays - cannot expect to have more than incidental good fortune in the pages and on the television channels and websites of corporate advertising-funded media tout court.
Fortunately, history furnishes us with the example of substantial organisations of economic power not based on the capitalist principle of profit (or dependent on state largesse). The organisations of the workers’ movement, funded and staffed purely by the personal sacrifices of their members for the common good of all, are perfectly capable - in the right conditions - of creating permanent media organisations a class above the penny-pinching operations of the capitalists. Admittedly, you would not know it, looking at the tedious advertising sheets put out by union head offices today, or most of the papers of the far left. (We are proud of our own efforts, but it would be a monstrous pretension to consider them adequate to the task of supplanting Murdoch, Zuckerberg et al.)
Yet a vital media and literary culture did attach itself to the great parties of the Second International, and from time to time to the Third as well. The Sun itself ultimately descends from a strike bulletin, of all things. The technological changes since that period have only made publication easier; it is the experience of severe defeats, and the political failure to confront them adequately, that has rendered a revival in workers’ media ‘unachievable’. One form of working class politics that so fails, alas, is Labourism, which is characterised by its constitutional loyalism, and thereby compromised in the face of the arrangements the constitution props up. Even Corbyn, whose unpatriotism is the subject of every other screaming Mail op-ed, has reduced his republican views to a rather Platonic affair that absolves him from having to do anything about the fact that we actually have a queen.
Achieving a workers’ media worthy of the name therefore falls to those for whom independent activity of the organised working class is axiomatic: these are the people we call communists. A genuine Communist Party, then, has never been more necessary - for this reason, among a great many others.
1. ‘Facebook crisis in context’ Weekly Worker March 29.
2. The Sunday Times April 1 (when else?).
3. This picture is partially complicated by the existence of state media organisations like the BBC; but these tend to be concentrated on a civil service, departmental basis anyway. So you might say that the logical end-result is one state media and one private media corporation, with the option of effectively fusing the two, glimpsed in the inglorious career of Silvio Berlusconi.