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Distortion, Revisionism & the Liberal Media

American readers will be familiar with the enduring notion that the media has a liberal bias. Sensible ones will know that this notion is absurd, or at least requires a rather loose working definition of the word “liberal”. There isn’t quite the same feeling about the media in Britain, at least not taken as a whole, and this is all the more effective in sustaining the myth that freedom of press and speech are more or less protected and culturally ingrained. British people can buy a “liberal” newspaper or a “conservative” one and be happy in the knowledge that they are consuming more or less independent news, spun in their favoured direction. Conservative citizens may howl at the supposedly extreme-left views churned out by the various Marxist propaganda mills, such as The Guardian, or the Daily Mirror, and the liberal centre-left can find refuge in these texts from the right-wing forces of darkness in The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

The supposed ideological biases of these publications are known and accepted. The only media outlet truly accused of bias as though it were crime is the BBC, which has long been accused of having a liberal agenda. This idea has received some support from those who ought to be in the position to know, for example the former business editor, Jeff Randall, who now works for Murdoch’s Sky News. Randall claims a “very senior BBC person” told him that “the BBC is not neutral in multiculturalism: it believes in it and promotes diversity”.[i] Andrew Marr, a former editor of The Independent, a newspaper which defines itself by its apparent freedom from party-political bias, moved in the opposite direction and now works for the BBC. Back in 1996 he conducted a television interview with Noam Chomsky for the BBC, on the subject of western media propaganda, and appeared quite indignant at the suggestion that he and his colleagues were anything other than free, independent thinkers, “crusading” for truth. 10 years later he declared that “The BBC is not impartial or neutral […] It has a liberal bias not so much as a party-political bias.”[ii] What is rarely, if ever suggested, at least in the mainstream press, is that the BBC, and indeed the other explicitly “liberal” outlets, might be biased in the other direction, most notably on economic and foreign policy issues.

At the time of writing, the issue exercising most of the media outlets in Britain is the prospect of military intervention in Syria. The British media, both “liberal” and not, has flip-flopped in recent days over whether or not to support the intervention. Like American opinion, the British public’s assessment of the merits and consequences of the invasion of Iraq is more or less critical, though like America’s feelings about Iraq (and previous failures like Vietnam) there is much less agreement as to WHY it was bad. For this reason the press is hedging its bets. If a media outlet broadly supports intervention in Syria and it turns out to be a disaster, it will want to be able to point to its own loudly voiced concerns over small details. Nobody wants to be seen to have been a cheerleader for a disastrous war. What is far more readily agreed upon is that non-intervention as a matter of principle is weak, stupid and retrograde. The notion that Britain and its allies are not morally entitled and correct to police the world is a fringe position to take in the mainstream media. It’s an opinion which can be voiced – we live in a democracy after all – but is typically met with derision or outrage by liberal interventionists both within the press and outside it. Yet newspapers and broadcasting corporations rely heavily on big business for advertising revenue and on the benevolence of the political elite if they are to remain unmuzzled, or at least unmuzzled within the current acceptable range of opinion. Any major national venture that might hurt those interests may in turn hurt the media outlets.

For this reason, opposing a potentially foolish intervention on strategic grounds may be simple common sense. Even the Daily Mail has done that in recent days. While acknowledging that France “wisely[…] refused to have anything to do with the Anglo-US invasion of Iraq”[iii], the Mail declared our moral obligation to assist the French in responding with military force to the Paris attacks. While acknowledging this moral obligation, the Mail has however insisted upon our right not to get involved because Cameron has not yet made a compelling case to do so. This is the acceptable face of opposition to military intervention in the UK. It’s not clear why France’s anticipation of doom in 2003 was wisdom, yet the same in 2015 is cowardice or abdication of responsibility. After all, many in the press accused France of cowardice in 2003. And it’s important to distinguish between strategic concerns about consequences for the powerful and concerns about consequences for civilians in Syria and at home. The former are valid and important to those in power. The latter are treated as a moral argument, and opposing it on moral grounds is ludicrous, judging by the tone of the British press. A litany of personality failings are ascribed to public figures who take this position; anti-Americanism, anti-Britishness, cowardice, tendency towards collaborationism, misanthropy, treachery. Don’t the so-called left who allow themselves to indulge in this folly know that they are bedfellows of conservative isolationists – bigots like Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul? The diagnostic manual for this poor, benighted type would surely rival the DSM-V for length and absurdity.

Smearing those who are morally opposed to a particular military action in this manner serves a useful purpose, even for media outlets that haven’t gone all in for intervention yet. The figure in British politics most closely associated with this position today is Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the British Labour party and by far the most left-leaning leader in a generation, if not longer. American readers might think of Corbyn as a more radical, less hawkish Bernie Sanders. He represents the greatest current political threat to those very same elite interests which decide whether or not a military intervention is politically and economically profitable. While Corbyn will never be Prime Minister and is largely a figure of ridicule among the commentariat, he has already won notable policy victories over the supposedly resurgent Conservative party, including prompting a total U-turn on the party’s plan to cut working tax credits from thousands of struggling families. Corbyn believes in the kind of wealth redistribution that utterly terrifies big business and their sponsored media outlets, and if his views are catching on with the public to the extent that Cameron and Osborne are compelled towards Bill Clinton-style triangulations in directions they naturally abhor, any as-yet-unadopted views must be discredited at every turn as “extremist”, “radical”, “far-left” and so on, in order to diminish the public appetite for them. If non-intervention is a feature of Corbynism, non-intervention is thus also an extremist position.

One expects this kind of silliness from the conservative press, and gets it in spades, but it’s most beautifully illustrated in the coverage he has received from The Guardian, mainstream Britain’s idea of the “left-wing” press. In the last week alone, the paper has published more than a dozen articles about the agonising battle of wills within the Labour party, between the realistic MPs who simply wish to vote with their conscience and their hopeless leader who wishes to bring his underlings under the Stalinist cosh. Unless it has been buried very deeply, I do not believe The Guardian has written a word about why exactly the Prime Minister, who has a majority in the House, needs Labour votes, for which he is openly canvassing, unless he is facing a rebellion from non-interventionists in his own party, none of whom are subjected to the kinds of character smears directed at Corbyn. It took the government’s own defence secretary, Michael Fallon, to admit on television that the government does not yet have a majority over the issue. Indeed, the BBC’s former political editor Nick Robinson, widely considered to be personally conservative, is the only major figure in the mainstream press who has drawn attention to this. Both his own organisation and The Guardian, those totems of liberal bias, are furiously engaged in making the question of military action in Syria about the leadership capabilities of the leader of the opposition, rather than the government.

Within the next week, Cameron is expected to hold his vote in the House of Commons in the hope of securing parliamentary support for air strikes. Many readers may recall that this is the second time Cameron has taken a proposal to bomb Syria before the House, although the circumstances are rather different. In 2013 he asked all parties to endorse air strikes against the Assad regime, to support the “moderate” rebel forces on the ground in their attempts to bring democracy and freedom to Syria. By that point Britain was already funding and arming the rebels too, funds and weapons which have reportedly found their way into the hands of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group, Jabhat Al-Nusra, which was still allied at that time with what later became ISIS. Unconvinced by Cameron’s casus belli, the House voted against intervention. The BBC reported that “MPs have rejected possible UK military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to deter the use of chemical weapons.”[iv]

Fast-forward to November 2015 and John Humphrys, a veteran broadcaster for the BBC, returned to the subject on BBC Radio 4. Speaking on the Today programme, which he presents, he declared that “It’s more than two years since the Government, our Government, asked the House of Commons to approve military action against Islamic State in Syria and MPs said no. It was a devastating defeat. It seemed to proved the end of David Cameron’s plans for British war Planes to join other Western forces in attacking them in Syria as well as in Iraq.” In a few sentences Humphrys re-wrote the last two years of British foreign policy in Syria in its entirety and, in case anybody supposed that he had simply misspoke in claiming the vote was to sanction air strikes against ISIS rather than Assad, affirmed the lie by saying Cameron had wanted to attack “them in Syria as well as in Iraq”.[v]

When the radical left or, say, the far-right engage in this kind of distortion the liberal media has a word for it: revisionism. Now, revisionism can mean a few different things. Taken literally, it’s a historical perspective which holds that while historical narrative is typically written by the victors, the historical record itself can be re-interpreted, new evidence may emerge that contradicts conventional wisdoms, etc. The word has, however, become conflated with negationism, which might be better known as denialism, whereby the historical record is distorted, rewritten, fudged, in order to generate propaganda. While in the past, historical negationists described themselves as revisionists to adopt the cloak of respectability, the term is now used against them, while being taken to mean virtually the same thing as denialism. What this does is serve to trap the prevailing historical narrative in amber. Nothing can be added, taken away or questioned without the revisionist’s entire agenda being called into question, and once the label of revisionist has been applied, even verifiable facts are worthless, their very invocation deeply, irretrievably suspect. Very often the accusation – and it is an accusation – is unfair and unfounded, and even when it’s not it can serve to stifle legitimate debate. A stopped clock is, after all, right twice a day.

In the case of John Humphrys on Syria, however, it is overt negationist revisionism at its finest. The implications are serious. In this new version of history, it is not hard to weave a narrative in which parliament voted against tackling ISIS in 2013 in full knowledge that they were condemning thousands of Syrians and Iraqis to gruesome deaths at the hands of an apocalyptic death cult. And while they couldn’t have known that western aid workers and journalists would have been beheaded, they might have guessed and are essentially responsible for that too. It both condemns the appeasers of 2013 and narrows the spectrum of acceptable future conduct in the light of that. Since ISIS are, as we are reminded daily, a unique evil and want us dead, every idle moment is tantamount to treason.

It is not known whether the British parliament may yet vote against air strikes in Syria despite the unique horrors of ISIS, but it has presently never done so and for a publicly-funded broadcaster to essentially lobby on behalf of the government by distorting events in this way is fairly shocking. This is the kind of trickery of which liberal interventionists habitually accuse the radical left, sometimes with some justification, often without, but always with deep moral outrage and accusations of “revisionism”. Take, for example, the case of Corbyn’s recently hired director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne. Milne is probably the most radical leftist in the mainstream British press and has worked for The Guardian for 30 years, where he has given voice to many issues familiar with leftists on both sides of the Atlantic. He has, like Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, William Blum, John Pilger and other well-known writers of the radical left, written provocatively and often even persuasively about Western imperialism and international law. His expose of intelligence services and media complicity in the crushing of the UK miners’ strike in 1984-85, The Enemy Within, is regarded as a classic work of investigative journalism.

Disliked or simply pitied by centrists and conservatives for many years, with notable exceptions like self-described “whig”, Dan Hannan MEP, who described him as his “fourth favourite leftie columnist” and a “sincere, eloquent and uncomplicated Marxist”[vi], Milne’s entrance into mainstream politics produced an eruption of sneering in the press. This was most pronounced among some of his colleagues from his own newspaper. In response to the announcement that Corbyn had hired Milne, Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore posted on Facebook “I fucking hate these public school leftists. Cunt central. Bye bye Labour”[vii]. Former Guardian editor Peter Preston casually suggested in an opinion piece that Milne had praised “dear old Uncle Joe” Stalin (in an article Preston’s paper published). When challenged by a blogger named Joe Emersberger about this, readers’ editor Chris Elliott described it as “pretty gentle”[viii], though he quietly amended the article to remove the word “praise” (without any notice of correction on the webpage). The affectionate “dear old Uncle Joe” remains, sustaining the media image of Milne as a Stalinist, a description which also appeared in the centre-left New Statesman.

Like the aforementioned leftist writers, Milne has long been a target of “liberal left” writers who comb his articles for “revisionist” statements about, say, the Yugoslav wars, the Soviet Union, Iraq and other shared obsessions. The “Stalinist” tag has its origins in a piece Milne wrote for The Guardian, in which he took exception to the increasing tendency to characterise Nazism and communism as equal forces for evil by totting up numbers of corpses.

With this apparently outrageous position, Milne brought himself in line with the renowned, and respected historian and Stalinist – sorry – critic of Stalin, Robert Conquest, who put it more explicitly than that, saying “Hitler just feels worse.” Milne’s article has, to be sure, a peculiar tone of nostalgia for life in the Soviet Union that Milne is not entitled to claim, but his admiration is plainly for “rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality”. Nobody means such things when they refer to Stalinism. They mean gulags, purges, Lavrentiy Beria and the NKVD. Nor does anybody care to take Milne to task over the suggestion that such advances were indeed made. Mud sticks. Sling more of it.

By hiring the likes of Milne, by favouring political solutions over military ones, by taking moderate positions in an extreme climate, Corbyn has exposed himself as, at worst, a terrible politician, which is to say he is terrible at doing what politicians do: persuade, manipulate, show their best angles. On the other hand, simply by existing, he has prompted the British media to reveal its true face. Even those who held our press in rather low esteem before must have been surprised by the ferocity of the assault against the slightest attempt to widen the acceptable boundaries of political discussion. If he achieves nothing else in politics, we should thank him for that.

Notes.

[i]
Jeff Randall “How to save the BBC from itself (and get its hand out of our pockets)”, The Daily Telegraph (July 4, 2008). Online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/jeffrandall/2792715/How-to-save-the-BBC-from-itself-and-get-its-hand-out-of-our-pockets.html

[ii]    Daniel Hannan “Here’s How We Counter the BBC’s Liberal Bias”, The Daily Telegraph (August 14, 2012). Online:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/9475479/Heres-how-we-counter-the-BBCs-liberal-bias.html

[iii]   “Mr Cameron hasn’t yet made the case for bombing Syria”, Daily Mail, (November 27, 2014)
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3337003/DAILY-MAIL-COMMENT-Mr-Cameron-hasn-t-case-bombing-Syria.html

[iv]   “Syria Crisis: Cameron loses Commons vote on Syria action”, BBC News (August 30, 2013). Online:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23892783

[v]    “BBC caught throwing facts down the memory hole”, Off-Guardian, (November 19, 2015). Online:
http://off-guardian.org/2015/11/19/bbc-caught-throwing-facts-down-the-memory-hole/

[vi]   Daniel Hannan “My top five leftie columnists”, The Daily Telegraph (July 10, 2008). Online:
http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielhannan/4579503/My_top_five_Leftie_columnists/

[vii]  Paul Waugh “The Waugh Zone”, The Huffington Post (October 22, 2015). Online:
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/10/22/the-waugh-zone-october-22_n_8354232.html

[viii] Joe Emersberger “A Guardian editor defends a ‘gentle’ smear of Seumas Milne”, Zcomm, (October 24, 2015). Online:
https://zcomm.org/zblogs/a-guardian-editor-defends-a-gentle-smear-of-seumas-milne/

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Jamie Davidson writes about politics and history. He studied neither of those fields at Goldsmiths, University of London and now lives and works in Shropshire, England. He can be reached at jwdavidson0@gmail.com and @JW_Davidson

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