The Show Must Go On

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

In the last month, the Tory party and its beleaguered, bombastic leader Boris Johnson have been greatly weakened by the revelations of parties which took place in Downing Street while the rest of the UK was in lockdown.  The Prime Minister himself has been clinging onto power by a thread.   Out of the sheer petulant desperation to hold onto an office he feels is his birthright – a panicked and desperate Johnson recently attacked the leader of the opposition in particularly virulent terms. Specifically, he chastised Labour’s Keir Starmer over the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute Jimmy Savile.

To provide some context.  Jimmy Savile was for a long time a ‘national treasure’ in Britain, a celebrity of immense wealth and influence who had hosted a variety of prime-time television programmes including ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ which saw the gregarious Savile take written requests from deprived, disadvantaged and often seriously ill children; wishes which the programme would, if the child was selected, attempt to translate into reality.  It was a charming concept, and one which was imbued with hope.  But behind the sunny façade of childhood’s dreamscape, a darker shadow lurked.

For, during his period as a ‘benevolent’, cheery and somewhat cheeky entertainer, bringing ‘magic’ to children’s lives, Savile was also one of the most prolific paedophiles Britain has ever seen.  And yet, because of his wealth and connections (personal access to many significant political figures including a direct line to the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself) – he was able to operate under-the-radar for decades.  Rather than be prosecuted for his crimes (the rumours about which had abounded for the best part of half a century) Savile was knighted. He died in 2011 having never been held to account.

Of course, his victims tried desperately to make their voices heard.  In 2009, several of Savile’s victims had finally managed to get their complaints to the Crown Prosecution Service.   At the time, the CPS was overseen by a rather young and highly ambitious civil servant.  Like Jimmy Savile himself, this man would also go on to receive a knighthood. His name was Keir Starmer.  But in the event, the investigation into Savile was dropped by the CPS.  The testimony of the victims wasn’t deemed worthy of pursuing.

Back to the present, however, and with his back against the wall, the current Prime Minster endeavoured to excavate this sordid past.  ‘This former director of public prosecutions,’ averred Johnson of Starmer, ‘spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile’.  The furore which followed these comments was something to behold.  The mainstream media was unanimous in its tone of shocked denunciation of Johnson and uniform in its support of Sir Keir Starmer.  That which Johnson had alleged was simply the worst possible smear levelled against a good and conscientious man, or so the media narrative ran.

It was even argued that Johnson had strayed into the toxic and volatile waters of far-right conspiracy theory with his words.  On both sides of the benches, on both sides of the political divide – Labour and Conservative – politicians across the board gave voice to their outrage.  Indeed, one of Johnson’s key aides and political advisors, Munira Mirza, resigned in disgust over the issue.

And yet.  For those of us watching at home this posed a singular question.  Where was all this rage, all this indignation, the rebellion of ministers Tory and Labour alike, the slew of resignations which followed Mirza’s in the Conservative ranks – where was all of this when the government, navigating the course of the pandemic according to its own rather sinister brand of social Darwinism (‘herd immunity’), delayed locking down the economy, allowing the virus to spread rampant, clocking up a death toll of almost 160,000 at the time of writing?

Where was all that outrage when that same government transferred billions from the public purse in order to underwrite contracts for lucrative PPE deals to private companies, many of which were discovered to have ‘political connections’ to the Tory Party, and many of which went on to provide substandard medical equipment while reaping great financial rewards?

Why did Johnson’s slight against Stamer generate such uniform political friction? 

There is a phrase in professional wrestling – ‘kayfabe’.  It refers to an unwritten rule – that is, the wrestlers should always ‘keep kayfabe’ by never revealing that the matches have been scripted and the winner has been arranged in advance.  As part of their professional allegiance, they are sworn to behave always as though the pantomime is real.  Breaking ‘kayfabe’, therefore, is one of the worst things any professional wrestler can do.

In a sense, the political establishment operates along similar lines. It’s most fundamental function is to secure the privileges and perks of the rich elite from whom its members are, in the vast majority, drawn.  It exists to fortify the powerful – whether that means rescuing the bankers with billions in bailout packages, whether that means quietly ensuring that your donors receive the best business contracts, or making sure that powerful ‘important’ people are shielded from prosecution when they are found to have committed crimes.

But while this takes place in the background, the pantomime must continue untroubled; the ‘dramatic’ performance of two parties who purport to have very different ideas, the notion that in their struggle and opposition, they are desperately fighting for the interests of the majority all in the name of democracy.

In the furore which followed Johnson’s comments, the outraged clamouring which ensued on the part of the press and the political class had a pantomime quality to it.  The type of hysterical self-righteousness whose loud shrieking is calculated to drown out the starker and simpler facts.  Starmer was head of the CPS when the decision not to prosecute Savile was taken.  It was conducted under his watch.  The establishment in one form or another had sought to protect from prosecution Britain’s most notorious and prolific paedophile all under the ‘justice’ system which the ambitious Keir had so diligently worked his way to the top of.  And why?  Because Savile was a member of that same elite.  These were the bare facts.

But the shock-horror posturing of both the political parties of the establishment, the endeavour to relegate Johnson’s claim to the furthest echelons of right-wing conspiracy theory – is part and parcel of a very calculated performance.   It is almost impossible to imagine – given Savile’s level of celebrity – that Starmer, as the head of the CPS at the time, wasn’t aware of the decision not to prosecute Savile.   But even if that were true, historically the defenders of capitalism have always argued that the reason why heads of businesses and state organisations get paid many hundreds of thousands (and in some cases millions) in compensation is precisely because they have to shoulder so much more of the burden; that they themselves remain responsible for the decisions and performance of the organisation as a whole.

In other words, the logic of the system itself dictates that Johnson’s words were accurate, that Starmer was responsible for the failure to prosecute Savile.  Significantly, Johnson’s criticisms of Starmer brought to the light a buried truth; the systematic way that power shields power – which lies behind the professional performance of the objective and ‘disinterested’ pursuit of justice the mechanics of the state are supposed to facilitate.  And that is why Johnson’s comments had to be disavowed in the most shrieking and hysterical of tones.  In bringing to light Starmer’s role in the Savile case, Johnson had in effect broken ‘kayfabe’.  He’d offered a glimpse of the mechanics behind the performance.

And so much of establishment politics is performance.  This week, for instance, I heard an interview on BBC radio 4 with a woman who had received a cancer diagnosis in 2020, but partly because of the Corona virus situation, she didn’t receive treatment until a full eight months later.

By which point, of course, her cancer had spread. 

After she went off air, the BBC presenter went on to interview an ‘expert commentator’ in order to ‘understand’ more about the situation with the NHS.  The commentator in question was the multi-millionaire and property mogul Jeremy Hunt whose tenure as Health Secretary from 2012-16 saw the NHS decimated as part of the more general package of austerity cuts to social services.   Notably, on Hunt’s watch, deadlines for planned operations for cancer patients increased by a considerable margin and were sometimes missed altogether.

The juxtaposition between the woman who now has a significant chance of succumbing to her cancer and the ex-health secretary who has done so much damage is one any journalist worth their salt couldn’t fail to notice.  Hunt’s ‘reforms’ were undoubtedly a significant contributing factor to thousands of stories like this one; scores of lives which have been allowed to slip away due to the arrogance and indifference of a small cabal of politicians whose own loved ones only have to blow their noses in order to receive the finest medical treatment money can buy.

But there was no anger or outrage on the part of the BBC journalist.  In fact, she didn’t even reference what Hunt himself had done to the NHS.  His role in the crisis of the NHS was undisclosed.   It was as though there was an invisible line which could not be crossed, a set of questions which the presenter by some instinctive and automatic sensibility knew not to broach.  Instead they both spoke in the tones of the middle-class professional, both anxious and concerned, and yet vaguely baffled as to how it could have possibly come to this.

And this, once again, is the performance.  The state broadcaster, the BBC and its presenters, often seek to rehabilitate figures such as Hunt, by presenting them as dispassionate technical advisors somehow abstracted from the larger system, loftily concerned with the greater good, rather than the monstrous examples of inhumanity and entitlement that they are in and through the parasitical role they play in the public sphere.

In the broader sense, the BBC itself is part and parcel of this larger performance.  It has successfully cultivated the image of worldly independence, of being a bastion of integrity – in effect internationally, having a presence in every war zone, every disaster field, and relaying the facts as they occur on the ground in an objective and dispassionate fashion.  The BBC is seen as transcending the partisan interests of private broadcasters; as internationalist and objective, the very antithesis of the parochial politics practised by something like Fox News.

And yet, the real record once again tells a very different story.  The directors of the BBC, its board of governors are nearly always part of the ruling class, often with Oxbridge and private school backgrounds.   It tends overwhelmingly to support the wars of the rich, cheerleading the invasion of Iraq, for instance, at a time when two million people had taken to the streets in the biggest popular protest in UK history in order to demonstrate against that same war. Indeed a study at the time revealed the BBC to display ‘the most “pro-war” agenda of any broadcaster’.  The state broadcaster also coordinated with MI5 in vetting journalists for any radical political sensibilities they might have.

And when the Corbyn movement managed to break the Westminster political consensus by providing an anti-austerity platform in response to years of cuts to social welfare enacted by an establishment which was determined to fortify and reward banks and big business – the BBC and   their in-house journalists did everything they could to sabotage Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership bid.

This included conspiring with right-wing Labour politicians behind-the-scenes, who would then go on to make ‘spontaneous’ on air resignationsas part of an orchestrated coup against the Labour leadership, to an uncritical and unquestioning account of Labours ‘endemic anti-Semitism’; from tampering with images of Corbyn to make him look like a pro-USSR Cold War warrior, to editing out the sound of laughter when the audience guffawed as Boris Johnson announced on the BBC’s flagship political programme Question Time that he had never told a single lie.

In cynically torpedoing the Corbyn campaign, the BBC were involved in one of the single biggest subversions of parliamentary democracy in the modern era.  In so doing, they amplified the extent and reach of perhaps the most rabidly right-wing government seen in generations.   But in a bitter twist of irony, that same government – emboldened and unmolested by any genuine political opposition – is now seeking to consolidate its grip on power by removing the BBC from public ownership and converting it into a complete and  fully armed propaganda wing for powerful moneyed interests. Much like Fox News.

This is the point, however, where the performance intensifies.  It is here that the liberal worthies at the BBC step forward one after the other to appeal to the public; with moist eyes, moved by the sense of their own tragic nobility – these last bastions of a Voltairean-style freedom in the face of tyranny reel of their list of mealy-mouthed phrases, ‘press freedom,’ ‘national institution’, ‘free speech’.

Of course, like most liberals, their role has been anything but heroic.  But it speaks very clearly to the logic and trajectory of liberalism more broadly.  Taking affront at the type of progressive grass-roots movement which has the potential to challenge the economic inequalities that form the basis for establishment power – the liberals nearly always link arms with the right, doing everything they can to undermine the left.  Here openly, there sneakily, cowardly, and from behind-the-scenes.

This was fully on display in the way in which the BBC and the liberal wing of the establishment more generally responded to the political challenge of Jeremy Corbyn and the mass movement it represented.

And yet, when the movement from below has been sufficiently exsanguinated, it is then when the field is fully opened up to the right; it is then when liberalism feels the first intimations of fascism pressing against it.  At which point, it suddenly rediscovers its ‘nobility’, its ‘morality’, the need for ‘balance’ ,’moderation’ and ‘impartiality’; the desire for ‘integrity’, the commitment to ‘freedom’.

For those on the left like me it is an incredibly bitter pill to swallow.  I watched the BBC contribute to the systematic and cynical effort to destroy Jeremy Corbyn, the only parliamentary candidate in my lifetime who has ever filled me with hope and joy, the only candidate who – despite his many flaws – has actually moved me to go door-to-door in order to campaign on his behalf.

But now, having watched the BBC strive to make sure Johnson’s savagely right wing government secured power in the first place, I am now forced to sit back as the same coterie of journalists and directors present themselves as the only remaining bastion of integrity capable of challenging that same right wing regime which is now hanging around the neck of the country like an albatross.

All the while a good few of my left comrades and friends advise me in similar terms.  As pro-establishment as the BBC has been, they tell me, we must nevertheless support it against the alternative – a purely private broadcasting channel which would be wholly beholden to private capital.  And, of course, I can’t but agree with them that such an alternative – the Fox News alternative – would be worse.  In the same way that I believe Johnson’s Tory government is worse than a Labour government headed by Starmer would be.

I expect too those self-same comrades will, when the time comes, advise me to hold my nose and vote for Starmer, despite all his services to the establishment – because he is, after all, ‘the lesser evil’.

And yet, the days in which I might once have entertained that are long gone now.  I don’t intend to support the BBC in its hour of peril, nor will I support the Labour Party under Starmer.  Because such support feeds into the liberal fantasy that these men and women of the establishment are the authentic means by which real social justice can be achieved.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, involves making yourself a player in the shoddiest performance, the most grotesque pantomime of all.


Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press), Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art  (Zero Books), The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution (Bloomsbury) and The Face of the Waters (Vulpine). He can be reached on twitter at @MckennaTony