If you relied on the mainstream media to know what was happening in the world you would be mightily confused. Some bearded, deluded and dishevelled guy has just become leader of the Labour Party. Even worse, the BBC Six O’clock news led its programme with the announcement that he had just named a guy called John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, someone, the voiceover immediately told us, who once supported the IRA.
Who he was, what he had previously done that made him qualified for the job, what his economic policies were, none of these were the foremost issue for the BBC.
Now, John McDonnell has apologised for saying “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table.”
He explained the remarks by saying that “I accept it was a mistake to use those words, but actually if it contributed towards saving one life, or preventing someone else being maimed it was worth doing, because we did hold on to the peace process. There was a real risk of the republican movement splitting and some of them continuing the armed process. If I gave offence, and I clearly have, from the bottom of my heart I apologise, I apologise.”
A number of things should be said about this.
Firstly, there’s little point complaining about the obvious bias that pervades not only the Tory press but also the BBC.
This is fuelled by the social background of those in the organisation and their political views. Their commitment to a view of objectivity and balance embraces such a narrow conception of what is acceptable that Corbyn and his supporters are clearly beyond the pale and don’t fall within the normal rules.
Along with this there is an inability to fully comprehend their politics, partly as a result of their limited experience of political debate that doesn’t stretch back beyond the Thatcherite consensus imposed on society during the 1980s.This means for example that the idea that the leader doesn’t make all the decisions is not seen as an example of democracy but as a weakness, causing confusion and division. And of course, there is fear of the Tories who have put the squeeze on the BBC as an organisation.
Complaining about bias is not going to change any of these.
What would change the situation is the British labour movement building its own mass media which, given modern technology, does not need to immediately seek to replicate the scale of the capitalist media. Within the hundreds of thousands who voted for Jeremy Corbyn and the many more millions who support him there is the basis to do this.
The second thing to note is that the media presentation on this issue is only one example of a barrage of attacks that reveal not only bias but the current weakness of the Corbyn led movement. It is not a surprise that Jeremy Corbyn and his support have not been prepared for the tasks of leading the opposition to the Tories. They will obviously for example have to build a team to deal with a hostile media.
The greatest weakness however is not in this lack of media preparedness but in the weakness of their support among the mass of careerist Labour MPs. It is this that has allowed the media to present the new leadership as shambolic.
There’s nothing that can immediately be done about this either. In one ironic sense it is to be hoped that this right wing shower are actually motivated by careerism and not ideological fidelity to their rotten right wing politics. If they are simply careerists they might understand that if they attempt to destroy Corbyn they will in all likelihood so damage their party that they would scupper their own careers as well.
In contrast the great strength of the Corbyn phenomenon, which put him where he is, is invisible, or invisible to the mass media anyway. While appearing to recognise his mandate the media presents the world from ‘the Westminster bubble’, the same bubble it claims everyone else is outside of, although not apparently themselves.
Even in the case of John McDonnell’s apology on ‘Question Time’, the reporter in the local BBC Northern Ireland news noted that his apology seemed to go down well with the audience.
This support will be tested and its cohesion and growth depends not so much on Jeremy Corbyn himself but on what these people do. In order to resist and fight the media as part of rebuilding the labour movement they must organise for this objective. The arguments and political activism of hundreds of thousands will be the only effective response to a hostile media.
What Corbyn and McDonnell’s are now in a position to do is deliver political leadership, with arguments that can effectively galvanise, educate and rally their supporters. Organisation of their support is the number one objective because only this support can convince the millions who can be won to their cause.
When it comes to the question of Ireland their position needs to be better. The original political position of McDonnell arose because he put solidarity with the political leadership of the resistance to British rule before opposition to his own country’s oppression of Ireland. And he did this at a time when this political leadership was surrendering its opposition.
So McDonnell claimed that armed struggle forced the British state to the negotiating table. So it did, but once it got there this armed struggle showed how useless it was at getting anything from it. It also showed that there wasn’t going to be any real negotiations unless the armed struggle stopped. This is always the demand of the British and they get their way. In fact it is more accurate to say that armed struggle gets them to the table which only becomes a negotiating table when they stop it.
But even in the recent ‘peace process’ this is to overstate its importance. The Provos had to make significant political concessions before the British would get into substantive political talks, including accepting the supposed neutrality of the British state. This is before we even consider the capitulation required before unionists would talk to them.
The result of these negotiations and the so-called peace process is something that the British Labour Party should not support. It should reject the argument that an end to political violence is predicated on a sectarian and increasingly corrupt political settlement. The political deal, one that has been in crisis since it was born, appeared after the ceasefires. Of course the rotten nature of this settlement will pass the vast majority of British people by, but then so did the North of Ireland for decades before 1968.
The primary role of a Labour party is to support the independent organisation of workers and this is true of the Labour Party in the imperialist country. This can best be done by solidarising with Irish workers’ own attempts to do this and campaigning to remove the foreign state presence that frustrates this.
In the North of Ireland the British state does this in a number of ways, including the sponsorship of loyalist paramilitaries and political policing of republicanism, where it has found ‘good’ republicans in the form of the Provos, for whom it will attempt to cover up violence, and ‘bad’ republicans who are labelled dissidents. (See here )
But even if Jeremy Corbyn became prime minister he would be able to do little to prevent the British military continuing its criminal conspiracies. It swears loyalty to the Queen not parliament and certainly not to the people and it does so for a reason. Marxists make the distinction between being in Government and being in power, between sitting on the top of a state and controlling and directing it. The example of the British state’s operations in Ireland is graphic proof of the difference.
And there is yet another problem, as a comrade of mine put it last weekend at a rally in support of the refugees: Corbyn is more left wing than anyone in Ireland. Who would be his political allies here? Even if he wanted a united Ireland there is no significant political force in Ireland demanding it never mind in a position to do anything about it.
And don’t give me a response of ‘what about Sinn Fein’. We have been at the stage for some time that when Sinn Fein politicians appear on TV claiming that they’re ‘for a united Ireland’ the reaction is one of – what? Really?
What Sinn Fein does, its support for sectarian partitionist institutions and its ideological capitulation to unionism, betrays what it sometimes says about being republican.
The truth is that today there is no significant political force fighting for an end to imperialist rule. Sinn Fein ‘support’ for a united Ireland is on a spectrum of such support declared by every nationalist party in the country and just as empty as the rest.
The task for Irish socialists is therefore very like the one for British socialists – rebuild a working class movement committed to democracy and socialism independent of their respective capitalist states. That these are essentially the same is why socialists are internationalists.
For British socialists a democratic policy on Ireland is nothing to apologise for and nothing to hide from the British people, but it does not involve hitching their banner to the failed organisations of Irish nationalism including Provisional republicanism.
“Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”
The above is a snippet from an essay by George Orwell covering the British media in the 1920s and 1930s and 40s. The irony is that he was complaining about his own inability to get a fair hearing for his thoughts about communism. But it does show that things have stayed pretty much the same.
As for building up a socialist media this is not just about finance and organisation but also about taste. The working class have a taste for things that most socialists silently disapprove. Just recently I ventured into my local shop to buy an Irish News. The owner told me that they had none left to sell. I asked him to explain and he told me that he did not take that many copies because it was not the most popular newspaper. I ask him what was, and he said it was the Daily Mirror followed by the Daily Star. I said I was not surprised by the Mirror coming first but the Star was a mystery. He then explained the social dynamic of the buyers of newspapers. He said the Irish News is read by the better educated types like school teachers, and the rest bought it to find out who had died and when their funeral mass was taking place . The mirror was bought by manual workers who read it primarily for the sport, especially for the football and the horse racing. The Star was bought mainly by women between 17 and 40 for all the celebrity gossip and pictures about xfactor and the like. The Star was very popular with hairdressers and the like.
These tastes are distinctly low brow and maybe with some of the celebrity stuff sliding into the mud. The Socialist Left has always found it difficult to cater for such low brow tastes set by the standard of the market. The socialist media has always sought to elevate and educate the popular mind to better things but it has to be said at the cost of not being very friendly to the popular tastes. The British communists intellectuals used to bang on about the superiority of jazz over pop music and the qualities of European movie realism over American sensationalism. It is only recently a few leftward leaning types have ventured into reviewing movies and television shows, as for football, boxing and horse racing well forget it. The World Socialist Website has a decent reviewer section about films but it nearly always slams the corporate made movies in favour of the low budget sincere but dull independent movies that avoid sensationalism of any kind. I am not necessarily criticising this, just using it as an example. When they do their top twenty movies at the end of the year, the chances are the workers will avoid most of them. In short it is not that easy to do socialist news and culture wars.