The Left and the Media, Then and Now

Radical media reform is an absolute necessity. But redressing the imbalances in our media unavoidably requires prolonged and bitter political struggle.

Tony Benn once described the media’s function as being that of providing “the raw material upon which a society forms its judgment”. Benn himself was under no illusions, having been the target of endless press bile in his heyday (before being recast as a ‘national treasure’ when he was no longer considered a threat) but over the last three years in particular, the media’s output has frequently seemed less like the raw material of democratic deliberation, and more like an outpouring of toxic sludge.

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and the vituperative reception it has received from much of the British media, make the recent publication of a new edition of James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley’s classic Culture Wars - still the definitive chronicle of the press’ relationship to the British left since the 1980s - all the more pertinent. The book recounts the genesis of the original ‘loony left’ attacks, their gradual coalescing into a well-honed and highly potent hate campaign, and the long-term repercussions of this for the British left.

Though this campaign would exact a heavy short-term toll on its targets, much of what the ‘new urban left’ originally promoted (particularly LGBT rights, feminism, anti-racism and environmentalism) eventually came to form a widely-held common sense. But as Culture Wars reminds us, the gathering revival of the far right demonstrates the potential flimsiness of some of the progressive social gains made in recent decades, especially in the absence of any fundamental (downward) redistribution of wealth and power.

From the ‘new urban left’ to New Labour

The new urban left of the 1970s and ‘80s, as the authors note, brought the cultural values of the 1960s into the previously staid political backwater of local government including, most famously, the Greater London Council (GLC). It took time for the press assault against it to cohere into the full ‘loony left’ package, as the politics of the new urban left did not fit the old red-baiting template into which its enemies initially tried to shoehorn it. In time, however, its progressive stances on social issues would become the subject of particularly furious vitriol. There was, in the interim, an element of improvisation as the press got properly to grips with its newfound adversary, resulting in “old and new structures of representation being merged together in an uncertain and fluctuating synthesis”.1

This new Labour left was responding to the breakup of the traditional Labourist social bloc, and aimed to arrest this decline by forging a new social coalition with far more prominent representation for women and minorities than old Labourism had hitherto provided. Inspired by the ‘new social movements’ of the late ‘60s and onwards, the new urban left did not envisage displacing the working class, but “sought merely to extend Labour’s core base of the organised, white working class, not to replace it”.2 However, some elements of the new urban left itself were not free from retrograde social attitudes. Somewhat implausibly with hindsight, given his own later political trajectory, David Blunkett fretted that placing a special emphasis on the rights of women and minorities would “sap the energy of the class struggle”.3

Sadly for the new urban left, it could expect little help from the Labour leadership in beating back the gathering onslaught. Like his mentor Michael Foot before him, Neil Kinnock could only capitulate and cower before the ‘loony left’ campaign as it increased both in intensity and coherence. Kinnock and his allies were at pains to distance themselves from and would frantically disown those activists in their own party considered too vociferous in their championing of feminism and minority rights.4 This reminds us again that while the populist reactionary papers are especially rabid in their hatred of the left and the causes it takes up, their attacks would struggle to gain so much traction were it not for the indulgence or active complicity of liberals and ‘moderates’. But the Thatcherites also understood, in a way the Labour leaders they were up against did not, the full significance of the culture war they were waging with the aid of the press. In their more unguarded moments, they could be quite upfront about their motivations. For Norman Tebbit, the Labour GLC epitomised “modern socialism”:5 this is why it had to be destroyed, and why the objectively modest6 measures taken to combat discrimination by the GLC and other 1980s left Labour councils came to assume such an outsized, even incandescent importance in the eyes of the Thatcherite right.

Nonetheless, the lurid, largely fabricated or distorted tales of the alleged excesses of the ‘loony left’ - ‘banned’ nursery rhymes and all - soon entered Labour Party mythology and provided useful symbolism which New Labour would deploy to considerable effect in its remoulding of the party. The leading architects of New Labour would thus make great play of “the reassuring claim that it had slayed the dragons of the hard and loony left”.7 But despite having gone to such lengths to shake off the ‘loony’ tag, race and racism would continue to be an ongoing source of major tension in the codependent but nervy relationship between New Labour and the press - for the latter, the former would never be entirely above suspicion that residual ‘loony’ tendencies still persisted.

While the new urban left put great emphasis on anti-racism, and was subjected to a torrent of press abuse for it, Petley argues that “race was the one area where the advance of social liberalism encountered entrenched resistance” during the New Labour years. While the labour movement has never been exempt from the racism that saturates British culture, Petley nevertheless emphasises the amount of ground that New Labour was prepared to give in the face of racist pressure: “when New Labour encountered strong headwinds on this issue, it backed down”. Press attacks against migrants, continually associating them with criminality (and terrorism, especially after 9/11 and the onset of the ‘War on Terror’), cultural alienness and the failures of public services, remained persistent and vicious, providing an “early indication that the pendulum [of social tolerance] could swing back”.8

New Labour’s concessions to these pressures went far further than rhetoric alone, and in fact came increasingly to shape state policy: the consequences were, in Frances Webber’s assessment upon Blair’s resignation in 2007, “inhuman policies towards asylum seekers and radical encroachments on civil liberties”. Fixated on media management as New Labour was, this should not be read as a straightforward capitulation to media flak on its part; Petley rightly insists that these “more right-wing tendencies cannot simply be explained away by its fear of and subservience to the Conservative press”.9 A sententious (and racialised) social conservatism was evident throughout the Blair and Brown years, though retrospective accounts have often tended to downplay it. In addition, New Labour made a fetish of triangulation and, in the analysis of Lewis Minkin, its leading cadre “thrilled to their own apostasy, sometimes without much questioning of the political costs”.10 As a result, centre-left intellectuals and politicians alike were not only unable to mount an effective resistance to these reactionary attacks but increasingly came to echo them, in what Liz Fekete has described as a “trahison des clercs”.11

Austerity and ‘media amnesia’

With what Laura Basu has called “media amnesia” utterly pervasive, the onset of austerity - and the offensive against working-class living standards it represented - saw mainstream political debate generally kept constrained within a very restrictive framework, a brief post-crisis spate of hollow banker-bashing notwithstanding. Basu has highlighted the key characteristics of this media amnesia: “a lack of historical context; a narrow range of elite perspectives; and a lack of global context”, resulting in “vague or superficial” explanations or straightforward inaccuracies in coverage of austerity and the financial crisis.12 Far from facilitating greater public understanding of austerity and its implications, this reporting thus served more to actively inhibit it. Even where two opposing sides of an argument were presented, Basu noted, these were usually drawn from within an extremely narrow establishment spectrum.

Charles Umney has highlighted, in particular, how the BBC is generally in line with the prevailing, pro-business elite common sense. Though long the target of rightist flak (to which, Umney adds, it has proved quite sensitive), BBC coverage “rarely, if ever” questions the prerogatives of the business class and its political champions. The “banal” argument typically wheeled out in defence of the BBC - that “it must be doing its job” because it receives criticism from both the right and the left - does not hold water, as it assumes that both sides’ arguments are equally credible (or not) and fails to take adequate account of the BBC’s internal culture and institutional inclinations. Its economic reporting repeatedly demonstrates “an overall reliance on business voices for expert opinion on economic policy, cementing their position as neutral and technocratic insiders capable of making objective pronouncements free from class interest”. A tendency to favour simplistic analogies and morality tales - what Simon Wren-Lewis has termed ‘mediamacro’ - as opposed to in-depth economic analysis has meant that its reports on economic matters “generally fail to get beyond the most simple narrative about recent economic policy”. This all has the ultimate effect that “putting labour’s case requires more research and more empathy than putting capital’s”.13

This structural bias was also reflected in a relative disinterest in the real problems faced by those at the sharp end of austerity, the disabled being prominent among them. Umney draws our attention to the particularly scurrilous and vitriolic nature of the coverage in this area; Britain’s media, he says, “by international standards, is highly reliant on negative stereotyping of the poor, especially in its prurient and unhealthy spotlighting of the sick and disabled”. The frankly abusive tone of much newspaper coverage in turn tends to push broadcasters into framing these issues more negatively, thereby providing a heavily partial, decontextualised and unreliable understanding of how social security actually works - and in doing so, manufacturing consent for further attacks on it. This in turn distorts political discussion, reaching especially absurd heights in “an unconventional form of political ‘realism’: to be realistic, political leaders need to ensure that their positions match the logical conclusions that can be drawn from obvious falsehoods”.14 Such basic incomprehension would leave the BBC, and the rest of Britain’s media, startlingly ill-equipped to explain the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

However, none of these failings are solely recent phenomena. The Glasgow University Media Group, in one of its pioneering early studies of media coverage and structural bias - concentrating primarily on television, though many of its findings also apply more widely - noted nearly four decades ago that perspectives which enjoy wide support in elite circles don’t just receive more coverage and thereby win support purely through repetition. Instead, they receive a fundamentally different type of coverage, incorporating a level of detail, explanation and context consistently denied to opposing views. This often has the effect of making these latter arguments, on those occasions where they do manage to secure some media coverage, difficult for the typical viewer to comprehend fully. Without this crucial context, such alternative analyses can consequently appear to lack the credibility necessary to earn them a fairer hearing and a firmer foothold in public consciousness:

These dominant explanations have a further status in that their content is described exhaustively in the coverage - indeed a large part of the coverage has the function of illustrating them. In a real sense news coverage is organised from within the logic and premises of these explanations. By contrast, alternative accounts appear as fragments… This is more than saying that alternative explanations are not embraced, underlined or emphasised. It is to say that when they appear, they occur in such a fragmented and disparate form, that their sense and rationality is normally lost.15

In the revised edition of Culture Wars, Ivor Gaber analyses the ‘Red Ed’ campaign directed at Ed Miliband during his tenure as Labour leader. Gaber judges it to be a relative misfire, arguing that it “failed to catch hold with the British public” and that when considered alongside Labour’s performance at the 2017 general election, “the power of the ‘red scare’ appeared to be if not over, then significantly diminished in the public mind”.16 Of course, it is important to remember that the bombardment of such media coverage, however aggressive, does not deprive audiences of the ability to think for themselves, though it can do much to hamper their understanding. Todd Gitlin has succinctly explained the effects on public understanding and debate of major issues:

Publics retain the power to tone down the more extreme implications of media frames, or even to reject them. But to the extent that media agree on a frame, and to the extent that the issue lies outside the direct experience of the audience, the media keep the power to push forward their frames as the salient ones, the ones that condition and limit public discussion.17

We should therefore be careful not to underestimate the enduring potency of such ‘red scare’ campaigns, which continue to play a dangerous role in the stoking and goading of reactionary opinion. But it isn’t just red scare tactics that the left has had to contend with. Laura Basu has noted that in addition to the “extreme flak” of the right-wing papers, Corbyn’s Labour has also faced “more subtle delegitimation from across the media spectrum” - although, it has to be said, much of the delegitimation in the liberal press has been far from subtle - thereby serving to “contain political debates within certain parameters”.18 The years of civil war within the Labour Party (with hostilities now seemingly resumed after a fleeting post-election lull) have also seen every last detail egged on, lapped up and played out to damaging effect through the media.

A certain chilling effect may also be detectable. Corbyn has so far tended to trade off certain areas of likely media controversy, particularly defence, migration, and policing. Robin Blackburn has noted that though a certain (and not insignificant) “rhetorical break” has been made, in the 2017 manifesto “traditional right-wing Labourism still held sway” in areas such as these. On economic policy, on the other hand, Corbyn has been able to go with the grain to a large extent. Labour’s commitments to the extension of public ownership in utilities and transport, for example, follow strong public support for renationalisation well before the current Labour leadership came along. Such sentiment was scarcely reflected in media coverage at the time, as evidenced by the hysterical reception afforded to Ed Miliband’s very timid proposal to freeze energy prices. This bears testament both to the limitations of the media’s ideological power, which should by no means be treated as monolithic, and the inability of the media as currently constituted to adequately reflect the actual breadth of opinion among the British public.

Power, the media and the state

With few exceptions, the self-congratulatory view British political journalism tends to have of itself - pugnacious, scrappy, irreverent and fearlessly speaking truth to power - couldn’t be much more at odds with the unctuous reality. The cultural and class biases in British journalism are very strong, and needless to say, do not favour the left. It should be added, however, that the hot-take media cycle - now exacerbated by social media - can be actively antagonistic to serious thought and analysis, both among the producers and consumers of this deluge of content. Thus, even those political journalists who may be genuinely curious about the left (a minority even at the best of times) are likely to find that their ability to learn more about its ideas is seriously constricted by the demands of their working routine. There are, then, strong structural pressures at work behind the deluge of gossip and trivia so predominant in political coverage. But there are also deep-seated political anxieties underlying much of the opprobrium aimed at Corbyn, and understanding these is crucial.

Hilary Wainwright, in her landmark 1987 study Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, reflected on the struggles of the Bennite left for greater democracy in the Labour Party. While the Bennites’ attempt to extend democracy beyond the boundaries of Parliament was “untheorised” in its aims and ultimately modest in its achievements, it implicitly, for a brief period, called into question “the closed, class-based character of the British state” and “its secrecy, its subservience to unaccountable financial and industrial powers”. The reaction to the Bennite challenge therefore took on a “hysterical, frequently paranoic quality” as guardians of the status quo mobilised against what they instinctively (and not entirely without reason) perceived as the “thin edge of… a very dangerous wedge”.19 There are unmistakable echoes of this in the reaction against Corbynism today.

Of course, the Bennites made tactical and strategic mistakes of their own. Wainwright singled out the Labour left’s historic tendency to become consumed by the “all-engrossing task” of “taking its proposals through the sometimes blocked and convoluted procedures of the labour movement”, which can deprive it of energies that might otherwise be channeled into wider educational and cultural work. The socialist left’s marginal cultural presence means that it lacks “independent access to the public” to put its ideas and aims across; the filtering of these ideas through hostile or uncomprehending outlets thus tends to distort them almost beyond recognition. All too often, Wainwright notes, the left’s “message comes out often only through the attacks made on it… like sending prison letters through a revengeful censor”.20

Social and alternative media have allowed for some pushback against mainstream narratives, as well as playing an important role in binding together and sustaining the Corbyn movement; indeed, it is impossible to imagine any Corbyn movement without them. But traditional outlets generally still retain the initiative when it comes to agenda-setting: as Gaber acknowledges, it is still the case that “much of the general discussion [online] derives from items that have first seen the light of day in the national press”.21 Furthermore, the constant pressure to respond to the narratives of traditional media consumes time and energy which alternative and social media might otherwise spend developing and promoting new ideas, instead of finding themselves dragged onto the hot-take hamster wheel. This defensive posture can also serve to reinforce a bunker mentality, which (while sometimes necessary for simple self-preservation) can produce rash, self-defeating reactions under pressure and also has the potential to do long-term damage to Corbynism by limiting the space for internal criticism and debate within the movement. The dynamics of social media, particularly Twitter, are hardly conducive to measured discussion and the detailed exchange of ideas. Nor can largely volunteer-run alternative media outlets marshal the resources - or the reach and institutional clout - that establishment media can.

The alternative media ecosystem (though, in some quarters, increasingly accomplished and professional) remains quite fragmented, and as Laura Basu has observed, it can be difficult for readers to determine which of these sites are credible. This may lead them to stick to the (mainstream) outlets they are already familiar with, however little trust they have in those. Basu also reminds us that funding can be very difficult for radical outlets to maintain, and so their very existence is often a hand-to-mouth matter.22 Furthermore, she has pointed out how the new social media monopolies are effectively helping to shore up the position of old media gatekeepers. Basu takes Google’s news search algorithms as an example, noting that they are systematically biased towards major news providers and hence “tend to lead users back to mainstream news brands”. Google cites the predominance of these outlets (which it takes, somewhat dubiously, as an indicator of audience trust) as a reason for allocating their content greater visibility, but it helps to reinforce that very predominance by the way its algorithms are structured.23

In recent months, the Corbynite left at large has begun to grapple with the need for media reform. Jeremy Corbyn outlined in August a series of proposed reforms and again drew attention to the need for media reform in his conference speech in Liverpool. Unsurprisingly given its historically fraught relationship with the media, this discussion has been ongoing on the Labour left, albeit intermittently, for decades. Tony Benn, Corbyn’s political lodestar, keenly stressed the importance of media democracy (he had himself worked as a BBC radio producer for a spell after the Second World War, and later advised Hugh Gaitskell on media presentation). Benn came to understand that the democratisation of the media was a matter not just of bringing about greater pluralism, desirable as this may be in its own right, but also an integral part of the struggle for counter-hegemony. As Leo Panitch and Colin Leys have argued, media hostility towards Labour leaders is quite evidently nothing new - though undeniably more intense when a left-winger occupies the role - and can ultimately prove “counterproductive” for those making these attacks. More problematic for the left, however, is that the political narrowness of Britain’s media has very often “closed off the possibility of revealing what broad popular support might exist or be developed for the social forces that underlay radical change”.24

Radical media reform is an absolute necessity for a properly democratic public sphere, as well as for representing the underrepresented and empowering the disempowered. Leo Watkins, however, is right to point out that merely diffusing ownership among more capitalist press barons would do nothing to fix Britain’s broken media. In this connection, Ralph Miliband made the observation many years ago (specifically with reference to broadcasting, but again the argument is obviously applicable beyond it) that the question of media bias is inextricably bound up with the inequalities of power in society as a whole. Thus, though quite extensive improvements can certainly be made in the meantime, it would be facile to expect anything resembling real ‘balance’ without meaningfully redressing these inequalities. To even begin doing so would require a prolonged, concerted and no doubt bitter struggle, cultural and ideological as well as political and economic. It would also require the labour movement to demonstrate an understanding of the need for such a broad-based struggle, and dedicate itself to waging it in ways that it has not done hitherto:

The best that can be hoped from the present system is that it should show rather less bias towards the predominant forces in society, and that it should make possible more criticism of dominant ideas and established institutions. But anything coming closer to a genuine ‘balance’ would, as a preliminary, require a drastic change in the balance of forces in society itself, and a labour movement sufficiently strong politically, intellectually, and organisationally, to create a broadcasting system in which it would have its own stations transmitting programmes alongside other stations representing other social and political forces and interests, and competing in a genuinely pluralistic situation, without spurious claims of ‘neutrality’ and ‘non-partisanship’.25

This is why the labour movement needs to develop, nurture and support its own new left media. The recent revival of Tribune, and the enthusiasm with which its relaunch has been received, are hopefully indicative of a wider recognition in the labour movement of the need to seriously commit to a long-term engagement on the level of ideas and culture. The careful nurturing of a diverse left media ecosystem - taking sufficient account of and addressing different levels of political consciousness - is essential to this. However, this also needs to be complemented by patient, locally-rooted counter-hegemonic work, and has to form part of a concerted effort to make socialist perspectives an increasingly mainstream, everyday presence solidly grounded in working-class and marginalised communities, rather than remote and abstract ideals.

  1. James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley, Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left (2nd ed.), Routledge 2018, p34. Curran, incidentally, is a former editor of the original New Socialist. 

  2. Curran et al 2018, p15. 

  3. Quoted in Curran et al 2018, p5-6. 

  4. For example, a now-infamous memo from Kinnock adviser Patricia Hewitt, leaked to the Sun in March 1987, bemoaned that “the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear amongst the pensioners”. See Curran et al 2018, p124. 

  5. Quoted in Hilary Wainwright, Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy, Seagull Books 2009, p80. 

  6. David Waddington, then Tory Minister of State at the Home Office, estimated in 1984 that only 1.8% of GLC grants had been awarded to “controversial organisations”. See Curran et al 2018, p33-4. 

  7. Curran et al 2018, p3. 

  8. Curran et al 2018, p246-7. 

  9. Curran et al 2018, p212-3. 

  10. Lewis Minkin, The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management, Manchester University Press 2014, p70. 

  11. Fekete (see Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right, Verso 2018, p34-5) has highlighted the role of an “influential section within the liberal literati, divorced from social justice struggles but powerful in debates around censorship and freedom of speech” as being instrumental to the steady, long-term normalisation of the far right, and the absorption of its arguments into both mainstream debate and state migration policy. 

  12. Laura Basu, Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis, Pluto Press 2018, p210. 

  13. Glasgow University Media Group, More Bad News, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1980, p59. 

  14. Charles Umney, Class Matters: Inequality and Exploitation in 21st Century Britain, Pluto Press 2018, p151-3. 

  15. Umney 2018, p162. 

  16. Curran et al 2018, p228. 

  17. Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left, University of California Press 2003, p142. 

  18. Basu 2018, p208. 

  19. Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, Hogarth Press 1987, p56-7. 

  20. Wainwright 1987, p57-8. 

  21. Curran et al 2018, p264. 

  22. Basu 2018, p217-8. 

  23. Basu 2018, p220. 

  24. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour, Verso 2001, p59-60. 

  25. Ralph Miliband, Capitalist Democracy in Britain, Oxford University Press 1982, p84.