What the royal poking says about our media

Coverage of the student protests shows the limits of media impartiality in Britain.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, reportedly offered his resignation over the Charles and Camilla student protest debacle. What else could a man of integrity do in such circumstances? Surely the gravity of the situation demands nothing less?

The mainstream media's reporting of these events has been fascinating and raises some very important questions about the nature of its relationship to our country's elite – as well as the implications of that relationship for truth and democracy.

Of course, anyone can see that Charles and Camilla's car being attacked is a story – but the priority given to it, and the horror with which the mainstream media have shrieked their disapproval, reflects more than just ordinary journalistic pragmatism. It reveals the media's allegiances.

As Laurie Penny reported, children were being beaten up by the police as the royal family had their brief brush with the mob – not that you would know this if you chose to find out what was going on by watching TV news. They have laid bare their pro-establishment bias in the starkest way since these student protests began, including the embedded assumption that what happens to a member of the elite is of far more importance than what happens to those challenging the elite.

This explains why we have had the Charles and Camilla incident trumpeted with all the indignation of a major atrocity while the injuries of protesters at the hands of police have been sidelined in the media or omitted altogether.

Only when the student Alfie Meadows underwent brain surgery, after being beaten over the head with a baton, did we get a hint that the picture painted by the mainstream media was not entirely accurate.

The media narrative is absolutely clear. Even as I write, Adam Boulton is on Sky News talking to Theresa May: "Can you confirm that Camilla was actually poked with a stick?"

Try to imagine Boulton asking different questions: "Can you confirm the police hit a boy so hard on the head that he needed brain surgery? Can you confirm police dragged a disabled boy from his wheelchair during the protest?"

Whether they are dependent on advertising, like Sky, or led by a government-appointed board, like the BBC, our media simply cannot tell the truth when their governing interests are implicated in the story.

The roles were cast long before the play began. The police are always the good guys in this drama. Police violence is justifiable, while any overt wrongdoing will be attributed to "bad apples". Institutional corruption will not be countenanced – meaning that inexplicably abandoned police vans and unprotected political party headquarters will only leave journalists scratching their heads, while the words "police provocateurs" never pass their lips.

The complicity of the media in portraying the students as violent and the police as victims becomes clear to people after they have seen at first hand how the police deal with protests. The crime researcher Jacqui Karn, in the kettle last Thursday, gives a compelling account of the sense of bewilderment that follows this experience:

On getting home last night, I was stunned to see journalists had not told the whole story of the protest that I witnessed. Instead, the focus on the [attacks] on the royals and the Treasury, shocking though they are, [has] allowed for sensationalist coverage and tough talk. This seems to have left little room for debate about the appropriateness of these tactics, particularly against children.

Compare this to ITV News's Keir Simmons, who helpfully told viewers that "what the police are trying to do is facilitate peaceful protest". I'm sure the Met's press officer could not have been more pleased with him. It was Simmons who, after the first student protest, informed us that violence had been planned long before the event – because activist websites stated that "direct action" and "civil disobedience" were planned.

I sent him a quotation that could have been plucked from one of these websites – "We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action" – only this was Martin Luther King, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It would be news to King that his words were proof of support for violence, and to Gandhi, too, who urged his followers to engage in active resistance.

Simmons did not reply to my email. But as the Media Lens editors David Edwards and David Cromwell have observed, "No one expected the Soviet Communist Party's newspaper Pravda to tell the truth about the Communist Party; why should we expect the corporate press to tell the truth about corporate power?"

Alison Banville is a campaigner on human rights, animal rights and environmental and political issues

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses