That battered old courtesan of a press

Tim Robbins asks why the modern media serve no better function than shameless courtesans to the powe

Full disclosure: I am an actor and I have no right to express my opinion in any forum other than a make-up chair. I have in the past, it is true, foolishly raised questions about my country's rush to war and I have since been humbled by the wisdom and vision of the neoconservatives who have realised such vibrant democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But still, because I am famous, and because it has been some time since I have embraced the adrenalin rush of self-importance, I have taken the invitation of another self-promoting dilettante to spew my observations at the reluctant and powerless reader. Here's the thing: I love journalism. It is in my opinion the most noble profession, other than being a firefighter or police officer or soldier or schoolteacher. Oh, or a doctor. Or a nurse. Or a paramedic. Oh, or a pilot who can land a plane in the Hudson River.

But while these professions save lives on a daily basis, the journalist is entrusted with an obligation just as essential: the responsibility of keeping a free society alive. By challenging authority, by demanding truth from those that would obfuscate, by exposing corruption in the halls of power, journalists act as the protectors of liberty, the guardians against autocracy. Some even take their responsibility to heroic levels by risking their life and livelihood in pursuit of truth and in defence of liberty.

We have seen recently how journalists' commitment to their profession can make the difference in a society that teeters between dictatorship and democracy. Telling the truth in a volatile time can empower the powerless and facilitate a fundamental shift in consciousness.

I want to believe that every journalist working these days holds these truths to be self-evident, but I'm not sure. Rare was the brave descendant of Woodward and Bernstein who challenged the pro-war narrative spun by the powerful after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Instead, electronic media spokesmodels led the way. They didn't aspire to the investigative scoops of I F Stone or George Seldes, or the brave integrity of Edward R Murrow, or any of the other 20th-century journalists who viewed their job as a vital component of the democratic process. They simply had to apply make-up and read their lines. Those in print journalism who wouldn't reprint Pentagon press releases as front-page news were labelled unpatriotic, agenda-laden radicals and summarily intimidated into submission - if not expunged from the system. Those still left with a job got the message: if you want to think for yourself, don't expect to be paid for it. Good luck with the mortgage payments, Mr or Ms Truth-Teller.

(An email to my son's generation: the free press is an essential check to the abuse of the power of the government. Or in a tweet: when the assholes lie, the press has to call their shit.)

At this point, I must remind you once again that I am only an actor, and my opinion could very well be unreasonably idealistic. I don't live in the real world - I live in a celebrity bubble - so in practical matters I defer to better minds that understand how the world works and what the true purpose of journalism is.

As I said, I love journalists. Oh, for that All the President's Men (in Black) II script to arrive on my desk! A great blockbuster that upholds the freedom of the press - with action sequences!

But alas, the 1970s are dead in Hollywood and these are not good times for those who labour with their fingers at keyboards. Journalists with jobs these days are a dwindling number, and it must be with some embarrassment and fear that these workers arrive at the office these days. I want to believe that the fire still burns inside them, that they possess an undaunted and irreversible power. But can they get their story through?
Considering that no one in the upper echelons of the press lost their job for getting the facts so monumentally wrong in the lead-up to wars that resulted in such a cost in lives and a depletion of the American treasury, we shouldn't be surprised at the poor quality of reporting on the rise of the "Tea Party", or the outbreak of revolutions in the Middle East, or the Julian Assange affair. (Here is where the actor gets unfortunately belligerent in remembrance of the 18th-century saloons that forged our democracy.)

Like an old battered courtesan with a romantic memory of her virtue, those left within the media elite with a shred of dignity must have had a moment of relief when Barack Obama was elected. Change was the order of the day. Gone were the days of embarrassing complicity with the government, of sitting on your conscience and looking the other way while your pimp lied to you and looted your treasure. Here was a moment to reclaim yourself, your virtue.

Rock star in the spotlight

But in the compromised trollop, craven nature triumphed over her illusory heart of gold. It has been pretty obvious for the past two years to anyone not in a coma that the Tea Party movement was a well-funded, right-wing political insurgency. Yet the mistress reported her pimp's story of a legitimate "grass-roots movement". The spokesmodels and print journalist neocons repeated the legitimacy of this movement ad nauseam for two years until the anaesthetised American public once again bought the product being sold them. They voted against their best interests - believing they were embracing Tom Paine whilst being raped by King George.

It's no wonder that these severely compromised gossips/publicists reacted so vehemently to WikiLeaks's Assange. Here was someone outside the cathouse with a rock star's spotlight on him, scooping them all, reminding them of what a journalist should be doing for a living, and in doing so shining a light on their subser­vience to their corporate paymasters.

(Conspiracy alert: It is ridiculous to assert that there is "control" over information in a "free" society. Those multinationals that have news divisions maintain them as a service to the democracy. They are "free" to report anything they like. Also, full disclosure II: anything positive I say about Assange has nothing to do with the truth and everything to do with my own craven, whorish nature. I've been told I look like him and as an actor I will do anything and say anything to star in that movie.)

That said: a man that presents truth among liars does not seem to fare well. Any admission by "journalists" that Assange might have relevant information necessary to a democracy's survival might suggest that they have been sleeping on the job, and that they serve no function other than courtesan to the powerful.

To add embarrassment to humiliation, those same courtesans had to watch while Assange's exercise in press freedom, which they had attempted to discredit, helped to lead to an explosion of protests in the Middle East calling for democratic reform. The embarrassed courtesans duly hemmed and hawed, spewing disinformation about Muslim Brotherhoods and terrorist connections to the voices calling out to the world from Cairo in Tahrir Square.

But as these kept ladies tried to misinform the world, the will of the Egyptian people won the day. Suddenly the Egyptian voice spoke more truth through Twitter than through our cathouses of information - and a paradigm shifted. While a fever of democracy spread, they stumbled over themselves trying to catch up, like an embarrassed and shamed collaborator trying to explain that it was his complicity to dictatorship which led to democracy.

Meanwhile, the US attorney general, Eric Holder, doing his best impression of his Bush-era predecessor John Ashcroft, spoke of the terrorist crimes of Assange. In an irony that could only be truly appreciated by the ghosts of the original National Lampoon editor Doug Kenney and writer Michael O'Donoghue, the courtesan reporters and spokesmodels delighted in portraying Assange as an erratic and unhinged individual.

(And here is where the actor goes too far and remembers his love of Bertolt Brecht and his punk-rock roots . . .) And so the wanton wench who has been sharing her bed with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney et al, who got knocked up with and gave birth to their bastard war, now stands in judgement of legitimate democratic movements and demonises one of the last truth-tellers as a rapist, without waiting for the due process of a trial.

Then, as is wont to happen in a society that worships distraction when thoughts of revolution abroad and press freedom at home start to disturb our sense of equilibrium, along comes an actor in meltdown and we are blissfully brought into the pornography again.

Our airwaves have been liberated by Charlie Sheen - say hallelujah! We blissfully stare at the car wreck of the unstable celebrity and are absolved of our responsibility to think about the world, or our involvement with it.

Here's an interesting angle: compare the hours of press coverage of Sheen ranting about his situation with the reportage of any of his father Martin's principled protests in the past 30 years. It's not even close, folks.

A reasoned, intelligent, religious activist and actor is virtually ignored, while his unhinged and chemically imbalanced son is given endless hours of press coverage and the rope with which to hang himself. We want our actors to be innocuous representations of our foolish, self-destructive inclinations, not our moral centres or reminders of our own humanity. For that, we look to our politicians and our pundits.

Doomsday ignoramus

And now, today, we are faced with a world crisis. As a nuclear power plant threatens to melt down in Japan and the world worries about radiation spreading through the atmosphere, we have not a thought for the words of the father Sheen or Bruce Springsteen, or Sting, or Jackson Browne, and all those "self-important celebrities" who called for attention to the dangers of nuclear power in the 1980s.

Oh yes, they were naive dupes of left-wing doomsday ignoramuses. They did not understand the complex science that guaranteed the safety of nuclear power plants; they were alarmists, extremists, fools. The public listened instead to the kings, the reasoning individuals and well-paid scientists who assured us that there was absolute safety and security in the man-made systems that protected us. These pragmatists understood the benefits of the nuclear industry and belittled the misinformed and ignorant musicians and artists of the world.

And as the crisis unfolded in Japan, these promoters and advertisers of the guilt-free nuclear dream sat in their studies in Georgetown undisturbed by the media. No one asked them to express any defence of their previous beliefs of safe nuclear energy, which they have spread like a virus since the 1960s.

As a moronic, narcissistic actor, I am reluctant to call on my knowledge of Shakespeare to blame the responsible king and spare the truth-telling fool. I realise that my opinions are seriously misguided, and anyway, isn't it the artists that have created the problem? Their free-natured approach to expressing the human condition has led to the destruction of our moral and economic stability, if not the tsunami itself. Artists who embrace activism serve a function in society that is just as embarrassing as those intrepid journalists who seek to illuminate the truth in these volatile times.

As long as we limit the voice and influence of these fools, our kings can rant naked in the storm and be considered reasoned, articulate leaders. And that's a rewrite that will please. It may not be a good play - but business can proceed as usual. Spare us the words of those who will not profit from ignorance or complicity. Give us Lear without guilt. Give us our uncomplicated drama, for the good of all of those who seek a simplified view of the world.

And for God's sake, let's keep our actors embarrassed and humiliated.

Tim Robbins is an Oscar-winning actor, a musician and artistic director of the Actors' Gang, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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