One afternoon in early August, Michael Walker was perched on a fake tree stump in a corner of YouTube Space, a studio in King’s Cross, north London, which is adorned with artificial foliage, carpeted in astroturf and lit luminous green. Electric guitars line the wall opposite, beside an Xbox “lounge” and coffee bar.
With his sharp buzzcut, silver studs, big brown eyes and easy east-London twang, Walker looked at home as he directed a team of young videographers. The subject matter – explaining internal Labour-party structures – was less in tune with the edgy surroundings, but Walker was determined to make it interesting. The previous episode of his series Party Time featured him dancing in a black vest, explaining how branches and constituency parties work. (“I might go for more clothes this time,” he says later.)
“To really influence the party, you’re gonna have to get involved at a local level. Labour can only be changed from the bottom up,” he told his audience, before adding. “And like a butt without lube – apologies – this episode’s going to be a little bit dry.”
A self-described “activist first, journalist second”, Walker, 27, is one of the rising stars in Britain’s growing alternative left-wing media, which supported and has subsequently been fuelled by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. He is a host on Novara Media, which produces videos, podcasts and articles about left-wing politics for a UK audience fed up with mainstream publications. Along with Novara’s combative founder, Aaron Bastani, he presents the twice-weekly live politics show, The Fix, and co-hosts the podcast TyskySour. Both men call themselves “class war social democrats”.
Other nascent left-wing media organisations include the Canary and Evolve Politics and blogs such as Skwawkbox and Another Angry Voice. Their approaches and tones vary widely, but what unites them is an uncompromisingly socialist perspective, sympathy towards Corbyn, distaste for the mainstream media (MSM) and a heavy reliance on social media such as Facebook to spread their message. While some traditional Labour voters will not recognise the names of these outlets, the influence of Novara et al on the political conversation is undeniable. Labour MPs grant them interviews – Jeremy Corbyn says he reads the Canary – and stories they publish (such as doubts about the homophobic abuse suffered by Corbynsceptic Labour MP Angela Eagle in 2016) can gain wide traction.
Willing readers are not hard to find. Research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows that people who identify as left-wing in the UK have “far less” trust than the general public in established media organisations. “This has created a niche, an opportunity for these sites to find an audience,” says director of research Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. “Even if their reach in the general population might sometimes be limited, they can still be quite important in terms of influencing elite debate.”
Following Labour’s better-than-expected showing in June’s general election, the left-wing media sites feel vindicated – as do their readers.“We were calling things right at that last election that many journalists missed,” says Walker. “It’s becoming ever more apparent that the commentator class is from an increasingly narrow group of people – both politically and sociologically – where everyone hangs in the same SW1 circles. There’s clearly a desire to consume media from different sources that have a slightly different outlook and potentially broader perspective.”
Novara – named after the Italian town in Elio Petri’s 1971 political film The Working Class Goes to Heaven – is the most established of the new left-wing media organisations, having been founded in 2014, a year before Corbyn’s unlikely rise to power. “The New Statesman or Guardian either didn’t see it [the Corbyn surge during the election], or didn’t think it would be particularly consequential – and, in fairness, nor did many of us,” says Bastani, 33, over coffee by the river in London Bridge. “[But] we considered ourselves on the radical left, and that radical politics and intellectual curiosity has now been bolted onto the Jeremy Corbyn project.”
Today, Novara has an office and studio in Peckham, south London, an editor-in-chief, deputy editors, and a core team of 15 volunteers, who all have other day jobs. Walker is a private tutor, and Bastani does freelance communications work. The only people paid are the 200-odd contributing writers (£40 an article) and videographers (£90 a job). Novara makes money from its 700 or so supporters, who make regular or one-off payments, and the internet giants who host its viral content. “In five years we want a space, we want a bar, we want a three- or four-storey building, we want 15 paid employees, we want international bureaus,” Bastani says.
Novara estimates that it has 10,000 committed viewers and listeners, and produces videos that regularly hit 100,000 views. Although Bastani says the website doesn’t draw a mass audience – in July, it attracted just 80,000 unique users – he calls Facebook and Twitter “the main hubs” of the operation. He claims that Novara’s Facebook content reached 3 million people over the general election period, and about 5 per cent of its articles are shared by at least 30,000 people on the social network.
Bastani’s politics changed during his twenties from “vanilla” (briefly backing David Miliband) to “fully-automated luxury communism” – he’s writing a book with that title – after becoming involved in the student protest movement following the financial crash. Images still circulate of him topless and hollering at a tax-justice rally, the Daily Mail in particular delighting in reducing him to his sculpted torso.
There is a macho feel to some of Novara’s output. Its most high-profile political commentators are male, aside from senior editor Ash Sarkar (Twitter bio: “Literature bore. Anarcho-fabulous. Muslim. THFC. Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!”). Along with Bastani’s street-fighting persona on Twitter, this blokey tone has been criticised even by otherwise friendly voices on the left.
Lack of gender balance is one example of how these new outlets share the problems of their establishment counterparts, even while striving to be a progressive alternative. The parallels are even more striking among fiercely partisan websites such as the Canary, Skwawkbox and Evolve Politics, which focus more on news than Novara; their output often mirrors the tabloids they despise, in both tone and approach. Pushing an anti-Tory, anti-MSM and usually pro-Corbyn line, their political bias is as aggressive as that of the pro-Brexit legacy press. The Canary’s biggest target is the BBC, which it sees as biased in favour of a “neoliberal” establishment. Upon parliament’s return from the summer recess, the Canary website ran three attack pieces on the BBC in two days.
“After taking six weeks off, it took Laura Kuenssberg just two paragraphs to reveal her true colours,” was the headline on a story about the BBC political editor’s reporting of how Labour MPs will handle the EU withdrawal bill.
Even some members of the pro-Corbyn campaign network Momentum dismiss the new left-wing media sites as “gossip blogs”, but they’re still essential reading for many on the left. Corbyn told BuzzFeed in May: “I think it’s good that people go to all the alternative sites and check out what they want.”
When I ask to visit the Canary’s office, the first thing I learn is that it doesn’t have one. Editor-in-chief Kerry-Anne Mendoza runs the site remotely from her home in Bristol. Instead, we meet at a bar on the city’s waterfront. Mendoza, 36, wears a black-and-white breton, and grinds out her second Camel Blue of the morning into a cockle shell.
She started the Canary in 2015 with a team of five – including her wife Nancy, now director of communications and membership – who each contributed £100. The website’s name comes from a speech by the US civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson at the St Paul’s Occupy camp in London in December 2011, where Mendoza was present. Jackson referred to the activists as “the canaries in the coalmine”, who would increase awareness of homelessness and poverty and encourage others to join the fight for social and economic justice.
“There is literally no mass-market left-wing outlet,” Mendoza says. “The Mirror at best is centre left. [So] what if we had a left-wing outlet with the sort of reach and conversation size of the Daily Mail or the Sun? What would our political landscape look like if as many people were reading left-wing output as were reading right-wing output? Surely that would generate a proper battle of ideas.”
Mendoza has cultivated “tabloid styling, tabloid-level language” for her site, explaining that she treats each article like a newspaper front page. She has “deliberately styled the Canary to have a reading age of eight” – a policy reportedly used by the Sun. The Canary even uses software to ensure the language has this ease of comprehension, with a red, amber and green light system that keeps writers to this reading age as they work. “We have to make sure that anyone, anywhere can read this,” she says.
Mendoza claims that the number of unique visitors to the site overtook the Times in the month leading up to June’s polling day, though this is hard to confirm. The Canary has a large socia-media following with 49,100 Twitter followers and 154,753 Facebook likes. Its Facebook shares averaged 7,459 per piece in the first week of the general election, according to BuzzFeed. Turnover in its first year of operations was “not very shy of a quarter of a million”, according to Mendoza. Funds come almost equally from a membership scheme, where readers can sign up and pay to support the site, and online advertising.
Like Novara’s Bastani, Mendoza has become more left-wing with age. She tells me she used to earn six figures as a freelance project manager in the private and public sector. “I was always economically right-wing, socially left-wing,” she says, recalling her first attempt at political blogging in 2010 – an urge to give the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition a chance. “I’m nothing if not optimistic!”
The Canary has around 20 writers, whose articles are seen by five pairs of eyes before publication, Mendoza says. She doesn’t disclose their fees, but each writer gets a flat sum plus a proportion of the ad revenue their piece draws in. Some writers have earned more than £3,000 in a month, she says.
This payment method, also used by Evolve Politics – a slightly less sensational news site – is derided by some for creating a financial incentive to write “clickbait”. James Ball, the former Guardian and BuzzFeed journalist, last year accused the Canary of “irresponsible pay-per-click journalism”.
On 16 June 2017, two days after the Grenfell fire, a story questioning its death toll circulated on social media. VIDEO: GOVT “PUTS ‘D-NOTICE’ GAG” ON REAL #GRENFELL DEATH TOLL #NATIONALSECURITY shouted the blog Skwawkbox. The article was retweeted 373 times and shared 165 times on Facebook. When it quickly emerged that the government had not hidden the real figure from the public using a Defence and Security Media Advisory Notice, the blog was accused of spreading “fake news”.
Skwawkbox is run by 52-year-old Steve Walker, a software business owner who lives in the north-west of England. He calls himself a “citizen journalist”, is a member of the National Union of Journalists, and has been blogging on Skwawkbox since he set it up in 2012 to focus on the Mid Staffs hospital scandal. He has a team of six who help with fact-checking and information-gathering, but there are no salaries. “It’s a labour of passion,” he says over the phone.
Walker changed the headline and ran a correction at the top of his D-Notice article, although the piece and social media posts remain online. “There are obviously cases where we get it wrong,” he says, of his general coverage. “When we get it wrong we make sure we say so equally prominently, as quickly as possible.”
Walker believes he receives so much stick because established reporters are jealous of his work. His interview with Labour MP Laura Pidcock sparked a big political story over the summer recess, with the new MP calling Tory parliamentary colleagues “the enemy” and voicing “absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them”.
“People who seem to feel threatened by what we do will throw the fake news accusation or the conspiracy theorist accusation or whatever else as a lazy way of trying to downplay what we do,” Walker says.
The Canary’s high-profile blunders include suggesting that the public affairs firm Portland Communications masterminded a coup against Jeremy Corbyn, and a story criticising the Sun’s front page for ignoring the Manchester terror attack. (It was actually a first edition, printed before the explosion).
“It was really bad – totally me,” Mendoza says of the latter. She apologised in a newsletter to readers, and the piece was pulled. Corrections are pinned to the top of their Facebook page for 48 hours. The article about the Portland conspiracy, which resulted in an employee there receiving a death threat, remains online at the time of writing.
Like the traditional tabloids, the Canary and other left-wing new media love a hatchet job. But they also have an internet army of fans to propagate their message on social media. Along with Kuenssberg, Corbyn-sceptic Labour MPs such as Jess Phillips are often the subjects of attack pieces, which can lead to a cascade of criticism from readers online. Phillips became so exasperated by this, she tweeted last year: “If you send me canary [sic] articles be aware you’ve been muted. Save the seconds it took to tweet [to] maybe call a loved one or deliver a leaflet.”
Mendoza says the Canary is “anti-bullying” because it gave a hearing to Corbyn and his supporters, when mainstream journalists were “undermining and twisting what the movement is about”.
While they relish their outsider status, the new left-wing sites are becoming part of the formal media landscape. The Canary has joined the Max Mosley-funded alternative press regulator Impress, and Evolve Politics was recently granted a place in the Westminster lobby, joining reporters from all the major UK media outlets in covering parliament from the inside.
But won’t this make sites such as Evolve part of the very establishment they purport to scrutinise? “It’s not going to change the way we report,” says Matt Turner, the website’s deputy editor. An earnest and soft-spoken 22-year-old, he meets me after arriving in London from Cardiff, where he’s studying for a masters in political communication. He will now split his time between Wales and Westminster. “I can be in the same room as them [other reporters] in a press briefing but the content we produce is going to be incredibly different… We’re always going to be there to cause a bit of trouble.”
Turner spends as many as 15 hours a week editing, and is paid 10 per cent of the website’s advertising revenue. Writers’ fees range “between about £7-15 per article, which isn’t a lot but it’s all we can do at the moment,” he says. Pay was one of many gripes a former Evolve team member Alex McNamara aired in a blog post disassociating himself from the website in August, concluding: “Evolve are, in fact, no better than the worst of the manipulative right-wing MSM publications they spend so much energy decrying.”
Either way, the MSM has found a place for them in Westminster, and the audience and budding influence of these news sites suggest they’re not just an online fad that journalists and politicians can ignore. Turner goes so far as to call it “the changing of the guard”. But the more popular the new left-wing media becomes, the more it will face the same scrutiny – as well as occupying the same spaces – as its mainstream competition. Will this pull it into line, or put its writers off?
Back at YouTube Space, Walker ponders this, as he takes pictures on his phone of Novara’s latest interviewee, Olly Alexander of electronic pop trio Years & Years, who has just arrived at the studio. “I’ve got no ambition to remain marginal,” Walkers says. “We want to make left-wing ideas common sense and mainstream. We want to be as big as possible.”
This article appears in the 20 Sep 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left