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29 October 2021

In the post-Corbyn world, what next for alternative left media?

How are radical start-up outlets that thrived under the last Labour leader faring in the Keir Starmer era, and against the backdrop of newer right-wing players?

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Last month, after just three months and only eight shows, Andrew Neil confirmed what everyone already knew: he had left GB News. It looked for a moment as though the premise of an “anti-woke” TV news channel was fundamentally dead. But within days, there was another development in the right-wing media landscape: Piers Morgan announced that he would be helming Rupert Murdoch’s talkTV when it launches next year, seemingly filling the void left by Neil.

If GB News has moved too far to the right for Neil (in a recent interview, he referred to it as “Ukip TV”), and Murdoch senses a gap in the partisan news market, where does this leave some of the UK’s left-wing media start-ups? Over the past ten years, a wave of platforms such as the Canary (founded in 2015), Evolve Politics (2015), Novara Media (2011), Skwawkbox (2012) and Another Angry Voice (2010) have identified a radical left-shaped hole in the media landscape. Many of these built on audiences inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Cumulatively, these outlets have 1.4 million followers across all major social media channels (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube). But with Corbyn gone and money pouring into right-wing news, how will they adapt?

Broadcaster and campaigner Owen Jones recently set up a left-wing media venture based on his YouTube channel, featuring mini-documentaries, interviews and vlogs alongside his weekly news offering, the Owen Jones Show. He told me that GB News has been too focused on the sort of hot-button debates that dominate social media. “What they saw on Twitter is that right-wingers are set off by talking about wokeness. But most people don’t even know what woke means – it’s not their obsession.” (In May, YouGov found the majority of Britons do not know the definition of the term “woke”.)

Yet the newer left-wing platforms also rely on viral hits with partisan content to build an audience. Double Down News, a left-wing site founded in 2017, does this largely through its video interviews with well-known figures on the left, such as Guardian environment journalist George Monbiot, economist Grace Blakeley, director Ken Loach and the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.

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While sites like Double Down can’t compete with the reach of the mainstream broadcasters, they can bring progressive left talking points into the social media sphere and national conversation – much as GB News has done for the right. Novara Media contributing editor Ash Sarkar told me she believes the aim of outlets such as GB News is not to trump the BBC and Sky on ratings, but rather to shift the “centre of gravity” further to the right. “You might think of them as the Ukip to the Conservative Party,” she said. “Even if they’re not able to take a huge chunk out of the BBC’s audience share, what they’re able to do is peel off just enough so that it feels threatened.”

Left-right debates around identity politics aren’t new, but they have proved a “very useful frame for the right”, Sarkar continued. “If you’re somebody with an ideological interest in maintaining the right-wing grip on electoral outcomes, and you’re doing that against the grain of demographic shifts in this country, it means that you need to have this culture-warification of political media to keep your baby-booming voters, your asset owners, angry enough that they want to come out to the ballot box.”

A similar principle applies to left-wing platforms, argued Dominic Ponsford, media commentator and editor of Press Gazette. “A symptom of the culture war is that, on both the left and right, you can build a really popular website by preaching to the crowd.” This means journalism “sometimes shifting into the role of propaganda”, he argued, with its creators on both sides having already “made their mind up about everything”.

Some broadcasters at the new left outlets have become well-known enough to reach more traditional audiences. “I think the fact that they [legacy broadcasters] have to get me on TV – and they really would rather not – means they know that we’re speaking to an audience which exists in this country,” said Sarkar, who describes her audience as members of the “precariat class”, largely aged under 40.

“That’s a demographic of people which is either maligned as thin-skinned, millennial wokies or just ignored entirely. And because we’re speaking to that audience, the mainstream media has, against its will, had to give us a little sliver of representation.”

Winning over the press has always been a tougher job for the left in the UK. “On a fundamental level, Labour is always fighting uphill when it comes to the broader media system,” explained Declan McDowell-Naylor, research associate at Cardiff University’s school of journalism, media and culture.

“We’ve seen a clear shift in Keir Starmer’s approach to policy, in terms of [pushing] flag and country, which obviously appeals more to certain sections of the British media.”

Under Starmer’s leadership, the support given to Labour by sites such as Novara and Skwawkbox has diminished. These weaker ties do not trouble Sarkar. “Those four years of Corbyn really spoiled us,” she said. “Because the Labour Party has been boring for a lot longer than it was exciting.”

Having recently cancelled her party membership, Sarkar appeared at The World Transformed: an alternative convention that runs parallel to Labour’s autumn conference, established after Corbyn was elected. “I’m not interested, quite frankly, in what Keir Starmer chooses to do,” said Sarkar.

“He’s not somebody whose opinion I care about very much. What I care about is how the left deals with Starmer in order to achieve its policy goals and values. In the long term, if we gave up a really good climate change policy to give Keir Starmer an extra two points in the polls – that’s not going to be of great comfort on a burning planet.”

After Labour’s better-than-expected result in the 2017 election, the Canary, Novara, Skwawkbox and Evolve Politics were identifiedby the Guardian as a “new force shaping the election debate”. But two years later, Labour suffered its worst election defeat in living memory, despite the same level of support from such sites.

Had their influence been overstated? McDowell-Naylor, who is working on a research project about the rise of alternative media outlets, thinks that while there was “something in the water” in 2017, crediting the new left media with that result ignores the wider context: “You also have to look at the fact that the Conservative Party’s 2017 election campaign was terrible by almost every measure.”

Steve Walker, who set up the pro-Corbyn Skwawkbox blog in 2012 to cover the Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal, disagreed. “I’m not interested in trying to brag… but the fact that there was a different narrative available, and the success of the spread of that into people’s consciousness – I’m sure it [new left-wing media] must have played a role.”

Walker – who was successfully sued for libel by ex-Labour MP Anna Turley in 2019 – put Labour’s dismal 2019 performance down to the party’s Brexit position. He said Skwawkbox urged the party to sack Starmer, then shadow Brexit secretary, for backing a second referendum.

Now that Starmer is leader, and the left wing of the party holds less sway, many of these alternative outlets are considering their line come the next election. Who or what will they back?

“I am an anti-Tory person who takes an anti-Tory position, so we won’t discriminate according to the colour of the rosette,” said Walker. “But if you offer people the worst possible Labour government, you will end up with the worst possible Tory government.”

For Novara, Sarkar said success comes by “diversifying the product, not by diluting the principles which undergird [the] project”. This means being “responsive to the political moment”, but “still having that fundamental set of values about what’s going on and who it is you’re speaking to”, suggesting Novara will continue to be critical of Starmer’s Labour.

Inevitably, the working relationship that existed between these media outriders and some Labour politicians in the Corbyn years has weakened. In an interview with the New Statesman in July, former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott distanced herself from Jones and his call for Starmer to resign had they lost the Batley and Spen by-election. “Owen Jones is a journalist. He has his own views,” she said. “I think it’s a little unfair of you to conflate me with Owen Jones. I can’t remember the last time I spoke to him.”

In an interview with the Times in July, Corbyn-sceptic Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley Jess Phillips likened Jones and Novara to sugar-crazed children, before asking: “Who cares what they think?”

Yet the new left media believes its survival is distinct from who’s up or down within the Labour Party. “Novara isn’t about blind loyalty to Corbyn,” Sarkar said. “We predate the Corbyn project, and we managed to grow the most after its end: it was our coverage of the pandemic which really expanded our subscriber base, more so than the Corbyn moment.”

The social injustices and government sleaze arising from the pandemic response have brought new audiences to alternative outlets. Novara’s reporting on its flagship TyskySour current affairs show saw its YouTube channel grow exponentially during Covid-19: subscribers have nearly tripled, from 65,000 in March 2020 to over 170,000 in October 2021; overall, video views have more than tripled – from ten million monthly views prior to Covid, to over 40 million today.

Reporting by the Byline Media group – which bills itself as non-partisan – has often been picked up by the mainstream press in the age of coronavirus: from uncovering  “crony” government Covid-19 contracts in the Byline Times, to Byline TV filming the abuse faced by Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater on the Batley and Spen campaign trail, and an interview with Dawn Butler MP after she was thrown out of parliament for accusing Boris Johnson of lying.

Byline Times editor Hardeep Matharu believes that news appetites are changing, arguing that “most people do not want partisan news”, and prefer reporting that “allows people to join the dots”.

Over at the Canary, traffic has fallen from a high of 8.5 million readers a month in the run-up to the 2017 election to around 250,000. Editor-in-chief Andrew Rose put this down to a change in the Facebook algorithm in 2018, which significantly stifled traffic to his and competitors’ sites.

Yet the site and its former editor-at-large, Kerry-Anne Mendoza (who stepped back from her role this summer to prioritise her mental health), have also faced several allegations of anti-Semitism. (Rose said these allegations have “always been false”.)

Now, most of the Canary’s revenue comes from monthly donations, with around 3,000 people currently contributing. “That’s something we need to nurture, whilst continually trying to reach out to new people, and to people who disagree with us,” Rose said.

Will the alternative left media survive? Instead of rich backers, these organisations tend to rely on financial pledges from supporters, platform advertiser revenue (YouTube is a key generator), one-off donations as well as occasional grant money.

Double Down News makes £32,647 a month in donations from 10,601 patrons on the Patreon platform, but does not carry advertisements on principle. For Novara, a recent fundraising drive to increase its monthly donations by £8,000 was successful – funds now primed for the outlet’s expansion.

Of all the alt-left outlets he has studied, McDowell-Naylor told me he believes Novara has the best chance of becoming a mainstay. But there’s a balancing act to play: “Everyone I interviewed there was talking about professionalisation and the tensions that brings with being a political project.”

How that works out remains to be seen. The social media platforms that provide footing for the new alternative outlets came under scrutiny earlier this month when Novara’s YouTube channel was deleted without warning or proper explanation. Following a mass campaign (ironically carried out via social media), the channel was quickly reinstated.

But the power Big Tech giants have over media outlets, and, by extension, democracy, is unnerving – for both left and right-leaning outlets. “We all rely on journalism in order to make sense of ourselves socially, culturally, politically; it’s the lifeblood of a democracy,” said Sarker in a 26 October interview with UnHerd, another recent media start-up. “If YouTube or Google or whoever else it is can just shut it off, no explanation, no justification, no warning. That is something incredibly dangerous indeed.”

In 2017, Mendoza told the New Statesman that the Canary aspired to the same reach as the Daily Mail or the Sun: a lofty goal that looks even more remote four years on. “It’s difficult because we’ve been in existence for six years,” said Rose. “You can’t talk about any of the new left-wing outlets in the same way as about corporations that have both been in existence for hundreds of years, or [are] owned by billionaires.”

Despite the challenges, most in this media sphere believe they can defy the odds. Walker of Skwawkbox predicts social ills – poverty, instability, oppression – will provoke a reaction and generate new audiences. “The left outlets on their own are not going to set the world on fire. But people will, at some point, wake up to what’s being done to them.”

Rose said it “comes down to economics”, with the need for a wider left-wing support network to fund such coverage, including backing from trade unions. “We’re in it for the long haul, but I think it’s going to be a struggle.”

Meanwhile, Jones – perhaps the best-known face of the alternative left-wing media – argued that any effort to stifle the radical left, whether funded by Murdoch or fronted by big beasts such as Neil or Morgan, will not succeed because of a deeper appetite for structural change. “Unless they stop younger people being both economically precarious and socially progressive, [while also] not being represented within the political sphere, that fight will continue,” he said. “However vicious the media landscape, that fight is not going away.”

[See also: Why did YouTube delete Novara Media’s channel?]

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