An academic explains exactly what is driving the media’s love affair with Keir Starmer
The British media’s U-turn in its attitude towards the Labour Party since the departure of Jeremy Corbyn as leader has been swift and extraordinary to watch. After years of berating the party and its leadership, many establishment journalists have now opened their loving arms to Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer.
But what’s behind this about-turn? Are swathes of the media actually thinking of ditching the Conservatives, after a decade of effectively propping the party up, for the latest Labour model?
The Canary sat down with academic Justin Schlosberg to talk about the media’s apparent new love, its potentially soon to be jilted ex, and much more.
Why has the media, by and large, welcomed Starmer as Labour leader? If he’s the ‘threat’ to the Conservatives we’ve been led to believe, then why would Britain’s largely Tory-leaning press approve of his appointment?
One of the great myths in western democracies is that establishment power and the vested interests associated with establishment power are embedded only in conservative or right-wing mainstream political parties. So if you start from the assumption that establishment interests always entrench themselves on… both sides of the mainstream political divide… within the Republican Party as much as the Democrats, and within the Tory Party as much as the Labour Party, then I think it becomes clear why we don’t actually live in what could be characterised as a one-party state… The reason why we had such a prolonged spate of Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 was precisely because the Labour government under Tony Blair, and to a large extent under [Gordon] Brown, represented the very same vested interests that most of the mainstream press speak on behalf of, in my view.
The safe assumption would be that so long as Labour has in place a leader that broadly speaks to the very same interests across the mainstream political divide, and that underpin Fleet Street and the mainstream press, at some point they will attract the interest and support of significant sections of the mainstream press.
And the reason for that is simple. Because [while] the press don’t have an interest… in real social change, in any kind of fundamental change, they absolutely have an interest in what we might call surface change or superficial change – because that’s the stuff of news. And frankly… the narrative exhausts itself if it’s simply an endless Tory government.
“The absolute red line is the socialist left”
So, although it has appeared over the last decade that we have a largely Tory-supporting press, what you’re saying is the press is propping up something, but it’s not necessarily the Tory Party, it’s the system. The press is propping up the interests that it has. But it needs the drama every so often of a switch in governance that still sits within that framework and can fill its pages.
I think that’s essentially right… there are obviously some titles that are blue through and through… that will never switch their allegiance. But I think that’s very clear with much of the broadsheets, certainly the Times… much of the centre to centre-right broadsheets, the Independent, and even in the mid-market press, the Mail and certainly the tabloids, the Sun, these titles have already signalled that they can, and have already switched allegiance. [They] have signalled a willingness to do so provided there is an ‘effective opposition’, which is establishment shorthand for… a quiescent opposition to their interests.
That’s also reflected in the way that almost every point in the political spectrum, from the far right to the centre left, has some kind of established platform within what we would call… the mainstream media. In other words, it is only the socialist left that is excluded. The perfect example of this is LBC. LBC prides itself… on being a-partisan or non-partisan by having what it considers to be presenters that offer listeners a range of political perspectives… from Nigel Farage to… James O’Brien. And that to them is the kind of epitome of impartiality… and the absolute red line is the socialist left.
So far, Starmer doesn’t appear to be offering any kind of fundamental change to Britain’s status quo. He’s been weak on holding the government’s feet to the fire over their treatment of citizens during the coronavirus pandemic (and fairly strong on calling the government out for not helping big business). Starmer has also responded to the BLM protests by taking a knee in an empty conference room while telling off protesters for tearing down a statue of a notorious slave trader.
Corbyn, of course, was different. He did offer radical change. There were many qualities that defined his leadership, and solidarity with people was right up there among them. What do Starmer’s offerings as leader so far say about his capacity for solidarity, and with whom?
I’m afraid this was perfectly obvious almost from the moment that Sir Keir entered parliament in 2015, where I think one of the first bills that he voted on, or rather, in this case, abstained on, was the welfare reform bill… Thereby [he] gave implicit support for the brutal austerity regime that has been brought in by successive Tory governments.
He has always made it clear, to be fair to him, notwithstanding some quite infantile attempts to claim the mantle of socialism during his leadership campaign, he’s always in his actual concrete actions and statements, as an MP at least, made it clear that he stands for what I would call paradigm continuum.
It’s very clear that he is a pair of safe hands in that respect and that’s… borne out in the way in which he has been welcomed with open arms, and almost a kind of audible sigh of relief, amongst mainstream and professional journalists. Here is a man who ostensibly is on the left but speaks their language, and that doesn’t fundamentally… threaten their interests.
The acceptable face of capitalism
These kinds of… [moderate] political leaders on the centre left or centre right, they are… not only the acceptable face of capitalist ideology… but they’re a good brand for it… They have a degree of… symbolic power as being somehow speaking for the underprivileged [and] the disadvantaged… There is nothing of more value to the structures of power that underpin capitalist societies than having a political leader that has that kind of image and persona but that nevertheless more or less… acts in the interests of transnational capital.
That’s in a way much more preferable… to a figure like [Donald] Trump, or even to some extent [Boris] Johnson, who are… not very good brands for capitalism… There’s a lot of uneasiness about Trump within mainstream liberal spheres in the US, including the mainstream liberal media.
[But] the solution to Trump… to the extremism and illiberalism that is taking hold in Western democracies, is never going to be the good face of capitalism… They are never going to be able to provide the solutions, and I think are quite ill-fated in terms of their prospects of winning.
The media’s new ‘foe’
In contrast to Starmer’s welcome, there’s a narrative developing that the media’s relationship with Boris Johnson’s government is somewhat tense. Does the media have an adversarial relationship with the current government? I.e. when it comes to the current government, is it actually doing its job given that the media is meant to have an adversarial relationship with those in positions of power?
It’s always been true of this government as much as anything else that they always face some degree of adversary from the mainstream press… What’s clearly happened since Starmer has become leader of the Labour Party is that it’s given a kind of renewed impetus to that kind of adversarial journalism. And that’s why we saw almost immediately these Sunday Times features highly critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic that we just didn’t see before.
I think the reason for that is partly because there wasn’t this greater threat for the mainstream press in the form of Corbyn… But secondly, as I said before, that Starmer just… carries instant credibility. Not just because… he speaks off that same hymn sheet, but also because of his background as a public prosecutor. He’s just seen as respectable and credible in the way that a vegan, teetotalling, allotment-tending pacifist like Corbyn just didn’t fit the mould.
Raging against the machine?
The Johnson regime is selling that adversary idea too: that it’s him against the media; him against the establishment. Brexit was a useful prop for polishing that image. Essentially, he’s branding himself as someone who’s willing and able to rage against the machine on behalf of the people. Tied to that, is the fact he’s being called a populist. What is a populist, and is Johnson actually one?
The word populist, it bothers me because it doesn’t… immediately signal what it should, which is that this particular brand of politics is unique to the hard right. The problem with the word populist is it has this neutral tone that can make it applicable both to the left and the right. What it gives rise to is all sorts of very lazy false equivalences made between, for example, the way in which people like Trump and Dominic Cummings attack the media… and the longstanding radical left critique of the media.
It’s very clear that when Trump talks about the fake media, he’s doing so on the basis of a whim and on the basis that he perceives any media that doesn’t give him pretty much an unchallenged platform, in the way that perhaps something that Fox News or Breitbart comes close to, as being fake news media… That false equivalence just wipes away decades of established research across disciplines of journalism studies, media studies, cultural studies, which have shown time and time again that if there is any skew to the coverage in terms of political balance of mainstream media, including broadcasters like the BBC, it is almost always towards the right or the centre right, and it is always against the left.
It gives rise to the same kind of lazy defence by the BBC that, ‘well because we get attacked equally by the left and by the right, that must mean we’re balanced’. It’s as if evidence counts for nothing and that we live in this world where the quality of public debate is limited to just empty rhetoric and slurs from both sides of the political divide.
Owe their political lives to the media
I would also point out that not only is it devoid of any evidence, but that kind of rhetoric of media critique by the hard right just belies the fact that fundamentally these people owe their political lives to the mainstream media… Trump owes his entire political career to the fact that he was given vastly disproportional airtime… There’s a study done by the New York Times which showed that actually, forget Fox News – it was CBS, CNN, all of the networks and cable channels that he’s taken aim at in his anti-mainstream media rhetoric – [they] were actually the ones that put him on the political map.
And the reason they put him on the political map was vividly illustrated by Les Moonves, the CBS chairman, who during the  campaign made a remark to the effect of… ‘Trump may not be good for America, but he’s damn good for CBS‘. Because everything that Trump said was a ratings boost.
There’s evidence in the UK as well; programmes like Question Time have been giving platforms to what I would call the far right, including people like Nick Griffin and certainly Nigel Farage, really long before their relative polling ever justified it. They were given that platform because they made for controversial television, and that makes for good ratings.
“We will make you special”
The other thing to say in terms of [Dominic] Cummings is that there’s very few… [who’ve had] quite the degree of incestuous relationship with particular elite journalists from the mainstream media that both Cummings and Johnson have had. And it’s very clear they’ve courted that relationship.
It’s clear in the way that, for example, journalists like [Robert] Peston and [Laura] Kuenssberg were invited into this kind of inner sanctum of government press briefings and they’re always the first to be granted a question. It’s very clear what the media management strategy is behind that. It is ‘we will make you special’. We will provide a platform to you that will help you to define your career.
Media identity crisis
There appears to be an identity crisis in the media. It doesn’t seem to quite know what it is – is it entertainment, as per what you were saying about ratings, or is its role to hold power to account? Because if Cummings and Johnson are ‘making you special’ and happily inviting you in to the ‘inner sanctum’ that’s indicative of the fact you’re not holding them to account.
This is why the Cummings strategy is so effective in my view. Because what it’s designed to do is really play on the different professional identities and different professional ideologies that journalists have, according to what institutions that they work for and what their roles are.
Someone like Laura Kuenssberg, yes she may see it as part of her job to some degree scrutinise and sometimes be critical of the government. But that’s not actually the main part of her job as she sees it. The main part of the job as she sees it, is to report what’s going on in government, and to be the first and to be the person who can get access to information that others can’t… Cummings plays on that, and by bringing them into that inner sanctum, what’s he’s effectively saying is ‘we’re giving you more and more opportunity to be the first, to be the only ones’.
By the same token, what they’re doing with the other hand, [and] this is really unprecedented, is that they’re saying to… news organisations like openDemocracy – probably one of the most non-partisan news organisations that there is… – you’re banned. You’re not getting any access because you see it as your role, first and foremost, to pour critical scrutiny over this government.
You give with the one hand and you take with the other, and that’s basically about media conditioning. It’s journalistic conditioning.
This is part of the game. This is the game we’re in. It’s a game about, fundamentally, not just media management but information control. Information control has always been fundamental to the sustainability of power. There may be slight differences in the way that Cummings does it to the way that Trump does it, to the way that [Tony] Blair and [Alistair] Campbell did it, but they’re all basically different tactics to pursue the same end goal and that is control information and control the narrative.
Schlosberg concluded by saying that “it’s extraordinary actually the parallels between a media system as it’s developing in a country like Britain and how it’s been in a country like Russia for many years”, whereby, although there are state-controlled and state-owned media outlets, “the agenda is controlled through exactly the same kinds of patronage that we’re seeing with this Johnson government”.
These are indeed unprecedented times. But they are not some weird kind of aberration that’s developing despite the structures of power that exist within capitalist societies. They’re a consequence of them. And Britain’s mainstream media – as opposed as it is to any fundamental change – is not going to be of any assistance in building resistance to them. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Featured image via ITV News/YouTube
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