PODCAST! A critical discourse analyst assesses Corbo’s Glasto speecho

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges the crowd at Worthy Farm in Somerset during the Glastonbury Festival

My friend Owen is much more cleverer than me, and he has a freshly-minted PhD in Critical Discourse Analysis to prove it. Here we are talking about Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Glastonbury Festival two days ago.

 
P.s. If, like me, you find the production values of some left-wing podcasts just too professional and slick, you will be delighted by the authentically downhome quality of the audio on this recording.

Mail editor Paul Dacre to be knighted at long last

“Arise, Sir Paul!”

Despite his pronouncements at last week’s Bafta ceremony on the innate snobbery of the British media industry (see our news story), Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre is set to receive the ultimate establishment seal of approval.

On accepting his fellowship of the academy award, the 79-year-old, who is also editor-in-chief of Mailonline, caused a controversy by telling the audience he had “never really felt I belonged in my own country, in my own profession.”

Quoting government sources, Saturday’s Sun newspaper said he was to be knighted in the Queen birthday honours list in June, on the personal recommendation of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Dacre, born Maurice Micklewhite in east London, has appeared in more than 80 films, and is also a celebrated restaurateur with five eateries in London and one in Miami.

He has been nominated for an Academy Award five times, winning twice as best supporting actor, for Woody Allen’s 1986 Hannah and her Sisters and, last month, for Cider House Rules.

The Queen’s Honours are bestowed twice a year, on New Year’s Day and to mark her official birthday in June.

CORRECTION: It has been pointed out that this article contains a number of errors. It appears that details from an April 2000 Guardian article about the actor Michael Caine (now Sir Michael Caine) have somehow become attached to Mr Dacre. We are currently investigating how this may have occurred and would in the meantime ask that this misleading report not be widely shared as it may cause distress to Mr Dacre, who is understood to be deeply bitter that his lifetime’s service to inaccurate journalism and social division has never been and never will be rewarded with any sort of formal honour, ever. 

O Cardiff! part 1

O Cardiff! I’ll be staying with (or in) you for seven weeks this summer
O Cardiff! while I work on a presessional course at the university
O Cardiff! I think there’s only one university
O Cardiff! (I’ve just checked, there are two).

O Cardiff! when I opened Facebook this morning on the way to work
O Cardiff! there was an advert for a local company which hires out white vans
O Cardiff! just below an article about the Cardiff racist who carried out
O Cardiff! the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park.

O Cardiff! I will miss my wife and young child back in Italy
O Cardiff! but they’ll be there for three weeks in a holiday cottage
O Cardiff! from mid to late August
O Cardiff! I don’t have to make a joke about burnt-down holiday cottages.

O Cardiff! you are near my favourite city in the UK: Bristol.
O Cardiff! the English city that most resembles Berlin
O Cardiff! so I’ll be visiting there a fair amount to see friends.

O Cardiff! I wonder if I’ll learn any Welsh
O Cardiff! I’m curious to be around another local language
O Cardiff! being spoken in my ‘own’ country
O Cardiff! although you are not in whatever the Welsh call the Gaeltacht
O Cardiff! I hope I will overcome my slightly racist tendency
O Cardiff! to use your language as the easy punchline
O Cardiff! to any jokes about obscure languages.

O Cardiff! I’d be grateful if you could teach me
O Cardiff! teach me something about the difference between England and Britain
O Cardiff! having lived in Dublin, I wonder if there’s a similar distance in terms of
O Cardiff! cultural identity
O Cardiff! especially given that I’ll be (briefly, in some ways) an immigrant.

O Cardiff! I see you voted to stay in the EU
O Cardiff! and elected a full complement of Labour MPs.

O Cardiff! you will be the eighth capital city I’ve ‘lived’ in
O Cardiff! if spending seven weeks there
O Cardiff! can be considered living in any meaningful sense.

O Cardiff! I think you have a large Chinese population
O Cardiff! although when I google Cardiff Chinese it just tells me about restaurants
O Cardiff! if so it will be of particular interest to my students
O Cardiff! who will almost certainly be almost all Chinese
O Cardiff! so I’m looking forward to finding out
O Cardiff! what they make of the place in terms of national identity.

O Cardiff! I welcome suggestions on galleries and other things to see and do
O Cardiff! and am happy to hear from anyone in or nearby
O Cardiff! who wants to hang out while I’m there.

Word of the day: ‘kneejerk’

knee-jerk

“He released a statement on Twitter expressing his shock.” – The Guardian on Jeremy Corbyn’s reponse to the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park.

Twitter gathers instant responses to events faster than any other media, so conventional news outlets trail behind it rather like old dogs at the end of a long walk with an excitable six-year old child. In the above example little blame attaches to Corbyn himself, whose response did actually extend to several sentences and thus can’t really be described as kneejerk. In any case “shock” is a reasonable response to such a tragedy. Nonetheless, it could be argued that in basing so much of its source material on Twitter, The Guardian is at fault for following the lazy conventions of all modern media. If reactions to an atrocity or the death of a major figure somstimes seem glib it’s because Twitter just isn’t an adequate medium for thoughts and feelings which go beyond the most immediate emotional reactions. Especially, it should go without saying, in the hands of a child-brained president who (tellingly) considers it his ideal medium.

I’ve always disliked the word ‘kneejerk’ as it strikes me as too much of a cliche. It seems too easy to accuse someone of a kneejerk reaction, and thus the word embodies what it describes. Nevertheless, it’s a useful metaphor in that other languages don’t appear to employ it, preferring to describe such reactions as ‘impulsive’, which doesn’t capture the automatic response to a stimulus. If ‘kneejerk’ is a stale metaphor, it’s one that urgently needs reinvigorating as it’s such a useful term to describe how social media works. Tweets, posts and comments are almost always impulsive. A click is a kneejerk reaction. If the whole phenonemon of social media is the early stages of an experiment, it’s a Pavlovian one.

The speed of online interactions seems to be a particularly powerful trigger for cognitive biases we probably can’t apprehend or control, and which are in any case much easier to spot in others than in ourselves. Thus it allows for manipulation of those biases, going far beyond standard advertising techniques in its accelerated interplay of emotions of punishment and reward. It also allows for the insinuation and rapid diffusion of logical fallacies through the phenomenon of memes. A hammer hitting a knee at any point on the planet can reverberate exponentially, far quicker and wider than any Washington Post factchecking endeavour.

The opposite of a kneejerk reaction is careful reflection, the consideration of different and possibly conflicting evidence. Proper serious media provides this.One response to Twitter is the institution in long reads, which by definition demand patience and tolerance of ambiguity and attention to nuance on behalf of both writer and reader*.

Blogs, decrepid market stalls occupying an overlooked corner of the global attention economy, tend to be drawn towards clickbait, the equivalent of shouting out deals that sound too good to be true. Ostensibly left-wing sites such as Skwawkbox and The Canary copy the form of Breitbart and the like, specialising in hot takes designed to fix their followers’ craving for comfort snacks, using the cheapest ingredients available: links to other webpages, with very little in the way of (highly nutritional) original research.

It’s easy to decry the kneejerkery of the others, but what about my own? This blog makes no claim whatsoever to be a news site, but sometimes mimics the format. It uses satire as one means of commenting on events, thus drawing on no resources other than time, imagination and other online content. It does not provide facts. Sometimes fleeting visitors arriving from social media mistake it for an authoritative news site, which explains why in January, when my catnip post about Donald Trump snapping went viral, several people were seemingly googling the phrase ‘is Infinite Coincidence reliable?’. I’ve seen several opinion pieces I’ve posted labelled ‘fake news’, as though the commentor is unaware of the difference between news sites and blogs. Sometimes that term is used as a kneejerk reaction to a given argument instead of a meaningful counter-argument. Maybe sites like this are the problem, encouraging such a response, thus leading us further down the rabbit hole. Maybe not.

I know I should respect my own awareness of these issues and avoid producing anything resembling clickbait if what I write here is to be at all useful or meaningful. One problem with writing online is the ephemerality of links. Most readers don’t click on them and I can’t assume they will. It’s essential instead to summarise facts and opinions from elsewhere, especially when the link is providing insightful analysis. I can’t complain about others’ attention deficits if what I’m producing is guilty of provoking a certain lazy response. There’s also an entropic tendency with blogs, for entries to become shorter and more perfunctory with time, which I’m (consciously at least) keen to withstand.

Some short things I post here, often in the form of outright news parodies, are intended as direct interventions in a debate, a pointed statement of a perspective I haven’t come across elsewhere. I sometimes get it hopelessly wrong. A cursory analysis of my own writing reveals more than the occasional logical fallacy. I should focus on writing longer, more thoughtful pieces that fewer people will read. In market terms, ones that I’m constutionally disinclined to think in, that means writing for a niche audience rather than trying to appeal to a mass audience given to skimming rather than ‘proper’ reading. This experience has taught me a great deal about my fallibility as an interpreter of events, one with the same bad habits as anyone else: selective reporting, virtue signalling, and all the rest. I apologise for getting it so wrong so often and will endeavour to be more reliable in the future. That may well involve thinking and reading more and writing a great deal less. Tl; dr: more long reads, fewer hot takes.
*There’s also their teenage cousin, the Twitter Mega-thread.

I’ve put money on it: Rees-Mogg will be the Tories’ answer to Corbynism

No one would ever have dreamt that Jeremy Corbyn could become Labour leader. For his entire career he’s been a reliable Private Eye parody of an intransigent and irrelevant backbencher, a walking pastiche of what the party as a whole was once proud to stand for: Clause 4, The Red Flag sung at party conferences, nationalisation of major industries, an end to the monarchy, Britain out of the EU, solidarity with Cuba, etc. His becoming Prime Minister would be the realisation of The Tories’ very worst fears. The notion that it could actually happen was so traumatic to them that they couldn’t even begin to take it seriously until it was far too late. Hence they are, as Paul Mason argues, panicking.

Actually, I tell a lie. There’s something that scares the Tories even more, which is that Corbyn might become PM because the electorate want him to. This is truly the worst nightmare of the Tory right: the country turning left. The very thought would destroy them. This terror is starting to combine with their evident lack of preparation for Brexit negotiations to produce paralysis, and their failure to form a government evinces an inability to function in the face of imminent humiliation. Daniel Hannan-aligned oddballs on the hard right of the party are starting to suggest they simply occupy the throne and have five years of governing without legislation, essentially leaving the UK without a government just to stop Corbyn. However, they know that if the UK electorate has seen through their lack of a strategic programme beyond the profitable chaos of Brexit, if it decides it was conned and actually prefers the benefits of EU membership, then it certainly won’t vote for Michael Gove or Boris Johnson or any of the old faces. Then there’s the fact that the very best efforts of their attack dog newspapers to put Corbyn out of action by openly calling him a terrorist failed. All this adds up to outright desperation, and for all their political and cultural arrogance over the last seven years, we and they are starting to remember that between Major and Cameron they chose all of their leaders in a blind panic.

Now, this online poll is almost certainly entirely misleading, the mere result of trolling. But if enough of the Tories’ currently very frightened membership decided that the party needs, like Labour, a representative of its core values, and if Dacre and Murdoch were to meet and be charmed by him, to be persuaded that the electorate could be made to warm to his chinless, blimpish, unashamedly elitist schtik, the notion of Jacob Rees-Mogg as party leader would begin to make a lot of sense. After all, this is the age of the troll. Rees-Mogg could be the atavistic throwback, the tribute act that May can’t carry off, the Boris Johnson who’s even more of a joke and doesn’t come with that particular clown’s baggage or the snarl that his moptop doesn’t always manage to keep under wraps.

In policy terms Tories have now swallowed up Ukip (although terrifyingly for them, Farage’s working class voters went for Corbyn). Thus it may be that the pro-Brexit wing get to select the new leader. If so, there’ll be no more pretence of ‘modernisation’, no huskies and no nonsense about inclusivity, workers’ rights or the ‘greenest government ever’. There are many influential Tories whose priority is to sabotage any attempt to get out of Brexit, who will happily hurl the country, indeed the entire continent off a cliff by staging a walk-out from the talks. They might go for Rees-Mogg. Johnson doesn’t convince them or anyone else much any more. Trump would love him, and if the US could choose Trump, and Labour could choose Corbyn (their reasoning might go) then the country as a whole might go for this comedy Etonian, an affable monster who represents their core values.

Right now, with almost the entire country aghast at the ruins of their bonfire of regulations, they’re on the ropes. Nobody thinks they have the public or even national interest at heart. In this context Rees-Mogg, with his much-shared and (in the current context) staggeringly obnoxious insistence on the opportunities an even bigger bonfire presents, has stood out. He carries the flame, standing for a doubling-down on everything that currently makes the Tories unpopular: deregulation, unashamed denial of Climate Change, a pretence that the empire is still with us, undisguised hostility to the very notion of human rights. He would (God forbid) be a 1930s PM for the final stages of a slow motion repeat of that decade, redeeming his grandparents’ generation for their failure to stand up to those who insisted on standing up to Hitler, a historic betrayal which ultimately led to the horrors of the Welfare State, the end of empire and the advent of a multicultural society.

Given that the UK is very quickly turning into the sick joke of Europe, making a living embodiment of the butt of the joke national leader will make automatic sense to a party whose core values lie in contrariness and an obstinate denial of modern realities. The polls (the real ones) don’t at present take Rees-Mogg remotely seriously, but I think it would be a mistake to join and vote for him. Such a move could, as the Turdmeister Toby Young knows very well, easily backfire :-)*.

Jacob Rees-Mogg could become the British equivalent of Donald Trump.

 

P.s. As part of this piece I fully intended to go to a betting site and put my money where my mouth is, but fortunately/unfortunately I can’t access UK gambling sites from Italy. Oh well, I’ll just spend it on some more gelati and overpriced deck chairs instead.

*Of course if the Tories were to decide for some reason that Rees-Mogg was too serious a candidate for party leader and wanted to choose someone who’s even more of a joke, then Toby Young would be an obvious contender. Mind you, it’s also possible they could also go completely fucking insane and choose Boris “Who on earth still uses fire stations in 2015?!” Johnson.

BTW: It appears that despite the intellectual credentials of their hero, fans of Rees-Mogg can’t (or at least don’t) read:

Screenshot_2017-06-20-22-54-37 (1).png

The number of likes, that heart emoji and the fact that someone’s shared it are a bit worrying. I really hope I haven’t ‘done a John Oliver‘.

Here’s what the illiberal media doesn’t want you to know about the Finsbury Park attack

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My wife and I used to live just up the road from the Finsbury Park Mosque, but now we live in Rome with our four-month-old daughter. How will we cope with bringing up a child in a time of mounting global turmoil, with terrorist attacks and climate disasters assailing us on almost a daily basis? In much the same way that previous generations have: by telling her stories which introduce and explain the world as comfortingly and as gently as possible, tales which allow her to gradually sense the dangers but also to imagine herself into the world as a protagonist as well as (we hope) a responsible citizen.

Adults tell each other stories in much the same way. The internet has sped up the process of the fabrication of fairy tales. Within minutes of an event like the attack in Finsbury Park, there are already rumours circulating online. Why did the police take so long to arrive? Could it be connected to the Grenfell Fire, or to London Bridge? Did it really happen? Is it all a distraction, a ‘false flag’?

Such gossip reassures people. It tells them who they are and situates shocking events in a familiar context. It reminds people they are powerless, that the world is under control, while also allowing them to pose in their heads as both initiates and heroes, privy to and sharers of occult and dangerous truths.

But while as parents we have our daughter’s best interests at heart, wanting to protect and prepare her for the joys and hazards of existence, purveyors of internet fairy tales do not. They use stories to manipulate, to promote an view of the world which benefits particular interests.

The mainstream media can operate in similar ways, but without as much blatant dishonesty and manipulation. Where that does exist, it tends to be infinitely more complex and sophisticated and not by any means always conscious. Recent exceptions to this, most notably Blair’s dodgy dossier and the lies of the Brexit campaign, have discredited democracy and the media and encouraged people to get their information about the world from even less trustworthy sources, ones that make a virtue of their antipathy towards formal media standards and regulations.

Someone in a Jeremy Corbyn Facebook group this morning was quick to blame the Finsbury Park attack on the “New World Order”. His kneejerk recourse to that phrase suggests he may have come under the spell of that most fraudulent of all tricksters, Alex Jones, who just by coincidence (really, Richard? Is that what you think?!) was the subject of a horribly misguided puff piece on NBC just last night. Jones is prominent nowadays as he has the ear of the President* and also because for the last few years he has been telling the world that the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre didn’t happen, that the children who ‘died’ and their ‘grieving’ parents were all actors. In promoting this story Jones achieves several objectives: drawing attention to himself, posing as someone who’s wise to what ‘The Establishment’ is secretly up to, and (most importantly) letting gun-lovers off the hook. The NRA is, of course, one of the most powerful and dangerous organisations in US history.

You don’t have to dig very far to see how the fledgling roots of these online fairy tales connect to some of the most powerful reactionary interests in the world. Online conspiracy theorising is, after all, a deeply conservative phenonenon, even though its often those on the Left who fall prey to it. Yesterday someone in the same Facebook group someone posted a link to an article which promised to tell you the facts that the ‘liberal media’ want to keep hidden about the Grenfell Fire. The article cut and pasted a post from the far-right website The Daily Caller which blamed environmental regulations for the disaster. The same material has been published days earlier by the right-wing British tabloids the Daily Mail and Express. While we can choose to ignore news outlets which we know to be controlled by political and/or business interests and place our critical trust in more independent, transparent and accountable publications, the internet exposes us to much more insidious attempts to hack our brains and install ideologically toxic misinformation.

No wonder Jones’ ‘friend’ Donald Trump instructs his supporters to ignore everything the ‘liberal media’ writes about him, while boasting that all he knows about the world he learned online. Progressives have to be cleverer and more critical than him when dealing with information about news events. That shouldn’t be too difficult, in theory. Just stick to news and commentary sites designed for adults, learn to question what you read without rejecting facts and arguments out of hand for no good reason, and steer well clear of those purveying internet fairy tales.

ps. If you’re seeking the facts as they stand in relation to the Finsbury Park terrorist attack, here are some sources which can help you:

http://www.guardian.co.uk
http://www.bbc.co.uk
http://www.independent.co.uk

Ps. This, from the University of Sheffield politics blog, is a very compelling argument which we Labour members and supporters ignore at our peril:

The ‘rigged economy’ conspiracy theory

In a previous critique of Corbynism, I examined the ‘personalised’ critique of capitalism which underlies the worldview of Corbyn and many of his supporters. This perspective sees poverty, economic crashes, inequality and even war as being the result of the conscious behaviour of shadowy ‘global elites’, usually in the financial sector.  Such a viewpoint, common amongst right and left, fails to grasp capital as an abstract social relation, dominating both rich and poor alike, and at its most extreme can lead to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of Jewish plots to rule the world through control of the banks.  The prevalence of this kind of foreshortened critique of capitalism (or neoliberalism, as popularly understood) goes some way to explain the spread of conspiracy theories about the ‘Rothschilds’ and ‘Zionists’ through much of the ‘Canary’/‘Skwawkbox’ left, as well as the alt-right – they are not contingent or accidental, but the consequence of pushing an analysis of capitalism as conspiracy to its logical conclusion.

Since his ‘populist turn’ at the start of the year, Corbyn has severely ramped up this kind of talk.  Throughout the election campaign there were endless references to the ‘rigged economy’ set up by elites which had ‘ripped off’ the British people.  Like the isolationist foreign policy, this discourse has an appeal to both the ‘anti-vax’ wing of the Green left and the Trumpian-UKIP right, with the vagueness of the ‘rigged’ concept allowing people to point the finger of accusation at whatever scapegoat fits their particular prejudice.  While it can be effective, there is an inherent risk in this kind of approach to politics, in that it can rapidly spiral out of control and in unexpected directions if not strictly supervised.  There is no guarantee that once let out of the bottle this kind of personalised critique of capitalism will inevitably lead in a progressive direction.  If it is true that Corbyn has managed to patch up a right-left electoral alliance on these grounds  –  along with implied migration controls and an isolationist foreign policy  –  it will require extreme vigilance to ensure it does not veer onto a regressive track.

(http://speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/2017/06/13/reassessing-corbynism-success-contradictions-and-a-difficult-path-ahead/)

13 questions about the death toll

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Any one of a huge number of people online: “I demand to know exactly how many people died in the Grenfell Tower! It’s my right to know as soon as possible!”

Someone level-headed: “Err…did you live in the tower?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Did you have any family members there?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Friends?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Do you know anyone who’s missing?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Are you a reporter?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Do you work for one of the emergency services?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Are you employed by the council to concern yourself with such things?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Are you a coroner?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “Do you even live in the area?”

AOOAHNOPL: “No.”

SL-H: “So…what’s this pressing, prurient and rather macabre interest all about then? Isn’t it enough to know that lots of people died?”

AOOAHNOPL: “N…well, I saw a report on Press TV with someone who claimed to be a local resident (but didn’t want to give her full name, and (perhaps because she was clearly emotionally distraught) obviously hadn’t considered the difference between people having died and having been confirmed dead), and then the same interview was used on Russia Today, and someone posted a blog on Facebook which said that the Government had banned the media from broadcasting the death toll, and although that turned out to be absolutely unsubstantiated, entirely baseless, the same blog the following day printed a link to a tweet from a random person which linked back to the same story on Press TV, so…”

SL-H: “Right. Have you seen this story from Metro?”

AOOAHNOPL: “But Metro is MSM!…er, no. What does it say?”

SL-H: “It says that as of February this year Conservative ministers were boasting about having slashed fire regulations.”

AOOAHNOPL: “Oh. Er, that’s bad, is it?”

SL-H: “Yes. It goes a long way towards explaining the conditions that allowed the disaster to happen. What are you going to do about it?”

AOOAHNOPL: “Er…I dunno. It’s scary. I think I’m going to spend the morning reading Wikileaks and Infowars. I find it kind of comforting to think that the world’s run in secret and there’s nothing we can do about it except spread David Icke-style gossip all day on social media.”

SL-H: “Right. Are you at all interested in reading this?”

AOOAHNOPL: (glances briefly) “Er…no.”

In defence of the ‘MSM’

Supporters gather to rally with Trump in Minneapolis
This t-shirt was a common sight at Trump rallies late last year.

Here are three facts which shed some light on the tragedy that took place in West London last week:

  • In 2012 David Cameron boasted that he would “kill off safety culture for good”.
  • Last year Conservative ministers openly boasted of reducing the level of protection that ordinary people have from fire.
  • The last Tory Government established a scheme to encourage civil servants to scrap two regulations for each new one they introduced.

How do I know these things? They were reported in the press, by newspapers. They are publicly-available verified and substantiated facts.

The truth about injustice in the world is not hidden, and it’s no secret who and what is responsible. In this country in this case it’s politicians subservient to the notion that the market knows best, that the private sector is always more efficient than the public, that there is (to quote Margaret Thatcher) “no such thing as society”, only private interests.

To counter this ideology, people with progressive values need to insist on the primacy of the public good, to demand proper and sufficiently regulated public services controlled by people who are democratically elected and thus accountable. If instead we spend our time and energy spreading unsubstantiated internet-derived rumours about secret measures carried out by occult forces, we miss the bigger picture and end up repeating a lot of the agenda of the far-right, one that, by making out that everything that happens is the result of a secret conspiracy, emphasises our powerlessness rather than what we can do to change things.

Luckily on our side we have some sections of a relatively free media which can investigate and highlight corruption and injustice. Clearly that doesn’t mean the Murdoch-owned press or the Daily Mail or Express. In this country the main left-leaning daily newspaper is The Guardian. It is not by any means perfect but it is what we have. It employs professional and conscientious journalists working according to a set of standards and has a number of mechanisms which make it relatively accountable to its readers. It also publishes columnists such as Owen Jones, Aditya Chakrabortty and George Monbiot, whose view of the world is basically the same as ours.

There are countless other publications (both on-and offline) working hard to establish and interpret facts about the world, all of which is a careful, riguorous and very resource-hungry affair. Comment is free, but facts are expensive, as no serious investigative journalism can be produced using only Google and social media. If we follow the advice of Twitter’s own Donald Trump and regard all the mainstream media as ‘fake news’, we leave ourselves open to massive manipulation and end up knowing not what we need to but what we want to, believing not what is true but what we would like to be the case. That’s what operations like The Canary, Skwawkbox and (for that matter) Breitbart are selling. Issues like Climate Change demonstrate what a catastrophic mistake we are making if we only choose to believe the type of media outlets that do not employ and back up professional reporters but instead simply tell us what we want to hear, that invent realities in order to appeal to our emotions and to reaffirm our sense of who we are*.

Some mainstream media organiations (and we (should) all know which ones) are biased, dishonest and corrupt. Competetive pressures mean that the practice of ‘churnalism’ is ever-more prevalent,  and some outlets are so compromised by commercial considerations as to be useless. They are all to be avoided. However, the existence of ideologically-based reporting and coverage which primarily serves business interests does not change the fact that across the world journalists risk their lives to expose injustice and hold the rich and powerful to account. I used to live in Mexico, where dozens of reporters are tortured and shot dead every year for daring to investigate corruption. To fall for the lie that the chief role of all mainstream media is to take part in a conspiracy to defraud the public is to do them and ourselves a huge disservice.

Nonetheless it’s become increasingly fashionable to cynically and lazily misapply a debased version of the work of Noam Chomsky in order to pretend that no journalist or news outlet can be trusted. In doing so, one makes oneself immensely more vulnerable to manipulation by power; it doesn’t make you smarter or better-informed, but rather much more gullible and ignorant. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this example of a well-known person who has nothing but contempt for the ‘MSM’:

Nothing more to add, your honour.

*Climate Change is also one major reason why so many people avoid the news altogether.

Q: What’s wrong with this picture? A: The placards

Here are some situations in which the phrase “I used to be in the Socialist Worker’s Party” might not stand you in good stead:

  • On your professional CV
  • On your Guardian Soulmates dating profile
  • On your personal blog*

Here goes my online street cred: I was, for a stint at university, a few years in Dublin in the mid-nineties and another short period in London about ten years ago, a member of the SWP. I embodied some of the most oft- and rightly-criticised traits:

  1. A simplistic view of the world. I used to write reviews for the party newspaper of cultural products, such as books and films, evaluating them solely in terms of their contribution to the building of the revolutionary party. I also believed that there could be a thing called a ‘revolution’, just like in 1917 (or at least in Eisenstein’s inspiring rendition of it), which would be over by teatime and would not inspire a phenomenally violent and complex period of post- and counterrevolutionary violence. As recently as 2013, when I was involved in the laudable but short-lived initiative Left Unity, I witnessed an actual non-tongue-in-cheek discussion in the pub between SWP members about what they would do “on the day after the revolution”. Luckily George Orwell was just out of hearing distance (buying some more crisps at the bar as I recall), otherwise he might have eaten them all alive.
  2. Sectarianism. I viewed members of similar political organisations as more significant enemies of the class struggle than the police and the army, regarding them as rival species to be wiped out in the struggle for survival and eventual (but inevitable) triumph. I was not so much an activist as an evangelist.
  3. My main political concern was with the growth of the organisation, evidenced by increased newspaper sales, better-attended meetings, larger and louder demonstrations called and led by us, and the visibility of our placards on media coverage of said demos**. Of course, all of these things waxed and waned, but I was encouraged to believe that there was a deeper historical trend at work, that people were angrier than ever before and that provided they would get on the bus to the demonstration we would be able, nay obliged to, recruit them so they would sell the paper to their friends and workmates and the whole pyramid would grow to the point where the working class would soon be gleefully hurling the heads of capitalists down it.
  4. Hijacking events, using demonstrations and meetings in a purely instrumental way to build the party rather than the campaign itself. Oh, how we got sick and tired of being accused of doing this. Oh, how I got sick and tired of actually doing it, until the point where I became deeply cynical and (repeatedly) left the organisation.

How is this relevant in June 2017? Because the organisation is reclaiming a certain protagonism. On demonstrations over the Grenfell tragedy its placards are ubiquitous. This is, I think, dangerous for the reasons suggested above and also because:

Firstly, the SWP tends to mislead. Its chief figures are articulate and very adept at getting themselves onto platforms, but their strategy and tactics will lead any given movement down the same garden path to where the fairies live, on smaller and smaller national demostrations until everyone just stays at home and shouts at the TV instead.

Secondly, the prominent presence of the SWP is off-putting in at least three ways. Firstly, to the public. Someone once waggishly pointed out that the largest political group on the British Left is made up of ex-SWP members. Even for people who’ve never read the paper or attended a protest, Socialist Worker placards are a sign that the usual suspects are up to their old tricks again. Then there’s the fact that it allows the media to misrepresent the protest as a rentamob, as happened on Twitter last night in relation to the protests in Central London. Thirdly, it alienates potential campaigners and activists in the longer-term, in that very many people who come into contact with the organisation become, like me, cynical towards all forms of radical political activity and deeply undemocratic in their attitudes to the organisation of political campaigns.

Now, there remains an important thing to say, which is that for all the faults of the organisation, individual members of it should not be demonized. Despite the sometimes horrendous and often shameful antics of some of its leading members over the last few years, which have left many to abandon their political home (to be replaced each September by a new cohort of fresher-faced footsoldiers), most long-standing SWP members I’ve known have been heartfelt in their belief that the party is the best thing for society. To call them all ‘rape apologists’ is counterproductive and wrong. They’re mistaken and possibly morally compromised, but they are sincere***. Nevertheless, their attempts to play a leading role, whether in the Grenfell campaign or in Momentum should (continue to) be rejected. If other activists in the movement  don’t tell them, to use a phrase that’s been doing the rounds, to ‘get stuffed’, the right-wing media will use the presence of the party to discredit all those involved. 

The SWP is a bureaucracy and as such its aim is to survive and thrive, regardless of the success or failure of whatever cause it attaches it to. My past involvement in the party tells me that as an organisation (just like one or two very similar parties) it does not have the best interests of any given campaign at heart.

*Although I hope its obvious that I’ve only mentioned it in one of those contexts, I do admire the example of a perma-unemployed friend of mine who, when forced to produce a resume in one of those “HANDS OFF ME PENS!” job club mandated by the DSS came up with a piece of paper with his name, address and the details of his erstwhile role as local SWP branch secretary.

**Basically a branding exercise.

***It was meeting some very impressive and charming individual activists in East London in around 2007 that led me to briefly become a member again.