Jul 31, 2020
I shed a tear as my father drove me out of London, past the Academy where I played football, through the outer suburbs into Surrey. Normal life was trying to carry on: I knew it couldn’t much longer, yet the lockdown was not announced until 23 March, five days after I left, just after Johnson had gone on television at 9pm on Saturday night to tell people not to travel for Mother’s Day, which began three hours later. Technically, I had broken no rules, arranging my departure in anticipation of this declaration, but I still felt guilty: Twitter was full of talk about how the Italian government had introduced a regional lockdown in Lombardy, leading people to spread Covid-19 across the country, and the same could happen here as huge numbers evacuated London. I told myself that I wasn’t one of those posh wankers with second homes, towards whom most of my friends’ opprobrium was directed, but still, I worried. Was that cold I’d had actually the virus? Would I give it to my parents, and were they more vulnerable? Was this a massive act of privilege, and shouldn’t I stay in London and join one of the mutual aid groups popping up on Facebook, as a way of refocusing my political energy?
I didn’t expect to do any organising in Horley. I emailed the only Labour councillor to ask if I could be involved in any community programmes, but never heard back; I joined a Facebook group for local people to request help with shopping or other tasks, but my services were never required. For the foreseeable future, I would relate to British politics only through the media. But after the last five years and especially after that election, I didn’t trust any of the newspapers or networks, while the television news and current affairs shows were a cavalcade of people I couldn’t stand to see or hear, not least the Prime Minister himself.
Even at the height of Johnson’s Brexit triumphalism, and despite that huge majority, I’d seen challenges looming for the Conservatives. The nature of the EU trade deal, its likely impact on the economy and a consequent surge in the Scottish independence movement if it went badly; the hundredth anniversary of the partition of Ireland coming amidst a rise in the Sinn Féin vote on both sides of the border; the level of investment needed to retain their new seats in northern towns, which many of their MPs hadn’t expected to win and didn’t know what to do with; the fact that Elizabeth II was due to turn 94 in April and may not see out the parliamentary term, with her son and heir, Prince Charles, remaining deeply unpopular. All these, though, would most likely be handled by the media continuing to bait the left, stir up English nationalism, and covering for Johnson when his laziness, insincerity and lack of seriousness might not live up to the occasion. Then the Covid-19 crisis surged to the foreground, and I wondered how the strategy may change: clearly, now was the time for something more intelligent than the election stunt when Johnson drove a JCB emblazoned with a Union Jack and ‘Get Brexit Done’ through a pile of bricks with the word ‘gridlock’ written on them.
I’d understood the electoral smear campaign all too well, but the pro-Tory communication had struck me as absurd. With the JCB stunt, as with Johnson constantly going on about his “oven-ready Brexit deal”, I’d wondered: Who is this for? Are people really as stupid as the Tories seem to think? I felt that ever more strongly just before lockdown, as I read about the spiralling death rates in Italy and Spain, when I saw Johnson on a podium, telling the nation to “wash your hands with soap and hot water for the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice”. It was only after I’d moved back to a town populated overwhelmingly by the elderly that I realised: it was for pensioners who apprehended politics entirely through legacy media, distributed through one-to-many channels, making its profits by stoking up resentment towards and fear of the young in an atomised population. It was Johnson’s speech calling the virus “an unexpected and invisible mugger”, referencing a decades-old, racially-motivated moral panic that I recalled from numerous covers of my parents’ Daily Mail, that confirmed it.
Johnson’s attempts to look like a man having greatness thrust upon him, like his hero Winston Churchill (on whom Johnson published a book in 2014) enraged me even more than his established “bumbling posho” persona. In an interview with ITV’s This Morning, he talked about how “one of the theories” was that “perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population”. This was not quite confirmation of the ‘herd immunity’ strategy that the Tories had apparently hoped to employ to keep the economy running, until their scientists told them that this might result in 250,000 deaths, but it confirmed my suspicion that Johnson wasn’t taking this seriously, after the press conference where he declared: “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.” (Perhaps he was thinking of Princess Diana’s famous gesture of shaking hands with AIDS patients despite the stigma attached to HIV, but not the differing methods of transmission.) Because of this, I didn’t subscribe to half-joking Twitter conspiracy theories that his sickness was staged so the Conservatives could assure the public that we were all in this together; I wasn’t surprised, let alone sympathetic, several weeks later when Johnson went into intensive care at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London. Before and after this, Johnson only appeared sporadically at the daily televised press briefings, at which he and a rotating cast of Tory MPs, including the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, backed by their chosen scientists, addressed the likes of Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston. I felt no need to watch these, sure that key points would reach me via Twitter (to which I soon became addicted again), trusting no media besides the ones my friends recommended.
In lockdown, I’d hoped to disengage, and use the time to write, watch films and read. I managed the first two, watching all I could by filmmaker, media critic and former East Surrey resident Peter Watkins, concluding with his 14-hour series The Journey (1987) about the global nuclear arms industry. However, I found reading impossible. Partly, this was because I felt a general anxiety about the future – even more terrifying and unknowable than in that post-election lull – that made immersing myself in any text impossible. Partly, because I’d nearly finished a big project, so that no longer directed my reading. Mainly, though, it was because my reading was guided, often not consciously, by what was happening in the world, and how I may respond, creatively and politically. I thought about how, post-election, the first book I’d read was Flat Earth News by Guardian reporter Nick Davies, about the corrosive effect that cost-cutting and collusion between the press, politicians and PR industries had on our discourse, replacing local and national investigative reporting with ‘client journalism’ – their main clients being the international oligarchs who owned them and funnelled money into the Conservatives, or who relied on the party to uphold their interests. Despite being published in 2008, this helped me sense of the media’s incurious and hostile reaction to Corbyn, and its refusal to talk seriously about the issues that drove his support, especially the devastating effects of austerity. In a society in stasis, my direction disappeared; none of the books I’d brought to Horley felt relevant to this weird rupture with time recently past, nor to the scale of the pandemic.
Given this struggle to immerse myself in anything but the now, I obsessively followed the daily podcasts and YouTube shows by Novara Media, a leftist outlet that started on London-based community station Resonance 104.4fm in 2011, and found a larger audience in 2015 when it was the first channel to take Corbyn’s Labour leadership bid seriously. The best part was the revival of The Burner, a 20-minute podcast hosted every weekday by James Butler, which had first run during the election, and offered a brilliant model of what news coverage could be. These would open with the date, a reminder that we were still in lockdown, and a summary of new developments, but spin off into philosophical ruminations, such as in a powerful episode on right-wing papers’ calls to end the lockdown (in spite of opinion polls that overwhelmingly supported its extension) that moved onto a discussion of the nature of freedom as a concept. In this, they would dig far deeper into the political issues raised than any of the journalists allowed to attend the briefings, and unlike most news shows, were rooted in historical consciousness. One especially striking bulletin, ‘We Knew’, took its title from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous newspaper article of 1974, during in which Pasolini talked of how everyone knew who the state actors were behind the “undeclared civil war” held in Italy as a pretext to suppress the left, and the recent terrorist attacks in Milan, Brescia and Bologna, even if they could not be named.
Here, on Monday 20 April, Butler expressed his controlled fury at the fact that the British death count currently stood at over 15,000, despite early warnings from China, Italy and Spain giving the government plenty of time to prepare. He talked about how the media were now telling us that the Conservative Party could not have anticipated how lethal this virus would be, and how anyone who had criticised Johnson’s slow response was “motivated by nastiness [and] lacking in national spirit”, was alarmist or seeking political advantage, offering what pundit Ayesha Hazarika memorably dismissed on Twitter as ‘hipster analysis’. Prompted by a long, paywalled exposé in the weekend’s Sunday Times that went through the government’s failure to procure enough ventilators for NHS hospitals or sufficient personal protective equipment for its staff, Butler pointed his finger at the “media and political class” for its failure to hold anyone to account, given that people on Twitter, and Novara Media, had seen these problems coming in early March.
In future, he said, the mounting number of deaths, especially those in care homes (not included in official figures) would demand an inquiry. However, he lamented, there was no investigation capable of punishing those who had deliberately wrecked the discursive parts of British democracy. The rot, as Nick Davies explained in Flat Earth News, had run through our discourse for decades: while NHS shortages were due to systemic under-investment, the inexcusable inability, or refusal to properly scrutinise former Telegraph journalist Johnson, when we knew from his time as mayor of London that his governance would be vain, lazy and irresponsible, was due to the media’s determination to ensure that British voters did not punish those responsible for austerity at the ballot box. Years of political uncertainty had apparently been settled by that thumping majority, but the press remained stuck on an election footing.
By this point, many on the left had the impression the government’s chaotic and contradictory communications were devised to allow them – and the media – to blame the public for breaking lockdown rules as the death toll became the worst in Europe. My conversations with my parents – who had always read the Daily Mail, and voted for Thatcher – about this were interesting, given more time and understanding than granted on those doorsteps on that miserable afternoon in December. I didn’t try to change their minds about politics; instead, I asked which media they took in, how critical they were of it, and how much of that media’s framing they imbibed even as they claimed not to take it too seriously. I noted that older Conservatives – who, like my father, made up the bulk of the Brexit vote – tended to support the lifting of lockdown more than under-40s, unsurprising given how much more they relied on legacy media for their news. As my mother criticised people who gathered at parks and beaches, I found a way to express my sadness and rage at our collective-minded political project being crushed that I couldn’t in that immediate aftermath: “You can’t spend forty years telling people there’s no such thing as society and then act surprised when they behave like that’s the case.”
I tried to re-engage with my home town, more convinced than ever than suburban towns like Horley were the backbone of England, or at least its political infrastructure. There wasn’t much to engage with: the supermarkets had stayed open but almost all other shops besides the estate agents had closed, and the independent bookshop had recently shut down for good, joining the empty banks on an increasingly desolate high street. Looking for signs of a counter-culture, I found little beyond a new tattoo parlour, a plaque commemorating the subway that apparently inspired The Subway Song by The Cure – whose lead singer, Robert Smith, grew up in Crawley, a far more economically and racially diverse new town just south of the airport – and, most surprisingly, a single copy of socialist paper The Morning Star in the town’s largest newsagent.
The main thing I noted was the mosque, opened in 2010 – a sign that the town was becoming less homogenously white than when I grew up here in the 1990s. Two years later, to my dismay but not surprise, vandals threw alcohol and eggs at the door and graffitied obscenities across the building as worshippers observed Ramadan. Now, I realised how telling was its name: Gatwick Islamic Centre. Rather than grounding it in Horley, parochial and insular but a historic community despite its run-down core, the mosque’s founders named it after the nowhere-place of the airport, putting it as close to Crawley’s Muslim community as to Horley’s largely ageing, mostly white population. I thought back to Theresa May’s pro-Brexit speech in October 2016, insisting that, “if you believe you are citizen of the world, then you are a citizen of nowhere”. This statement didn’t just aim to create a country in which migrants were unwelcome, and Islamophobia was rampant in society, the media, the main political parties and foreign policy; it also reflected and reinforced a climate where I felt completely alienated from the only town I could call home, simply because I had acted on my teenage dreams of exploring beyond it.
Still, I was glad to find that not everyone in Horley swallowed every piece of propaganda. It took a couple of weeks for our street to join in the regular claps for carers at 8pm on Thursdays, but soon, local windows and fences were covered with expressions of support for the NHS, whose staff were described as “heroes” and praised for their sacrificed. This applause was government-sanctioned; right-wing journalists urged people to clap for the stricken Johnson as they tried to build him up as some combination of Churchill, the Queen and Jesus Christ, emphasising his discharge from hospital over the Easter weekend. In my old bedroom, listening to a podcast, I heard a couple of people imploring our neighbours to “clap for Boris”, getting increasingly angry as no-one joined in. I resisted the temptation to lean out of the window and yell that Johnson’s illness was “his own stupid fault”, or explain how callous he had been in referring to a plan to buy more ventilators as “Operation Last Gasp”. I suspected it would just end in a row about the election, though, so I just laughed quietly to myself.
By now, though, Labour had a leader who I had no desire to defend. Facing the Tories and their business interests would be Sir Keir Starmer QC, the former Director of Public Prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Servce, beat Rebecca Long-Bailey by a landslide when the results were announced in early April. To centrist commentators who had attacked and undermined Corbyn throughout his tenure, this was a huge relief, and a sign that British politics would return to ‘normal’. They soon attempted to manufacture consent around Starmer, with middle-aged, blue-tick Twitter journalists lining up to call him ‘forensic’ and ‘courteous’ when he faced Johnson in parliament, seemingly unaware of how few outsiders care about Prime Minister’s Questions, or how few people see acceptability to mainstream media as a virtue in itself.
My family and I had a local interest in the new leader, who told the BBC (referring to himself in the third person) that “Keir Starmer lives in North London, but Keir Starmer grew up in a town.” This wasn’t one of the post-industrial, Leave-voting northern towns that Labour lost in December, but Oxted in East Surrey, 15 miles north-east of Horley. My mother had a colleague who nursed his parents, and I felt pretty sure I lived with a relative of his at university: Matt, who shared the same surname and came from Redhill, the East Surrey town where I was born; and was studying law, aiming to enter the legal profession like Keir Starmer before him. Back in the early 2000s, Matt and I often used to laugh at the idea of regional pride: our towns were featureless and devoid of identity, so of course we wanted to run to the nearest metropolis. Years later, having long lost touch, I realised how this flattened differences between cities and communities, and was a product of our middle-class privilege. But because of this connection to what I knew to be an utterly bourgeois area, I was suspicious of pundits who said Starmer had the class credentials to lead Labour because his father worked in a tool-making factory – it soon turned out his father owned the factory. My parents liked Starmer far more than Corbyn, for the same reasons I didn’t: when I said over dinner that I felt like Starmer could have been grown in a laboratory to suck the life out of any political movement he went near, my mother’s response to him was, “He just seems like a moderate Tory.”
I tried to give Starmer a chance, but that was how he struck me too. Unlike James Butler or even the Sunday Times, Starmer was immediately unwilling to criticise the government, talking of the need to avoid “opposition for opposition’s sake” as the death toll increased by nearly a thousand people per day. Desperate to clarify that his was a sound opposition that would not threaten the interests of the wealthy, Starmer’s Labour soon sided with landlords against tenants unable to pay their rents as they fell through the many gaps in the government’s self-employment support system – they also sided with India’s far-right government over Kashmir, and evocated on trans rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. Having nothing to say while looking presentable in a suit guaranteed Starmer more favourable press, and higher poll ratings with people like my parents, but the inequality that drove Corbyn’s support was only exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, and I knew he couldn’t appeal to the media whilst keeping the younger, better-informed, more left-leaning parts of Labour’s coalition onside for long.
On 12 April, Novara Media reported that persons unidentified had leaked an 850-page report, full of WhatsApp messages that revealed how Labour’s senior management team wrecked its own General Election campaign in 2017. They diverted campaigners and funds, partly drawn from members’ subscriptions, away from winnable marginals and towards right-wing Labour MP’s seats, many of which were safe; they planned for a leadership contest immediately after the election, drafting new rules to make it harder for a left-wing candidate to win; they privately mocked Corbyn’s supporters, lamented strong polls for Labour and celebrated bad ones, and commiserated with each other when Corbyn secured Labour’s highest vote share since 2001, putting it up 10% on the 2015 election. In particular, they expressed fury at winning Kensington and Chelsea, dismissing Emma Dent Coad as ‘a grade 1 tool’. They exchanged racial slurs about brown and black MPs, encouraged journalists to harass Diane Abbott – my representative in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and Britain’s first black woman MP – and obstructed investigations into anti-Semitism complaints, telling the press that delays were due to reticence, and prejudice, on the part of Corbyn and his team.
That the bureaucracy of one of the two major players in a two-party system deliberately tanked its own election chances because they didn’t like the person its members had chosen as leader (twice, by a landslide) should have been a scandal on the level of Watergate. It wasn’t that the British media weren’t interested in Labour’s factional disputes – they covered them relentlessly between 2015 and 2019, as long as it was to the left’s detriment. Nor were they unmoved by reports of racism within the party, but the lack of coverage of the anti-black and Islamophobic culture revealed in the report suggested that they had a hierarchy, and that their declared anti-racism may not have been in entirely good faith. I wondered about the timing of the leak, given that we had some idea about this wrecking – although not the scale of it – in the aftermath of the 2017 campaign: the report was not sent to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s investigation into Labour anti-Semitism on advice of the party’s lawyers, but perhaps its release in lockdown was intended to stop the left mounting any organised response, with the inevitable Twitter rage easily ignored.
Starmer announced that he would look not just at the report’s contents, but also into who leaked it, spectacularly missing the point. It soon became obvious that like pretty much every other scandal in the last decade of British politics – David Cameron’s lying about NHS restructuring before the 2010 election, the inquiry into phone-hacking and other criminality amongst the British press, the historical paedophilia and sexual abuse amongst the BBC and upper echelons of our media and politics revealed after Jimmy Savile’s death, the Guardian’s reports of GCHQ spying on UK citizens, the inclusion of Cameron and others in the Panama papers in 2016, the inquiry into the misleading of parliament before the Iraq War, the naked corruption and lies of the EU referendum and 2019 election campaigns – this would have no serious consequences. A couple of people might lose their jobs, or not get ones they hoped for: Emilie Oldknow, wife of Jon Ashworth and apparently Starmer’s first choice for General Secretary before being extensively quoted in the report, dropped out of the running and was eventually suspended. But any hope that the report might lead to any more transparency about the party’s internal culture, how its MPs or civil service were appointed or regulated, or their relationships with the press, was soon quashed by Starmer appointing three Labour peers to lead the inquiry into it. Few on the left expect this inquiry to be much other than a whitewash.
y this time, anyway, the media were more interested in reverting to the culture war approach used to suffocate the left during the election, with Johnson’s express encouragement. This year, the Conservatives had replaced the usual May Day Bank Holiday with celebrations for the 75th anniversary of VE Day, planned as a patriotic festival aimed at their older, suburban and rural voters, reinforcing the myths around Churchill as a good Conservative, national hero and devoted anti-racist. Out on the daily walk allowed by the government – in a far less strict lockdown than other European countries – I was surprised not to see more flags and street parties in Horley, seeing more celebrations of the NHS and its key workers than anything else. Twitter, meanwhile, was awash with images of provincial celebrations that seemed to take no account of social distance rules. The news channels didn’t encourage their viewers to blame these people for any spike in the death rate, though, focusing instead on Londoners on packed rush-hour Tubes, not accounting for the number of businesses that had stayed open in the face of deliberately unclear messaging about which industries should shut down.
It was only when the Black Lives Matter protests provided the first moment of political joy since 2019, when Bristolians tore down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into the channel, that the media rush to criticise public gatherings regained its pace, along with attacks on universities for filling young people’s heads with ideas about reckoning with Britain’s colonial past, and questions about who continued to benefit from it in the present. Even harsher cuts to arts universities and humanities departments than those we went on strike against have already been made, with punishing conditions tied to any bail-outs, reflecting the American right-wing concerns imported by Sam Gyimah.
Within days, the press had stirred the ever-rising far-right into making the UK the only country in the world to stage protests against Black Lives Matter, with gangs of skinheads defending the Churchill statue in Parliament Square after yet another confected outrage, and the hope that the UK might confront its imperial legacy was soon snuffed out by headlines about old British sitcoms apparently being banned by the ‘woke’ brigade. My parents and I had a brief discussion about how the philanthropy of imperialists such as Colston did not, as the Daily Mail argued, compensate for the genocides that happened on their watch, but by now, I was exhausted, and ready to return to London. The country was seemingly out of lockdown, with many people taking their cue from Dominic Cummings breaking it, and his ludicrous press conference in the Downing Street rose garden, the elaborate set-up, long delay and rambling speech offering – for once – a very simple message: I do what the fuck I like, I’m not going to resign, and there is nothing any of you can do about it.
Soon after my father drove me back to east London, Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from his shadow cabinet after she shared an Independent interview with actress Maxine Peake on Twitter. This was ostensibly as it contained an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory – actually just a factually incorrect claim about which tactics the IDF and US military and police share, presented as a lunatic fringe idea by the paper that published it – but more likely, I suspected, because it criticised Labour’s recent lurch to the right, far quicker than even I, with my scepticism about Starmer’s leadership campaign appeals to ‘unity’, had anticipated. Since then, the media’s focus has stayed on the Opposition, and on the defeated opposition within the Opposition, with the party’s right-wingers threatening to sue Labour over reputational damage due to the report being leaked, and offering to drop their actions if Corbyn is expelled. Given the scale of the UK’s Covid-19 catastrophe – officially 46,000 at this point, but that figure does not include care home deaths, so the Office for National Statistics puts the true figure nearer to 65,000 – I expect this McCarthyism to continue, and for the culture war approach to politics to become even more intense and ever more insufferable.
Why not? It works, and it’s all the neoliberal order has left. Our media managed to make the public believe that Labour overspending caused the financial crash of 2008, paving the way for austerity; they managed to make people believe that lifelong anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn, who volunteers at homeless shelters every Christmas, and did plenty of community work throughout the pandemic, was a monster on a par with Hitler. The British punditocracy got everything in the mid-to-late 2010s, being unable to see Corbyn’s ascendancy or the Brexit vote coming, and humiliating themselves at the 2017 General Election. In the two years that followed, after the Conservatives realised they could no longer laugh Corbyn out of Parliament for talking about inequality and every part of British political life was turned towards ensuring that result was not repeated, they largely stopped investigating and reporting on reality, instead using their positions to will the world they wanted into being. Given the choice, our media class chose Johnson – a hack journalist, famously sacked by the Telegraph for making up a quote whilst earning a good living peddling lies about the EU – over Labour’s plans for redistribution. They got what they wanted, and yet seem baffled and angry about it, some of them belatedly realising that the collapse of trust in the public sphere and thousands of coronavirus deaths may not have been an acceptable cost. However, there is no mechanism that can stop them setting the terms of public discourse, lying about the last few years of British politics with impunity now that the Opposition is safely back in the hands of the establishment, and it’s infuriating to watch them behave as if they had no role in the latest disaster to unfold.
But the people who have been wrong about everything for the last decade will be wrong about Starmer too: the media will applaud him while he crushes the left, and then turn on him as soon as it’s expedient, using his opposition to Brexit to cast him as a metropolitan elitist even as his front bench dog-whistles to white retirees in provincial towns. This may win him the approval of my parents, but neither they nor I will ever vote for him, and alienating everyone under-45, locked out of careers, savings, or assets, may not prove a viable long-term electoral strategy. Returning to the largely apocryphal pre-2008 ‘normality’ looks even less possible than ever; in any case, the Tories have chanced upon Rishi Sunak, who looks better in a suit, appeals more to liberal notions about diversity, and is immensely popular after handing out so much money to workers through the furlough scheme – something demanded by Corbyn before he stepped down, which seems unimaginable from Labour’s ‘new management’, and which is a popular policy when it’s not met by scores of journalists screeching about Venezuela.
It’s quite possible that Sunak will be the Conservative leader at the next election, and that the media will back him whilst accusing Starmer of sympathising with terrorists and paedophiles due to decisions he presided over in his time with the Crown Prosecution Service, and pulling out Corbyn-era footage of Labour MPs claiming the party has been taken over by Stalinists and Trotskyists. Sensing Johnson’s vulnerability, the Times have already started to blame Britain’s Covid-19 fiasco on the Prime Minister rather than his party, and it’s true that his coalition of eugenicists, financial speculators and City traders, culture warriors and alt-right sympathisers, fronted by a man so fundamentally unserious, was always going to handle a situation like this one more disastrously than any other type of government, including any other Conservative government. But the magnitude of Britain’s coronavirus crisis is due to the same kinds of deep-lying issues, on a national scale, as the ones behind the Grenfell Tower disaster: lack of investment in vital infrastructure; callous disregard for the wellbeing of anyone other than the rich; the collapse of a fourth estate that should have pressured for these issues to be addressed before they cost lives. The 60,000 deaths in 2020, like those 72 deaths on 14 June 2017, may not have been intended, but they certainly weren’t just an accident.
Unlike the pundits, we knew this. We know, too, that our media is performatively stupid, with pretending not to understand things being a key tactic in their defences against the many people on Twitter who challenge their prejudices against the young and the poor, and we knew that our big-name, highly-paid journalists are somehow even thicker than they look. We knew that the media are far more hated than politicians – something else our pundits haven’t noticed change since the 1990s – and we know that rather than speaking truth to power, as some of our more starry-eyed, or perhaps disingenuous columnists occasionally still claim to do, their role is to lie in order to protect it from an increasingly angry public who have seen the Conservative Party kill tens of thousands of people over a decade of austerity.
We know about the revolving door between the Conservative Party and news media, as recently, Allegra Stratton became the latest person to shift from a TV role to a government Communications position after she quit ITV News to work for Rishi Sunak, following Andy Coulson and Robbie Gibb in the Cameron and May administrations. We know, above all, that the United Kingdom is a stitch-up between the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the City and the property sector, held up by a media whose ownership models are utterly corrupt, operated in a public sphere deliberately corroded. We know that this isn’t a democracy, or anything like it, we know the names of the politicians, press barons and pundits responsible – and they know that we know. Many of them, of course, are named in this long article, and I’m not an investigative journalist – I just spend a lot of time on Twitter, or listening to politics podcasts. The information is out there, be it on Twitter or in the single copies of the Morning Star in newsagents in town like Horley, but – as we know – it is purposefully not summarised in places where the public are likely to receive it by the people whose job is suppoedly to do just that.
We know, too, that the suppression of dissent will continue, having seen mainstream journalists amplify the far-right Guido Fawkes blog’s Twitter attacks on ‘Labour activists’ appearing in Panorama documentaries during the election and the pandemic, furthering old claims that the BBC is too left-wing despite its role in securing Johnson’s majority. We saw 23-year-old Labour MP Nadia Whittome get sacked from the care work she did during lockdown for criticising the government’s lack of provisions for the NHS, and the media’s attempts to move the NHS beyond the realm of political criticism as staff are gagged from talking about their Covid-19 experiences. We saw Labour’s left-leaning women of colour tone-policed for “opposing for Opposition’s sake” when they questioned NHS shortages and chaotic messaging in parliament, and we know that this latest micro-aggression is just another day in the media-political effort to disengage and disenfranchise the young.
We know, though, that this campaign is not sustainable. I often think about that famous line from John F. Kennedy – not someone who shared my politics, but someone who understood how politics works: ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.’ I suspect that just quoting this might get a commentator sacked from almost any mainstream British newspaper or broadcaster now, but we can still sense the media-political establishment’s fear in its recent calls to regulate social media and shield itself from “hipster analysis”, as well as its use of legal threats to stifle new media outlets, Jewish groups that criticise the orchestration of the Labour anti-Semitism issue, and Jeremy Corbyn himself, still a focal point for British dissidence. The slow, partial and unclear lifting of lockdown seems an attempt to stop the young left organising in the cities, and especially London, where they are overwhelmingly stacked up, increasingly and justifiably furious, but they cannot hold back our demands for redistribution and retribution for ever, and especially not when trust in mainstream media is at an all-time low, and only likely to fall further in the wake of the current crisis.