Jon Sopel’s recent article shines brightly as a paragon not only of the BBC’s much-vaunted impartiality, but of the attitude of the British media in general towards Jeremy Corbyn. Fresh from his fawning interview with Barack Obama, Sopel asks and then proceeds to answer a perverse leading question, namely: ‘[w]hat do [Donald] Trump and Corbyn have in common?’ Of course, no affinity whatever exists between these two men, but the corporation’s North America editor attempts cack-handedly to manufacture a resemblance. He does so purely in order to smear the MP for Islington North, whose candidacy for the Labour leadership is finding ever-stronger support from among the public.
Sopel begins matter-of-factly: ‘Corbyn leading Labour? Trump in the White House? Such a world is far-fetched’. One’s first reaction is to wonder what sense a presumably busy journalist sees in stooping to ponder fantastic scenarios, at some length and to an audience of millions. But in the mind of the averagely informed reader, this initial impression is quickly displaced by a second, one that puts him or her on notice of Sopel’s biases. In other words, most of us will perceive the absurdity of likening a preternaturally obnoxious billionaire—a caricature—to a social democrat whose thirty-five years in Parliament attest to a decency and integrity rarely seen in those homunculi we call politicians. We know, then, from the very beginning of the article, that Sopel and the BBC are attempting to mobilise their audience against Corbyn by comparing him absurdly to a fraud and demagogue, a big-mouthed magnate who lives (among a great many other residences) in his own, eponymous Manhattan skyscraper.
After his opening fusillade, Sopel spends four turgid and seemingly endless paragraphs indulging his ill-conceived fantasy. In the course of his imaginings, Corbyn is described as having a ‘scruffy’ beard, and a ‘slightly gaunt’ face. These remarks are quite unnecessary. Would this—or indeed any other—senior journalist dare to remark, even in jest, on George Osborne’s sickly pallor, or David Cameron’s prodigious forehead? Would any broadsheet or BBC editor pass comment on Sajid Javid’s gigantic domed pate, or Michael Gove’s resemblance to an intumescent fish? One can be sure that Sopel and his ilk would not resort to unflattering descriptions of physical appearance in pieces which concerned politicians more cosily aligned with their own views and those of their organisations. The use of such descriptions, then, is never more than a transparently cheap way of trivialising and so dismissing, out of hand, the views of individuals who present some sort of a challenge to elite interests and the dominant ideology.
At any rate, Sopel has the good grace to descend—eventually—from his cringe-making flight of fancy. But he does so only to bombard his readers with a determined volley of damp squibs. The first, and perhaps most preposterous, is the description of Corbyn as ‘he of every fashionable left-wing cause’ of the past thirty-five years. This averment, echoed later by the New Statesman when it accused Corbyn of ‘faddish radicalism’, is insulting all round. After all, the word ‘fashionable’, when used in this way, is a term of disparagement. It characterises as bogus and capricious any departure from the very narrow confines of political and economic orthodoxy. It quite intentionally demeans the causes themselves, and insinuates, after sousing our indignation, that we should not be acting in furtherance of them.
Even the most cursory of looks at Corbyn’s parliamentary career will reveal that many of the ‘fashionable’ causes he has earnestly and self-effacingly served were or remain in dire need of attention and advancement. For example, in some quarters, such as the Tory Party of David Cameron and Nick Robinson’s formative years, opposition to apartheid was not merely unfashionable but officially unwelcome. Jeremy Corbyn, however, was a persistent and passionate critic of the South African regime. The war in Iraq, in a way still gruesomely unspooling, is perhaps the most horrific crime of our lifetimes. Corbyn has been rather whimsically condemning it for more than a decade, ever since he and a million other dedicated followers first took to the streets against it in 2003. The State of Israel continues, by way of occupation, theft and slaughter, to mutilate Palestine and its people, as Liz Kendall and others stand by cawing their approval. Corbyn, who has been to Gaza several times, knows that the struggle to liberate Palestine—steeped in several decades of suffering—is more than just some passing fad. And to be gravely concerned, as Jeremy Corbyn is, about anthropogenic climate change, is simply to respond, honestly and rationally, to the mass of scientific evidence which points towards impending ecological ruin.
It seems reactionary at best to deride as ‘fashionable’ the correct and necessary responses to racism, colonialism and state terrorism. But perhaps we should allow that Sopel too is appalled by these evils, at least in the abstract. And so it becomes clear that his use of the word aims above all at obliquely undermining the economic platform on which Corbyn is now seeking the Labour leadership. Sopel’s next damp squib comes in the form of his fleeting ‘engagement’ with that platform—all three (really two) sentences of it.
He notes that Labour under Corbyn would ‘bring back maintenance grants and get rid of tuition fees’. It would, moreover, ‘whack up corporation tax or hit the rich with massively higher personal taxes’. Sopel neglects to justify his disagreement with these policies, perhaps believing that their demerits are somehow self-evident. (At least the liberal Guardian can be relied upon for a thoroughgoing (really one-word) critique; it chided Corbyn for his ‘populist’ stance on grants and fees.)
The reality of course is that Corbyn happens to be wise to the continuing marketisation of higher education in Britain. Budgets are being slashed, courses are being cut, and support staff are still being paid a pittance. Tuition fees were unconscionably trebled by the last government, and the current Tory government last month sanctioned further hikes. All the while, as heavily indebted white-collar wage slaves are pumped out of university like so many widgets off an assembly line, fat cat administrators, such as Vice-Chancellors (or the DHCs, to pinch a Huxleyan acronym) enjoy exorbitant and ever-swelling salaries. Corbyn, who clearly values education, seems to want to reclaim it from the tentacular grip of the market.
And he plans to do so with the help of both corporations—whose profitability is higher now than it has been for years—and the very wealthy. Corbyn appears to know that policies enacted in pursuit of ‘economic growth’ are merely those that advance corporate self-interest. The Tories claim to support ‘working people’, but multinational companies pay, or are supposed to pay, the same measure of tax as the worker who makes £11,000 per year. (They will soon pay even less.) The Tories hate, ostensibly at least, what they call the ‘something-for-nothing culture’, but have just raised the threshold for inheritance tax, and preside happily over a system of corporate welfare—consisting of subsidies, grants and tax breaks—which costs the public £93bn annually. And the Tories are fervent in their support for TTIP, a secretive, so-called ‘free trade’ agreement which will serve to entrench even more deeply the domination of society by corporate-financial elites. In calling for a rise in corporation tax, the stamping out of corporate tax fraud, and the reinstatement of Clause IV—done away with in its original form by Tony Blair—Corbyn goes pleasingly further than any of his quasi-Tory rivals for the leadership. And that is to say nothing very much—like Sopel—of his position on austerity in general.
By this stage, comparisons to Trump are far from the thoughts of all fair-minded readers. But farcically, the deluded Sopel attempts to create a concrete equivalence by setting Corbyn’s reasonable, democratic and anti-plutocratic proposals alongside Trump’s racist pledge to ‘[s]top those thieving Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande’. This absurd juxtaposition is an insult to the intelligence of Corbyn’s supporters, as well as a clear sign as to the decayed condition of the journalist’s own. A couple of paragraphs later, the North America editor writes, obliviously, that ‘[n]uance, detail and complexity seem to be so last year’. To this there is only one suitable rejoinder: speak for yourself, Mr Sopel.
The last part of the article is similarly stained with bullshit. It is claimed by Sopel that when elections roll around, the sovereign electorate invariably ‘reaches’ an ‘unhappy conclusion’ and ‘reluctantly’ gets behind ‘the party that [it thinks offers] the best hope in difficult circumstances’. But this pronouncement has no basis in reality, and not just because the Tories received in May the support of less than a quarter of those who were eligible to vote. Sopel here supposes—as he must—that voters make free and genuinely informed decisions at the ballot box. In reality, of course, public opinion is unceasingly manipulated by a handful of very large media corporations. These corporations—concerned by definition with amassing profit, and having as their wider social function the manufacturing of consent—will never oppose the capitalist organisation of society, and accordingly they are hostile to anyone who appears to do so. Sopel is himself just one of many journalists whose successful internalisation of neoliberal dogma has been rewarded with a higher pulpit, and even cushier embedment within the system he has spent his years uncritically ‘observing’. (How amazing, then, to see him appear in this piece of hackwork to recognise British ‘democracy’ for the charade and the sham that it is: twice a decade, voters are forced to opt for what Sopel calls the ‘least worst’ of a pair of parties which are almost equally badly afflicted with the dry rot of neoliberalism.)
Sopel ends by denouncing Corbyn for offering what, in his view, are nothing but ‘easy to grab hold of nostrums’. But such substanceless assertions as Sopel makes in his piece are themselves ‘easy to grab hold of’—in the sense of being utterly specious—and flow ultimately from an addiction to the most toxic nostrum of them all, namely that of economic growth. It is this nostrum that is rammed down our throats by the corporate media, with the effect of strengthening for capital—media and all—the social and property relations which uphold the status quo.
The fact is that Jeremy Corbyn—who can hardly be called a radical—is not merely confronting power elites with his programme, but doing so with great success. He has the support of more constituency parties than any of the other candidates. He has the backing of both Unison and Unite, the United Kingdom’s two largest trade unions. And crucially, the general public seems to be receptive to his resolutions: many of the 400,000 people who have recently registered to vote in the leadership election are thought to have done so in order to cast their ballots in Corbyn’s favour. There is a pressing need, then, for propaganda like Sopel’s piece, and lots of it too. For otherwise, meaningful public debate might occur, and the wind of (admittedly limited) change might threaten to blow.