Notes from the Margin | Corbyn, Stop the War and the British Press: My Week as a Media Pariah
New in Ceasefire, Notes from the Margins - Posted on Sunday, January 10, 2016 19:31 - 2 Comments
By Matt Carr
When I first started a blog in January 2011, I did so as a rather hesitant experiment. I soon came to enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to write in an informal and sometimes polemical style, generally in response to immediate events, and it became something of a compulsion. To date I have written 757 blog posts, averaging about one thousand words each. Though my blog has a modest but loyal readership, with occasional surges of popularity, to say that it was not nationally-known would be something of an understatement.
All this changed, however, in the first week of December, when my previously little-known blog became the centre of a combination of a hysterical Internet lynchmob and McCarthyist witchhunt in a way that I could never have predicted. My transformation into a pariah began on the morning of December 3rd, when I wrote a post critiquing Hilary Benn’s speech in support of the British bombing campaign in Syria. The following evening I came home at 11 o’clock to find that the piece had been re-posted on the Stop the War coalition’s website, where it had become the subject of an angry twitterstorm.
I should say at this stage that I am not a member of Stop the War, though I have been broadly part of the same anti-war movement since 2003. So when STW asked me about two years ago whether they could publish some of my blog posts on their website, I had no objections. The general procedure was that STW would post pieces on their website without alerting me first. There was rarely any editorial intervention on their part; in fact, there were a number of occasions when I contacted them to point out typos that had not been corrected in my initial posting.
On this occasion, however, their decision to post my Benn piece had a series of entirely negative consequences for STW and for myself. Within hours, a screenshot of the following sentence from the piece had ‘gone viral’:
‘To evoke the international brigades in support of Cameron’s bombing campaign requires real audacity, bad faith, and an indifference to history or the political realities of the 21st century. Benn does not even seem to realize that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign – except that the international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims, rather than the working class or the socialist revolution.’
This sentence, invariably stripped of context, generated a storm of outrage -and fauxtrage – from left and right. I was variously accused by leftists of having ‘disgraced the memory of the International Brigades’; of ‘infantile anti-imperialism’, of ‘praising ISIS’; of being in favour of pushing homosexuals of buildings, and other offences against political decency. My piece was cited as an example of the ‘anti-imperialism of fools’. One ‘critical Marxist’ suggested that I ought to drown. One of his strange little followers sent me a veiled threat. Others ranted that I was in favour of enslaving women, killing homosexuals, and that I would probably have supported the Nazi SS.
By contemporary Internet standards this was small beer. After all, we now live in a time in which a woman who suggests that Jane Austen should be placed on a banknote is immediately threatened with rape, and a film critic who didn’t like the new Star Wars film receives death threats. But these cut-price Vyshinskys were no less pathetic in their gleeful willingness to subject me – and Stop the War – to an Internet show trial whose verdict had already been decided. At no stage in my article or anywhere else have I ever suggested that jihadism – let alone Daesh – is ‘anti-imperialist’. I considered that I was making a general historical point about the jihadist movement, rather than ISIS, yet it was almost universally assumed by a number of leftist critics and sects (most of which I had been hitherto blissfully unaware of) that I – and Stop the War – were stupid enough to place jihadism and ISIS on the same moral plane as the International Brigades.
A few of these leftist critics appear to have genuinely misinterpreted what I was saying. But the hysterical denunciations emanating from so many – and the absolute refusal to consider the context of the article – my own writing history, or my subsequent rebuttals – made it clear to me that these critics and high priests had no interest in me, except as a kind of wish fulfilment. They believed what they wanted to believe, because there are some sections of the British left that loathe the Stop the War movement and were only too willing to depict me as the ‘true face’ of STW and, to that purpose, portray my writings in the worst possible light.
Had that been all there was to it, this would have been nothing more than a minor internet phenomenon. But my blog also provided ammunition not just to the enemies of Stop the War, but to the enemies of Jeremy Corbyn. It was posted only a week before Corbyn was due to attend the Stop the War Christmas funding dinner. Over the ensuing week, my International Brigades quote was recycled endlessly throughout the British media, on virtually every TV and radio news programme, and every newspaper.
It didn’t matter that the Stop the War leadership were so freaked by the assault that they withdrew my piece from their website – as they had done weeks earlier to the ‘reaping the whirlwind’ piece by the blogger Chris Floyd. Withdrawal was proof of guilt – both Stop the War’s and that of the two bloggers who wrote the pieces.
All this was fanned by Labour opponents of Jeremy Corbyn, including Tristram Hunt, Emma Reynolds and Stella Creasy, who used these two blogs as instruments to undermine the Stop the War movement and Corbyn himself. The strategy was very simple; the more these politicians could portray Floyd and me as callous and depraved lunatics, the more they hoped to weaken Corbyn by forcing him to renounce what Hunt called a ‘disreputable’ organisation, or tarnish him by association with its supposed political depravity.
That the Labour right should behave like this is not at all surprising, but one of the most shocking and revelatory aspects of the whole week for me, was the behaviour of the British media. One would think that any intellectually-curious journalist, or indeed any journalist following basic fact-checking procedures, would want to know why someone would have done something so outlandish as to ‘praise ISIS’ – as I was supposed to have done.
A Google search would have immediately brought up the original piece, in addition to various other articles that appeared over the next few days, all of which made it clear that my piece did not contain the meanings they had imposed upon it. No one showed any such interest, though, because my piece clearly presented the same useful purpose for them as it did to Stop the War’s leftist critics. I personally contacted three online journalists who had cited my piece or published it, all of whom made minor changes to their articles, or linked to the piece I sent them. But the basic tenor of the ‘Stop the War blogs’ coverage remained unchanged and quickly acquired its own hysterical momentum.
Whenever my piece or Floyd’s were mentioned, it was almost always in the same faintly aghast and horrified tones that might have been directed at someone who had just nominated Jimmy Savile for beatification. No one contacted me to ask for a quote or for an explanation or clarification. In effect, the British media acted as an echo chamber, repeating my name and/or my words as evidence of Stop the War’s political depravity, till my International Brigades quotation had acquired a life of its own that was entirely distinct from my own intentions.
There was a certain dark comedy in watching the former pro-fascist Daily Mail claim that ‘Corbyn’s pals’ compared Daesh to the ‘heroes who fought Franco’, but the Guardian’s John Harris also invoked my ‘mindboggling’ comparison, without bothering to find out why it might not have been as ‘mindboggling’ as he thought. I wrote to him too, but to no avail.
Almost without exception, the British media recycled an ‘untrue story’ – that I placed Daesh on the same moral level as the International Brigades – in order to hurt Jeremy Corbyn and Stop the War. To do that, they were as willing as STW’s ‘leftist’ critics to trash my reputation and Chris Floyd’s too, and it didn’t matter that they knew nothing about us, because the less they knew, it seemed, the more they felt able to make use of what we wrote.
Of course, many of these journalists write for the same publications that had hailed Hilary Benn’s cunningly vacuous speech as an example of great oratory, and as such were instinctively disposed to support establishment proponents of British wars and condemn their critics as weird cranks sucking on ISIS cacti in the political desert. But the behaviour of the British media has also confirmed something that I have often suspected; that too many journalists are inherently conformist and unwilling to engage in critical thinking. Moreover, they are often so determined to further their careers that they will always ride the wave they sense is carrying them forward, rather than swim against it.
So my week in the stocks has been a salutary and to some extent revelatory experience. Do I wish that I hadn’t written the lines that caused this pseudo-scandal? In hindsight yes, because what I wrote served very little useful purpose, and inadvertently provided ammunition for one of the most viciously dishonest smear campaigns that I have ever witnessed.
But that was not the audience my piece was written for when I wrote the piece. I write for people who are willing to think before they jab their metaphorical fingers into your chest; who write to me when they disagree with me; who do not engage in deliberate smearing and wilful distortion to meet their preconceptions and sectarian agendas; who are willing to look at things from different sides; who do not wilfully impose thoughts and intentions that I never had on someone they don’t even know.
Very few of my accusers showed any of these qualities, in their unseemly haste to shower me with gratuitous contempt and outrage. They found me ‘guilty’ because it suited them to do so, or because they couldn’t be bothered not to. And they may not think much of me, but as far as I am concerned, people who behave like that are not worthy of any respect whatsoever.
A new paperback edition of Matt Carr’s Fortress Europe with a new afterword by the author was recently published by Hurst Publishers.
Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated ContinentMatthew Carr
Hurst Publishers, December 2015
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