In Defence of the “Mainstream Media”

Echoes of Palin in Momentum and Corbyn followers’ vitriol for journalism

“I don’t think there are any rude questions”
“We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers”
Helen Thomas

People have been railing against the 'mainstream media' all over the world forever. It is easy for urban, educated, liberal-valued ‘elites’ (apparently defined by any professional) to look at the Tea Party and now the Trump phenomenon and think: well, their brand of anti-intellectual nuttiness is so typical of the right wing and at least the far left doesn’t engage in that kind of thing. Unfortunately a cursory glance at what is happening with Jeremy Corbyn and his movement (pressure mob?) will tell one otherwise.

From routinely attacking journalists for doing their job on social media by the foot soldiers of the group Momentum and their various riled-up followers all the way up to the lieutenants and the erstwhile leaders of the Corbyn circle (handlers? hostage takers?) casually condoning and pushing for this vitriol, to Corbyn himself literally being pulled away or running from journalists and limiting his appearances with the free media, there is a very familiar brand of anti-media rhetoric out there.

We hear the phrase “mainstream media” disparagingly used ever increasingly in replies and repostes to discussions and arguments involving Corbyn’s cataclysmic performance as leader of the Labour Party. One can almost sense the weight of the sneer that accompanies that charge through the tweet, such is the hatred people have for political journalists. If that phrase rings a bell, it should — it famously epitomised a similar line of attack from a similarly awful, unprepared, ignorant and beloved leader of another movement: Sarah Palin. She used the phrase to turn away legitimate questions from journalists: What books do you read? Where is Russia? by questioning the motives of the interviewer. It didn’t matter to her sycophantic followers that she didn’t know the answers or was woefully ill-prepared — it was a hostile “lamestream media”. Just think about that for a second — the implicit attack on being “mainstream”… like that’s a bad thing.

We have seen this film before. An extremist rump of a party that’s recently lost elections, where moderates have fled, leaving just them in charge wallowing in their anger and introspection. They blame the 'compromisers', rail against the wishy-washy centrists and sneer at them for their lack of 'purity'. And what really bothers them is politicos: they hate being looked down on. They get the sense that these journalists who live and breathe polls, number-crunching, message discipline… the veterans of a thousand news cycles and dozens of elections, who’ve seen it all before can sense the amateurish nature of the extremist faction running the show and the fundamental weakness of their arguments: Polls are useless, LOOK AT BREXIT!

That’s what Palin and tea party have in common with the UK political left. They are political ignoramuses unhappy about reporters pointing it out. But let’s be clear — a free press is essential to our democracy. It is necessary and important to have difficult questions from tough journalists and yes, it is necessary that we do have the right-wing tabloids as well. People feel aggrieved that their man is attacked but is it chicken or egg? If Corbyn was a masterful media genius with a perfect message like early Blair or Obama would this be happening now? The fact is the business of politics requires the ability to handle and run message and media with competence. It’s in the job description. Being unable to do so is not the media’s fault — they are doing their job, the politician now needs to do his.

And another thing, the media ‘bias’ is not purely out of some editorial desire to destroy the candidate although that is clear in the case of certain tabloids. The general media ‘bias’ from such standards as the BBC, Guardian and Times reflect a public bias — if Corbyn and his ill-thought out platitudes which his followers parade as policies (“NO TO RACISM! NO TO AUSTERITY”) represented a sound, detailed governing agenda; if his past at-best murky associations with PressTV where he took 20k Sterling to run a TV call in show hosting anti-Semites whilst an MP could be explained as some kind of act of moral courage; if his own team and MPs around him did not publicly say effectively: this man does not have the ability to run a team and does not have the skills, knowledge and experience to be PM; if all of that were true and the public could sense he wasn’t just a benign empty suit at best and a fraud running on an aura of “decency” at worst, the media would have a different take on Corbyn. As it stands, they ask the questions that they feel the public would like an answer to: questions of anti-Semitism and misogyny in his associates, whether he loves the UK, whether he would disband the army and whether he would pull us out of NATO.

People railing against the mainstream media do so at their own peril — a free press is the greatest safeguard to our democracy and is one of our most powerful tools of accountability against the structures which govern us. In places where it doesn’t exist there are people who would die for the right to print some Sun-level tittle-tattle or a write a cutting opinion piece about a minister. We should not whine when the leader we love is unable to handle a tough media, we should recognise that the weakness is with the leader and the press has no obligation to play nice in defending our democracy and pursuing the truth, spreading information and reflecting public opinion.