Tristram Hunt and the 1%: A Response to the National Press Coverage

This morning, an unassuming piece of mine published in Varsity, blew up in the national press, and at time of writing has been featured (in order of accuracy) The Times, ITV, The Guardian, The Mail, The Independent, Sky News, and The Sun.

The story, that Tristram Hunt had spoken to the Cambridge Universities Labour Club about why Labour had lost the election and how Labour may win again, came with some frank, interesting, and not particularly controversial quotes. He said that “Labour is in the shit”, referring to the Cruddas reports on the widening gulf between Labour and the public, that the online echo chamber of social media risked turning Labour from a party into a “sect”, and that to avoid this people shouldn’t feel afraid of contributing in “dissenting and imaginative ways”. This was all particularly relevant to Cambridge as “you are the top 1%” (a view shared as much by those who wish to bash Oxbridge as much as those who have less of a problem with it) and that it is therefore the responsibility of the Cambridge students to take up leadership in the future to grapple with these issues.

Although this was a choice of words Hunt may come to regret, I made a point to report them accurately, and fairly. The student press, frustratingly ignored by most of the student body, would love to be the ones to create a buzz around an exclusive political shit-storm or two, but ultimately what is the purpose of doing this if it is built upon fabrication?

Now granted, Varsity is not struggling to break even at the moment, unlike much of the national press. And it is not exactly news that the press have taken something out of context or twisted a story for website clicks. But as I feel a certain amount of ownership over this story, I want to set some things straight, things that were reported accurately in the original piece, and comment on the ease at which a story can be twisted, and in the age of social media, how ready we actually are to swallow it.

As far as I can tell, there have been 2 main, false, twists on the original Varsity story in various news outlets, these often becoming more pronounced in those who were evidently racing to catch up with the rest.

The first is that Tristram said the 1% “must” take leadership, reported in The Guardian, Independent, Mail, Sun and Sky News. There are two issues here, changing “It is your responsibility” to “It must be your responsibility”, and what people has taken “leadership” to mean. Through the first, you change a statement of fact, an acknowledgement that society is elitist, and that in all likelihood it would be Oxbridge/privileged students who have to contribute and solve the issues raised by the Cruddas report in the future, to one of endorsement, that this is the way it should be. I would wager that most people on the left would accept the first and wholeheartedly reject the latter. Through the second, a general rallying cry for people to lead the debate, so far largely absent from Labour discussions, about why we lost and how, considering the evidence, we can win again. Clumsy language that is easy to take out of context? Yes. Elitism? No.

This is an easy spin from left wing news, and those that want to cause trouble or increase traffic, as it is exactly the kind of twist that people on the left will click on, believe, and get enraged about. It is only really the Times that chose not to do this, instead accurately reporting on Hunt’s more interesting comments such as, and the irony is not lost on me, the effect of social media in turning debates informed by thoughtful debate and critical thought into a sect.

Again it is not surprising that the newspapers who chose to do this did so. But it is a distinction that hugely changes a story from a clumsy choice of words to one of elitism, and as the original source, I will say with no hesitation: the latter account of what Tristram said is bollocks.

The second, that is implicit in the first, and made explicit in the Mail, is that Tristram was in some way referring to or blaming Corbyn for the problems he was describing, or for Labour being “in the shit”. Put simply, he was not. The Cruddas Reports concern the General Election defeat and the gulf that has been growing between the Labour Party and public that has been taking place since as early as 2005.

Tristram’s views on Corbyn are not secret, but the problems hunt was describing would have been true regardless of who won the party’s leadership, and they remain Labour’s problems under Corbyn. Remember, the room he was addressing contained Labour members and supporters of all persuasions, including a very loud Corbyn support base. They understood, as much as everyone in that room, that it was long term problems he was referring to. Hence, largely, the point about the future generations of leaders who would need also to grapple with it.

This again, was an easy, lazy assumption that anyone seeking to bash Tristram for clicks (or enjoyment) could use. And again, it is only one The Times seemingly did not fall into.

On top of this, Twitter has added its own misunderstandings of even the spin, as it often does. Accusations about Hunt wanting the top 1% to take over Labour to stop it becoming a sect, the accusation that he views only Oxbridge to be in this 1% group, that he thinks it is a good thing or compliment to describe someone as in the top 1% and on and on it goes.

All of these are utterly fictional. From an original story of 400 words, the media, followed happily by the left, has once again taken thoughts on the challenges Labour face, and decided that instead it shows an establishment conspiracy against dear old, white, upper-middle class, private-schooled Jeremy Corbyn.

It may be inevitable that comments will be misconstrued, and I would not be writing this if I were not the source. As the source, I should be happy that one of my pieces was picked up and went so far. But seeing from the other side how stories are stripped of their substance and twisted, but then accepted happily by a political wing that claims to stand against such practice, it makes me wonder if the sect that Hunt warned us about is not already, irreversibly here… and what a horribly depressing vocation politics must be.