Skwawkbox — an embarrassment to the Left

The almost uniform hostility that Jeremy Corbyn has faced from the press and broadcast media since his election as Labour leader (only slightly mitigated by the party’s impressive showing in the general election) has given a boost to alternative news media whose declared aim is to defend Corbyn’s politics and nail the lies of the “MSM”. Novara Media, The Canary, Evolve Politics, Another Angry Voice and The Skwawkbox are notable examples.

The influence of these alt-left sites shouldn’t be underestimated. In the run-up to the general election BuzzFeed News reported that they were attracting “enormous audiences”. The Skwawkbox, a one-man operation apparently run by a Labour Party member from Liverpool, featured in a BBC News At Ten report, which stated that “many of his articles go viral, with some achieving hundreds of thousands of readers”.

On Saturday, Skawkbox also made the front page of the Daily Telegraph, where it was presented in a rather less favourable light. Taking its cue from the Guido Fawkes website, the Telegraph ran a report titled “Corbyn-backers spread ‘fake news’ about blaze toll”, which attacked Skwawkbox’s coverage of the Grenfell Tower fire. The story was then recycled by the Sunday Express which similarly accused Corbyn supporters of misreporting the tragedy. To quote the Telegraph article:

A Corbyn-backing blog called Skwawkbox claimed that the Government had banned the media from reporting the true death toll in the tragedy for reasons of “national security”. It claimed that “multiple sources” had confirmed that “the Government has placed a D-notice on the real number of deaths in the blaze”.
A D-notice, properly called a Defence and Security Media Advisory Notice, is an official request to editors not to publish items that could endanger lives or national security, but no such notice was issued.
Nevertheless, the false story was promoted on Twitter by Skwawkbox and then picked up by two other Corbyn-supporting sites, Evolve Politics and Novara Media. Within hours the claim had been shared on social media hundreds of times and was being treated as evidence of a government cover-up.

It should be added that Evolve Politics has threatened legal action against both the Telegraph and Express over their reports, while Novara Media’s supposed endorsement of the story seems to have amounted to a couple of tweets by its co-founder Aaron Bastani. However, it is impossible to defend Skwawkbox’s crass and idiotic coverage of this issue.

On 16 June, in an article headed “Video: Govt puts ‘D-notice’ gag on real #Grenfell death toll #nationalsecurity”, Skwawkbox took up the claim made by grime MC Saskilla on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme that the number of victims in the Grenfell Tower fire was far greater than had yet been officially admitted, with as many as 200 people having died.

Skwawkbox used this claim to give credence to rumours that the government was engaged in an attempt to prevent the media reporting the true extent of the disaster: “At the same time, multiple sources told the SKWAWKBOX that the government has placed a ‘D-notice’ (sometimes called a ‘DA Notice’) on the real number of deaths in the blaze.”

This was followed by a screenshot of an entry from Wikipedia, which defined a DA-Notice as “an official request to news editors not to publish or broadcast items on specified subjects for reasons of national security”. The Skwawkbox article then continued: “In effect, although voluntary, this amounts to a gag on the mainstream media — and note that it is applied for for reasons of national security only.”

Skwawkbox reported that it had telephoned the Home Office press office to “ask directly whether this was true”. According to Skwawkbox’s account, the inquiry had thrown the Home Office into a panic:

“To say that the question caused consternation at the other end of the line would not be an overstatement. The first comment, in a voice that rose at least half an octave, was ‘Where did you get that information?’, followed by a request for the question by email, even though the SKWAWKBOX editor emphasised that ‘Have you issued a D-notice’ is a very straightforward, ‘yes/no’ question.”

For Skwawkbox, this reaction only served to confirm suspicions that a government plot was underway to cover up the number of victims at Grenfell Tower. The article continued breathlessly:

“If it is true that the government has issued a D-notice — and every instinct is screaming that it is — then the government has placed a national security gag on mainstream news editors to prevent them from disclosing what’s already known about the number of lives lost at Grenfell Tower. This raises a huge question: WHY?.

Is there a national security aspect to this information that has not yet been hinted at? Or is the Tory government inflating its own party interests into a national security issue in order to control the flow of information that will damage the Tory government and party, allowing it to ‘drip-feed’ a slow increase in the number of confirmed deaths in order to manage public outrage?”

By contrast, BuzzFeed News took the trouble to contact the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee — which, as a quick google would reveal, is the actual body responsible for issuing D-Notices, not the Home Office. BuzzFeed was able to report that it had “confirmed with the DSMA secretariat that there are no advisories issued about the fire at Grenfell Tower, that notices would not be sent in relation to civilian disasters such as this one, and that so far as the DSMA secretariat is aware there is no national security element whatsoever to the tragedy”.

Faced with the collapse of its story, Skwawkbox was forced to back off and post a grudging retraction: “EDIT: the SKWAWKBOX is now satisfied that no D-notice was issued. No plain answer to this blog’s question of other restrictions on information about lives lost at Grenfell has yet been provided, but a ‘D-notice’ (or DSMA-notice as they are now termed) was not.”

Did Skwawkbox apologise for getting the story wrong and offer assurances that there would be no repetition of this stupid and provocative reporting? You must be joking. Instead, Skwawkbox’s proprietor was stung by the well-deserved criticism of his article into posting an indignant defence of his shoddy journalistic methods. In a quite astonishing display of chutzpah, he declared that he himself had been the victim of “fake news”!

Nowhere, he complained, did he claim that the government had imposed a D-Notice on media coverage of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. He insisted that he had merely raised the possibility that a D-Notice could have been issued. Did he not write “if it is true that the government has issued a D-notice”? Well, yes, he did — but that was immediately followed by the words “and every instinct is screaming that it is”! The author then proceeded on the basis of that assumption to outline his theories about the government’s motives for imposing a media gag.

Skwawkbox also stated that “the title of the article was carefully constructed”, with quotation marks conscientiously placed around the words “puts ‘D-notice’ gag”, to underline that it was reporting the allegations of others rather than making any claims of its own. The flaw in this defence is that neither the Facebook post nor the tweet with which Skwawkbox promoted the story, and which were widely shared and retweeted, included any such qualifying quotation marks. Which suggests that the original version of the article didn’t either.

Now, anyone can have an off day, and I’m aware of the pressure that comes with being the author of a one-person blog that aims to provide day-to-day commentary on current events with minimal resources. (I used to run such a blog myself.) But this is not an isolated incident. Skwawkbox has established an unenviable record of spinning evidence to produce attention-grabbing stories that lack any solid basis in and are often directly contrary to the facts.

The smearing of Kezia Dugdale

The irony of yesterday’s exposé of Skwawkbox by the Express is that only recently Skwawkbox seized on a scurrilous report from that same newspaper, headlined “Scottish Labour leader faces backlash after urging Scots to vote TORY to keep Sturgeon out”, and used it to smear Corbyn critic Kezia Dugdale.

Showing in this case an extremely light-minded attitude towards fake news in the right-wing press — no doubt because here it served his own purpose — Skwawkbox’s author used the Express attack as the basis for an angry denunciation of Dugdale in which he demanded her resignation as Scottish Labour leader and even called for her expulsion from the party.

“In the run-up to the General Election ballot”, he announced, “Kezia Dugdale went from being merely woeful and uninspiring to betraying the Labour Party by telling Scottish voters to vote Tory in order to weaken the Scottish National Party.” This was followed by a screenshot of the Express headline:

The rant then continued: “This is not only unforgivable, but also an offence under the rules of the Labour Party with an automatic penalty of expulsion. And it bolstered the Tories, boosting them into their gains from the SNP last night, without which Theresa May would not be able to limp on propped up by Democratic Unionists. There can be no redemption from that. Were it not for her inexcusable and idiotic betrayal, Labour would be preparing for government this morning — and the country would be waking up to a future of hope.”

It is difficult to see the Skwawkbox piece as anything other than intentionally misleading. While it prominently featured the shock-horror Express headline, it notably failed to provide a link to the article. That was presumably because anyone who read the Express report could see that the headline was a blatantly distorted summary of Kezia Dugdale’s actual comments.

She was in fact attempting to refute the Tories’ claims that it was their party’s candidates rather than Labour’s who were best placed to take seats off the SNP. As quoted by the Express itself, what Dugdale said was this:

“The reality is the vast majority of seats across Scotland, it’s only the Labour party that can beat the SNP. There are a few differences in the Borders and the Highlands where the Tories might be better placed but right across Scotland’s centre belt, where the vast majority of Scotland’s population lives, the only party that can beat the SNP is the Labour party.”

If Kezia Dugdale could be accused of anything, it is of downplaying the Tories’ electoral prospects in Scotland, because in the event they won 12 seats from the SNP compared with Labour’s six. On no reasonable interpretation of her words was she encouraging a vote for the Scottish Tory Party. Yet Skwawkbox happily echoed the dishonest anti-Labour propaganda of the right-wing press, in order to attack a woman he reviles as a political opponent of Jeremy Corbyn.

More fake news about the general election

In another comment piece on the general election, Skwawkbox revealed that “Labour’s HQ, in complete contrast to the aggressive, energetic campaign of the party’s leader, mandated a purely defensive strategy for this election — and cost Labour the keys to 10 Downing Street”. At national and regional level, “almost no resources were made available for the fight to win Tory-held marginals or even to defend Labour-held ones. Seats with a majority of below 3,000”.

Obviously there is a rational kernel to this criticism. You could well argue that the defensive electoral strategy evidently adopted by the party apparatus demonstrated not only bureaucratic conservatism but also political bias, reflecting an unthinking acceptance of right-wing propaganda that Labour was heading for electoral disaster under Corbyn’s leadership.

However, it’s worth remembering that when Theresa May called the election back in April, Labour was some 20 points adrift of the Tories in the opinion polls, and the general view among political commentators, including those sympathetic to Labour, was that May was heading for a landslide victory, with Labour facing the loss of many seats. At that point, nobody could have predicted the disastrous Tory campaign, or the sharp swing to Labour that took place over the final couple of weeks. It’s easy to be wise after the event.

In fact Skwawkbox went further, asserting that the policy was to “circle the wagons around existing seats, particularly favouring those occupied by so-called ‘centrists’” (emphasis added). Indeed, in a follow-up post titled “Proof: Labour HQ funnelled resources away from pro-Corbyn marginals”, Skwawkbox claimed to present “firm evidence of this diversion of resources to protect Progress candidates”.

One example offered by Skwawkbox was the decision by the party’s north west regional office to concentrate resources in the Wirral South constituency — where Alison McGovern was defending a majority of 4,599 —at the expense of the neighbouring marginal seats of Wirral West and Weaver Vale. Skwawkbox put this down to the fact that McGovern is chair of the Blairite organisation Progress. A more innocent explanation is that, based on Labour’s initially dreadful poll ratings, regional office had identified Wirral South as under threat from the Tories while writing off the two marginals as unwinnable.

Skwawkbox also raised the case of Bolton West, a highly marginal Tory seat which former MP Julie Hilling narrowly failed to win for Labour, having allegedly been deprived of the resources necessary to run an effective campaign. Skwawkbox cited the account of a Labour member in Bolton West, who contacted regional office offering to help with telephone canvassing in that constituency, only to be told: “You should be calling in Bolton NE and Oldham East.”

Skwawkbox omitted to mention the fact that the Labour candidate in Oldham East and Saddleworth was Debbie Abrahams. She was one of the 40 MPs who voted against the motion of no-confidence in Jeremy Corbyn passed by the Parliamentary Labour Party in June last year. It was Abrahams who replaced Owen Smith as Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, after he resigned from that post as part of the attempted parliamentary coup against Corbyn.

How regional office’s encouragement of support for Debbie Abrahams’ campaign qualifies as “firm evidence” that the party apparatus had engaged in a “diversion of resources to protect Progress candidates” is anyone’s guess. On the contrary, it suggests that the policy was to defend what were mistakenly (though understandably) believed to be vulnerable Labour seats, irrespective of the politics of the incumbent.

Conclusion

These are just a few recent examples of fake news from Skwawkbox. I’m sure I could identify many more. But I stopped following Skwawkbox last September after it published ludicrous claims based on dodgy maths about vast numbers of people being excluded from the Labour leadership election (“no fewer than 67,000 eligible voters have not received a vote — over 16% of the Labour electorate”), followed by the baseless accusation of a cover-up by party officials.

That, unfortunately, is how Skwawkbox operates — hyping up stories in order to generate clickbait headlines, with little or no concern for accuracy, often combining this with unsubstantiated claims that the authorities are involved in some sort of conspiracy. The evident purpose of this is to whip up hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn’s political opponents in order to bolster his leadership.

But Skwawkbox’s approach is entirely counterproductive. Far from defending Corbyn against right-wing attacks, this irresponsible nonsense just provides ammunition for his enemies, allowing them to portray the Labour leader’s supporters as a bunch of liars and political fantasists. It also degrades the political culture of the left, by sidelining serious analysis and debate in favour of false polemics and crackpot conspiracy theories.

Skwawkbox has a featured post that includes a tweet from an admirer: “This blog is journalism as it should be. True, fair, accurate and in the public interest.” The reality, however, is that Skwawkbox functions as a sort of left-wing mirror image of the right-wing tabloid press, or of alt-right sites like Breitbart News. It employs the same unscrupulous, sensationalist journalistic methods, but for opposite political ends. Skwawkbox appears incapable of grasping that socialist aims cannot be achieved by such anti-socialist means.