5 April 2019 — Media Lens
According to corporate journalism, a tidal wave of ‘fake news’ has long been threatening to swamp their wonderful work reporting real news. The ProQuest media database finds fully 805,669 hits for newspaper articles mentioning the term ‘fake news’. The key sources of such fakery are said to be social media, and above all, of course, Russia.
It is a perfect irony, then, that ‘the Mueller report‘, conducted by the US Department of Justice Special Counsel’s Office, headed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, ‘did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities’.
Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept explains the significance:
‘This has been an utterly colossal media failure and it reveals how little things have actually changed with the broader press since the Iraq War lies. The overall tone of much of the reporting on this Trump-Russia story has started from the position that the intelligence community was being truthful about Trump and Russia. The reporting then sought to further confirm those assertions. It was confirmation bias to the nth degree…
‘Also, the fact that Trump is a cartoonish buffoonish villain contributed to an atmosphere where the attitude was that anything Trump was accused of—no matter how insane it sounded—was totally plausible, if not likely, if not certain to have happened. Trump was not supposed to win. It was Hillary Clinton’s turn.’
As we will discuss below, this should ring loud bells with British readers subjected to a very similar smear campaign targeting Jeremy Corbyn, who was also ‘not supposed to win’ the Labour Party election leadership.
In 2017, a Guardian leading article commented on Trump and Russia:
‘The Guardian view of Trump’s Russia links: a lot to go at.’
Another leader in 2017 went much further:
‘Meanwhile the grenades he [Trump] lobs via Twitter or interview cloud the issue that still lies at the heart of his presidency: Russian meddling in the US election, and the possible collusion of his own campaign. All other iniquities pale beside this.’
Also in the Guardian in 2017, columnist Paul Mason highlighted ‘Kremlin involvement in the Trump campaign’ as the key reason ‘Trump could be out of office within a year’.
The Telegraph agreed that the ‘russiagate’ claim ‘is the cloud hanging over the entire presidency’.
The press has been filled with numerous similar examples.
Strongly echoing UK experience, Scahill adds:
‘We have been subjected to more than two years of nonstop, fact-free assertions and wild theories masquerading as fact, masquerading as insightful analysis.’
A tsunami of ‘fake news’, in other words, supplied by the very same media who have supplied that other tsunami of warnings on the threat of ‘fake news’.
The key word, and the title of Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s best-selling book: ‘Collusion’. The rest of the book title, unfortunately for Harding: ‘How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House’ (Guardian Faber Publishing; Main, 2017).
Harding was also lead author of a fake, front-page Guardian claim in November 2018 that Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, had met Julian Assange three times in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Both Harding and Guardian editor Kath Viner have refused to respond to challenges posed, for example, by former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Needless to say, our questions were also ignored.
Tom Bower’s ‘Farrago Of Falsehood And Insinuation’
As discussed, Scahill’s ‘years of nonstop, fact-free assertions and wild theories masquerading as fact’ also describes UK attacks on Corbyn. In an article for Middle East Eye, journalist Peter Oborne carefully examined a high-profile example supplied by investigative journalist Tom Bower’s book, ‘Dangerous Hero – Corbyn’s Ruthless Plot For Power’.
The title of Oborne’s piece:
‘Jeremy Corbyn and the truth about Tom Bower’s book – A biography about the Labour leader systematically distorts the truth, writes Peter Oborne.’
By contrast, the Amazon entry for Bower’s book features these impressive comments:
‘THE BOOK EVERY VOTER MUST READ’ Mail on Sunday
‘Meticulous and highly readable … Funny and devastating’ Daily Telegraph
‘The most compelling in-depth study so far’ Guardian
No surprise, then, that the book features in prominent, shop-front and multiple other in-store displays in bookshops like Waterstones and Foyles.
In the Independent, former editor Chris Blackhurst wrote:
‘Reading Tom Bower’s insightful new biography… I was reminded of his [Corbyn’s] isolation and single-mindedness.’
‘Reading Bower, you’re left in no doubt that Corbyn wants to turn the clock back, that his solution to those problematic examples and awkward developments that upset his path is merely to ignore them. This makes him very dangerous indeed, hard to reason with, oblivious to criticism and set in his ways. It’s a troubling account, one that should give every entrepreneur pause and anyone who works in business pause.’
Writing in the Telegraph, Tom Harris gave four out of five stars to Bower’s ‘devastating account of Corbyn’s rise to the top’. Harris wrote:
‘Bower’s meticulous and highly readable account must be absorbed from start to finish’ [and was] ‘Funny and devastating’.
In the Sunday Times, Dominic Sandbrook, praised ‘a forensically detailed portrait of a man with no inner life, a monomaniac suffused with an overwhelming sense of his own righteousness…’
ProQuest finds no less than 22 hits for articles mentioning Bower and his book in the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday. In the latter, historian Andrew Roberts welcomed the paper’s ‘serialisation of Tom Bower’s searing biography of Corbyn’. Roberts wrote:
‘Today’s extract from Bower’s book charts how anti-Zionism became a near-obsession for Corbyn since his early days as a trades union researcher, leading him to believe in what Bower describes as “the malign collective power of Jews”.’
The book ‘made clear’ that Corbyn ‘has adopted a Leninist blueprint for taking and controlling power at Westminster, while playing the “nice guy”.’
Oborne, on the other hand, took such a dim view of the book that he felt obliged to remind readers of the whole ethical basis of political journalism:
‘Those of us who report on politics are at liberty to express, within limits, whatever opinions we like. These limits include an obligation to observe standards. We should strive to be accurate. We can make strong arguments but ought not to distort the truth or suppress relevant information to make our point.
‘Writer Tom Bower fails catastrophically to meet these standards. It is not only that Dangerous Hero: Corbyn’s Ruthless Plot For Power, his new book on Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, contains numerous falsehoods. It systematically omits relevant facts in order to portray Corbyn as a ruthless Marxist and anti-semite hell-bent on destroying Western liberal values.’
‘The ugly truth is that Bower is not straight with his readers, let alone Corbyn.
‘Again and again he withholds relevant information, with the result that the Labour leader and his colleagues come over in the worst possible light.’
Oborne provided numerous examples in his long, careful analysis. For example:
‘Bower makes much of a confrontation between Labour activist Marc Wadsworth and Labour MP Ruth Smeeth at the launch for Shami Chakrabarti’s report on anti-semitism in June 2016. He writes that “Wadsworth snapped at her that not only was she ‘working hand-in-hand’ with the right-wing media by speaking to the journalist, but she was also a Jew”.
‘The brief incident is recorded on video. I have examined this video. Nowhere in the footage does Wadsworth say that Smeeth is Jewish. I spoke to two eyewitnesses to this event, both of whom confirmed to me that at no point did Wadsworth say that Smeeth was Jewish.’
Bower’s book contains a really extraordinary claim against Corbyn’s press officer, former Guardian comment editor Seumas Milne, describing his behaviour after the arrival of members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in Corbyn’s office:
‘In the presence of Jews, his body language had visibly changed.’
Oborne noted that no evidence or source was provided to justify this accusation, which depicts Milne as an authentically Nazi-style Jew-hater. Oborne responded, to devastating effect, citing journalist David Hearst:
“‘I sat for a number of years opposite Seumas,’ he told me. ‘I am Jewish, as are a number of my former colleagues on The Guardian. At no time did any of us sense that Seumas’s body language changed in our presence.
“‘He was part of the team, held in high regard for his knowledge of the Middle East and often consulted on it, particularly by the person who sat next to him, fellow columnist Jonathan Freedland. That opinion of Seumas was shared by our editor at the time, Alan Rusbridger, who kept him as comment editor for six years.'”
Bower’s response to Oborne’s critique?
‘During the last 36 hours, I have made numerous attempts to make contact with Tom Bower in order to give him the chance to defend himself. I’ve contacted him by mobile phone, by text message and at his direct line at his London home. No answer. I also emailed a list of questions to Bower yesterday morning, both to his private email address and to his publicist at William Collins. He has not responded to me.’
Oborne has since told us that Bower never responded to his questions (Twitter, direct message, March 28). He continued:
‘Bower has made an astonishing number of factual errors – more than I have ever come across in a book from a mainstream publisher. While something has clearly gone horribly wrong with the editing process at William Collins, Bower is the author and must take full responsibility…
‘Time after time, Bower makes assertions that are not backed by any evidence. The problem is so bad that I resolved to carry out my own investigation into the truth of some of the assertions made in Bower’s book. This article is the result of my research. Again and again, I have been able to prove that his account of events is false, misleading and, in some cases, pure fabrication.’
‘Bower’s book is not just intellectually dishonest, it is a farrago of falsehood and insinuation.
‘Yet it appears to have had no difficulty finding a mainstream publisher, while receiving a generous reception in the mainstream press. To their credit a handful of reviewers – above all Stephen Bush in the Observer – have exposed some of the errors in this book. But even the Bush review hardly touches on the extent of the collapse of journalistic standards in Bower’s account of Corbyn.’
To his credit, the Guardian’s George Monbiot tweeted Oborne’s piece with high praise:
‘A brave and remarkable review’
A tweeter countered, noting that ‘similar nonsense comes from Guardian on a daily basis without regard to balance or fact’.
‘Both the Guardian and the Observer slated the book.’
In fact, Guardian columnist and former political editor of the Observer, Gaby Hinsliff, concluded of Bower’s book in the Guardian:
‘This is the most compelling in-depth study so far of a man whose head is unusually difficult to get inside, given his suspicion of anyone who isn’t a fellow traveller. Just don’t expect it to change anyone’s mind.’
It is telling to compare Hinsliff’s most severe criticism with Oborne’s:
‘And that’s perhaps the biggest flaw in an otherwise damning book. Bower’s colours seem nailed to the mast…’
As Oborne says:
‘British journalists need to ask themselves a question. Is there something rotten in British media discourse which allows someone like Bower to get away with this?’
It is an important question. Celebrating ‘a farrago of falsehood’ titled ‘Dangerous Hero’ can have dangerous consequences. Last month, Corbyn was punched in the head by a protestor holding an egg (dismissed as an ‘egging’ by journalists) who was subsequently jailed for 28 days for the attack. This week, we learned that soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of the British Paratroop Regiment filmed themselves shooting at a picture of Corbyn.
This recalls the revelation, in 2015, that a senior serving general had warned that a government led by Corbyn could face ‘a mutiny’ from the army. The unnamed general told the Sunday Times:
‘The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security.’
Political and press criticism of Corbyn has always far exceeded the usual fierce disagreement, presenting him as a treacherous threat to national security, an anti-semitic fool who is ‘unfit’ to lead the country. He has been relentlessly presented as fundamentally unacceptable. As this alert was being written, Conservative MP Caroline Johnson warned in parliament that mismanaging Brexit risked ‘letting down the country and ushering in a Marxist, anti-semite-led government’. It is, in fact, astonishing to see how, in less than four years, politicians and journalists have turned an honest, compassionate, decent politician into a hate figure.
If ‘acceptable’ political choices are ultimately determined by the media, the government, or even by the military, we are well on the way to fascism.
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