By E M Johns
You’ve all seen them. The online petitions asking the BBC the stop being biased. Or for the Daily Mail to play fair. Or for Sky News to apologise for something or other. Or…
A recent real-life protest called against the New Statesman’s apparently biased coverage of Labour Party matters has rightly attracted derision on social media. It should be stressed that this protest does not appear to have been called by any group, but by individuals who disagree with the editorial position of the magazine.
Fair enough, right? We all protest against stuff we disagree with.
Of course we should take the media to task when it lies and distorts, when it relentlessly publishes biases and half-truths. But should we protest against the editorial line of, or even existence of, specific publications?
Honestly, I can’t see the point. And in true 21st century listicle format, here’s why.
1. It’s desperate
It’s a sign of desperation and even impotence on the part of our movement that we should be reduced to petitioning hostile media outlets to play fair. The labour movement used to have a constellation, even a galaxy, of publications, cultural and social organisations to press home our message in society at large (somewhat more impressive than the one solitary Morning Star which still winks limply in the media firmament). Rather than moaning about the positions taken by media outlets that are always going to be, to a greater or lesser degree, hostile to radical leftwing ideas, we should be investing time, energy, and resources into building our own alternatives.
2. It’s intolerant
Yes, owners, editors, and writers should be punished in instances where they tell outright and conscious lies (the Sun over Hillsborough being the worst and most high profile example of this). Yes, media ownership should be regulated to prevent small numbers of capitalist owners having the sort of massive influence over the national discourse which they currently do. But, ultimately, if you’re simply protesting because you don’t like what someone prints, then tough shit. They’re at liberty to print it. A free press is a good thing. It almost beggars belief to have to make these points on the political left, which has fought for free speech, against overly restrictive libel laws, and the free exchange of information for centuries.
3. It doesn’t advance our cause politically
These periodic outrages have no tactical or strategic value. They don’t advance any project of building an alternative working-class media. They don’t bring any pressure to bear on editors or owners to change their positions. They don’t bring any more people in society into contact with socialist ideas. If anything, people will just start to think of socialists as people who can’t handle criticism and who cry foul about media bias instead of talking about, oh I don’t know, wealth redistribution, common ownership, or literally anything else. (Again, the Hillsborough campaign, of which the boycott of the Sun newspaper is just one part, is an exception that proves this rule – a long-running, laudable, well organised and targeted campaign to win justice and redress for a particularly horrific set of printed lies. And, of course, it has targeted much more than just the press).
4. It might even help reactionary political forces
This sort of activity feeds a narrative that fails to differentiate between different elements of the ‘MSM’ (that’s ‘mainstream media’ to you uninitiated sheeple out there). Yes, there are vicious rightwing media outlets who will stop at nothing to destroy the labour movement. There are also publications and commentators who are much more sympathetic, perhaps even broadly on our side, but who remain critical and unconvinced of the viability of our political project. Lumping them all together as targets for our ire is dangerous, and shows no real analysis of the media or how it works. Ironically, it strengthens the sort of worldview that rightwing populists are taking advantage of at the moment around the world: the media is after us, everything they print is biased or false, we’ll go and find our own facts elsewhere. It erodes critical thinking in favour of the idea that the media is all in on a big conspiracy.
5. It makes us forget that some journalists can be our allies
Journalists are, in fact, workers. There are parts of the world where they are at the forefront of defending trade union rights and freedom of speech; countries like Turkey, Belarus, Mexico, and countless others. There is also, of course, such a thing as good quality journalism which doesn’t always reach the political conclusions you’d like it to.
6. It makes the rest of the left look like idiots
These sorts of actions, online or offline, make us come across as intolerant buffoons who can’t take criticism – hardly the type of people who could aspire to the democratic control of the economy and society. Stop doing it.
If you really don’t like the New Statesman, just don’t read it. Read the Clarion instead.
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