The recent launch of the Corbyn Project for Peace and Justice was so well attended that they had to switch their platform to YouTube to accommodate the amount of people wanting to view. I was among the many hopeful for change, hopeful in these most dark times that somehow kindness, social justice and love for one another will prevail.
I had been waiting for Jeremy Corbyn’s next move. He seemed a man not to be downtrodden or browbeaten in the past by the daily attacks from the press that he suffered when he was serving as leader of the Labour Party. On the one hand the people, including many of the next generation of voters cheered him on with the famous chant of adulation of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ and seemed to gather in their thousands to hear him speak, on the other the press villified him at every opportunity. And the press tirade was constant. Despite this Corbyn never seemed to lose his composure, an amazing feat on its own. I am sure that many lesser politicians would have cracked under the strain.
The truth is Jeremy Corbyn has too much to do that is worthwhile in the world to be silenced by the few. He simply rose above all of the in-fighting and scandalous press behaviour to remind people that there is too much that needs fixing in the world to be pulled down into the mire that has become the everyday political arena. Ethics, justice and equality seem to have become low on the government’s agenda. The rich get ever more richer and the poor get poorer.
The pandemic has highlighted this in a gruesome way with more people dying in the low income bracket and BAME communities. Again many huge corporations have expanded, with people who have already amassed fortunes making more and more, whilst small businesses have all but closed, many having to use their small amount of savings to survive, others losing their homes and not able to put a meal on the table as they lost their livelihoods overnight. The pandemic has created a greater awareness of the inequalities that the present societal construct has created.
The mission statement of the Peace and Justice Project includes bringing people together ‘for social and economic justice, peace and human rights, in Britain and across the world’, hoping to ‘solve our common problems together’. As I watched Noam Chomsky, Ronnie Kasrils, Jeremy Corbyn, a young climate justice leader Scarlet Westbrook, Yanis Varoufakis and others, I did feel hopeful that these people and the many watching them were able to bring compassion and peace to an impoverished system. Anyone wanting a little bit of hope for the future might like to take a look at the project. You can still watch the launch on YouTube. They have a number of campaigns that you can be a part of from Climate Justice to Media Reform. It’s worth a look.
On the subject of media reform, I wrote an article a number of years ago which can be found below. (all views my own.)
Press Freedom – Truth or Lie
When I started out as a junior reporter on a local newspaper I fully believed in integrity of the press. Along with many of my other colleagues, I had picked journalism as a route to making the world a fairer place and enabling us to uncover injustices, to shine a light into the darker corners of politics where corruption and conflict of interest were rife.
Many would see the local newspaper as insignificant in terms of investigative journalism on a world stage, but this humble beginning is where reporters learn quickly that ‘news’ can be interpreted from the left or the right and local councils are a fair reflection of the larger political arena. It is also where the next generation of journalists are born and it is here that many can either learn the worth of principled reporting or pick up some pretty underhand habits, depending on their editor’s approach.
In 2017 we saw the emergence of the term ‘fake news’ from the President of the United States, Donald Trump. This was aimed at the media who he deemed to be reporting ‘untruths’. In fact he used the term in tweets 183 times in his first year in office since entering the White House. It dominated headlines and became Collins’ Dictionary’s word of the year.
Next up, another term for our post-truth era was uttered by a key Trump adviser,Kellyanne Conway referring to comments by the White House press secretary as “alternative facts” and not, of course, to be confused with lies. This backdrop where powerful politicians can dismiss news stories whenever they wish as ‘fake news’ or proffer the concept of ‘alternative facts’ has ushered in a devastating era for journalism.
But 2017 was also the year of silenced news. Take, for example, the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn. In the run up to the general election Corbyn was lambasted by the right-wing press. He was accused of having terrorist friends during the Daily Mail’s relentless anti-Corbyn campaign, and painted as a man who would not protect our country in the event of nuclear war.
What the anti-Corbyn newspapers omitted is that Jeremy Corbyn is a man of peace. Having been awarded the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Prize for his ‘long-term commitment to world peace’ he is in the company of leaders like Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Junior, also awarded the same prize.
Corbyn has been portrayed in the press as weak because he wouldn’t ‘press the nuclear button’ but as President John F. Kennedy pointed out in an address before the General Assembly of the United Nations, in the September of 1961: “… men may no longer pretend that the quest for disarmament is a sign of weakness, for in a spiralling arms race, a nation’s security may well be shrinking even as its arms increase.” He was an ardent supporter of nuclear disarmament and was keen to usher in an era where “no state could annihilate or be annihilated by another.” J. F. Kennedy promoted the vision of a “world free from the terrors of mass destruction”.
By the time Corbyn appeared on one of the last TV question and answer debates in 2017 on the run up to polling day, the newspaper headlines had done their work on the psyche of the general public. Corbyn was subjected to heckling over the questions on nuclear arms with the presenter asking Corbyn many times if he would be happy with a ‘first strike’ policy and happy to push the nuclear button.
This is a fairly good example of targeted reporting without giving the ‘silent’ side of the news story. After all, headlines could so easily have read ‘Peace Prize Winner Jezza Set to Keep Britain Safe’. As for the slant of befriending terrorists, even here the flip- side of this story is that trying to open dialogue with people is more likely to produce results than a perpetual circle of violence. It was, after all, dialogue that secured the Good Friday agreement. Nelson Mandela, famous for his own long walk to freedom said in 1995 that if you want to make peace with your enemy, “first you have to work with your enemy.”
Corbyn received a second peace prize in 2017, something that should surely be topical. He was awarded the Sean MacBride Peace Prize alongside Noam Chomsky, a renown intellectual heavyweight. Again he was awarded for his “sustained and powerful political work for disarmament and peace” because: “he has ceaselessly stood by his principles…to ensure true security and well-being for all – for his constituents, for the citizens of the UK and for the people of the world.” The silence on these stories was deafening.
This pattern of omission extended beyond the tabloids. The BBC refused to disclose how many complaints it had received over their lack of coverage of a pro-EU march that was attended by around 100,000 people, according to police figures. Protesters complained about the BBC ‘black-out’ and former Liberal Democrat MP, Stephen Williams, protested that the BBC TV news had given just five seconds coverage to the pro-EU march whilst giving extensive coverage to UKIP news.
Of course newspapers have always ‘slanted’ the news slightly towards the left or right, but today newspapers seem to act as PR agents rather than independent arbiters. The public are aware of the need for integrity in the press and the Leveson Inquiry was the result of the practice of phone hacking by a section of the press into private lines. It was a judicial public enquiry into the ethics, practices and culture of the media in two stages. The Leveson Report was published in 2012 dealing with part one of the inquiry. As a response to the recommendation’s in the report we have the present system of press regulation.
Although there are two press regulators: The Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), which most of the press have signed up to, there is also IMPRESS which, despite only having a small number of publications signed up to it, was given recognition by the new Press Recogniton Panel (PRP). The PRP was devised to oversee any independent regulator. These new arrangements also seemed controversial in their own way. For example, IPSO is funded by its members but IMPRESS is funded by the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust set up by Max Mosley. It could be said that this makes it seem far from independent. As it stands today IPSO still appear to be the regulators recognised by the majority of the press.
The second half of the inquiry was originally delayed and in March, 2018, the Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that it would be dropped completely. Interestingly, part two was to cover, amongst other things ‘the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International, other media organisations or other organisations’. The timing of the inquiry being dropped is a point of interest.
In February of this year the right wing press went after Corbyn again with claims that he had met with a Czechoslovakian spy in the 1980s. The intimation that Corbyn was passing over secrets about his vegetable garden, I assume! Labour protested that the allegations were “completely surreal” and Corbyn’s spokesman suggested that the papers who published the stories, once again including the Sun and the Mail, were running scared of a possible Labour government who would look into media ownership. Corbyn warned press barons that “change is coming” and that “publishing these ridiculous smears that have been refuted by the Czech officials again just shows how worried media bosses are of the prospect of a Labour government.”
Although Corbyn, in his usual way, joked that the press had gone a little bit “James Bond” the injustice of it all was getting waring for the general public. Instead of believing these type of stories many of us were simply feeling that, once again, the standards that we expect from our press had not been met. Where was the independent body that could put a stop to newspapers becoming the mouthpiece of their owners?
In this latest vilification of the Labour leader, Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, highlighted that a Labour government would go ahead with the recommendations for press regulation put forward in the Leveson Report and continue to forge ahead with part two of the inquiry. By March, the second half of the inquiry had been publicly dropped by the Conservatives. Their reason put forward being cost.
It would seem that an elaborate game of cloaks and mirrors, an expensive mirage set up to show the Conservatives doing the right thing in response to the peoples’ concerns over press integrity has cost a huge sum of money with minimal results . Perhaps another answer would be to scrutinise media ownership. Once a person owns a news outlet they could become subject to legislation that would ensure they relinquish any business interests that could show a ‘conflict of interest’ in terms of ‘news’ control.
For the most part, young reporters go out into the world with all the best intentions for uncovering the big scoop, to become the next Woodward or Bernstein, a couple of journalists famous for uncovering the Watergate scandal in the 70s. They often begin with high hopes for bettering society through their tenacity coupled with a moral understanding that corruption and wrongdoing should be wiped from the political world and the practice of journalism. During coverage of the Watergate affair Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s journalism was called into question by the White House, denouncing their reports in the Post as ‘biased and misleading’. The reporters were finally vindicated when President Nixon’s own press secretary Ron Zeigler called the White House criticisms‘inoperative’. It takes great courage to not only be a steadfast reporter but also a supportive publisher. In 1973 the two journalists were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting.
In 2017, Woodward and Bernstein spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with a message for President Donald Trump, “Mr. President”, said Woodward, “the media is not fake news”, and Bernstein reminded the audience that “Richard Nixon tried to make the conduct of the press more the issue in Watergate instead of the President and his men. We tried to avoid the noise and let the reporting speak”, he said. Unfortunately, for the first time in history, a President was absent from the Correspondents’ Dinner.
The National Union of Journalists Code of Practice states that a journalist should : strive to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair and that they should differentiate between fact and opinion and produce no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation.
Brexit coverage showed sections of the UK press at their worst. Some of the headlines in the tabloid press were truly shocking and relentless on the lead up to Brexit and at the last general election. A report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance accused the British media, especially the tabloids of “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”. It also named politicians David Cameron and Nigel Farageamong those that they considered to be fuelling rising xenophobia over Brexit, the refugee crisis and terrorism. In the light of this conclusion it called for a press regulator according to the recommendations of the Leveson Report because the two competing bodies already in place were not sufficient.
As society progresses it should follow that our politicians and our press also become ever more enlightened and aware of the responsibility they hold to the people. It is the people that buy newspapers and elect politicians and they deserve more than to be at the end of a chain that begins with business interests first and that of the people last.
From Conservative MPs not bothering to turn up to a parliamentary induction session on ethical dilemmas in 2010, to journalists using shocking tactics to sway voters, there has to be a new era that supersedes post-truth. It should be one in which ethics in both politics and journalism are given urgent priority. Let’s hope it turns into the post-lies decade pretty fast. Journalists should not have to work in an atmosphere of fear – fear of losing jobs or being sued for telling the truth.
In 2012, the Ethical Journalism Network was established with the intention to “advance education, particularly education in ethics and respect for human rights”. They believe that these two principles, along with freedom of expression, are integral features of democracy.
They note that ethics in journalism have never been more needed in this age where we have fabricated news and new forms of propaganda that can deepen political bias, where we have “undue corporate influence”, conflicts of interest and populism, where the public information platform is “fragmented, intolerant and polarised.”
They seek to strengthen an ethical approach in the newsroom. “We need more ethical journalism and independent, fact-based reporting to tell all sides of the story, and to show respect and humanity”. But as well as this they note that “transparency and good governance in the ownership and management of media and a meaningful commitment to self-regulation across all platforms of journalism”, is also needed.
This approach, to reinforce ethics and human rights in journalism, seems to me the only way forward. We can only hope that the future will see the press adhering more fully to the Editor’s Code of Practice. But to retain a truly democratic society the political arena also needs to be subject to scrutiny in the field of ethics. Members of Parliament, rather than skipping ethic induction sessions set up by the Committee on Standards in Public Life(CSPL) should be made to attend on a compulsory basis to reinforce the dangers to the democratic process when conflicts of interest influence political decisions.
The Seven Principles of Public Life include, for example, that holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest, decisions should be taken impartially, fairly and on merit and under the heading of ‘integrity’ that they must “avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships”.
A report issued by the CSPL noted that Members of Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons, were slow to embrace induction “let alone accepting that there is a role for ethics within it.” Whether it be politics or journalism let’s hope that the next decade becomes the ‘post-lies’ era with ethics becoming the watchword for future generations.