COUNTERING DISINFORMATION

At this moment in time, I really miss the wisdom of Mike Marqusee whose wrote in his essay ‘SUCCESS, FAILURE AND OTHER POLITICAL MYTHS’ (Red Pepper, December 2013),

“There are worse things than failure, and while failure is nothing to glory in, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You can learn more from a failure than from success- if you recognise it as such. But if the only lesson you draw from failure is never to risk failure again, you’ve learned nothing at all. 

“Needless risks should always be avoided. We don’t have resources to squander. But the elimination of risk is impossible if you’re contending with power. Without risks all that can be done is to reproduce existing social relations. There is no truth, no beauty without risk, because these things can only be secured in the teeth of resistance, against institutions and habits of thought. To succeed in any way that matters, you have to take your place in the republic of the uncertain, when you risk yourselves, not your stake in other people’s labour. It’s the action taken in the full knowledge of the possibility of failure, and its consequences, that acquire leverage.”

The winter election of 2019 was a great risk for Labour. The outcome was affected by many factors – Labour’s bipolarity on Brexit, the civil war within the party, Jeremy Corbyn’s distorted image, the tsunami of disinformation by the right wing mass media, the smears of antisemitism, the undermining of Labour by Tony Blair and his acolytes, amongst others. None of these factors are isolated from each other, but they intersected to undermine Labour’s campaign.  Jeremy’s public perception was determined by the mass media which began his vilification since he entered the leadership contest in 2015. 

There can be little doubt that the mass media plays a significant role. Newspapers and TV are more powerful than armies. We lost the battle for hearts and minds because we did not have the means to counter the vast campaign of disinformations and propaganda. Every means available was used against the Labour party and its leadership. 

In a prescient observation more than a 150 years ago, Marx observed that those who own the means of production also own the means of information enabling them to produce and regulate the production and distribution of ideas. The control of the means of information central to influencing public opinion was missing in the original Clause IV. From our experience, the most important lesson we need to learn is, that to win the battle for ideas for the public good and social ownership, we need to have adequate control over the means of public information and have a strategy followed by concrete actions to counter disinformation

To this day, Chomsky and Herman’s analysis on the role of the media in shaping public opinion in a democratic society remains unrivalled. The selective filtering of news by the media, the setting of the political agenda and the confinement of public discussion within narrow limits is all the more powerful with the TV channels playing a significant role in moulding public perception.

Empirical analysis of media bias as we approached the election day showed that press hostility to Labour in 2019 was more than double the levels identified in 2017. By the same measure, negative coverage of the Conservatives halved.  For Granville Williams, editor of Media North which monitored the press closely, “It was a disturbing experience, reading what can only be described as undiluted  propaganda day after day in the bloc of avid Tory-supporting newspapers which worked closely with the Tory HQ election campaign to maximise the assault on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’s election policies.”

We need to be cautious in adopting the term ‘fake news’ that has become a popular media reference, on grounds that it tends to frame the problem as isolated incidents of falsehood and confusion. Rather the public is subject to systematic disinformation which can be defined as intentional falsehoods spread as news stories or simulated documentary formats to advance political goals.

The choice for us is to accept this and succumb to this enormous pressure to win an election by tilting to the right, abandoning socialist politics and accepting neo-liberal norms just as Tony Blair did with his pact with Rupert Murdoch.  Or we work out imaginative ways in which to counter the disinformation.

Jim Ring in his article ‘BLAST FROM THE NORTH’ (Labour Briefing February 2020) put the challenge succinctly:

“We have one great disadvantage in this fightback campaign- we have no public voice of our own. It is time for the unions to delve into their vast pockets and sponsor a professional media service-combining television outlets, newspapers and social media facilities- to get our message across to everyone.”

The techniques used by the mainstream media spring from the ideas of the Public Relations pioneer Edward Bernays who considered stereotypes as influential in shaping public opinion. The media created a range of stereotypes of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. The response to these was a public relations disaster for the party on all the issues such as antisemitism, extremism, electability, economic management, etc. What is urgently needed for the party is to have a Public Relations team with visible and identifiable voices who would rebut disinformation with boldness immediately.

The idea of community organising is getting traction now and should be taken forward urgently. CLPs should also prioritise community engagement and create Community Engagement Officer posts on their Executive Committees. Simultaneously, the provision of adequate financial resources to constituency parties is needed so that they can publish a quarterly newsletter through the year for every home in the constituency. Such a newsletter would be not replicate the party leaflets but could be a vehicle to tell local personal stories about the impact of universal credit, homelessness, housing crisis, transport, pollution, hospital trolley waits, mental health, cuts affecting services, etc. The production and distribution of such newsletters would be the responsibility of local activists in the campaign committees. This would complement the growing use of online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram amongst others.

Monopoly control of the whole media is by a handful of billionaires and global corporations with just three companies controlling 83% of the newspaper market and just two individuals – Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere -dominating the national press. Serious discussion on how wider control of and access to the media can be put in place for a democratic political order is urgently needed with a view to incorporating fundamental media reform into the next Labour manifesto.

Published in Labour Briefing https://labourbriefing.squarespace.com/blog/2020/2/12/countering-disinformation

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