It started with a hiss.
Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC News political editor, was trying to ask Jeremy Corbyn a question at a Remain event on Thursday.
When she was introduced, a chorus of hisses and boos went up from the crowd.
Kuenssberg has become a hate figure for Corbynistas, who are convinced she is pursuing a nefarious right-wing agenda to undermine the Labour leader. Their evidence is that Kuenssberg reports stories unhelpful to the Corbynite cause, a workplace hazard when covering a man the Washington Post’s George Will calls “the silliest leader in the British Labour Party’s 116-year history”.
If the Scottish broadcaster’s partiality is imperceptible to most BBC viewers, it is readily detected by the Corbynista faithful, who abuse Kuenssberg on social media and maintain paranoia-drenched blogs documenting her every Tory inflection, every neoliberal camera angle. You know these people. They’re the sort who fume on Twitter that “you won’t hear about this in the MSM” when invariably the subject of their displeasure is the top story on the BBC News website.
It’s probably no coincidence that Kuenssberg is the first woman to hold her role. As former Independent on Sunday editor Jane Merrick told the Guardian: “She has been called a whore and a bitch on Twitter. Nick Robinson used to be accused of Tory bias but he never experienced this level of nastiness.”
A petition launched to have Kuenssberg sacked by the BBC attracted 35,000 signatories and an onslaught of misogyny. The left-wing 38 Degrees platform removed the petition, with executive director David Babbs complaining the initiative had been “hijacked, and used as a focal point for sexist and hateful abuse made towards Laura Kuenssberg on Twitter. That is totally unacceptable…”
That was totally unacceptable. Up until that point, Babbs was apparently relaxed about hosting a lynch mob manifesto demanding a journalist be fired. Why did you have to cross the line and spoil everyone’s fun, lads?
Anti-journalism hysteria is hardly new to Britain but this is the first time it has taken grip of a mainstream political party. To their credit, a number of Labour MPs denounced their supporters’ attempts to bully into silence a troublesome journalist. Rightly, they recognise that attacks on a free press offend our civic, democratic traditions.
But those very traditions are under threat today. A generation is coming to politics not as an expression of class solidarity, on one side, or a desire to protect private property, on the other. That is the old politics. “The new politics is beyond left and right.” How prescient, how disturbingly mantic, that old saw has turned out to be. Arguments over wealth redistribution and the size of government have receded and into view slouch the politics of identity and the populist impulse.
Every movement needs a bogeyman and where Marxists had the capitalists and free marketeers the state, the populists have “the establishment” or “the elite”. The beauty of the “establishment” is that anyone can be declared a member, regardless of income or status; the only qualification is disagreeing with the accuser. Joe McCarthy is long dead but newly unburied.
And who populates this “establishment”? Going by prior form, usually the bankers, the Freemasons, and the Jews, but there is always space for journalists. The MSM — hard though it might be to believe, being “mainstream” was once a virtue — must be part of the elite. Who else could be brainwashing the masses to vote against their clear interests?
Research is often trumpeted showing unprecedented levels of media literacy, a function of easier access to technology and the internet. But journalism literacy is another matter and the principle of a free press, once sacrosanct across the spectrum, is now wanting for advocates.
In a sense, this is not surprising. Journalism is a product of the liberal temperament, the desire to know, to understand, to convey, and to enlighten. Journalists disrupt political messaging with inconvenient facts. They are annoying, checking the footnotes while everyone else gets caught up in the sweep of history.
There is no place for journalism in our post-liberal politics. Journalists must only write “nice” articles about The Cause and their reports must “destroy” The Enemies of the Cause. Journalists must be co-opted into The Cause, funded by The Cause, and operate editorially within its confines. That is called balance. Scrutinising The Cause and other causes, subjecting them to interrogation and analysis — that is called bias.
There is no shortage of agitators lining up to accuse the hated media of “bias”. Politicians and activists, lobby groups, even the more on-message of the journalism profession get in on the action. Our universities are replete with old Trots and even older Tankies expensively stipended to produce studies declaring the media biased against their worldview. These are people who know what they know to be true and want to hear it back again and again.
Media hatred — and that’s what it is: Blind, unreasoned hatred — is part of the larger backlash against liberalism and its shortcomings. Not for coincidence do so many media “watchdogs” dabble in the sullen isms of our times: Populism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, and that pseudo-left nihilism that occupies the husk of socialism.
That is why they cling to echo chamber outlets like comfort blankets. Russia Today may be a simpering Kremlin cheerleader with news values that make the National Enquirer look like the New York Times, but what’s a bit of Putin-gushing and a few grainy UFO videos when the trade-off is rolling demagoguery against the West.
There is a tendency in journalism towards self-criticism; hence the proliferation of readers’ editors, ombudsmen, and media columnists. And there’s a lot to criticise. The hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone was callous in the extreme but the sins of the British media are not primarily criminal. Newspapers are hyper-partisan, judgemental, and stigmatising.
Broadcasters tug their forelocks to the Queen and many are only dimly aware of the world north of the M25. The BBC’s online operation is smothering local journalism and its numerous music stations inhibiting competition in the radio sector. Journalism in Britain is too white, too middle class, and too distant from the audiences it serves.
But media hatred is not criticism. It is a rage against a world that refuses to work out the way it ought to and replicates a hostility to critical enquiry familiar from earlier forms of populism. The object is not “fairness” or “balance” but complicity by intimidation. The object is to single out journalists like Kuenssberg and, by making an example of them, produce a chilling effect.
Am I sure I want to write this story? Is publishing this sceptical analysis going to fill my timeline with abuse and invective? Look what happened to Laura Kuenssberg. Is it really worth it?
Not a finger lifted, not a bone broken. Make their job more and more difficult. Make employing them more and more bothersome. Eventually, you’ll shut them up or prompt their employer to rein them in. And you won’t have to worry about hearing them in the mainstream media anymore.