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Media attacks on the left are nothing new

From the Chartists to left-wing councils in the ’80s to Tony Benn, all have received their share of vitriol from the right-wing press, says KEITH FLETT

VICTOR SERGE, the anarchist turned Bolshevik, and later critic of the direction the Russian Revolution was to take, wrote towards the end of his life in the late 1940s: “On several occasions a press with a vast circulation has hurled filth at me because I spoke the truth.”

It is a reminder that attacks on left-wing activists and writers by media owned by the rich and powerful are nothing new.

Indeed in the 1840s the leaders of the Chartist movement were often to be found being vilified in the press. Particular attention was paid, by Punch for example, to caricaturing the black leader of London Chartism in 1848 William Cuffay.

This is the wider historical context of the current media onslaught on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. It may be that his policies, were they to be, as is to be hoped, carried out by a Labour government, wouldn’t do that much to threaten the interests of the wealthy. But they struggle to cope with even the slightest challenge to their power.

It is hardly any surprise that papers like the Mail and Telegraph attack Corbyn. They are supporters of the Tory Party and want a continuing Tory government of some sort and hence will always criticise Labour. 

The real bile is often to be found in the Guardian. Of course the paper and its website does publish pro-Corbyn pieces. It also carries stuff by those who it is clear do not agree with Corbyn, never have agreed with him and never will. It doesn’t make for very interesting reading at best.

I came across the Labour leader at a small meeting on a Friday night at the end of July to mark the opening of a Bernie Grant section of Tottenham Library. 

He was on great form, entirely relaxed. How, one might wonder, does he do this given the scale of the media onslaught?

The answer I suspect is that he has seen it all before, as have I as a Haringey resident. 

Corbyn started his political life as a Haringey councillor and when his political ally Grant became council leader prior to becoming MP for Tottenham, the tabloid press in particular could not contain itself. “Barmy Bernie” was one of the milder epithets used.

The media was on the attack because they saw left-wing Labour councils in the 1980s as a potential challenge to Margaret Thatcher in a way that fairly obviously then Labour leader Neil Kinnock was not. 

Interestingly, recently released government papers reveal that in the mid-1980s MI5 was investigating left-wing “infiltration” in a number of local authorities, including Haringey.

Tony Benn was certainly the victim of the worst kind of media abuse. He was often portrayed by sections of the press as mad with revolving eyes. As he noted in his Diary, direct harassment of himself and his family was far from uncommon.

For example on June 6 1975, Benn records that in returning home from the Post Office Engineering Union (now CWU) conference in Blackpool, he was being pressed to make a statement on the referendum on the Common Market (EU) that had been held.

He recorded that he had found a “dozen journalists gathered in the front garden, plus a television unit.”

He declined to make a comment until he had seen the full results.

Little has changed. The Guardian reported on August 11 that a critic had complained that Corbyn was “hiding” from the media over anti-semitism. As even the paper had to concede, he was in fact on holiday in Somerset.

 

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