There’s bad journalism (flawed, inept, biased, sleazy, trivial) and then there’s outright lies and disinformation. As the toxicity of the Brexit process intensifies we can now see the convergence of political operators, lobbyists and hacks coming together in an unholy alliance around an agenda of de-regulation, climate denial, black ops against legitimate protest and corporate power. We can see this through the rise of The Full Brexit group, propaganda pushed through the Spectator, Guido Fawkes, the Telegraph and Spiked and through the legitimisation of people like Isabel Oakeshott, given a platform by BBC Question Time in the very week she was exposed as a liar. Britain doesn’t need a Breitbart it already has a network of right and far-right media that seeps between the tabloids, the broadsheets and the new media. This accelerated process of propaganda reflects the far-right which is both emboldened and under threat by the weakness of its governing party and growing consciousness about its powerbase.
These outlets are encouraged by the new fervid nationalism that grips England, at times they flirt with fascism and finds allies with DUP bigotry and Aaron Banks loot and support a loose network of think-tanks from: Legatum to the Tax Payers Alliance, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the Institute for Economic Affairs and Sense About Science (of more later) and the dregs of the various Leave platforms. It’s an odd bunch. The splenetic journalism of Rod Liddle and Brendan O’Neill sits a little queasily beside the more prosaic Alex Massie or the more Old-School Charles Moore but there are some common threads: adherence to the new right concept of ‘populism’ versus a ‘liberal elite’; deep aversion to environmental politics (often expressed through climate denial), disdain for regulatory standards ‘red tape’; glee at unbridled corporate power and unquestioning faith in hyper-capitalism; all speckled with an unhealthy relish of Trumpian ‘chaos’. This is where austerity, class power, British Triumphalism and Brexit converge in an orgy of self-congratulation.
As Jon Burnett writes in The Violence of Austerity (forthcoming Pluto Press): “The individualised hate that is given increased legitimacy under the context of austerity cannot be divorced from the institutional violence that is accelerating in the name of austerity.”
In the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster we can see this nexus of the right swell into incoherent outbursts. Ross Clark at the Daily Mail kicked things off with a front page story demanding that there are “three lethal questions” that need answering; the first of which is: “Were green targets to blame for the fire tragedy?” It adds that “experts”, which the paper doesn’t name, are asking whether the cladding was “installed simply to meet environmental targets”.
Inside is a full-page commentary from Ross Clark, asking: “So did an obsession with green targets lead to inferno?”
Clark, who has published various climate sceptic articles has also written a book attacking regulations he believes to be “strangling” the UK. This was backed-up inside by an editorial which stated: ‘“The more we learn of this tragedy, the more it appears that the blame lies not with money but staggering incompetence and misguided climate change targets…Was it, as official documents suggest, an attempt to slash greenhouse gas emissions?”
This ideological attack and blame-shifting has been comprehensively demolished by Leo Hickman at Carbon Brief here.
This approach is taken up shortly after (26 June 2017) by James Heartfield on Spiked asking: “Might CO2 targets be behind the fad for flammable cladding?”
The approach of Dacre, Clark and James Heartfield (also known as James Hughes and William Deighton) is to divert attention away from political crisis, legal implication and the obscenity of social housing and bring the readers gaze back to their comfort zone of bashing greens and denying climate reality. Heartfield (or whatever he’s called) has written for Living Marxism, Culture Wars, the Pro-Choice Forum and Spiked, speaks at the Battle of Ideas and is a director of building promoters Audacity. He is a member of the new Full Brexit group and is the pivot point between ‘libertarianism’ and the far right. He started the defence of smacking children in the 1990s as part of a campaign against ‘taboos’ and here he is interviewing Neil Hamilton way back in 1994, where the mutual appreciation is palpable, Hamilton ends: “‘My preferred reading matter is the Daily Telegraph and LM these days’, he adds.
If the Mail, and to an extent Spiked are well-established purveyors of this hate-filled agenda, The Full Brexit is a new manifestation. It’s opening declaration states: “Brexit offers a historic opportunity for democratic and economic renewal. This opportunity is being squandered by Britain’s political class. The Full Brexit will set out radical arguments for a clean break with the European Union. Instead of the conservative nostalgia of the Eurosceptics, our arguments will put the interests of working people – the majority of citizens – at the centre of the case for a democratic Brexit.”
If this is confused Lexit gibberish or another front for the disaffected Blairite Zombie Class of policy wonks is unclear. Certainly its makeup includes Baron Maurice Glasman, he of the permanently undead Blue Labour (and Legatum Fellow), the aforementioned James Heartfield, and amongst others Matthew Goodwin.
In one of their first publications by Peter Ramsay and Christopher Bickerton “The Irish Border: Passing Brexit’s Acid Test of Sovereignty” they write of “The potential threat of violence by tiny organisations, which represent a very small part of the Nationalist population in Northern Ireland, is being exploited to frustrate a decision made by the majority of the UK population as a whole. Behind the intransigence of Michel Barnier and Leo Varadkar we find potential threats from diehard republican grouplets, effectively recruited as the armed wing of the European Union.”
This is Boris’s tail wagging the head, a new articulation of English supremacy and a new strand to the Brexit mayhem.
Oakeshott and Question Time
Last week we saw the disgraced journalist Isabel Oakeshott invited onto BBC Question Time. At the time Gerry Hassan wrote: “Scandalously #bbcqt invite @IsabelOakeshott & don’t ask her about her key role in the #Brexit scandal involved Arron Banks & Andy Wigmore. Makes a farce of BBC Question Time & this is a huge story abt democracy & its corruption which the #BBC have consistently played down.”
Asked about the invitation to join the panel last week, the BBC News Press team issued a statement saying:
“Some people have asked why Isabel is on #bbcqt – like all of our guests, she will be questioned & challenged by our audience & other panel members. The panel is made up of politicians, public figures, & political commentators to ensure a range of views.”
In fact she was not challenged at all.
The problem is that this platform gives legitimacy to its participants, whether that’s the ever-present Farage or the likes of Nick Griffin. Th problem may lie deeper, as we reported back in 2016 on the role of the deeply-compromised ‘Audience Producer’ Alison Fuller Pedley (‘BBC Question Time: Fake Audiences?‘). When we’re asking why Oakeshott was on the panel we might also ask why Pedley was sharing Britain First posts on Facebook and inviting the EDL to be in the audience.
But if Oakeshott was a key player in the unfolding Leave corruption scandal, her views take us right back to Grenfell and the neo-eugenics agenda being played out by the far-right in government. She has called parking spaces for disabled people “a triumph of political correctness over common sense” and acts as Katie Hopkins-lite rent-a-gob model of compassionless Tory self-interest. Shortly after Grenfell, Oakeshott said:
“My position is that benefit claimants have no basic entitlement to state support to live in the most desirable areas of London” – she wants to cleanse poor people from affluent areas…”.
The problem is not hosting people with views you object to or disagree with. This is essential. The problem is with badging these people as journalists when they have just abandoned any pretence of having journalistic standards. Oakeshott, who previously held the title of Political Editor at Large at Dacre’s Daily Mail has no legitimacy as a journalist, herself admitting that “no need for burden of proof on a colourful anecdote where we’re quite upfront about our own reservations about whether to take it seriously”.
In an era of fakes news and disinformation the presentation of Oakeshott as a credible journalist is a disgrace. It suggests we live in a chumocracy in which the state broadcaster has abandoned any attempt to maintain standards.
De-Regulation and Disinformation
This points to a wider failure in which Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), and other bodies, are useless.
Writing on the LSE site Bob Ward writes about the Sunday Telegraph repeatedly publishing false statements about climate change:
“The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has today demonstrated again that it is unwilling to take action against fake news about climate change that appears in its member newspapers. It is the latest example of the difference between IPSO’s actions and its advertising campaign, launched in April, which claims “IPSO regulated publications are committed to high standards and accurate reporting”. In fact, its new ruling shows that newspapers are free to publish inaccurate and misleading information about climate change because IPSO treats facts as opinions.” (“Failure to tackle fake news about climate change”).
This free-for-all to spread falsehood is mirrored by the easy access of think-tanks to inside government, as this report by Open Democracy reveals (“Revealed: New evidence of ‘Hard Brexit svengali’ Shanker Singham’s ‘unparalleled access’ to senior government figures”):
“Singham, a former Washington lobbyist – who has been said to enjoy “unparalleled access” to senior government figures – left Legatum earlier this year to head up a new trade unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Earlier this month, the charity regulator ruled that Legatum’s Brexit work had ‘crossed the line’ and did not meet its charitable objectives.
In March and May this year, just after he left Legatum, Singham met with Philip Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union. Both meetings took place at DExEU’s Whitehall offices.”
If Brexit threatens Britain’s (and Scotland’s) fragile and inadequate environmental regulations, there are more and more ‘think-tank’s and lobby groups hovering to go in for the kill on the behest of their political paymasters. As the Intercept reported earlier this month, the LM front-group Sense About Science has been at the very heart of deregulation disinformation for years. Its founder Dick Taverne wrote in his 2005 book, “The March of Unreason,” complaining that:
“Eco-fundamentalists” and fearmongers had fomented a backlash against science and technology, which had in turn produced a “multiplication of health and safety regulations.” That year British Petroleum donated 15,000 pounds to Sense About Science, and Taverne argued in the House of Lords that as much as 80 percent of global warming might be attributable to solar activity, even though that theory had been discredited two years earlier. Taverne, who stepped down as chairman of Sense About Science in 2012, did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment.”
In a bizarre twist that brings us right back to Heartfield and Co on Grenfell, the Intercept writes (“How Self-Appointed Guardians of “Sound Science” Tip the Scales Toward Industry“):
“Sense About Science has long relied on dubious numbers to insist on the efficacy of these chemicals. In 2006 it published a pamphlet on “misconceptions about chemicals” in which it claimed that British laws requiring flame retardants in furniture had reduced fire deaths by 20 percent, citinga 2000 European Commission report called “Flame Retardants.” A European Commission press officer told me she knows of no such report. “The reference to the 20 percent reduction in fire deaths is repeatedly quoted in papers and publications from flame retardant industries and associations, and they always refer to ‘Flame Retardants, DG Environment Video 2000,’ which we cannot find.” On the contrary, she told me, it is simply “not possible to correlate fire deaths to non-flammability requirements.”
Earlier this month – after the ‘marriage of hell’ that saw Big Pharma unit Bayer buy Monsanto – new revelations emerged about Monsanto’s past actions. Chief among them were a fact sheet which described: “the contents of Monsanto’s confidential public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in order to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, the international group of experts on the IARC panel judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.”
“The Monsanto plan names more than a dozen “industry partner” groups that company executives planned to “inform / inoculate / engage” in their efforts to protect the reputation of Roundup, prevent the “unfounded” cancer claims from becoming popular opinion, and “provide cover for regulatory agencies.” Partners included academics as well as chemical and food industry front groups, trade groups and lobby groups — follow the links below to fact sheets that provide more information about the partner groups.”
The US – Right to Know project reported that amongst Tier 2 industry partners are front groups that are often cited as independent sources, but work with the chemical industry behind the scenes on public relations and lobbying campaigns. And who do we see right in front listed there? Yes it’s out friends Sense About Science. Read the report here.
Many see the BBC as a major part of this problem, as the Question Time issue suggests. Others, at the heart of this group I have laid out, see it very differently. Writing in The Spectator after the Starbucks chain were forced to try to deals with their staffs racism, Charles Moore wrote:
“It would take at least four weeks to train the BBC staff out of unconscious bias on Brexit, Christianity, the sex war, paedophile accusations, immigration, Israel, Trump, abortion, global warming and so on…”.
And so on … and there you have the smorgasbord of bizarre far-right obsessions, a generational reflex action against a world they don’t understand, a corporate power-grab portrayed as a constitutional revival and a dangerous fantasy about unmitigated hyper-capitalism that is destroying our world. Brexit means disinformation and deregulation. We should be alive to the connection between the two.