When Propaganda Fails: on Poppy Sellers, Rioters and Douglas Murray’s Fever Dream
Bella was born out of a realisation that the media in the UK (but particularly in Scotland) was deeply flawed: captured by a handful of millionaires, wholly unrepresentative, deeply biased, and relentlessly representing narrow class and social interests.
A new report out showed that there are “dangerous levels of concentrated ownership” in the UK media, with just three publishers control 90% of print reach and 40% of online reach.
It’s getting worse. This week saw dire local examples of media failure in Edinburgh (more of this in a moment), but on a UK national level the commentary has spiked in toxicity and extremes as the situation in Gaza has developed and views which might have been considered too repellent for publication before are put out there and defended.
Here’s the Spectators Associate Editor, Douglas Murray describing Humza Yousaf as ‘The First Minister of Gaza’ – presumably for calling for a ceasefire – and the racist slur that he has ‘infiltrated out system’:
As Brendan Cox said: “If a high profile journalist accused a Jewish political leader as having “infiltrated our system” or branded them “the first minister of Israel” they would be sacked for antisemitism. As they should be. Just because he’s talking about a Muslim doesn’t make it any more acceptable.”
Mike Katz, the chair of Jewish Labour and on Labour’s Antisemitism Advisory Board said of the comments: “Infiltrated”? This is the worst sort of trope and rank Islamophobia. No justification for it whatsoever.”
Of course the Spectator have a track record on all of this but it seems now off-the-leash.
Karam Bales from Byline Times has deconstructed some of Murray’s interviews saying it sounds like something from the 1930s, in particular emboldened dog-whistling on the back of Braverman’s rhetoric Murray has said: “If the army don’t sort it out the public will”
Murray has called for the mass deportation of those he considers to be Hamas supporters (which he has suggested is anyone going on future protest marches) and described himself as being “at the moderate end of what’s coming …”
This idea of society in chaos and the army being needed – or some militia will step in – is a far-right trope – and a self-fulfilling one as we can see by some of the groups descending on London today. There is a nascent fascism in all of this.
President Macron calls for a ceasefire 👏 🇫🇷
“The civilian population must be protected. It is absolutely essential. This is non negotiable. This is an immediate need.. Today the situation is extremely serious and it’s getting worse every day. In the immediate future we need to… pic.twitter.com/qsYJRqFVzo
— Farrukh (@implausibleblog) November 10, 2023
This spike in far-right rhetoric may have been emboldened by the Home Secretary’s disgraceful comments but it’s been a long time coming. As Aaron Bastani has noted: “Before 2021, Britain already had the most rightwing press of any liberal democracy. Last October, newspapers owned by Viscount Rothermere – a close friend of David Cameron and a tax-avoiding ‘non-dom’ – accounted for 35% of all circulation, with a further 25% owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK. When the holdings of both Evgeny Lebedev and the Barclay Brothers are included – the former who was recently made a peer by the Tories, the latter being one-time party donors – just under 75% of all national newspapers are controlled by Conservative-supporting billionaires.”
The Telegraph, the Express, the Daily Mail, and The Sun jointly hold huge readerships and a symbiotic relationship with the broadcast media (‘what the papers say’). Britain’s new-right is a vast network of influencers, columnists and gatekeepers from the celebrity icons of the likes of Peston, Kuenssberg and Neil to the lower-grade scribes of James Delingpole, Rod Liddle, Alan Cochrane, Joanna Williams, Fraser Nelson, Brendan O’Neill, Tom Harris, Alex Massie, Neil Oliver, Jeremy Clarkson, Douglas Murray himself, Ella Whelan and a dozen other columnists.
As Nesrine Malik, the author of We Need New Stories has said this is a monoculture, “a raging furnace of rightwing provocation, spitting out lies, fear and spite, shaping a political culture of miserliness and insularity”. But despite this power and this monoculture it’s grip on the public discourse isn’t irresistible.
This week saw the Edinburgh Evening News publish a front-page story about the riots in Niddrie on Bonfire Night with a picture from the Maiden Uprising in Kyiv 9 years ago. After an explosion of outrage the EEN followed it up with a half-arsed apology saying ‘The image used on the front page of today’s Edinburgh Evening News to illustrate disturbances in Niddrie was not taken locally. A picture from our files was mistakenly used. We apologise for our error.’
The apology meant little, but confirmed what many feel about the local Edinburgh press, it represents narrow interests and frequently treats sections of its own city with open contempt.
This week also saw the collapse of a story conjured by the Daily Mail about a poppy seller supposedly attacked while selling poppies in Waverley Station. The story fed the growing narrative that the Palestine protestors were/are violent and that the Remembrance weekend (variously defined) was somehow under threat. This was never the case and desperately needed some supporting evidence.
The story turned out to be completely fabricated. The story about the poppy seller being attacked, as we have now learned from the police was a lie.
After such incidents there are often half-hearted apologies, bogus explanations (‘the image was not taken locally’) or marginal obscure responses tucked away on page 34. A front-page story has the required impact, true or false, goes viral and gets re-circulated from those desperate for their ‘stories’ to be true.
But it’s important to establish that these are acts of propaganda and disinformation, not mistakes. The Niddrie riot picture tells us what we need to know about the newspapers relationship to the community it is meant to serve. The Daily Mail’s fabrication tells us (not that we needed telling) the depths to which they will stoop.
We do need new stories but we also need new institutions and structures to support them.