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.

This is threatening inflammatory language as the right lose their minds and watch their grasp of the political narrative (despite overwhelming media control) slip from their hands. We are simultaneously seeing the Conservatives cede power and the carefully cultivated script that anyone criticising Israel was an antisemite collapse. Macron’s announcement to call for a ceasefire and to denounce the bombing of civilians is a turning point. Increasingly Starmer’s position is untenable and developing into something akin to Blair’s post-Iraq party, defending the indefensible.

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.”

New Stories

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 spiteshaping 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.

Comments (12)

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  1. Bill says:

    Truly do we need new stories, and an end to the rubbish newspapers. Boris ‘spaffed’ £52 millions on a non existent bridge. The covid pandemic led to millions or even billions of pounds being put into the pockets of rich Tory donors and friends for a vast range of protective masks and clothing that did not work. But behold, a Scottish minister who runs up an £11, 000 bill due to a technical error is somehow a major burden on the taxpayers and should be forced to resign.

    Well I ask you???


  2. SleepingDog says:

    Lest we forget… Vera Brittain noted in Humiliation with Honour (1942) that “British troops have occupied Iceland, Iran, and Madagascar.” which seems an odd way to spread freedom, and that wasn’t the half of it in Britain’s only ‘good war’. Or just another contest between ‘colonial fascists’ as other contemporaries remarked. Certainly the British bloodily reimposed imperialism at the end of the war, bombarding civilian populations (Brittain noted the Church was silent on city bombing, how like today) and employing Japanese PoWs to crush anticolonial forces, betraying freedom-fighting allies, and putting down mutinies in their own ranks.

    And as for the innumerable colonial wars, covert actions and wars to impose slavery, where are they (and their victims) remembered? Watch The Australian Wars, for example.
    And David Olusoga has made good points about how British historians deliberately misnamed their wars of aggression to hide their true objectives (like the War of Jenkins’ Ear, for example).

    The poppy should remind us that the British Empire was the greatest illegal drug dealer (by violence) in the world, and that their occupation of Hong Kong was as a result of its Opium Wars with China, using India as its poppy farm. India, during whose British occupation famine became so common it appears to have damaged the health of Indians who survive to this day, according to some recent research.

    Yes, the culture wars must be won so that the pretexts of colonial fascism are destroyed by facts.

    If only we could and would remember them.

  3. SteveH says:

    Good article. I’m inclined to agree with your assessment.

    I’d go further and say that legacy press has lost a lot of trust, whether you’re right or left leaning. The Legacy press us in decline. The quality of journalism has steadily declined. The recent generation of journalists seem to have swallowed the critical social justice pill, and think they have a duty to impose their own form of morality on everyone. Then there’s self-serving BoJo, although you can say he’s entertaining in a perverse way.

    In the US, its worse. Papers like the Washington Post have become so biased that its hard to believe they were once the brave souls that published the truth about the Vietnam war and about Watergate.

    The niggling issue for me, is the pretense of impartiality when the political leaning or bias is patently clear. For example, The Guardian, The Mirror and The Daily Mail, Sun on the other side. The BBC is in a class of its own, but Ch 4, ITV, Skynews are not much better.

    Like any information presented to you, you have to question the source for motive, and challenge yourself for bias. I apply critical thinking or just simply, the Socratic method.

  4. John says:

    Many of the media owners and right wing politicians who put forward this faux patriotism,often based on hatred of others, squirrel their money abroad to avoid paying their fare share of taxes to the UK – the country they purportedly love.
    The attacks by far right supporters on police in London today is the inevitable outcome when the politicians and right wing media join forces to demonise everyone that doesn’t agree with their extreme, hateful narrative. A less patriotic bunch of shysters would be difficult to find.

    1. David Robins says:

      I’m sure the argument would be that tax-avoidance is a thoroughly patriotic move, in a US Republican sense. It keeps money out of the hands of the Government, which is a force for evil unless it’s funding the use of force.

  5. Satan says:

    🙂 I realise that the National seems to consist of a couple of journalists reading politician’s X feeds and news websites, with the Herald and Scotsman little better, but I thought the Evening News/Scotsman would have bothered to send a photographer or a drone to a riot in Edinburgh rather than buy someone else’s 20-year-old photo from the other end of Europe. At least the Record, the BBC, and the Neep Gazette still seem to have actual journalists who get out of the office univited, for the timebeing.

    I guess the problem is that people like me only spend money on newspapers if they want to wash windows or pack crockery. I can read a vast number of newspapers and magazines online, for free, courtesy of the library should I wish to (‘Knives Monthly’! – seriously, there are magazines seemingly dedicated to subjects like hunting knives and sociology….. :-). But at least you actually have to buy a paper copy of Private Eye.

  6. Satan says:

    Note: If you buy newspapers to wash windows or pack crockery, the Daily Mail gives the most paper for your money.

    1. John says:

      Buy a newspaper- they give them away free sometimes to boost circulation.
      Many papers are cutting back on journalists who would actually check facts and investigate a story for economic reasons and relying on effectively copying and pasting from other sources such as internet. This also explains why many newspapers have reduced commitment to reporting factual news and turned to opinion pieces. The upshot is a newspaper industry that fails in many instances to inform the basic news to the public.
      TV does have higher standards due to regulation but this is being challenged by GB News which from my viewing (admittedly minimal for reasons of personal mental health, appears to have morphed into little more than a tabloid Tory Party propaganda channel with the usual wild alt -right conspiracy theories thrown in for good measure. It has at least shown how toothless Ofcom is when it is really challenged.

  7. Ros Nash says:

    You make some really good points here. What I don’t get is why Macron’s statement is perceived as a turning point?

    1. He’s the first western leader to break with the line of total support for Israel. In doing so it adds pressure to Starmer

  8. Daniel Raphael says:

    Israel is straightforwardly forbidding the reading of pro-Palestinian views…while simultaneously killing the originators of those views. Total authoritarian control of news, views, and emotions is the intended result–along with, of course, the mass murder of those who do not fit the racial profile of those worthy of life. Alas, humanity repeats…and the irony for Jews is the greatest possible.

  9. Wul says:

    Yer man Douglas Murray seems as high as a kite in that video. Still doesn’t explain the utter nonsense that spills from his wee, petted lips though. Not a serious man, just a wee, unhappy boy.

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