Disappointing, declining and definitely not left wing

Mike Phipps reviews Capitalism’s conscience: 200 years of the Guardian, edited by Des Freedman, published by Pluto.

The Guardian turns 200 in May. It’s never been a left wing newspaper, but it is read by people on the left – many of whom it disappoints. In reality, suggests Des Freedman, the editor of this collection of articles about the newspaper, it represents a progressive, socially conscious liberalism. But does it?

Historically, it backed Home Rule for Ireland, exposed British concentration camps in the Boer war, backed women’s suffrage and opposed UK intervention in the Suez crisis. But it also criticised Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, condemned the suffragettes’ direct action, opposed the creation of the NHS and supported the First Gulf War. To that charge sheet can be added the consistent denigration of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership from the moment he became Labour leader.

For Media Lens writers, the Guardian forms a crucial part of a “propaganda system for elite interests”.  Tony Benn put it even more starkly in a 2008 diary entry: “They are just the Establishment.”

As with any anthology, the book is a mixed bag, but there are several stand-out chapters. Gary Younge’s piece explores racism at the Guardian, from the assumption by white colleagues that black members of staff were “all affirmative action hires”, to their refusal to boycott a much-frequented pub whose landlord had made racist remarks – despite a union resolution to do so.

“The Guardian is an expression of a particular patrician form of British liberalism,” he writes icily. “As such, the racism one experienced there was mostly benign.” Other newspapers were certainly worse, he reflects: “You can resign from a job but you can’t resign from racism.”

While some political activists have long been unhappy with the newspaper’s coverage on a range of fronts, Younge feels that its credentials were not seriously tested in his time there until Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader. Its tendency to run with the herd was underlined by the 2017 general election result, in which May lost her majority.

Seven minutes before the polls closed, Piers Morgan tweeted his prediction: “Conservatives to win by 90-100 seat majority.” When the entire media establishment was proved wrong in its dismissal of Labour, the result was dismissed as a fluke. Labour’s defeat in 2019 was interpreted as a vindication for them – as though the previous achievement had never happened.

The consensus across the profession was that refusing to trash Corbyn was reputationally damaging. Failure to do so meant that “you would be expected to then own his failures.”  When Younge left the Guardian shortly after the 2019 defeat, a colleague asked if he was leaving because of the result – in fact, his departure had been agreed months earlier – a question that would never have been asked of a writer who, for example, had insisted there were weapons of mass destruction during the Iraq War in 2003.

Perhaps the left should get over its disappointment with a newspaper that rarely pretends to be its ally. If we want a radically different society, argues Freedman, we are going to need a very different sort of media.

Victoria Brittain, who edited the ground-breaking Third World Review section of the paper in the 1980s, also has an interesting chapter. Ken Saro-Wiwa, Wole Soyinka, Rachel Ghannouchi, Yasser Arafat and Michael Manley were among those published during that decade, before the then editor decided the whole thing was ‘dated’ and shut it down. In reality, he was under pressure from UK government officials and others who found the contents ‘unhelpful’.

Indifference to issues relevant to the ‘third world’ turned into outright hostility in the case of Latin America. For decades, the Guardian’s coverage was of a high quality, with High O’Shaughnessy especially standing out. But when Latin America’s ‘pink tide’ arrived, the paper chose to side with mainstream western governments and reject it.

Alan MacLeod, who wrote this chapter, says, “The distortion with which it presents Latin America is so startling it often beggars belief.” The Guardian’s tone and outlook about the continent is “indistinguishable from the Daily Telegraph.” Its Latin American editor at this time spoke no Spanish and admitted knowing nothing about the region.

It was hostile to the Chavez government in Venezuela from the outset. During the attempted coup against the President in 2002, which the paper appeared to welcome, its correspondent Alex Bellos reported that Chavez “antagonised almost every sector of society and failed to improve the lot of the poor” – just hours before a million people descended on the presidential palace to demand his return to power.

In Brazil, the Guardian was broadly supportive of the right wing plot to oust the elected government of Dilma Rousseff. In 2018, Rousseff was in the UK and gave a two-hour interview to the paper where “she warned of the dangers of a Bolsonaro presidency, and how Lula’s imprisonment would ensure his rise.“ This exclusive interview was never published.

During the 2018 presidential election, Guardian correspondent Tom Phillips went on a tour of northeast Brazil and tweeted that he could not find a single vote for the Workers Party (PT) candidate. In the event, the PT took the entire region by a 2:1 ratio.

Perhaps it is on Bolivia that the Guardian’s coverage has been most egregious. It sister paper, the Observer, blamed the right wing coup that followed the 2019 presidential election entirely on sitting President Morales’s “refusal to hand over power” and “alleged rigging of last month’s elections”.

The brutal massacres that followed were described by the Guardian as “clashes” between protestors and police. And the distortions continued after this book went to press, when fresh elections were held and the left swept back to power and the coup president was placed under arrest.  Tom Phillips’s article headlined this a “Cycle of retribution.”

There’s a strong sense in many of the chapters here that the Guardian was once a lot better than it is today.  Eight years ago, Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis point out, it revealed secret US government documents leaked by Edward Snowden.  A few years later, under new editorship, it was publishing fewer than half the stories it once ran on the security services. Instead it began a campaign of denigration of whistle blower Julian Assange.

Nowadays, those seeking to expose the misbehaviour of our security services are more likely to take the story to Murdoch’s Times. In 2019, that paper headlined a story exposing the government’s development of a secret policy of torture with “Torture: Britain breaks law in Ministry of Defence secret policy.” To soften the impact ahead of this damaging revelation, the Ministry fed the Guardian its own side of the story. The paper dutifully ran with “MoD says revised torture guidance does not lower standards.”

Similarly, having exposed criminality and corruption in the press, highlighted by the phone hacking scandal, according to Natalie Fenton’s chapter, the Guardian lost interest in the issue. To the disappointment of many campaigners, it refused to engage with the new regulatory set-up recommended by the Leveson Inquiry, preferring conformity to isolation within the news industry.  Fenton concludes: “The Guardian has abandoned its role as a champion of journalistic ethics… and made itself a silent accomplice in the very corruption it once seemed determined to root out.”

Taken together, these pieces make for a very powerful critique. Some of the revelations are borderline explosive – and I haven’t even discussed the chapters on Brexit, trans rights and antisemitism. Yet, on many fronts – particularly the unremitting hostility of many of the papers’ key commentators to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – this book could have gone much further.

Disappointment with the Guardian isn’t really a strong enough response after the last six years. If the left doesn’t like the newspaper it reads, it’s time it came up with a better one.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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