What do Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have in common? On the face of it, two people could not be more dissimilar but I’m curious about what might be their analogous position in relation to mainstream political culture. After all, in a sense Corbyn came from outside party politics, albeit not in the way Trump did, being a life-long back bencher and consummate constituency MP who never sought power in any sense. Both reject the common sense of party politics and have in different ways benefitted from a media which is superficially hostile to them.

Perhaps we can make sense of their commonality in terms of their political brands, both of which have formed quickly in a way that floats free of the manifold pressures which shape self-presentation by those who spent years seeking power through steady ascent of within a political party. Neither learned to walk the walk and talk the talk in the way needed to gain respect and cultivate influence amongst their peers, perhaps avoiding the deformation professionelle to which these colleagues are subject to as a result. They don’t assume that political correspondents are all powerful because they haven’t spent their professional lives seeking coverage from them, as well as being judged by their peers on their success or otherwise in doing so.

This is what Naomi Klein says of Trump’s political brand on pg 33 of her new book No Is Not Enough:

It’s also why no labor scandal is ever going to stick to him. In the world he has created, he’s just acting like a “winner”; if someone gets stepped on, they are obviously a loser. And this doesn’t only apply to labor scandals—virtually every traditional political scandal bounces off Trump. That’s because Trump didn’t just enter politics as a so-called outsider, somebody who doesn’t play by the rules. He entered politics playing by a completely different set of rules—the rules of branding. According to those rules, you don’t need to be objectively good or decent; you only need to be true and consistent to the brand you have created. That’s why brand managers are so obsessed with discipline and repetition: once you have identified what your core brand is, your only job is to embody that brand, project that brand, and repeat its message. If you stay focused, very little can touch you.

This opens up the possibility that what is seen as electabilitystrong leadership and plausibility might actually be little more than weakness in the face of the media. If you’ve built your political brand on performing in a way that wins the media’s favour, you are inevitably subject to their whims. You are constitutively tied to the cluster of journalists, much as they are in turn tied to you through their need for access, leaving politics as a deformed game of intellectual twister taking place on the parliamentary estate. But to be a new brand, emerging quickly in a way external to these dynamics, involves near complete freedom from such influences if you can only ‘stay focused’. Brand Corbyn and Brand Trump couldn’t be more different but there are deep similarities in how and why the media struggle to touch them.

Much of the reaction to Labour’s election success last week has been framed in terms of their ‘rewriting the rules’. One particularly explicit example of this can be seen in an article by Jonathan Freedland, an enthusiastic critic of Corbyn, pontificating that Corbyn took “the traditional political rulebook” and “put it through the shedder”. What are these rules that had formerly seemed so influential?

  1. Young people don’t vote. Any enthusiasm you create with them will come to nothing because they won’t turn out on election day.
  2. UKIP voters are Tories. If UKIP ceases to be viable then most would switch to the Conservatives.
  3. Divided parties never win elections. Unless a party can pull together at the local and national level, it can’t achieve success.
  4. Economic credibility is crucial. If a party is not perceived as being economically competent then there is no chance voters will trust it.

There are certainly more rules like this. The conventional rulebook wouldn’t have proved so influential if it only had four points in it. But where do these rules come from? How is this conventional wisdom formed? How does it become so influential that the metaphor of the ‘rulebook’, adhered to by all ‘serious’ commentators and operators, can be taken seriously?

Part of the answer lies in the fixation on the ‘political centre ground’ which is embedded in the dominant wisdom of Labour modernisers. The first cohort fought and won against the Labour left in the 1980s. The second cohort grew up in the Labour establishment moulded by these predecessors. The internal struggles of the 1980s cast a long shadow over them all, a fight to drag the party to a political location and then keep it there. As Alex Nunns describes it on loc 4468 of The Candidate:

The political centre ground, in this view, appears as a clearing in a forest—a fixed location—and politics is a simple orienteering exercise where the parties are given a map and a compass and told to go and find it. Occasionally they inexplicably wander off into the woods and have to be scolded by journalists until they take their navigation task seriously again. The great, unpredictable social and economic forces that constantly sculpt new historical terrain are, in this Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme version of politics, merely gusts of wind that must not blow the parties off course. Nothing changes.

Despite this professed concerned for ‘what works’, adherents of the political rulebook often display a remarkable lack of empirical interest in the political world. This can produce odd juxtapositions, such as the Blairite candidate Liz Kendall being backed by supporters who saw “understanding what it takes to win an election” as the most important characteristic of being a leader while all the available data suggested her chosen tactics for winning the leadership election were heralding no success whatsoever. The invocation of ‘what works’, the celebration of oneself as pragmatist foregoing childish moral indulgence in pursuit of success, licenses a weird disregard for how the world works. This is I think because it’s not pragmatism in any meaningful sense but ideology. The political centre ground is a theory of politics. Furthermore, it’s a painfully simplistic theory of politics unable to adapt to changing circumstances. As Nunns goes on to write on loc 4484,

The trouble with such a static, ahistorical view is that it is unable to account for new phenomena, much less understand people’s motivations for acting in unexpected ways. So when hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously decided they had other priorities than hopelessly trudging around looking for a centre ground that, mysteriously, kept moving further away, these professional political pundits could only dismiss them as either insane or self-indulgent.

Such a theory of politics resists falsification. It in its original context, it reflected a degree of engagement with the world around its progenitors. In a important sense, New Labour started as a psephological analysis of a changing electorate and a tactical case about engagement with the media. Over time, it became folk wisdom, espoused by all ‘serious’ people as a way to demonstrate their seriousness, increasingly cutting it off from any meaningful analysis of the circumstances in which their serious business was being conducted. It might resist falsification but its advocates greedily seized upon confirmation. As Nunns points out, Labour’s continued rightward shift yielded little success at two elections, but the eventual victory of 1997 was taken as a sign that the moderniser’s case was correct all along. They had vanquished their foes on the left and, what is more, no ‘serious’ person could doubt they were right to do so. Perhaps there’s a risk that this hubris be repeated by the Labour left today. Everything I say below stands in my mind as a caution about what is to come, as well as an account of what has passed.

This analysis had become a folk theory, so obviously correct that repudiations of it could no longer be taken seriously. The culmination of this process was the ascendency of Cameron, the heir to Blair, who made the same case in relation to his own party, albeit primarily with regards to social issues rather than economic ones. Much like the Labour modernisers, what become an article of faith originally began as a psephological analysis, developed through the polling of Lord Ashcroft, appointed Deputy Chairman of the Conservatives under David Cameron. The intellectual case these originators assented to became a point of division and contention within the party, as people flocked to join their cause or lashed out against it. What interests me are the subtle changes that occur as groups are led to defend or attack reflective arguments and how this changes how people relate to such arguments. My contention is that a theory of politics that was already relatively immune to falsification becomes a guarded axiom unable to be seriously considered or any longer reflected upon.

This was the process by which a reflective analysis of political change transmuted into a folk theory and ossified even further into the political rule book. How was this reinforced by media commentators? After all, it’s their discursive power which is so crucial to accepted/acceptable accounts of ‘how things are’ in politics. At one level, it can be explained in terms of the patronage networks that exist between senior politicians and senior journalists. As Nunns writes of Andrew Rawnsley’s contempt for Corbny on loc 4406, “Suddenly, the centre of gravity was moving away from the Labour elite to which he had unparalleled access, and from which he had mined the raw materials needed to fashion—with considerable skill—the books and journalism that had won him acclaim”. But there’s a broader process at work, insightfully captured by Phil BC in this post. I’ve quoted the relevant section at length here but please do read the whole thing in full:

Firstly, consider what mainstream commentators observe. They watch the comings and goings, the toings and doings of senior politicians. They see how MPs club together in the Commons, formulate policy, take legislation through the House and involve themselves in massive rows with one another. This, more or less, forms the basis of copy that comes to thousands of hours of broadcasting and millions of words year in, year out. And this is politics. What happens in the chamber matters simply because that’s what appears to matter – it’s where policy is brought forward and enacted into law. What goes on in politics outside, like local council and devolved administration stuff simply isn’t on the radar, because they don’t see it. Likewise, movements that occupy the streets or, indeed, transforming a political party are curiosities but unworthy of real analysis and understanding. It’s all such a sideshow to Parliament’s main event.

A similar sort of process is at work with our professional Westminster watchers, but is ramped up to a higher degree. Firstly, consider what mainstream commentators observe. They watch the comings and goings, the toings and doings of senior politicians. They see how MPs club together in the Commons, formulate policy, take legislation through the House and involve themselves in massive rows with one another. This, more or less, forms the basis of copy that comes to thousands of hours of broadcasting and millions of words year in, year out. And this is politics. What happens in the chamber matters simply because that’s what appears to matter – it’s where policy is brought forward and enacted into law. What goes on in politics outside, like local council and devolved administration stuff simply isn’t on the radar, because they don’t see it. Likewise, movements that occupy the streets or, indeed, transforming a political party are curiosities but unworthy of real analysis and understanding. It’s all such a sideshow to Parliament’s main event.

This focus is also bounded by the media the commentators produce. Famously, the BBC take its lead for what the hot politics stories are from the front pages of the broadsheets. Likewise, hacks in other operations parasite off the BBC and each other to fill the schedules, put stuff out, and meet the insatiable appetite for hot takes. The result is little time for thinking, a scramble for a story or an original angle, and a tendency toward herding thanks to the recursive universe generated from the quantum foam of chatter. It produces a mode of thought that is based entirely on appearance without trying to understand what may lie behind what immediately presents itself. For instance, the Tories are the new party of the working class because minimum wage rises. Labour’s members have foisted the disaster onto the party because atomised members of the public tell focus groups. There is no sense of movement, little idea that parties as expressions of interest evolve and move, nor that the people who support them, actively or passively, have connections with multitudes of normal people that can pull, persuade, cajole masses of them and transform them into a collective that starts making its own history. As none of them regularly go on the doors outside of the capital, they have to rely on what the pollsters tell them and, as we saw last night, only two of the established firms come out of the election with any sort of credit.

http://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/why-did-pundits-get-election-wrong.html

Thus we have the ‘political rulebook’, the framework within which political reality is interpreted, adhered to by all serious political figures and commentators. It’s empiricism of a particularly stupid sort, oblivious to its own theoretical underpinnings and all the more dangerous for it. It maps the most superficial contours of political life in order to better navigate one’s way towards the mythical centre ground and for no other purpose. In the next post of this series, I’m going to consider what it is about opinion polling that lends itself to such uses, what the consequences are for political leadership and how economic depoliticisation plays a role in propping the whole thing up.

In the last couple of days, I’ve been reading The Candidate by Alex Nunns. It’s a detailed and insightful account of Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the Labour party and the conditions which made this possible. After the election, it can also be read as as an analysis of broader conditions which might facilitate Corbyn’s ascendency to government. What both events share is their unsettling of political assumptions, as nascent transformations in political life made themselves felt for the first time in outcomes which professional observers of politics dismissed as impossibilities.

There’s an insightful discussion in The Candidate of this infamous dismissal of Labour members as ‘morons’ by Blairite apparatchik John McTernan. It took place in the run up to the leadership election when the first authoritative poll gave Corbyn a huge advantage over his rivals:

What fascinates Nunns about this is how the bewilderment of the presenters led them to so openly reveal their biases. The underlying assumptions which bind together establishment worlds of politics and the media stand repudiated by these events and the presenters “struggle to keep their journalistic footing for five minutes of balanced analysis, even as the political terrain falls away beneath them” (loc 4070). As he goes on to observe on loc 4086:

In such moments of political flux, when a sudden development cannot be made to fit into the standard patterns of reporting used to depict the world, underlying biases are revealed. The genuine shock evinced in the Newsnight studio was reflected across the media; the shared assumptions and sympathies echoed in the vast bulk of the reporting and commentary that followed.

We have seen a lot of political flux in recent years. It would be absurdly inaccurate to see this uncertainty as something unique to the 21st century. There have been many other periods of world history characterised by a similar degree of uncertainty, as well as the the obvious point that ‘our’ certainty has often been ‘their’ uncertainty e.g. military adventurism during a relatively stable period of British politics. So by ‘political flux’, I mean events which can’t be incorporated into the intellectual frameworks dominant within the media and politics, usually taking place within national politics but sometimes aggregating together like an outflowing of nested bubbles across the globe.

But I believe media saturation represents a turning point because it leaves events unfolding more quickly, due to the affordances of digital communications, as well as folding back bewildered commentary into those events themselves. The political terrain can fall apart much more quickly and we can many more conversations in the period of time in which it is falling apart. There has been a qualitative and quantitative change in how such moments of uncertainty are constituted, as well as how they can generate new events.

Under these circumstances, I’m increasingly convinced there are new openings for public intellectuals. Probably not for hedgehogs but rather for foxes: discursive power falters in these moments of uncertainty and there’s new opportunities for influence available to those who can quickly and plausibly offer sophisticated explanations of events & maps of ways forward while the existing arbiters of political reality are quite openly wondering what the fuck is going on. There is a place opening up for a new kind of intellectual here. Can the established conditions of critical social thought give rise to it?

In The Mediated Construction of Social Reality, Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp take issue with the primacy of face-to-face interaction that has so often been assumed within social thought. Our embodied interaction is taken to be primary, often assumed to be unmediated, with the mediation of interaction through technology seen as additional to it. From loc 697:

Berger and Luckmann, as was common in sociology for a long time, wrote as if there is first face-to-face ‘everyday life’ and then there is a supplement: what we do, technologically, to mediate that everyday life. This was hardly true through most of human history, at least since the discovery of writing, but today it would simply be bizarre to ignore how the reality of everyday life is inseparably linked with media, when supermarket checkouts read our credit cards with our personal data, when our everyday communication happens to a high degree via mobile devices, platforms and interactive systems, and when children learn to play through the means of internet-connected tablets. Under these circumstances it makes no sense at all to think of everyday reality as a ‘pure experience’ that can be contrasted with a (somehow secondary) ‘mediated experience’. Everyday reality, from the beginning, is in many respects mediated, which means that the complex social world of interconnections constructed from everyday life’s foundations is mediatized.

Much rests on how we conceptualise face-to-face interaction. If we demarcate it as a sphere of interaction which is in some sense given, it obscures the role of media in shaping such interactions and how these interactions in turn contribute to the shaping of media. As they write on loc 632:

We cannot analyse the social world via a simple division between ‘pure’ face-to-face communication and a separate presentation of the world to us ‘through’ media. Many of the communicative practices by which we construct our social world are media-related ones. Our daily communication comprises much more than direct face-to-face communication: mediated communication –by television, phones, platforms, apps, etc. –is interwoven with our face-to-face communication in manifold ways. Our face-to-face interaction is continuously interwoven with media-related practices: while we talk to someone, we might check something on our mobile phones, get text messages, refer to various media contents.

The challenge lies in conceptualising such interweaving. If we see interaction as constituted through its mediation, it becomes difficult to unpick how particular interactions might be shaped in particular ways by particular media. This is why I think a causal powers approach to media could be so valuable, even if it’s currently rather underdeveloped. This is what I think Couldry and Hepp do, albeit using a different terminology, in their analysis of longer term processes of mediatization. Each of these four changes, discussed on loc 918, make specific claims about how the causal powers of media facilitate the emergence of new dynamics in face-to-face interaction:

But, unimaginably for Schutz or anyone writing up to the 1980s, even our mediated communication can have enhancements which make them closer in specific responses to the face-to-face communication; for instance, video calls with simultaneous text messaging and email stream, enabling two parties to share simultaneous focused attention on the same external communicative stream, that is, an email attachment or website (contrast the simple phone call). A second deepening is the embedding not just of particular communicative streams into everyday life, but of the inputs from past communications (continuous streams of information from both Mitwelt and Umwelt): think of the feedback loop that operates when, while communicating with somebody else face to face, we are also checking information on earlier interactions on our smartphone, involving other communication partners. We are involved in a ‘multi-level’ construction of the social world, acting on various ‘levels’ of communication at the same time. Third, and also unimaginable to Schutz, is the already discussed continuous availability of media as a current resource in face-to-face communication, from showing pictures on one’s digital device to the use of video even in the most intimate of settings. And fourth, we are living through an integration of all these three shifts into the habits and norms of all communicative behaviour, both face to face and mediated. Increasingly we expect that our comments and gestures can be mediated for future commentary, circulation, etc., unless, that is, we insist they should not be re-circulated (Tomlinson, 2007, pp. 94–123).

An interesting insight from This Town, by Mark Leibovich, pg 278-279. It would presumably be near impossible for a website like Politico to maintain its level of output without resorting to processes like this:

Sure enough, a few days later, Politico’s founding editor, John Harris, went on a new enterprise called “Politico TV” and revealed that that is exactly how the “stupid” story came about. “A lot of people’s stories generate from people’s rants,” Harris explained. “Alex Burns wrote up one of my rants.” Burns made some phone calls to prove—or “explore”—his boss’s premise that voters were stupid. Lo and behold, the premise came back rock solid.

This is just weird. I can only assume that the EastLovesWest company hires underpaid freelancers to produce content for their blog, who have in turn typed keywords into Google and written an article without ever clicking on any of the links:

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.28.44

It seems likely to me that this will become a more common occurrence with time. It happens in a less pronounced way in journalism, as stressed journos increasingly look to newly identifiable academics to provide quotes in advance of impending deadlines. My sense is that on such occasions, there’s very little substance to the engagement, there’s just a hole in an article which the journalist hopes an academic will fill. But the growth of content factories and vast ranks of freelance writers, with little to no commitment to professional standards, risks that academics who engage online will have what they say drawn upon in a manner up to and including complete fabrication.

A few years ago I wrote a short article about the relationship between academic blogging and journalism which received a pretty positive reaction online. My suggestion was that academic blogging increasingly constitutes a ‘third space’ between the academy and journalism which facilitates translation between the two institutional spheres. It becomes easier for journalists to find relevant academics when their research is expressed in a few blog posts as well as articles in scholarly journals. However might we increasingly see academics become journalists? Not necessarily in the sense of individual career transitions (though this does happen) but rather in a blurring of the two activities that has important consequences for those working at the intersection.

Part of me likes this: I want critical social scientists* to ‘occupy debate’ in a way that gets social scientific ideas out of the academy. However in a way it’s also rather sinister if we look at the broader transformations underway within both spheres. Is there a risk that junior academics, keen to differentiate themselves and demonstrate a capacity for impact as they strive to move beyond precarious contracts, come to be seen as a reserve army of well-educated quasi-journalists who may write badly but will work for free?

*Maybe even ones who aren’t critical, at least if they write reasonably well.

Call for Papers: Media Sociology Preconference, ASA 2014

Venue: Mills College (Oakland, CA)
Date: August 15, 2014

We invite submissions for a second preconference on media sociology to
be held at Mills College (Oakland, CA) on Friday, August 15, 2014.
(This is one day before the start of the annual meeting of the
American Sociological Association in San Francisco.) To encourage the
widest possible range of submissions, we have no pre-specified theme
again this year and invite both theoretical and empirical papers on
any topic related to media sociology. Submissions from graduate
students and junior scholars are particularly welcome.

Media sociology has long been a highly diverse field spanning many
topics, methodologies, and units of analysis. It encompasses all forms
of mass-mediated communication and expression, including news media,
entertainment media, as well as new and digital media. Outstanding
research exists within the different subfields both within and beyond
the discipline of sociology. Our aim is to create dialogue among these
disparate yet complementary traditions.

This preconference is also linked to a campaign to form a Media
Sociology section of the ASA that is theoretically and
methodologically agnostic and aims to support sociological work
related to any and all media. A petition supported by signatures from
over 200 current members was submitted to the ASA Council in November
2013, and we are optimistic that Media Sociology will become a
Section-in-Formation in 2015.

Papers may be on a variety of topics including, but not limited to:
-production processes and/or media workers
-political economy (including the role of the state and markets)
-media and the public sphere
-media content
-the Internet, social media, cellular phones, or other technology
-the digital divide
-new uses of media
-media globalization or diaspora
-media effects of media consumption
-identity, the self, and media

Invited Speakers

Last year’s inaugural preconference, held at NYU’s Institute for
Public Knowledge and Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, was very
well-attended and featured an invited keynote by Dhiraj Murthy
(Goldsmiths, University of London) and a plenary panel addressing the
theme, “Mapping the Field of Media Sociology” with additional
participants Rodney Benson (NYU), Andrea Press (University of
Virginia), Michael Schudson (Columbia University), and Eleanor
Townsley (Mount Holyoke College).

This year’s keynote speaker will be Clayton Childress (University of
Toronto – Scarborough). A special plenary session on “Media Sociology
as a Vocation” will feature a panel discussion on careers in media
sociology. We will announce further invited speakers in due course.

Submissions

Submissions should include:
-Separate cover sheet with: title, name and affiliation, and email
address of author(s).
-Abstract of 150-300 words that discusses the problem, research,
methods and relevance.
-Also include at least three descriptive keywords. Note: DO NOT put
identifying information in the body of the abstract; only on cover
sheet.
-Use Microsoft Office or PDF format.

Send abstracts to casey.brienza.1@city.ac.uk. Please write “Media
Sociology Preconference” in the subject line.

Abstract deadline is March 31, 2014.

Notification of acceptance will occur sometime in mid-April.

Contact Casey Brienza (casey.brienza.1@city.ac.uk) or Matthias Revers
(mrevers@albany.edu) for more information about the preconference.

I find it more than a little disturbing that these two explicit threats to press freedom have been issued by the government in the space of 24 hours. Note that Cameron’s statement about the Snowden leaks comes at the same time as prominent NSA loyalists are breaking ranks in America to call for a ‘total review’. Much like ‘compassionate conservatism’ and ‘vote blue, go green’, it seems that any pretence of a commitment to breaking with the creeping authoritarianism of the New Labour era has now been abandoned:

The BBC could face a cut in the TV licence fee or have to share it with other broadcasters unless it rebuilds public trust, a Tory minister has said.

Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps told the Sunday Telegraph the broadcaster must be “more transparent” and change its “culture of secrecy”.

The current £145.50 annual fee would be “too much” without reform, he said.

A BBC spokesman said transparency and freedom from political pressure were key to the BBC’s future.

Mr Shapps’ comments come after negative publicity over pay-outs to top executives and the handling of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Numerous allegations against Savile, who presented programmes including Jim’ll Fix It during a long career at the BBC, emerged after his death in 2011 and police have since described him as a “prolific, predatory sex offender”.

Mr Shapps also mentioned the case of former BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a series of sexual assaults on young girls.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24690002

In a statement to MPs on Monday about last week’s European summit in Brussels, where he warned of the dangers of a “lah-di-dah, airy-fairy view” about the dangers of leaks, the prime minister said his preference was to talk to newspapers rather than resort to the courts. But he said it would be difficult to avoid acting if newspapers declined to heed government advice.

The prime minister issued the warning after the Tory MP Julian Smith quoted a report in Monday’s edition of the Sun that said Britain’s intelligence agencies believe details from the NSA files leaked by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden have hampered their work.

The Sun quoted a “top surveillance source” as saying that terrorists have “gone quiet” after the publication of details about NSA and GCHQ operations.

Cameron told MPs: “We have a free press, it’s very important the press feels it is not pre-censored from what it writes and all the rest of it.

“The approach we have taken is to try to talk to the press and explain how damaging some of these things can be and that is why the Guardian did actually destroy some of the information and disks that they have. But they’ve now gone on and printed further material which is damaging.

“I don’t want to have to use injunctions or D notices or the other tougher measures. I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. But if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.”

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/28/david-cameron-nsa-threat-newspapers-guardian-snowden

Nick Cohen wrote a fantastic post on this last night which gets to the crux of the issue:

I don’t see how any reasonable person can argue that a British newspaper should not break a story about a foreign power spying on another foreign power, when there is no threat whatsoever that the revelation will help terrorists groups or organised crime. That criticism persists shows that the Guardian’s enemies are suffering from an advanced case of what Orwell called “transferred nationalism” : though nominally British they have transferred their loyalty to the United States, and react to any threat to American interests as if it were a threat their own.

In any case, the Guardian – for whose parent company I work, I should add – is not only bringing us foreign news. On Saturday, its correspondent James Ball answereda question that has baffled everyone who has hung around the criminal justice system: why do the police and security services refuse to present intercept evidence in court? The answer is that they feared that the public might realise the scale of state surveillance – and protest. Hence, the intelligence services lobbied furiously to hide the fact that, in their words, telecoms firms, had gone “well beyond” what they were legally required to do to help intercept communications. For good measure, GCHQ admitted in private to fearing a legal challenge under the Human Rights Act if its surveillance methods became better known.

The concerns about the failure to produce bugged evidence do not always fall within the standard arguments between liberal doves and national security hawks. Juries acquit guilty men because prosecutors cannot reveal the full case against them. In a free society spies should accept – must accept – that we need an open debate on intercept evidence involving the judiciary, the legal profession, parliament and – for we are meant to be a democracy, after all – the public. We need it even more, when, by its own admission, GCHQ may be breaking the law.

But open debates aren’t the fashion in Britain. We don’t do that kind of thing here.
Tonight, David Cameron warned the Guardian that if it did not “demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.”

No one should have been surprised. The ground for his threat to the free press had been well manured by none other than the free press itself.

A friend of mine with time on his hands read all the comment in blogs and columns the Daily Telegraph had run on the Guardian and the security service leaks. His weary eyes surveyed 20 pieces in total. All damned the Guardian, he found. Not one defended the right of newspapers to hold the state to account, even after agents of the state went into the Guardian’s office and supervised the destruction of a computer with copies of Edward Snowden’s documents on. The idea that you defend the freedom to publish – regardless of whether you agree with what is published or not – never occurred to its writers.

The only exception in the wider Telegraph stable was Janet Daley of the Sunday Telegraph, an American expat, significantly. She described her astonishment at the unwillingness of the British to stand-up for basic liberties. “An editor of the US National Review wrote last week of those ‘who steadfastly refuse to express anxiety unless they can actually hear jackboots,’,” she said. “Note: once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late.”

The editor of the Mail, meanwhile, came as close as he dared to demanding that the police arrest the editor of the Guardian. Earlier this month, Stephen Glover, his in-house columnist, reported that Oliver Robbins, Britain’s deputy national security adviser, had said that the Guardian has ‘already done real damage’ to Britain by its revelations, and that information still held by the newspaper could lead to a ‘widespread loss of life’. Suitably primed, Glover thundered:

The Guardian is being accused of putting at risk not only the lives of agents but also potentially the lives of ordinary British people, whom MI5 will now find it more difficult to protect. Divide the accusations in two, and then halve them again, and they are still mind-boggling.

This is the language of a treason trial; words that justify any action by the state to silence the journalist. The reason the Mail deploys them goes far beyond disagreements over one story. Foreigners will not understand the circular firing squad the British media have formed unless they understand that the British Right has its own version of the Marxist myth of false-consciousness.

http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/nick-cohen/2013/10/british-journalists-lock-each-other-up-and-throw-away-the-key/

I find myself increasingly convinced that Owen Jones is right that British politics could get very nasty in the run up to the next election (and perhaps beyond).