How the debate about ‘journalism’ and ‘activism’ is hypocritically used to monster the left

Is it possible for a journalist to be a political activist? This is a recurring debate, albeit sadly one that only generally arises in relation to the left. If you’re a socialist, you believe in collective struggle to achieve social and political change: abstaining from some form of activism, then, does not sit well.

This is an argument that persistently emerges in relation to my own position, as one of the few socialists with a platform within a British press eco-system which heavily tilts to the right. Activism in the commonly understood form is something I engage in a lot: whether helping to organise protests against Donald Trump or the far right or speaking at strike picket lines. More controversially has been my activism relating to the Labour party: I joined in 1999 aged 15, when Tony Blair was leader, and have campaigned under every leader since, while supporting the struggle of the party’s left flank to advance its policy agenda internally. Indeed, after university, I worked for John McDonnell for three years.

After I was beaten up by a far right thug and his accomplices last year, some media figures challenged my description as a “journalist”, believing that “activist” was a more appropriate term. Partly this was down to a misunderstanding of what “journalists” are: there’s a misconception amongst some that it relates solely to news reporters, who are expected to be objective (what happens in practice is a different matter) and columnists, who are not.

But all too often this is a debate which seems to have one sole aim: to treat the very few socialist writers within the media fundamentally as illegitimate and as interlopers.

It’s worth looking at other striking examples (and to be clear, I’m not comparing myself in stature to any). George Orwell is one of Britain’s most famous journalists, and he didn’t simply campaign for a political party, but actually took up arms for one, the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (the POUM) in the Spanish Civil War. One of his most famous books, Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences reflects precisely the POUM narrative of the Spanish Civil War. There are few who would dispute this was a work of journalism, of course (although Britain’s pre-eminent historian of the Spanish Civil War, Paul Preston, has challenged its accuracy). Paul Foot, who has a journalism award named after him, was an active member of the Socialist Workers’ Party who repeatedly stood for election.

On the right, the most respected Times columnist is Danny Finkelstein, a Tory Lord. My own colleagues include former parliamentary candidates, political campaigners, members of political think tank boards, campaigners for Labour leadership candidates and unofficial advisors to past Labour leaders (all of which is entirely legitimate).

But there all too often seems to be far more scrutiny of, well, me — just a newspaper columnist, you understand! — than entire press outlets which function as extensions of the Conservative media operation. Britain is a country in which a large majority of newspapers editorially support the Tories and — particularly during election periods — unthinkingly regurgitate often entirely false partisan propaganda while monstering the government’s opponents. You would think this might be a really rather important issue to debate — most of the press acting as the de facto mouthpieces of an authoritarian government and all that — raising really rather substantial questions about the very functioning of British democracy, but unfortunately it’s rather more important to speak truth to one of the only columnists sympathetic towards the previous leadership of the country’s main opposition party.

One of the things I’ve always been insistent upon is being entirely open and transparent about my own political activities and affiliations to ensure total transparency and avoid misleading readers. It is not, I’m afraid, the same with other journalists, whose relationship with political parties is often hidden. When Jeremy Corbyn became leader, I did self-evidently have a challenge. I had very few fundamental political disagreements with his leadership — on, say, public ownership, progressive taxation, abolishing tuition fees, building council housing, supporting the welfare state, opposing foreign wars, and so on. In the first phase of his leadership — between his 2015 triumph and the 2017 election — I did grow progressively disillusioned, not over policy but rather over what I saw as a dysfunctional operation and a failure of strategy which I feared would lead to electoral ruin and the left’s policies being blamed. I voiced these fears at the time, and there remain Corbyn supporters who have not forgiven me for doing so. Having been proven wrong by the 2017 election result, and supporting Labour’s Brexit compromise position of accepting the referendum result but negotiating as close a relationship with the EU as possible, the challenge became even greater. What did I do in relation to a Labour leadership whose policies I almost entirely agreed with, and which I did not believe was automatically doomed to electoral ruin?

The bad faith critique was that I was essentially doing the bidding of the Labour leadership, rather than expressing my lifelong views as a socialist who had worked for John McDonnell for three years in my early 20s, and trying to making amends for my past “betrayal”. As such, I actively went out of my way to find issues to disagree with the leadership over, such as their failure to defend free movement, lacking ambition on tax, and criticising Labour’s timidity and lack of leadership on the war on drugs. Although I wrote few ‘Kreminology’ Westminster-focused pieces, I wrote about dysfunction and division in Corbyn’s team on the eve of the 2019 election.

On antisemitism, I adopted a position of “walk and chew gum”: that is, while most Labour members abhorred antisemitism, there was an antisemitic minority and others in denial about it; that while the Labour leadership was not antisemitic, it “has bungled its response to the antisemitic fringe on the left of the party, needlessly haemorrhaging goodwill with Britain’s Jewish communities”, as I wrote in 2018, and “must show far greater leadership in tackling antisemitism in the party and rooting out every and any antisemite.” That led to a truly disorientating position of both being accused of being an apologist for the leadership’s failures on antisemitism and for being part of a smear campaign against the leadership, including being used by the “Israel lobby”.

My main frustration was this. Britain is supposed to be a democracy; normally, opposition parties have sympathisers with a media platform. But in this case, the leadership of the opposition was treated as not just wrong, but as dangerous and essentially illegitimate by not just the Tories and their right-wing outriders, but by many liberal commentators. I was one of the only columnists in Britain who wasn’t hostile to a party leadership which, in 2017, had secured 40% of the vote; along with the predominantly freelance journalists with the same position. Such was the relentless battery of often completely unhinged attacks against the Labour leadership, those few of us found ourselves spending a lot of our time pushing against it in a desperate attempt to secure truth and balance. Take the Salisbury attacks: my own misgivings at the failure of the leadership to definitively ascribe blame to the Russian state were dwarfed by an almost total failure by the media to scrutinise donations linked to the Putin regime flowing into Tory coffers, or the Conservative failure to properly support a ‘Magnitsky Act’ to deal with, for example, Putin-linked ‘dirty money’.

But whilst entire newspapers devoted to advancing Tory partisan interests are treated as entirely legitimate — the sacred “free press” — the few sympathisers with the main opposition party were treated as activist interlopers. This is not just an argument advanced by the right, but by many so-called “centrists” who in practice have a far greater loathing for the left than the far right, let alone the mainstream right.

There’s another important element to the bad faith critique of the few besieged left-wing commentators. Many self-described British “moderates” would undoubtedly have the same position as their US counterparts regarding the presidential election. Whatever Joe Biden’s colossal flaws — including on racism, which his vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris herself savaged him on — surely it is self-evidently clear that Donald Trump is by far the greatest evil. His hard right authoritarian populism is a threat to the very basis of US democracy. US leftists who now focus on Biden’s manifest and multiple flaws are being self-indulgent, they would argue: ‘Bernie Bros’ with so much privilege they have lost all perspective. Yet they refused to apply this same argument to Britain: despite the fact that we have a Tory party infested with rightwing populism, full of disregard for democratic norms, and which threatens to turn the country into Hungary lite, they still believed the only alternative to Boris Johnson deserved to be mercilessly critiqued and attacked.

The book I’ve written on the rise and fall of the Corbyn projectThis Land — is unashamedly honest about two things — what they were up against, and what they got wrong. The purpose of the book is very straightforward — for the left to learn from the mistakes of the past so it can succeed in the future. There will be those who argue I was either too critical or insufficiently critical of the Corbyn era to write such a book. Consider this piece my response.

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