MCR: Corbyn's disappearing speech

Blog by Milan Rai
Image: Haditha by Emily Johns

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made an extraordinary speech just days after a suicide bomber killed 22 people, nine of them teenagers, one an eight-year-old, at the end of a pop concert in Manchester on 22 May.

In his speech on 25 May, Jeremy Corbyn linked the Manchester attack to British foreign policy, breaking a deeply-held taboo in British politics. (The taboo was also broken in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks in 2005 by a number of Conservatives, including current foreign secretary Boris Johnson.) Despite a torrent of abuse from the media, Corbyn emerged unscathed politically, and went on to run the Conservatives a close second in the general election on 8 June.

Here are some key passages from Corbyn's speech:

'Our approach will involve change at home and change abroad.... At home, we will reverse the cuts to our emergency services and police....

'We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

'That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions. But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

'Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.

'Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform. And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre. But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.'

Without justifying what had just happened, or previous terrorist attacks, the leader of the Labour party connected 'foreign policy decisions' by the British government with the increased risk of terrorism.

There was a storm of outrage in the elite newspapers: the Guardian, the Observer, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, and the Financial Times. In a three-day period (26 - 28 May), I can find 18 editorials, opinion pieces and news analysis features in these newspapers that comment on the possible link between British foreign policy and terrorism in the UK. (There are many more which discuss the Manchester attacks without any reference to the possible foreign policy link.)

Not a single one of these 18 commentaries endorses Corbyn's view. This is a remarkable display of self-discipline and uniformity across the mainstream elite print media. (Online, there were more favourable opinion pieces, but this analysis is restricted to what appeared in the more influential print editions.)

With friends like these

There were four articles at the most sympathetic end of the spectrum. The closest thing to an endorsement of Corbyn's argument (but not his speech) comes in a piece in the Financial Times by chief political commentator Philip Stephens entitled: 'Sectarian fires fuel European terrorism'. 

In a backhanded way, Stephens acknowledges a link between foreign policy and terrorism, saying it would be

'a mistake to pretend that Islamist extremism is indifferent to the policies of western governments.'

That, in an article that doesn't mention the Labour leader, is the closest the elite print media get to carrying an endorsement of Corbyn's argument about terrorism.

Next we come to perhaps the most liberal national newspaper in Britain, the Observer. Kenan Malik, on 28 May, referred to Corbyn's speech in passing, saying it was 'largely innocuous'.

This is the closest thing to an explicit endorsement of Corbyn's speech to appear in the elite print media during this highly-charged weekend: his speech was 'largely innocuous'.

There are two other opinion pieces that acknowledged some validity to the foreign policy link: a Guardian comment by Jonathan Freedland on 27 May and an Observer editorial on 28 May. Both acknowledged there is something to Corbyn's argument only to dismiss it.

Freedland described Corbyn's speech as 'sober and carefully caveated' (meaning that the Labour leader placed important qualifications and limitations on the link with foreign policy). Freedland wrote that

'foreign policy clearly plays some role in these horrific events'. 

However, despite this, Corbyn was wrong.

Freedland quotes a suggestion that foreign policy is not a genuine motivation for terror: 'western foreign policy often plays the role of a hook on which jihadis can hang a much larger set of ideological, and theological, motives'. He ends by stating (without caveats) that those who think that changing British foreign policy could reduce the risk to the UK 'misunderstand the enemy we face'.

My point here is not to determine whether Freedland was right or wrong in his assessment, it's to point out that this condemnation of Corbyn's position is actually the most favourable reaction to Corbyn's speech in the British elite print media.

The final comment piece that acknowledged any value at all to Corbyn's speech was the Observer editorial on 28 May: 'Questions remain over UK’s response to terror'. The Observer wrote that it was 'undeniable' that there was a connection between IS-style terrorism and British foreign policy, but Corbyn was wrong to bring it up because that he was determined to have 'non-interventionist' foreign policy. The British government must feel free to intervene militarily anywhere in the world in order to 'promote global stability'.

Those were the most supportive articles to appear in the elite print media in Britain that weekend. None of them endorsed Corbyn's speech.

Unrelieved hostility

On 27 May, the Guardian ran two comment pieces that referred to the foreign policy link, in addition to Freedland's 'yes, but no' critique. Both comment pieces were hostile to Corbyn's speech.

There was an editorial which said that Corbyn's speech could 'sound, in crude summary, like an allegation that Britain has invited atrocity upon itself'; that rebuttals to his argument 'were available'; and that 'criticism of western policy is inadequate as an explanation for the rise of violent jihadism'.

The other comment piece (apart from Freedland's) that referred to the foreign policy link was by Labour left radical Paul Mason, who had nothing positive to say about Corbyn's speech. Instead, Mason wrote (without mentioning Corbyn): 'The "blowback theory", which blames Islamist terrorism directly on western expeditionary warfare, is both facile and irrelevant in this case.'

It goes without saying that individual journalists will have their particular reasons for what they write. What is striking in this case is the pattern across the elite print media, the rigorous self-discipline needed to ensure that there was not a single commentator supporting Corbyn's argument in print throughout this period - and since.

In addition to the Guardian, there were hostile editorials in the Telegraph (on successive days, 26 and 27 May) and the Sunday Times (28 May). The 26 May Telegraph editorial had a longer headline online: 'Jeremy Corbyn's intervention on terror is tasteless and wrong'. In print, it was simply: 'Once again, Jeremy Corbyn is wrong'. The Sunday Times leader was titled: 'Our way of life is the jihadists’ target, not our foreign policy

It is perhaps not surprising that The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph, all right-wing newspapers, ran another nine opinion pieces explicitly condemning Corbyn's speech. On the other hand, in 2005, a number of leading Conservatives broke ranks to affirm the validity of linking British foreign policy to the 7/7 suicide bombings.

The speech disappears

In summary, the days after Corbyn's speech saw a storm of outrage direct against the Labour leader. Then, as suddenly as it started, the outrage disappeared. Rather, there was still passionate condemnation of Corbyn in the right-wing press, but it shifted topic to Corbyn's past attitude towards the IRA, the PLO and other groups that have used political violence. The elite print media almost completely stopped talking about Corbyn's argument that the risk of terrorism was linked to British foreign policy.

In the days running up to the general election, the elite print media effectively erased Corbyn's speech from the record. So, for example, in the FT's 'Big Read' whole-page interviews with Conservative prime minister Theresa May on 3-4 June, and with Corbyn on 6 June, there was no mention of Corbyn's argument about the link with foreign policy.

In the Guardian, independent radical George Monbiot had a whole-page article on 7 June: 'A Labour win isn't an impossible dream. We have Corbyn to thank'. This didn't mention Corbyn's argument about the link between terrorism and foreign policy, or its impact on Labour's chances.

Again, this is not to criticise any individual commentator for the choices they make and the emphases they select. What is important here is not the choice of an individual journalist but the large pattern created by the mainstream media reaction to Corbyn's argument about the roots of terrorism.

A final, long editorial on the election in The Times on 7 June, 'Britain's Future', said that 'a cabinet led by Mr Corbyn would be a catastrophe', but did not mention Corbyn's claim that the risk of terrorism was linked to British foreign policy.

There was a similar, surprising, silence in a Telegraph editorial specifically on the terrorist threat, 'Jihadists need to feel the full force of the law', on 6 June. This condemned Jeremy Corbyn for 'fraternising with prominent terrorist apologists', but did not mention his views on the foreign policy link.

The final Telegraph editorial before the general election, 'Britain has a stark choice - a Corbyn government would be a calamity' (it had a different title online) was similarly discreet. This editorial was entirely devoted to condemning the Labour leader, but it did not mention his speech about the Manchester bombing.

There were articles that mentioned (and criticised) Corbyn's speech, but they were few and far between.

Given the furious criticism in the days immediately after Corbyn's Manchester speech, you might have expected that the Labour leader would have been haunted in the press with his moral and political error as he headed into an election he was expected to lose. Instead, the fury - and the speech - evaporated.

The taboo on mentioning a link between terrorism and British foreign policy was reasserting itself, and erasing mention of Corbyn's speech. Another demonstration of the self-censorship predicted by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's Propaganda Model of the mass media.

Public support for Corbyn

The newspapers' campaign of fury can't have been helped by the Survation opinion poll that found three times as many Britons supporting Corbyn's view as opposed it.

Also at the end of May, YouGov found a majority (53 per cent) of people in Britain supported Corbyn's view that foreign policy is a cause of terrorism in the UK - more than twice the proportion who think foreign policy plays no role (24 per cent).

On 28 May, the Sunday Times reported a poll that asked how well the Conservative and Labour party leaders had reacted to the Manchester attack. The poll had been taken the day that Corbyn made his speech, and the day after. Some 63 percent thought Theresa May had reacted well, no surprise given her role as prime minister. The surprise was that a majority (52 percent) thought Jeremy Corbyn had also reacted well to the atrocity.

An ICM poll for the Guardian conducted on 26-29 May found that more people thought Corbyn was running a good election campaign than thought he was running a bad campaign. Asked how they thought Corbyn would have handled the Manchester attack if he were prime minister, 17 percent thought he would have handled it better than May, and 32 percent about as well as her. Together, 49 percent of the population thought he was as good as or better than May at dealing with terrorism - even after hearing about his 'foreign policy and terrorism' speech. (Just under a third of people thought he would have handled the crisis 'worse than Theresa May'.)

Corbyn broke the taboo, but he suffered no political damage. Despite this, the elite print media continued to be sealed up, barring dissent on this critical issue.