It takes some effort to be deemed too un-PC even for alt-right, alt-fact sausage machine Breitbart, but Milo Yiannopoulos achieved this feat. When an old podcast emerged of the neo-fascist poster-boy apparently endorsing paedophilia it took barely 48 hours for him to be disavowed not only by the American Conservative Union, at whose conference he was due to be a keynote speaker, and publishers Simon & Schuster, who were paying $250,00 for a book, but also his now former employers at the website run by the man with his fist in the Donald Trump sock puppet, Steve Bannon.
Yiannopoulos (nee Hanrahan – he adopted his grandmother’s birth name, presumably because the Greek sounded more lyrically exotic than the Irish) was a short-lived phenomenon. Twice a college dropout, he somehow managed to get jobs on the Catholic Herald and the Daily Telegraph writing on technology, then founded a tech journalism website, Kernel, and finally rose above the surface of the internet swamp by hijacking an online controversy over gaming, during which he was notorious for his misogyny.
Notoriety is good for the media, though, so he then became a go-to figure for outrageous reactionary commentary, peddling over-the-top poison in such a way that he could justify it as ‘satire’ while never actually disavowing any of it. He adopted a doe-eyed, eyelid-fluttering on-screen appearance that must have taken many hours of studying the infamous Martin Bashir-Diana Windsor interview to perfect, and his pretty-boy good looks and membership of a minority group – he is gay – helped the media justify to themselves the adoption of such a hateful and intellectually vacuous figure as a legitimate spokesperson for the ‘alternative’ political viewpoint. Some even called him charismatic, though when I first came across him on TV he appeared to exude all the charisma of a slime eel in a tutu.
It wasn’t all smooth running, though. He was permanently banned from Twitter after inciting a campaign of misogynist, racist abuse against actor Leslie Jones merely for being a female and black co-star of the Ghostbusters movie remake. But it was all grist to the mill for the alt-right trolls, until paedo-gate. If you’re a conservative, it seems you can hate and demean as much as you like anyone of a different race, religion, gender or personality, but suggesting youths could enjoy fulfilling relationships with older men (Yiannopoulos himself claims to have had such a boyhood relationship with a priest) is deemed to be pissing into the tent rather than out. Time to cut the cord…
It remains to be seen whether this is really the end of Milo (as he likes to be known), a dim light that seemed to burn so bright to the morally blind. After all, the media doesn’t mind that After all, the media doesn’t mind according the disgraced and discredited a continuing platform, whatever their offences, so long as they dress to the right not the left – hence the fact that Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Kelvin Mackenzie, Piers Morgan et al still pollute the airwaves and politics of the UK, and a serial bankrupt, fraudster and Mafia accomplice such as Donald Trump (see Sidney Blumenthal’s recent article in the London Review of Books) can become a TV game show host and then President of the United States.a serial bankrupt, fraudster and Mafia accomplice such as Donald Trump (see Sidney Blumenthal’s recent article in the London Review of Books) can become a TV game show host and then President of the United States.
And there’s the rub. It’s no surprise (or shouldn’t be) to readers of a left-wing journal that the mainstream media is biased. It is the nature of a beast that is dependent on the state or capital to maintain it, and which is largely an instrument for flattering the egos and propagating the bigotries of those with businesses large and profitable enough to absorb the losses newspapers and news channels inevitably generate. The left will always struggle to obtain the kind of entry into the media enjoyed by the likes of Milo, who, however outrageous some of his outpourings might have been, would never have called capitalism into doubt. But when leftists are allowed access, usually invited in order to be interrogated, pilloried, accused or ridiculed, why are we so polite, and always so defensive. Why are we so rarely able to take control of the situation, in the way that a Mackenzie, a Hartley Brewer, an Aaronovitch or a Milo does. It is one thing to seek, as Jeremy Corbyn did with PMQs, a more civilised discourse, quite another to allow oneself, as Corbyn also did, to be continually seen as weak. One doesn’t have to be dedicated to the propagation of alt-facts to be aggressive in getting facts of some kind across. And one doesn’t have to be shy about calling out bias and hypocrisy either.
A few issues ago I wrote a review for this journal of Thomas Suarez’s book State Of Terror in which I mentioned in passing an interview with a former Israeli minister on BBC2’s Newsnight conducted by Kirsty Wark, saying of the interviewer: “Wark, who, wretched even by the standards of the BBC News and Current Affairs regime under former Murdoch acolyte James Harding, exhibits bland ignorance and stupidity to the same degree that Laura Kuenssberg exhibits crude bias.” This did not appear in the print version, as I cut it for space reasons, but it was included in the version that appeared online, after which I received an admonition from a veteran journo. Among other things, he wrote: “Intelligent journalism requires that extreme criticism and strong insults have to be supported by evidence… If the evidence is not offered, you are deemed to have descended to the level of today’s Daily Express or yesterday’s Der Stürmer. When I was learning our trade, in the mid 1960s, we were told by older men that ‘dog don’t eat dog’. The rule meant that even when your paper didn’t agree with his paper or when your employer was fighting a cut-throat circulation war with his employer, you didn’t call a fellow journalist a liar or try to take the food out of the mouths of his children. Kirsty Wark and Laura Kuenssberg are highly paid television performers, but they are still BBC reporters and their living depends on not being seen as biased or corrupt in their work.”
There are many things to be said about this, not least the idea that journalism should be governed by an old-boys mutual back-scratching pact in which failings and misdemeanours are never commented upon… the sort of attitude, in fact, which protects the corrupt and the biased, and which would have ensured that the phone hacking scandal, for instance, not only never came to public notice, but could have continued uninterrupted. It also suggests that journalists should not criticise other journalists for peddling lies and distortions, or the kind of poison excreted by the Liddles, Mackenzies, Hopkins, Philips, Littlejohns, Hartley-Brewers, Pearsons of the popular press. Personally, I remain convinced that the proper position of the undeservedly “highly-paid” Wark and Kuenssberg at the BBC would be attending to the Broadcasting House loos; I offer no evidence to justify such a view, other than suggesting that doubters observe their daily performance, available to view live or online (bbc.co.uk/iplayer), and I don’t think it’s me apeing Der Stürmer. Neither do I think anything I say in Tribune will remove a single crumb from the mouths of their children, kittens or puppies, should they have any. Still, a more robust approach to their performance from those who are not feeding them the lies with which they make their living might have some long-term effect.
I am not suggesting that we all become purveyors of alt-facts, like Milo, nor that we adopt the Trump tactic of denying the existence of media outlets we don’t like – in fact the media would love the left to do that, so it could ignore us even more. What is required is that when we are allowed that rare access to the airwaves, we seize the initiative as Milo always did, that we do not allow the gauleiters of the mainstream media always to set the agenda, and that we are not shy about calling out their bias and presumptions as it happens, not afterwards, when no-one is listening any more. Yanis Varoufakis demonstrated how it can be done when he was confronted with an ill-informed and amateurish Wark on Newsnight, and Peter Oborne, on Radio 4’s Today programme recently defenestrated Justin Webb, a journalist who, if he became collatoral damage in a US drone attack, would probably return from the afterlife just to say how honoured he was to be blown apart by American munitions.
It should not be left to foreign economists and right-wing Tory maverick journalists to confront the iniquities of our media, in real time. Corbyn won’t do it … but others must.