It’s easy to forget that journalists are more – or maybe less – than their public face: their writing, reporting and columns. Behind these figures of gravitas and moral authority hide flawed, vulnerable human beings, who worry about covering the monthly school bill or paying off their large mortgages.
I say this as an introduction to the case of Mehdi Hasan, the leftwing political editor of the Huffington Post in the UK. Hasan stands accused of hypocrisy over his trenchant criticisms of the rightwing British tabloid the Daily Mail. He and many others have attacked the Mail for its ugly campaign to discredit the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, over his father’s politics. Ralph Miliband was a well-known Marxist academic.
Paradoxically, the Mail, whose most famous owner was a supporter of Nazism before the Second World War, has implicitly criticised Ed Miliband over comments that his father made more than half a century ago that it is trying to to present as unpatriotic. In fact, Ralph Miliband, a Jew who fled Nazi Europe, served in the British navy and, by all accounts, developed a strong attachment to Britain.
In reality, the Mail is being cynically opportunistic: it wants to raise doubt in Britain about Ed Miliband’s patriotism, suggest he is a “crazy” socialist like his father, and, almost certainly, highlight that he is Jewish, hoping to play on any anti-semitic impulses among voters.
The problem for Hasan is that, following his criticisms of the paper, the Mail leaked a letter Hasan wrote to its editor, Paul Dacre, in 2010 begging for a job at the paper. He said he admired the Mail’s
passion, rigour, boldness and, of course, news values. I believe the Mail has a vitally important role to play in the national debate, and I admire your relentless focus on the need for integrity and morality in public life, and your outspoken defence of faith, and Christian culture, in the face of attacks from militant atheists and secularists.
Hasan, it should be noted, is a socially conservative Muslim, so some of the Mail’s social agenda mirrors his own. But even taking this into account, this is a pretty revealing letter, showing Hasan cravenly desperate to get on the Mail’s payroll.
The neoconservative columnist Nick Cohen isn’t someone I usually quote, but an anecdote in a recent column by him helps shed light on how the Mail exercises such a grip on journalists:
The Mail attracts writers who ought to oppose it, because it pays top rates if – and only if – they say exactly what the editor wants them to say. You can get at least £1,000 for a morning’s work, and Dacre will fill your pockets even if he decides not to use your piece. Writers will bark like a performing seal for money as easy as that. My colleague Polly Toynbee once revealed that Geoffrey Wheatcroft, an author she regarded as a friend, produced a “stinking” attack on her at the Mail’s behest. He then “had the nerve to write me a cringing [private] letter claiming his copy had been doctored and, anyway, he had a lot of little Wheatcrofts to keep in shoe leather”. Wheatcroft was being too modest. If you obey orders at the Mail, you can keep them in Louboutins.
The point Cohen is making here is true. Many of the journalists writing for the Mail hold their opinions because they can earn a good living by doing so, not because they particularly believe them. The Mail has its ugly prejudices and its writers tailor their own prejudices to suit. Note that a long-time senior journalist at the liberal Guardian, Alex Brummer, is now a senior editor at the Mail. Most journalists simply move between these supposedly vastly different papers based not on the degree to which they reflect their political outlook but simply to advance their careers and inflate their salaries.
But we need to go much further than Cohen’s critique. Many journalists in all mainstream media outlets do the same, including on liberal papers like the Guardian and Independent. All the British mainstream media (and it’s not different in the US or other countries) have their ethos, or brand. They have their “spot” in the available political spectrum, which runs from far-right to centre (no mainstream paper is really leftwing, and certainly not socialist). Journalists, however good they are, however informed their opinions, will more than struggle to find space in any of the mainstream media unless they stick within the narrow limits of their outlet’s political positioning.
This is not to suggest journalists are necessarily being cynical. Most probably believe they hold their opinions after genuine consideration of all the arguments. But the reality is that, if they wish to be taken seriously as a pundit, they have to subscribe to a fairly narrow set of political views. All aspirational journalists (and commentators and reporters in the mainstream media have been aspiring to reach these giddy heights since they were young) will over the years gravitate towards political views that conform to the political spectrum allowed in the media. That’s so obvious, it shouldn’t really need stating, but the media do such a good job of concealing that simple truth that it needs constantly reiterating.
So it’s right to criticise Hasan for his hypocrisy, but only so long as we don’t forget that all journalists who make a living from journalism (including yours truly) are in on this charade, to a greater or lesser extent. When we write for money, the money – not us – ultimately talks.
This is the message of Herman and Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent. It’s also the basis of the work of media criticism websites like the excellent Media Lens.