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Eamonn McCann

The Media Reviewed: The Guardian

Easy-oozy, wily wobble

(March 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 3, 22 March–18 April 1980, p. 12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘Ten degrees to the left of centre in good times,’ sang the late Phil Ochs. ‘Ten degrees to the right when it affects me personally ... Love me, love me, I’m a liberal’.

Ochs, from New York, was not singing about The Guardian newspaper, having almost certainly had the good fortune never to set eyes on the publication.

But he could have been. The quotation’s apt. And the type of easy-oozey, willy-wobble political poseur he depicted is the archetypical Guardian-person.

The Guardian prides (it is the exact word) itself on being the journalistic defender of British-liberal values. And so it is. It stands for the poor and the underprivileged – and sincerely regrets that, under present circumstances, there is little can be done about their situation.

It is sternly opposed to racism, and agonises over the necessity, as things stand at the moment, for racist immigration laws. It is willing fearlessly to expose corruption in the police force, while making the point that, taking everything into account and looking at both sides of the question, the police are, on the whole, wonderful.

It counsels against anti-trade union law, while highlighting the importance of taking whatever steps are required to end the distressing scenes of militancy at factory gates. It is genuinely concerned about the likely effects of Thatcher’s cuts in public services while recognising that, however unwelcome consequences, a cogent case can, on balance be made for stringent control of public spending (in the light of ongoing economic circumstances). The Guardian wrestles daily with its conscience, and wins.

I began reading The Guardian when I foolishly went to university because I had gathered somewhere or other that reading The Guardian, so the theory ran, you could become incredibly well-informed and impress people at debates. You would know, for example, the name of the foreign minister of Venezuela and casually toss it in. Up to a point, there was, and is, some basis for this theory. There’s quite a lot in The Guardian. But I realised after a time that while I had become a dab hand at the facts, I didn’t seem to know what the facts meant. The name of the Venezuelan foreign minister, no problem. The reason why things were as they were in Venezuela, no notion.

And one gradually made the awesome discovery that, for understanding, the high Tory Daily Telegraph was much the superior broadsheet and took furtively to toting a copy around hidden guiltily beneath the slogan-festooned combat jacket.

The Telegraph was and is better because it has always had a clearly expressed point of view. This is helpful in two ways. As a general rule of thumb, you can take it that anything the Telegraph denounces cannot be all bad. More fundamentally, the fact that The Telegraph is openly opinionated from a class viewpoint gives its coverage of events a clear perspective which, although not ours, can illuminate causes as well as reports on effects. Class warriors like Colin Welch and Robert Moss, in their endless search for socialist subversion on the one hand, and capitalist weakness on the other, actually analyse.

You don’t get writers like that in the Guardian: Guardian persons in their de rigeur denims would choke on their real ale at the prospect. Guardian writers are objective, their objectivity shrouded in an impenetrable fog of blandness and a vague sense of social concerp. Usually it is not at all clear what, if anything, Guardian writers believe except that, somehow, things ought to be rather better than they are ...

To discern The Guardian’s politics it is necessary to examine where it has stood on issues which affected matters, as it were, personally.

For example: I haven’t done any research on this (and don’t intend to do any) but am willing to bet a strong Sterling pound against a bent Irish penny that no Guardian writer would have been permitted to express, however blandly or vaguely, a view that it was an OK thing for a Western capitalist government to incinerate thousands of Asian workers and peasants ... until a Western capitalist government (The United States) began doing just that. At which point (during the bombing of Hanoi) the paper (after much public agonising, mind you, and with heart-felt feelings of regret) decided that (sigh) it was really the only course.

Similarly, a bottle of Jameson against a half pint of shandy says The Guardian was totally opposed to closing down hospitals until hospitals began to be closed down.

In good times The Guardian is against The Telegraph’s politics ...

(It is, perhaps, worth recalling that in 1926 after the General Strike The Guardian in Manchester formed a scab union to get the paper out: thus, no doubt, to report the proceedings from an entirely objective point of view).

None of this is to say that there is nothing good in The Guardian.

It employs a very witty, if shallow-minded, television critic called Nancy Banks Smith. A fine, if too-tortured, descriptive writer called Jill Tweedie. Arguably the best soccer writer in the bourgeois press, David Lacey. A person could, without doing him or herself lasting harm, buy the paper to read these. (There are also, of course, dreadful dingbats like Peter Jenkins, to read whose political column is akin to wading through a pond of thick porridge).

All newspapers are weapons in an ideological war, and different weapons are needed for different spheres of the war. If there was only, say, The Times and The Telegraph, for the ‘educated’ upper class to read of a morning, a section of that class – the section which for whatever reason of class origin or background likes to think of itself as enlightened would feel, well, left out. If The Guardian didn’t exist they would have to create it. Which, as a matter of fact, they did.

It exists not only to reflect and confirm their own image of themselves, but to remind them at moments when it matters of whose side they really are on.

The most recent blockbuster series carried in the paper was a week-long special on Northern Ireland. No fewer than 19 Guardian writers descended on Belfast to attempt to ‘stimulate discussion of “Ulster” in Britain again’. Locally, the most obvious effect of the visit has been on the profits of the Europa Hotel bar where scenes reminiscent of the reign of the Emporor Caligula were reported by sometimes reliable sources.

Some of the pieces were not as bad as all that. Polly Toynbee wrote a vivid report on Belfast’s Divis Flats, which she described as the worst slum in ‘Britain’. Polly’s reactions probably had much to do with her inexperience of slums (there’s as bad post-war flat complexes in Lancashire, difficult as it must be for Divis people to believe it). Still, not to carp. Jill Tweedie contributed a dewy-eyed piece about the Provos, which – apart from a ‘balancing’ exit-line – cast them as armed members of the St Francis of Assisi Fan Club. Which is (the truth must be told) improbable. There was an entertainingly daft feature by Stanley Reynolds and a daft article by Richard Gott. Plus unremarkable reports on everything else from punk rock to the tourist trade (!).

The strange (or not) thing was that in a massive series designed to ‘stimulate discussion’ not one house writer put forward the argument for withdrawing the troops.

That, you see, would be against the line of the class on an issue which affects it personally.

To be absolutely fair, Peter Jenkins did say that he would not weep salt tears if the troops were eventually withdrawn. Eventually. Not, so to speak, now, at this point in time when, looking at both sides of the question and taking into account all relevant factors it would – and this must be recognised whatever our long-term aims – be, on balance, and with a view to arriving in the end at a solution acceptable to all right-thinking persons whatever their persuasion – mine’s a brandy, eventually, things ought to be better and with good will on both sides, in the fullness of time ...

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