Perhaps not black and white, but Red all over

Culture Wars
March 17, 2006

The provenance of this admirable book is to be found in the setting of its narrative. In the late 1970s, the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, then under Stuart Hall's leadership, published a series of studies - of which Policing the Crisis was perhaps the best - telling a powerful new story about the gross distortions and inequities of British cultural life and the satisfactions these gave its power elite.

At about the same time, the Glasgow Media Group, led by Greg Philo, was compiling its impressive Bad News series, chronicling the taken-for-granted bias in all BBC political broadcasting against any kind of even putatively leftist policies and actions.

James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley are eminent representatives of the same tradition. Curran was himself an actor in the original history. He had just lost Cambridge as an extremely youthful parliamentary candidate when the great she-rhino (Denis Healey's address) Margaret Thatcher came to power. After the electoral obliteration of 1983, he became editor of the Labour Party's new journal, New Socialist , which was established as a source of much-needed intellectual energy for the party.

The three authors have lived through the blitzkrieg visited upon the specifically London Left that is their subject. For once, the cliche metaphor is precise enough: not only was that Left - "loony", "crackpot", "extremist", "Marxist" and all that - heavily bombarded, its theoretical premises devastated, its personnel under constant fire, but the blitz brought out unexpected toughness and resilience in its victims and threw together some very dissimilar heroes of resistance.

Curran launches the tale with a calm and graceful history of the era, casting it not only as a bitter and raucous struggle between urban Left and Thatcher's Right, but also as intrinsically generational, with new recruits created by the 1960s and called less to the barricades of class war and more to the colours of colour itself, as well as to feminism and sexuality.

The symbolic battle was and is fought out with newsprint and on the deceiving fields of television. With quiet determination and a stirring faith in the old principles of their profession - rational evaluation of the evidence, absolute refusal of stock responses and bien-pensant hard blowing - they set out to name and repudiate the repellent collusion of media and government that so comprehensively poisons the waters of political debate.

What they paint is a vast picture of the bloody old Nobodaddy squatting at the heart of the worst of British political and cultural life. It is much to be feared that the small weapons of reason and rebuttal are powerless against its plated bulk.

One of the cases in point that our authors take, as well they might, is the career of London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone. They show, when he decided to run, just how extravagantly he was vilified by the local and national press, how he was deliberately misrepresented and lied about, until the Labour Party - stripping itself of its historical allegiances - attempted to stop his candidature for the mayorship.

The result, of course, floored press and party alike, and was surely a victory for the people over both. Curran and company have nonetheless to equivocate over the knotty question of media persuasiveness. The said media certainly persuaded the revisionists of new Labour that the Left was a menace to all their hopes, and this excellent study shows how this willed self-deception worked.

At the same time, in a long and vividly constructed procession of counterexamples - London councils Brent and Haringey, Aids and Clause 28, congestion charging - the three demonstrate just how torrential is the sewage poured on anything the yellow press selects as its receptacle. After all, in a Nuffield study that this book surprisingly overlooks, the MP Malcolm Linton pretty well proved that The Sun was quite right with its coy-noisome headline after the 1992 election, "It woz The Sun wot won it".

The trouble is that these gallant and intelligent men have tackled a subject too vast for their method. The yellow press is a horrible tumour in our democratic life, and academic weaponry can do nothing about it.

Fred Inglis is emeritus professor of cultural studies, Sheffield University. He is writing a biography of R. G. Collingwood.

Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left

Author - James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Pages - 316
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 7486 1917 8

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