‘The Commentariat’, as it is sometimes known, is that group of professional broadcasters, columnists, journalists and writers who are meant to act as sort of political ‘theatre critics’, standing between the public and the spinning political party machines to decode and critique for us the performances of professional politicians and political parties, thus making democracy meaningful by informing the voting choices of us as democratic citizens.
The Commentariat are a crucially influential part of ‘the free press’ we are so proud of; that Fourth Estate, that is meant to democratically call the first and second estate to account on behalf of the third estate. (The other three estates being The Clergy, The Nobility & The Commoners.) The problem with this theory is that the Commentariat are almost universally what you and I would call ‘part of the establishment’ i.e. part of the first and second estate.
They are generally London based, metropolitan, well-educated, well-connected. and ‘liberal’ with a small ‘l’ in terms of identity politics. ( Kelvin McKenzie, Jeremy Clarkson and Katy Hopkins being some notorious exceptions to that rule!).They come from wealthy middle-class backgrounds, went to the same schools and universities as professional politicians, go to the same parties, read the same books, and share the same underlying values. They are not critical outsiders looking in, they are insiders on the inside looking out. They are part of the elite and part of the system that works to maintain the status, wealth and privilege of that elite.
For the avowedly right-wing Press (Express, Telegraph, Times, Spectator et al) Corbyn’s election has not been problematic and they have unsurprisingly been ‘out to get’ Corbyn in a straight-forward aggressive way from the beginning. Indeed, in many ways his election has made their life easier because Corbyn’s political aspirations are obviously at odds with everything they stand for and the attack on him can be direct and merciless.
But for what was previously regarded as the ‘liberal media’. (i.e. the Guardian, The Independent, The BBC, C4 and the leftish magazines like The New Statesman) Corbyn’s election seems to have thrown them into an existential crisis.
Since the end of the Cold War in ’89 and John Major’s unexpected victory in the ’92 General Election our professional political class (politicians, journalists, commentators, advisors, administrators) have settled into a sort of Neoliberal Post-Political Consensus. They have assumed that the era of ‘ideological’ dispute was over and that any informed observer could see that free market capitalism had triumphed and all that remained for the political class was to facilitate free market capitalism and administer the government – oh, and fight wars.
According to this ‘End Of History’ world view, fundamental ‘Ideological’ differences were to be replaced with a very narrow range of differences in our emotional disposition towards the worst effects of free market capitalism. Those on the Right were ‘hardline’ free marketers, bravely taking ‘tough decisions’ and accepting that the suffering of the poor is a regrettable but necessary and unavoidable by-product of free market capitalism, and that on balance the suffering of the poor is outweighed by the benefits to the rich. “Liberals’ (and I include New Labour in that grouping) also accepted that the suffering of the poor is a regrettable but necessary and unavoidable by-product of free market capitalism, however these ‘liberals’ were emotionally empathetic to the suffering of the poor and much like Victorian philanthropists, their consciences dictated that it would be humane to try and alleviate the suffering of the poor – but only to the extent that it wouldn’t hinder the ‘wealth creators’ of free market capitalism or burden the rich with taxes.
But the election of Corbyn as leader fundamentally challenges that world view. The election of Corbyn could indicate that history isn’t over, that ideology is alive and well and that ‘the people’ are not the ignorant, apathetic masses that so many of the metropolitan Commentariat have complained about. The Scottish referendum and the Corbyn’s candidacy for leadership of the Labour Party has illustrated that if you give voters proper political choices that actually matter they are more engaged and better informed than ever before and that they will not simply heed the wise advice of the Commentariat but will make their own minds up based on information coming from a diversity of online sources..
This new reality seems to have panicked the liberal Commentariat and they have let their guard down and it is now obvious to almost everyone that with regard to Corbyn they are not simply ‘reporting’ events, but are instead purposefully and openly campaigning against him.
Interestingly, they didn’t do this with Farage and UKIP, who were given massive amounts of coverage, which although not directly ‘sympathetic’, did at least take UKIP seriously as a political force. And this is the key difference; fundamentally the liberal Commentariat in the UK do not take Corbyn seriously. They think he is just a last desperate gasp of the left before it disappears into the footnotes of history. Or more accurately they pray this is so. It has to be surely? If not they have been wrong about about almost everything and that would be just too much to bear.
This is a genuine crisis in political journalism in the UK because it has exposed the underlying structural bias in the media and for many millions it is a genie that cannot now easily be put back in its box. In many ways this has been very useful to the left because it has vividly made apparent to many millions the otherwise hidden right-wing bias of even the ‘liberal’ media. Suddenly you don’t need to be an expert to see that Chomsky’s analysis of the media is far from being a paranoid conspiracy theory, because it is so self-evidently and obviously true.
So for our liberal Commentariat it’s not just that they disagree with Corbyn’s philosophy, let alone specific policies, or that his policies might threaten their class interests (which they might), it’s that he threatens their entire self-serving, self-reinforcing, conceptual world view.
As comical, loony-left, back-benchers, Corbyn, Skinner at al, could be patronisingly tolerated as harmless examples of our political plurality. But if it looks like they could actually get into power then the world is turned upside down and the ‘liberal’ political Commentariat will have been proved to be wrong about almost everything and they will look like a right bunch of self-serving, useless wan… Sorry? What’s that? They do already? Mmm, fair enough maybe you’re right.