When a terrorist killed 22 at a May 22 concert filled with young people in England’s Manchester, most journalists—especially US ones—assumed it would help the struggling Conservative Party and its standard-bearer, Prime Minister Theresa May, win the snap election she had called for June 8, just 17 days ahead.
That is, after all, the conventional wisdom: In times of crisis, like a terror attack, the public looks to its leaders for tough talk and dramatic action. New York Times correspondent Steven Erlanger (5/24/17), noting that May’s “easy glide” to re-election had run into trouble prior to the bombing, wrote an article on how the attack “Shifts Political Narrative as UK Election Looms”:
If the Manchester bombing was a horrible tragedy for Britain, it was a political boon, however unwanted, for Prime Minister Theresa May.
Monday’s terrorist attack has changed the narrative of Britain’s election, just two weeks away — and in her favor. As the incumbent prime minister, Mrs. May inevitably speaks both to and for the nation from 10 Downing Street. And having been home secretary for six years before becoming prime minister, she is knowledgeable and comfortable with the issues of security, policing and terrorism.
Erlanger went on to report that May’s opponent, leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, was seen to have a “weakness” on security, citing his “old sympathies with Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army.” Erlanger quoted a historian’s view that “there can only be more questions” for Corbyn after the bombing, which opened him to attacks from right-wing media for being “soft on terror.”
But Corbyn took a bold and unusual stand after the Manchester horror. On March 26, just four days after the suicide bombing, he gave a speech on foreign policy and terrorism that criticized May’s role as home secretary under former PM David Cameron. Noting that she had overseen cuts in public safety funding that had furloughed 20,000 police officers, Corbyn said, “You cannot protect the public on the cheap.”
More importantly, Corbyn went on to say, “We must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working.” A life-long anti-war activist and critic of British participation in US-led wars, even under his own party’s leaders, Corbyn charged that British interventions, particularly in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, had made the country less rather than more safe, saying:
Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.
While Corbyn’s dramatic words were widely reported in the British media, mostly in the context of scathing criticism, one struggled to find them mentioned in the US media—especially on the TV news—despite the heavy attention being paid to the bombing, and to a later truck attack on London Bridge. Apparently, when it comes to the US news media, talking about such notions is something to be left to alternative outlets like Common Dreams (5/26/17) and Democracy Now! (5/26/17), and to the more radical elements of the US peace movement.
Although it’s hard to imagine a presidential or congressional candidate of either major US party making a similar speech following a terror attack, Corbyn’s views have been a non-story in the view of most American news editors.
A USA Today piece (5/26/17) had a one-paragraph preview of Corbyn’s speech, making sure to mention that his “party is expected to perform poorly in the June 8 vote.” Bloomberg News (5/26/17) had a longer report on Corbyn’s speech, though it gave the last word to Conservative critics who said that Corbyn came from “an extreme and ideological world that is too quick to make excuses for the actions of our enemies and too willing to oppose the measures and people that keep us safe”—though polling found the British public largely in agreement with his view that the “War on Terror” had made them less safe.
Only the Washington Post (5/27/17) suggested the possibility that Corbyn might benefit by linking the Manchester terror bombing to British policies in the Middle East, at least if his intention was to “galvanize his base.” In an article headlined “Manchester Bombing Makes Terrorism Central Campaign Issue in June Elections,” Post correspondents Karla Adam and Michael Birnbaum quoted Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University in London. He said while the Corbyn speech would predictably outrage Conservatives, “If his aim is to mobilize his core left liberal vote, then it could work,” adding, “Now, how that will play with the majority of voters is another matter.”
As for the New York Times, it largely ignored Corbyn’s remarkable speech, though one article (5/26/17) cited his quote about security officials seeing a link between UK military actions and domestic terror attacks. (The Times then cited British Defense Minister Michael Fallon retorting that his speech showed Corbyn was “unfit to be prime minister.”) There was also a second-hand reference the same day: An article (5/26/17) about right-wing Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins quoted her saying Corbyn had given a “rancid speech” calling the war on terror a “failure.”
That was it. Although the Times’ bureau in London surely must have noticed after the speech in question that Corbyn and his Labour Party continued their rise in the polls, they filed no article discussing the phenomenon or the speech itself.
In “Theresa May Doesn’t Crack and Jeremy Corbyn Keeps His Cool in UK Debate,” (5/29/17), the Times’ Erlanger and colleague Stephen Castle reported on a pseudo-debate between May and Corbyn. (May had refused to share the stage with Corbyn, so each candidate instead faced questions alone with the moderator.) The two journalists wrote only that Corbyn in the debate was “challenged over his comment that the war on terror was ‘not working,’” failing to note that that line had been not a “comment” but rather part of a major foreign policy speech analyzing the roots of terrorism in the country, and how to combat it.
When the voting was over, US media had to report the obvious: that Corbyn and Labour, though failing to best May and the Conservatives, had actually come out ahead in the election, defying pundit predictions to gain 32 seats and knocking the Conservatives out of a majority in Parliament. As the Times story’s headline read (6/9/17): “Jeremy Corbyn Lost UK Election, but Is Still Its Biggest Winner.”
But like most of the US media coverage in that and succeeding days, Times journalists Castle and Katrin Bennhold attributed Corbyn’s success to his being a better, more people-friendly campaigner than the “wooden, robotic” May, to his “Sanders-like” appeal to young voters, and to his party’s socialist manifesto, which called for better funding for the National Health Service, re-nationalization of public transit and free college tuition, among other measures. (Of course, before the election, the Times‘ pages were describing this same manifesto as a “proto-Marxist program” that would doom Labour to the political wilderness—New York Times, 6/3/17; FAIR.org, 6/8/17.)
No doubt Corbyn’s personality and domestic policies were factors in his strong electoral performance, but there’s also no doubt that his contrarian stand on terrorism, laying much of the blame on Britain’s militarist foreign policy and intervention in Middle East conflicts, was critical. Yet this got no mention at all.
Writing for the news site Nation of Change (6/25/17), Canadian journalist Derek Royden ventured to say what no journalist in corporate US media has:
Unlike most of the leaders of major Western political parties, Jeremy Corbyn chose to be honest rather than treating citizens like children, and to the surprise of many he gained support. In the end, his party picked up 32 seats and a larger “government in waiting” role in a hung parliament. It also turned out that the Labor leader was correct in pointing to the war in Libya as a more important factor than the concerns articulated by May [about excessive internet freedom and too much concern for human rights].
This isn’t the first time voters have defied the conventional wisdom about how they are supposed to respond to crises. After the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando in June 2016, NPR “counterterrorism correspondent” Dina Temple-Raston speculated that the attack might affect the US elections, since, she said, after a major bombing in Madrid just before the 2004 elections, “the more conservative candidate ended up winning.”
The problem with this analysis? The conservative People’s Party actually lost that election to the Socialists, who had campaigned on a platform of withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq (FAIR.org, 6/15/16).