Johnson’s Starmer insult was just the latest evidence of Britain’s rotten political culture | Nesrine Malik

IIt shouldn’t be remarkable, but it is. The Prime Minister’s suggestion that Keir Starmer, in his former role as Director of Public Prosecutions, was responsible for the failed prosecution of pedophile Jimmy Savile may soon be lost in the wake of political memory – but for some time , for more than a brief moment, he was met with a sustained chorus of anger and criticism across the country.

The BBC clarified that there was “no proof» for the complaint; other broadcasters unequivocally called it an “insult” in their headlines; the former Tory chief whip and the Speaker of the House of Commons have both publicly berated Johnson; even one of his most loyal aides, Munira Mirza, linked his resignation to it.

Behind the disbelieving responses, you could detect a sense of relief that “we’re not there yet” – the “there” being a kind of post-Trump America, where QAnon conspiracy theories regularly make headlines. . But now is not the time to indulge. We are somewhere else, somewhere equally troubling: a place where people are in denial about how Johnson’s Savile insult was the product of a political culture saturated with lies, so often aimed at the political left and minorities. .

The inaccuracy of Savile’s claim “crossed over” due to the specific climate and how it played out. The contempt for the man who did it and his political standing at the time – desperately going after him to distract from his sinking prime ministership and sunken morals – made him seem more lower and dirtier than if it had been done in the normal course of political business. . The timing also amplified the claim, made as it was during a televised Commons sitting when the stakes were high, immediately after Sue Gray’s damning ‘update’ was released. Then there was the position of Starmer himself in this unique storyline, a sanctified protagonist in his role as the representative of an angry and hurt nation.

It was bad timing and bad optics on Johnson’s part. But other than that, you can’t blame him for thinking he’d get away with it. All he was doing was participating in a long and successful conservative tradition that now involves shady extremists on social media, but has historically relied on a zealous right-wing press that has brought us such resounding successes. than Ed Miliband, the son of the man who “hated Brittany”.

Let’s not forget that two Conservative prime ministers had either directly accused Jeremy Corbyn of being a “terrorist sympathizer” or reinforced claims that he had been a Soviet asset. In 2015, David Cameron called Corbyn a “security threat, sympathizer with terrorism and hater of Britain” ideologue, using out-of-context quotes suggesting the Labor leader was upset by the assassination of Osama bin Laden, rather than the absence of any attempt. to bring him to justice.

When, in 2018, the Sun published a expose claiming Corbyn was a “paid aide” who had been “recruited” by Czechoslovakian Cold War spies, Gavin Williamson, then Secretary of Defense, ran with it. “That he met with foreign spies is a betrayal of this country,” Williamson said. Tory MP Ben Bradley – in a since-deleted post, for which he later apologised, donating a “substantial sum” to charity – said Corbyn had “sold British secrets to Communist spies”. Asked about the allegation, Theresa May said Corbyn should be “open and transparent” and “accountable” for past actions. “History has survived”, wrote the Washington Post, “provided oxygen by none other than Prime Minister Theresa May.”

Cameron, whose overall political record has been buried under his colossal Brexit madness (better remember an idiot than a rogue), has also enthusiastically embraced and promoted specious theories to bolster the mayor’s campaign of London by Zac Goldsmith against Sadiq Khan. He once said in Prime Minister’s Questions that he was ‘concerned about Labor’s candidate for mayor of London’ because he had ‘shared a platform’ with a ‘radical imam’. Not only was it bad: this same imam from then said on LBC radio that he was a Conservative supporter and felt rather bruised that he had been used to discredit Khan.

Few things are clever and studied. It’s more of a strategy of throwing mud and hoping for a few sticks. If things spiral out of control, then politicians soberly condemn the consequences with straight faces, as Johnson did when Starmer was harassed by anti-lockdown protesters who repeated, among other things, Savile’s insult.

When political rhetoric spills over into the real world, as it inevitably does, it is attributed to an extreme minority of eccentrics – anti-vaxxers, lockdown skeptics, racists, loners and crackpots. But these people draw their views from a larger cloud in which two fronts of misinformation constantly swirl – the demonization of migrants, Muslims and other minorities, and the slander of Labor politicians and left-wing movements as anti-British. .

Driving these winds is a poorly regulated press prone to being ideologically motivated at worst, or downright gullible at best. The Sun can publish a far-right plot about a “far-left network” at the heart of Labor and then delete it before the end of the day, without explanation or, more importantly, with much outrage. So do discredited front-page stories about Muslims adopting Christian children and bogus “plots” to take over Britain’s schools.

It’s hard to look at the last decade and conclude that Johnson’s Savile insult came out of a clear blue sky. It’s a good thing that many were appalled by this, but it doesn’t help if we are to continue to be selective about the falsehoods we let slip in the future. It will happen again. Even Starmer’s amnesty is fading. Despite the strength of the repression of Johnson’s lie, the machine is already mobilizing to defend and whitewash him. Before long, this will probably pass into the realm of vexatious and plausible tropes that plague the Labor Party.

It’s not Johnson or the far right doing it all alone. The truth is, deep down, too many people who aren’t radicalized or conspiratorial believe that defamation targets are somehow fair game, perhaps not guilty of this or that particularly outlandish offense, but generally flawed enough to that the lies capture a larger truth about them. The natural result of this is the entrenchment of a political culture in which dangerous untruths are commonplace and rarely challenged. Either everyone matters or none of them matter.

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