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Members Voice: Bastani’s Novara Media is no alternative

Aaron Bastani in 2017

Workers Party activist Phil Bevin deep-dives into the establishment networks and murky funding sources behind the supposedly ‘alternative’ news source, Novara Media.

Needless to say, the views expressed here are done so in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent those of the party as a whole.

If you haven’t already, check out the previous instalment of Members Voice, on the Labour Left clique behind the Don’t Pay UK campaign.

If you have any opinions on this piece – or if you have a talking point you want the party and the world to hear – don’t hesitate to drop us a line!

You might be familiar with Novara Media – the ‘alternative’ media organisation which grew to prominence during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader.

Over the years, it’s been derided by some as a blatantly ‘Corbynista’ outlet, and by others as a prime example of style over substance. Altogether it’s fair to say Novara Media has come in for criticism from all angles!

I’m going to argue something quite different here, though: Novara Media has, in fact, more in common with mainstream journalism than you might think.

Rank hypocrisy

In 2015, co-founder of Novara Media Aaron Bastani wrote an article for the George Soros-funded lobby group OpenDemocracy. In that article, he takes the BBC to task for the role it plays in establishment politics:

Figures such as Nick Robinson and Andrew Neill enjoy greater gatekeeping functions to the political class than ever before and are able to define and defend the limits of political reasonability in highly unaccountable ways.

Rather than opening the field and challenging incumbents, the emergence of the new media environment is interacting with the BBC’s monopoly over the domestic news market and entrenching existing privilege and power.

Seven years later, Novara Media is no longer run on a shoestring. It has grown significantly by piggybacking on Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the Labour leadership – from being a single podcast to offering a range of different media, from articles to shows.

Has Novara Media’s success opened up the field for independent journalism? Quite the opposite. It has extended the reach of the establishment – helping the establishment contain dissident, upstart, and alternative points of view.

Bastani was right, in 2015, to identify the BBC as a powerful gatekeeper. Rather than oppose it, however, Novara has embraced its new role – using the corporation’s platform to bolster its own pundits’ profiles.

By 2017, Bastani was already appearing on the BBC – he has appeared on a range of BBC platforms, including Radio 4.

Mainstream acceptance is always on the establishment’s terms. Mainstream media is unlikely to re-invite commentators unless they are considered ‘safe’. People don’t get invited back unless they self-censor!

But all this should really come as no surprise – Bastani has been close to the establishment for some time.

A dubious money trail

Why has Bastani written for OpenDemocracy, which takes funding from establishment scion George Soros? If you aren’t familiar with Soros, he’s the billionaire former director of the Council on Foreign Relations who has been involved in countless nefarious political causes around the world.

Why has Bastani written for Tribune Magazine? This is a magazine bought out in 2018 by the Jacobin, a US publication with significant funding from a couple of questionable sources.

One of those is the Annenberg Foundation, who helped to bankroll Israel’s 1967 war against Palestine. Another is the Jewish Communal Fund, for whom the Tribune and the Jacobin are just two more happy beneficiaries amid an endless list of worthy Zionist causes.

Novara Media itself has received funding from the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, which is funded by the German government and has ludicrously described NATO as “an anti-imperialist defensive alliance”.

Questionable connections

We know from New Statesman contributor Laurie Penny that, in 2010, Aaron Bastani – or Aaron Peters, as he was then known – either worked in or volunteered for former Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s Labour leadership campaign.

But what Bastani did next is even more interesting: he successfully applied to study a PhD at Royal Holloway University in the university’s New Political Communication Unit.

In 2009, the unit received funding from an MI5 department, the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure. Their role is “to protect UK national security” and to “help to reduce the vulnerability of the UK to a variety of threats such as Terrorism, Espionage and Sabotage.”

The funding was awarded to Chadwick’s colleague, Ben O’Loughlin for ‘Developing our understanding of the language of extremism and its potential for predicting risk’.

Chadwick, who supervised Bastani’s PhD, is associated with British and US state interests through his research and advice.

In 2006, he assisted in the foundation of the International Working Group on Online Consultation and Public Policy Research, which was funded by the US National Science Foundation, a US government body that funds the development of projects for the USA’s military industrial complex.

Bastani used his PhD to study the 2010 student protest movement. This brought him into contact with Paul Mason, who he interviewed in 2013 and who later wrote for Novara.

Bastani leans on Paul Mason’s views throughout his thesis. The Workers Party’s Alexander McKay has explained elsewhere the shadowy world within which Paul Mason moves.

While studying for his PhD and attending student protests and meetings, Bastani gathered information about the culture, practices and operations of the 2010 student movement. His research is very likely to have been passed on to his PhD supervisor Chadwick at multiple points during his study – and where did that information go from there?

What we can conclude from his past connections is that Bastani is not the anti-establishment rebel that many have believed him to be. His career has been enabled by people and organisations intimately familiar with the establishment’s networks of power and influence.

So what’s the deal with Novara Media?

Novara Media is by no means a convincing challenger to establishment perspectives.

Our journalism is always politically committed; rather than seeking to moderate between two sides of a debate, our output actively intends to feed back into political action.

Novara Media mission statement

This is a textbook definition of propaganda.

Considering its aspiration to influence behaviour, it’s time for socialists to stop dismissing Novara Media as simply shallow ‘Optics Left’ journalism. Given its co-founder’s research focus and connections to people associated with the UK security services, the outlet needs more scrutiny.

First of all, what does Novara’s output tend to look like? For one, they are a media outlet that has consistently pushed right wing narratives from the left. There are three blatant examples of this: the ‘anti-semitism’ controversy, Brexit, and the Russia-Ukraine war.

Firstly, Novara Media were one ‘left’ platform that pushed Cobyn to accommodate those attacking him over ‘antisemitism’.

In 2018, contributor Barnaby Raine, who has since become a regular talking head on the subject, criticised ‘the left’ with the unevidenced assertion that left wing critics of Israel tend to assume “that Zionist cadres or the Israeli embassy must be behind every allegation of antisemitism in Labour.”

At the same time, he also characterized the right-wing Board of Deputies as having genuine concerns over antisemitism in Corbyn’s Labour. Novara therefore put further pressure on Corbyn to ‘explain himself’ to the Board of Deputies and make concessions.

Novara pushing right-wing narratives ‘from the left’ happened during Brexit, too.

Labour’s 2019 conference ultimately committed the party to a second referendum on Brexit. On 27 March 2019, in the run-up to that conference, Novara published an article in which Bastani himself described a second Brexit referendum as “inevitable”.

In the event of Labour adopting a second referendum position… Jeremy Corbyn could well be the prime minister.

Aaron Bastani’s prediction in the run-up to Labour’s 2019 conference

Once again, this narrative will likely have emboldened Corbyn’s opponents on the issue – the Starmer-McDonnell alliance – at a time when the Corbyn leadership needed support for its position.

More recently, Novara has published a series of articles on the Ukraine crisis by Volodya Vagna, which largely promote the often false establishment media point of view on Russia, notably that ‘Putin’ (as opposed to the Russian government he represents), has miscalculated with its invasion and the Russian economy is “collapsing” (it isn’t).

The suggestion that Russia is relatively weak and likely to fold after one last push is both contrary to available evidence and helpful to those arguing for the sale of ever more weapons to and further escalation in Ukraine, where the prolongation of the conflict is costing ever more Ukrainian lives.

These examples and, just as importantly, their timing, suggest the British state will have little problem with Novara’s output or its political action.

A parasitic news outlet with nothing to offer socialists

Challenging the establishment was never Novara’s purpose. At the end of his 2015 article criticising the BBC, Bastani argued that some of the BBC budget should be redirected to the likes of Novara Media and Resonance FM through the establishment of a new grant-making body.

Of course, rather than limiting the BBC’s gatekeeper function, redirecting its money into what would become ‘co-opted media’ would only extend establishment influence.

Journalists working for these organisations would find their freedom of expression limited by what the establishment would be willing to finance. Rather than check the BBC’s power, such an arrangement would simply expand establishment reach to new audiences, further limiting the scope of free debate.

Through the BBC’s platforming of Novara pundits, and through Novara happily toeing the establishment line, it seems that the parasitic relationship between the organisations – which Bastani coveted in 2015 – has come to fruition.

Far from challenging the BBC or other platforms like ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Novara Media is dependent on mainstream news media to boost its own reputation and the profiles of its resident clique of left-celebrities, who are never likely to stray into arguments that might hamper their access to such big platforms.

This means that Novara Media is not truly new left media. It is, by design, parasitic media – technically independent from mainstream platforms like the BBC, yet reliant upon them for its growth.

Image source: JwslubbockAaron Bastani, The World TransformedCC BY-SA 4.0