I’m going to form a band called Jeremy Corbyn’s Hat. I’m not really. But such a jape would be worthwhile. For a week or two in early 2018 – I’m imagining myself talking to a music journalist in a decade’s time here – the British media became convulsed with how that item of clothing was presented on a late-night current affairs show.
It’s an amusing story in itself. But it also helps illustrate how so many of us treat prominent news sources like a Rorschach inkblot. This person sees a manifestation of unreconstructed Stalinism. Another chap detects the malign influence of the neo-liberal establishment. You see a bunny.
A few days after the suspected poisoning of Sergei Skripal, former Russian double agent, Newsnight hosted a conversation on Jeremy Corbyn's response. The leader of the UK opposition hadn't said anything so outrageous. He merely wondered whether Theresa May had conclusive proof that Russia was to blame. This was, however, enough to get the usual people in a temple-throbbing fury.
All that’s for another column. The relevant point is that, for a backdrop, Newsnight superimposed Corbyn on to an image of the Kremlin washed by a sinister red sunrise.
They did worse. In the selected photograph, Corbyn was wearing one of those fisherman's caps so beloved of Vladimir Lenin and 1970s sociology lecturers.
They may have done worse still. As the story spread across social media, Corbyn fans wondered if the hat had been digitally manipulated to look “more Russian”. It was never entirely clear what the accusation was here. The cap had itself already done much of the work for the reactionary stooges. But it maybe looked a bit taller on screen. You know? Like the hat Brezhnev wore to watch ICBMs trundle through Red Square. “Let that sink in!” a million tweets thundered.
A day later, Newsnight invited Owen Jones, feisty left-wing commentator, on to discuss things Corbynular. "The media framing has been a disgrace and I have to say that includes your own programme," Jones lectured presenter Evan Davis. "Yesterday the background of your programme you had Jeremy Corbyn dressed up against the Kremlin skyline, dressed up as a Soviet stooge. You even photo-shopped his hat to look more Russian."
It didn’t take long for doubts to creep in. Newsnight pointed out that, some weeks previously, they’d imposed Gavin Williamson, the UK defence secretary, on to exactly the same image of the Kremlin. But the hat? They’ve clearly changed it from one sort of incriminating tifter to another. Right?
For as long as the BBC has existed, it has been accused of bias from the left and from the right
The BBC’s competitors at Channel 4 News – an organisation less often accused of neo-liberal blah-blah – embarked on a “fact check”. Keeping any hint of eye-rolling out their prose, the Channel 4 people observed that the manner of presentation would have made the hat seem slightly larger. “It’s clear that the hat has not been made taller – it’s simply a matter of the curved background screen distorting the dimensions of the photo,” the report said.
It goes without saying that this did not make Hatgate go away. Some noticed that Corbyn was positioned closer to the Kremlin than Williamson and that there was red tinting on the image of the Labour leader. The stretching here was painful to behold.
For as long as the BBC has existed, it has been accused of bias from the left and from the right. Until relatively recently, the latter was more common. Jeff Randall, the corporation's former business editor, once noted: "If someone says, 'No, no, no, the earth is round!', they think this person is an extremist. That's what it's like for someone with my right-of-centre views working inside the BBC." During last year's general election, the BBC was accused of stacking a TV debate with left-wing voters. Nigel Farage is convinced the station is a nest of Marxists. There's plenty more where that came from.
You will find no better example of Rorschach thinking than the reactions to the Beeb’s coverage of Martin McGuinness’s death. Search on Twitter and you will encounter adjacent fulminations alleging contradictory biases. “The BBC are making Martin out to be some sort of hero,” Graeme tweeted. “It’s a f**king joke how BBC news choose to portray Martin McGuinness by only showing the era of Troubles/IRA, absolutely no respect,” Connor says immediately below.
Meanwhile, if social media is to be believed, this newspaper is a bastion of left-wing anti-Catholic snowflakery and a vehicle for the propagation of neo-liberal, right-wing orthodoxy with a side of Blairite “centrism” [their inverted commas].
Yes, the media is clogged with biases. But none of us can sincerely claim we have never brought Rorschach thinking to the assessment of a report. Our anger sometimes says more about us than it does about the media.
And that’s why I called my band Jeremy Corbyn’s Hat.