Reel Politik Podcast: The vulgar voice of the new British left. The assertion by large swathes of the established media on both the centre left and right that Corbyn would be an election disaster has been utterly blown apart by his electoral success. The justification of this seemingly unimaginable success by the “centre”, emanating from the likes of Aaranovitch and other Corboskeptics suggests that their downright dismissal of Labour’s electoral success was because they only had the polls to rely on as the objective markers of their anti-Corbynite discourses. This line of analysis purposefully ignores centrist’s ideological opposition to populist democratic socialism. This election has made it evident that we may no longer lazily reproduce discourses of the established commentariat as they operate from political assumptions that power can only be gained from a centre position.
How did Corbyn’s Labour party managed to rise from a 20% electoral deficit in the polls to be within a few thousand votes of gaining an overall majority? Labour’s electoral success was predicated on a coalition of young voters, non-voters, metropolitan Remainers and northern UKIP supporters who had come back to Labour.
This coalition is new in British politics but the foundations for its manifestation have been in process for years. Young Corbyn supporters who were crucial in swinging university seats such as Cambridge and Canterbury from the Tories were decisive in this formation. At the vanguard of youth support for Corbyn is a relatively small group of activists who have created a new left culture both on-and-offline.
This group is driven primarily by a rejection of neo-liberal triangulation and hypocrisy and a visceral rejection of the pseudo-factual aesthetics of mainstream political punditry. They’ve been called the alt-left, the dirtbag left in the US and the new left.
One of the most vocal and scathingly anti-centerist platforms for this newly emerged British left is the Reel Politik Podcast hosted by Jack Frayne-Reid, Tom Foster, Yair Rice and Kieran Morris. The show has been rapidly growing in popularity since the 2017 general election and has so far hosted a variety of guests including Jeremy Corbyn’s former press officer Matt Zarb-Cousin. The Podcast has already left its cultural mark by introducing a plethora of insults into the lefts lexicon, centrist commentators are “slugs” and are often “seen off” by “the absolute boy” (Corbyn).
I interviewed Jack Frayne-Reid about the origins, success and direction of Reel Politik and how he thinks the show fits into the broader movement of the British left.
What is Reel Politik podcast and how did it start?
Reel Politik is a podcast about politics, although it has a heavy focus on film as well – originally it was more of a film podcast with a strong Marxist slant than a politics podcast that sometimes touched on cinema, but for a variety of reasons we shifted the focus to politics.
Firstly, I guess, because it turns out political shit-slinging is what keeps the punters coming, at least inasmuch as the crowd we’ve been able to market it to is more of a politics crowd than a film one. And really, there aren’t too many purely political podcasts and things in the media generally around in the UK right now that share our politics, so as socialists we kind of feel we wouldn’t really be doing our duty if we didn’t do as much as possible to cater our work to people who don’t really have much of a voice in conventional media.
What separates us out from something like Novara Media – which I think is excellent, and has a sophisticated analysis distinct from a lot of alternative media on the left, but operates on a much larger scale than us and has been around a few years longer – is that we’re the sort of vulgar option. We just say a lot of stupid shit and then try and edit it into something with an emphasis on jokes that are actually somewhat good. Apart from one episode where my co-host Yair Rice and I do a couple of sketches we wrote back in 2015, we don’t write any of it in advance, and I wouldn’t exactly call it a comedy show, but it’s certainly supposed to provide a more irreverent take on politics than more staid liberal bullshit about Corbyn not getting a seat on a train or whatever. Yeah, I’m still mad about Traingate, and the facetiousness of people like Charlie Brooker still trying to get comic mileage of it months later.
Aside from the comic elements, though, the show is fairly conventional in structure, if quite varied – we still do episodes where we talk about films in depth, generally prefaced by and/or interspersed with discussion of recent political goings on, and occasionally the show has comprised of something resembling actual reporting, but more often it takes the form of commentary on politics, or even the way the mainstream media commentates on politics. We often do readings of pieces of writing we think are bad or funny or repugnant, and pick them apart. And we try to have as many interesting guests from across the left on as possible.
Your analysis of film is particularly refreshing to those of us who are used to being fed cultural comment as something separate from political antagonisms, you have shown a young and growing audience what politics can bring to culture, but what do you think contemporary culture can bring to politics?
I’ve been really heartened by the way loads of British rappers have embraced Jeremy Corbyn over the last couple of years: Akala, Novelist, Stormzy, Jme and others all see something in his brand of socialism and, for the same reason they’re attracted to him – because he’s not just some out of touch old dickhead and actually cares about ordinary people – he’s willing to do something like meet up with and do a video with Jme, which I think is a really positive intersection of politics and contemporary culture. It doesn’t feel phony like Blair’s Cool Britannia thing; nobody seriously thinks Corbyn listens to Jme, it’s just cool that he recognises that he’s someone who’s enriching the culture with his music, and that he wants to reach out to young people and BAME people this way. There are people better qualified than me to talk about the politics of grime, but it’s exactly the kind of cultural movement that any halfway decent socialism of the 21st century should be inclusive of.
Likewise, we had an interesting moment recently when the message of an acclaimed film by Ken Loach – the veteran radical British director – intersected perfectly with that of the Labour Party. Loach’s I, Daniel Blake dealt with the inhumanity at the heart of Britain’s welfare system, and Corbyn made a conscious effort to use the full might of the Labour Party to promote this film – which ended up being very popular – with Loach lending his support to Corbyn’s political project. I was struck by how, in this renewed burst of relevance (he even won the Palm D’Ore at Cannes for the film), because Loach is not overly fond of Blairites, so many centrist idiots – completely unconcerned with his virtues as an artist, and what this particular film of his said about modern Britain and its injustices – have laid into him at every opportunity. They really have a seething hatred of him and it’s very telling. They can’t comprehend that a radical socialist filmmaker may’ve thought his politics incompatible with Blairism. They’re philistines who think the West Wing and Harry Potter are the pinnacle of the visual arts.
What we try and do on the show is bring together all these seemingly disparate threads in the culture within one subversive bracket, where the cumulative effect of the political and culture references utterly repulses any potential centrist or right-wing listeners, and potentially perplexes leftist ones. When we discuss cinema, it tends to be with regard to films’ political context and content. We don’t eschew straightforward cinephilia and genuine film criticism entirely but we’re not really that interested in film criticism for the sake of film criticism. We have declared on the show that we will never dedicate an episode to superhero blockbusters, as they are literally all fascist propaganda, and also made a vow to never, ever conduct a sincere discussion of Richard Curtis films.
I first came across Reel Politik on Twitter, it seem that in the space you operate within there is a very specific fan base as well as an identified enemy, could you explain to the uninitiated the type of online space Reel Politik inhabits and how these ideological spheres function?
I almost kind of bullshitted the other guys when we started the podcast, because whilst our plan was superficially to do an extremely political film podcast with a Marxist stance, my main desire was to create something that took the analysis and the unrestrained gallows humour of UK left Twitter into a different medium – this is aside, of course, from long-form writing, but what I wanted to do was to bring the best writers on the left (who also happen to have a strong Twitter game) onto the show, to bring as much of the spirit of their work as possible into the mix.
This is essentially our, as you say, very specific fan base; generally young, educated people who seem to be from various backgrounds, generally from the UK (a consequence, I imagine, of our subject matter), and generally guys as well, although we try and make the show as inclusive as possible of women and other groups. But it’s not politically inclusive, obviously. So far, our guests have all pretty much come from the same place as us politically – the radical left – and often our episodes have had no guest at all. This all means there’s absolutely no pretence of balance to Reel Politik, but it all adds up to a consistent sort of editorial line – firmly socialist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts to reform the Labour Party, but sympathetic to the extra-parliamentary left – one decidedly at odds with the vast majority of coverage of politics in established media, which we relentlessly critique.
Reel Politik has become a kind of repository for the frustrations of a left not given a fair deal by mainstream media. Most people who listen to us seem smart and they seem pissed off. We have a lot of listeners whose Twitter bios say they’re studying for PhDs, and a fair few who work for the Labour Party (we deal with a lot of internal Labour stuff), and because the show has quite a comical tone we attract a lot of sort of “weird/irony left Twitter” people, who like us calling our political enemies “slugs” and the gags about Tim Farron and gay frogs. What’s been interesting to me, because I feel like the confrontational manner we put our politics across in might be alienating to many outside this audience, is that a small handful of people on the Labour right enjoy the show; clearly those with thicker skins, and an interest in understanding a left perspective. Looking at our demographics on Twitter, however, the combination of abrasiveness and disagreeable politics might be too much for many older left-wingers, let alone those on the right.
How did you meet the other members?
I went to De Montfort University in Leicester with my co-hosts Tom Foster and Yair Rice for three years. Tom did Film Studies and Yair and I did half his course as a joint honours with Creative Writing, which is what I’ve done my masters in. The three of us have always had similar politics and similar taste in film and music, so we’d floated the idea of doing something like a film review website for a while, but I’d got cold feet and while doing my MA my interests had moved more towards writing about politics. Eventually, last summer, we decided to bring the pretty clear editorial line on film we’d already conceived in part to a podcast, and recorded two episodes in which we reviewed the awful trilogy of adaptations of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. We didn’t get round to releasing the episodes until November, but by that time I’d got a fair followers on Twitter and we had a couple of hundred people listening to our episodes from the start.
Tom and Yair use Twitter, but not as much as me, which presented a problem, as the site was and is our primary promotional vehicle, and I had to be sure we were dealing with subject matter and reference points that resonated with that audience. Although the first guest we had on the show was Yair’s friend Alex, who just happened to be hanging out with us, the first that we properly arranged was my friend Kieran Morris, who I had known through Twitter since approximately last summer. We invited him on the show to talk about Enoch Powell and the episode, which we released in February, was so funny, and he was such a perfect fit for the show – as well as being more familiar with the Twitter discourse our target audience were immersed in than the others were – that we invited him on a couple more times until he joined as full-time member of the show, eventually becoming the primary administrator of our Twitter account, which has since grown exponentially in both popularity and the savagery of the tweets.
Yair has taken a step back from the show for personal reasons, although he’s still involved, so it’s great to have Kieran on board – I’m the only person who’s appeared on every episode of the show, and quite often I record it with either Tom or Kieran depending on who’s about, but we make it work, and expanding our team from three to four has been a great help, both in terms of making and promoting Reel Politik. Although I do relish the (pretty much absolute) creative control I have from being the sole editor of the episodes, I’m considering looking for someone who can take over the editing, as quite often my week is centred around recording and editing the show as punctually as possible and having an editor would free me up to write and potentially record more.
More broadly it seems that in the last few years we’ve seen the growth of a new leftist media ecology primarily driven by young people, why do you think this has happened and do you see yourself as part of this growth?
I think it might be *primarily* young people; certainly in the case of Reel Politik or Novara, but the alternative media outlets of the left that seem to have the widest reach seem to be run by older people: The Canary’s founder Kerry Ann-Mendoza has been around for a while, The Skwawkbox is run by a middle-aged bloke, as, I think, is Another Angry Voice. These outlets are all staggeringly popular, and often exceed the reach of mainstream media. Although I personally don’t think a great deal of their standard of journalism, there’s no doubt that these sites are efficient, extremely accessible propaganda-churners, and, as friend of the show Matt Zarb-Cousin has said, if there’s room for the Sun in our media why shouldn’t there be a Canary? Sure, I prefer accurate journalism to “fake news”, but, for example, Jim Waterson from Buzzfeed was complaining the other day that a fake Daily Mail frontpage calling for Theresa May to resign would surely go viral. Personally, I don’t give a shit. If it compounds the sense of chaos and instability around May’s premiership, then it’s complimentary to my political project. The difference, I suppose, between Reel Politik and more sincere propagators of “alternative facts” is that, when we shared the fake image, it was with a semi-ironic caption encouraging others to do so in the name of disinformation.
Why has this new left media ecology sprung up? Just look at the relationship between the Labour Party and the media. For various reasons the media (most of it, anyway) has an outdated conception of what the Labour Party is – their contacts lie on a particular wing of the party, and it’s also this wing to which they’re more sympathetic. The situation we have is that Jeremy Corbyn can win two landslide victories of around 60% of Labour members and – as the General Election has shown – perform impressively on the national stage, yet, when his leadership was challenged in 2016, no mainstream journalists other than Paul Mason, Gary Younge, Rachel Shabi and a tiny handful of others would defend him. The culture of the British media is not one that’s friendly to the left, and this has never been more starkly illustrated than during that coup. Independent outlets that were effusively pro-Corbyn were naturally something that people gravitated towards in lieu of the blanket negativity of the coverage of his movement in conventional media. The left’s representation in conventional media is still bad, but one thing that’s happening is that you’ll see, say, Aaron Bastani or Ash Sarkar from Sky News, putting forward a left perspective, when a few years ago you would’ve had the most awful centrist dullard in their place as the resident “lefty”. This is progress, and it shows that alternative media can amplify important voices until conventional media can no longer ignore them.
Why do you think the show has been gaining popularity?
Essentially because a large section of the population don’t see their reality represented in conventional media, and a small section of that contingent operate in the right online circles to have found our show. We hardly use Facebook, which has a much larger user base, so the way we’ve reached listeners has been largely through maintaining a Twitter following, currently of around 1,800. So there’s a certain type of person who uses Twitter, knows the New Lexicon of the Left (“slug”, “melt”, “seen off”, etc.), and wants political coverage that’s somewhat more aggressive and confrontational towards those on the other side; that has little reverence for the pedantic Oxford Union debate nerd prickery of British public life.
People listen to the show because they find it funny, and they find it cathartic. Sometimes they find our analysis insightful, because we do actually take the politics themselves seriously – if there’s anything frivolous in our rhetoric it’s not a callous disregard for human but a simple refusal to rise above the politics of personal insult and ridicule. Jeremy Corbyn, admirably, is better than this – we are not. I support Corbyn’s “kinder, gentler politics”, but for me the phrase returns to his humane policies and the lives they would save, not to any notion of impeccable personal conduct, detached from the messy human reality of politics. Reel Politik is for people who think austerity is a greater evil than telling a Tory to go fuck themselves.
Your show is undoubtedly sectarian and ideologically consistent in its leftist stance, what would you say to those who believe that the media, both new and old, should essentially operate on a purely “post-ideological” agenda? In the so-called age of “post-truths”, what role does ideologically left media play in the larger media landscape?
“Post-ideological” and “post-truth” are both bullshit, in my view. Most of those convinced that they are without ideology are right-leaning liberals; much “impartial” reportage is essentially the neoliberal consensus without too much overt Tory cheerleading. I definitely think that broadcasters should strive for impartiality, but what that impartiality looks like in a world that’s been run for years according to the right’s specifications is anyone’s guess. What’s a real shame about the media’s rightward slant in this country is not just the incessant hostility towards the left, but the lack of basic understanding of left-wing thought, practises and culture.
I was saying earlier that journalists are both far more sympathetic and far more plugged in to the Labour right than they are to the faction of the party that currently leads it and is representative of the overwhelming majority of its members and supporters. A lot of people who pride themselves on being very connected have suddenly become outsiders, reporting on a political movement they neither like nor understand, and they’re both disconnected from day-to-day occurrences within it and increasingly kind of bitter about how it can continue to thrive without the support of people like them. So, frankly, by actually being on the left, and knowing and talking to other people on the left, we’re better placed to offer an informed analysis of left-wing British politics than a lot of mainstream journalists.
Can you explain some of the reoccurring enemies on your show, such as Simon Hedges, and is he the guy in the intro?
Simon Hedges is not our enemy, he is our friend, comrade, inspiration, surrogate father (who doesn’t pay child support) and only source within Labour’s “moderate” contingent.
In reality, Hedges is a fictional journalist someone created on Twitter, who we’re all a huge fan of. I’d recommend taking a look at the account, because it pretty much captures all the nauseating tics of a British liberal hack in 2017. So if we call someone a “Simon Hedges liberal” or something, it’s to illustrate just how self-parodic their milquetoast centrism is. That’s not him in our intro – that’s Labour MP Chris Leslie, a pathetic sack of shit who was shadow chancellor for about two minutes before Corbyn became leader and kicked his right-wing arse into the long grass with the rest of the snakes.
Our biggest recurring enemy is probably Jason Cowley, the failing editor of the hated New Statesman, a ridiculous preening toff who dribbles himself comatose every time Theresa May drops a press release. I fucking hate him. There’s hardly been a show since our special episode on the New Statesman’s ludicrous ‘Who will speak for liberal Britain?’ issue when we haven’t taken the opportunity to pour scorn on Cowley’s gibbering idiocy, as well as salt, because he’s a little slug with no personality.
Our enemies are too numerous to name. We effectively drove Tim Farron to resignation through a sustained smear campaign involving meme upon meme of gay frog jokes. We plan to do the same with current Lib Dem leadership candidate Vince Cable. We love taking down Tories, we love taking down fascists, but taking down liberals is especially joyful as they get to be out there in the mainstream media voicing reactionary viewpoints as the “left perspective”.
Jim Waterson in his article on the so-called British “Alt-left” media for Buzzfeed proposed that the Alt-right and Alt-left essentially operate through the use of identical rhetorical tactics, in a similar vein, Richard Seymour warned against the “Canaryfication” of the Left, what do you make of this argument? Does left media have to be careful not to mimic the right’s successful but simplified discourse?
I reject the term “alt-left” because it seems like a conscious attempt by people outside the insurgent left to tie it up with an insurgent alt-right, when there are precious few similarities between the two, apart from occasionally some rhetorical tactics, which I still wouldn’t describe as identical. Frankly, I have some problems with “alt-right” as well, as there’s something to be said for calling a fascist a fascist. To talk about alternative left-wing media is simply a description; a statement of fact, but it’s best to resist any overt association with the alt-right, who, contrary to the Horseshoe Theory, could not be ideologically further from us.
I do worry about a “Canaryfication” of Left media. Although, as I’ve said, I think the Canary does serve a purpose within the British media, I don’t think its business model puts those who grant it their labour first, and is different from a subscriber-driven model like Novara Media or something like Reel Politik that is not monetised in any form. Everything in the Canary is geared towards to generating the most clicks possible, and the writer who gets the most clicks gets the most cash. Although we try and sucker people into listening to our episodes as much as possible with their titles, artwork and descriptions, we’re not bound by any commercial imperatives so are able to make the choices that we think are right, even if they might alienate potential listeners. If we do monetise the podcast in any way, it will be a subscriber-based model like Novara, or like the American podcast Chapo Trap House.
Can you explain your fascination with Luke Akehurst?
Luke Akehurst is the chair of Labour First, the campaigning group of the Old Labour Right: the traditionally more socially conservative, hawkish section of the party that differs from the Blairites of Progress in its thorough grounding in trade unionism. He’s a funny looking guy who’s tweeted the word “Russia” on its own in response to various questions at least 5 times, to the extent it’s become a bit of a meme on left Twitter. Since Britain voted to leave the EU and liberals refused to accept they ran a shit campaign, and Donald Trump won the presidency and liberals refused to accept they ran a shit campaign, Akehurst’s “Russia” tweets have come to perfectly encapsulate the liberal answer to everything: what, me, have flaws? It is my sad duty to report that it was all Russia!
What do you have planned for Reel Politik in the future, what will you be doing with all the Kremlin money?
We have invested our Kremlin money wisely, and it is being laundered by several extremely reputable and legitimate front businesses and organisations, such as Sports Direct and the Ba’ath Party of Syria.
What do we have planned next creatively? We have great guests. Big names. We’ve got more film episodes coming. We’ve got more Reel Politik original films from the boy T Foster. We’ve got a radio play about the life and tragic death of Tim Farron. We’ve got an episode on the best new publication on the left, New Socialist. It’s all on the way. Looking forward to it.
“In his famous essay Exiting the Vampire Castle, Mark Fisher highlights the disparaging (?) trend of left twitter of over-moralising and “outing” other leftists, do you think there is a danger of the networked new left adopting an over-sectarian zeal? “
No, I don’t think so. I haven’t read as much Mark Fisher as I should have but I have read Exiting the Vampire Castle and from what I understand it’s not the best place to start. As what is essentially a defence of Russell Brand mid-messianic awakening it predates a time when I was active on left Twitter; in fact, I might’ve even stopped using the site altogether. So, I can’t speak for what Twitter was like at that point if you were on the left. Perhaps in the Corbyn era – where many who previously eschewed party politics are struggling manfully inside the creaky old structures of the Labour Party – leftists are more used to comradely disagreement and compromise, but this is mere speculation on my part.
There are a few people who are always quick to condemn other leftists for any perceived slight, but I think they’re largely marginal figures, and it’s rarely reputation-destroying stuff. If people know each other and talk to each other regularly, they’re less likely to demand somebody’s ostracisation on the basis of one problematic opinion. Often it is worth pointing something out when you find something objectionable. In a left-wing political group I’m a member of on Facebook yesterday there was a huge blow-out because a PoC said that he felt white leftists in the group had shown some insensitive racial attitudes, which mortally offended one such white leftist. It was ridiculous as it had nothing to do with him: he was carrying water for white people as a whole. But even if somebody were to directly criticise your attitudes towards race, it might sting a bit, but they might also have a very good point and be pointing you in the right direction.
So no, I don’t think call-out culture or whatever you want to call it is a problem on the Twitter left. In fact, over the last few months I’ve seen a huge amount of genuine comradeship which has been very heartwarming to watch unfold. If someone has a problem with what someone they generally really like has said, they might argue a bit about it with them, they might have a bitch about it in the DMs, but rarely does it descend into outright unedifying, intemperate shit-slinging. For the right, who offer us no such comradeship and receive none in return, this might be difficult to believe, but there are a lot of great people on left Twitter and we’ve been able to make 32 episodes of our show for them to the warmest of receptions and I am endlessly grateful for that.