How The Canary Lost Its Way

Peter Bolton
11 min readAug 29, 2023
Photograph source: Forest and Kim Starr/Flickr (CC)

For about four years I was a regular contributor to the UK-based online publication The Canary. The experience was instrumental in launching my writing career and helping me build a small following on social media. The Canary hired me as a contributor to its global section and I subsequently submitted articles about current affairs in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. As one of its few US-based writers, I also began to write extensively about the Trump administration and the failure of the Democratic Party to provide an alternative to crushing neoliberalism at home and endless imperialism abroad.

Though I was initially hesitant to pitch ideas about UK politics given that (unlike most of The Canary’s staff) I don’t live there, my expertise on Palestine provided me with an angle with which to approach Jeremy Corbyn’s increasingly beleaguered leadership of the British Labour Party. Corbyn was facing a vicious and protracted smear campaign based on bogus accusations of a purported antisemitism problem within the party. My coverage of the antisemitism smear campaign culminated in a two-part interview with the renowned expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict Norman Finkelstein in the summer of 2019.

Finkelstein explained how the smear campaign against Corbyn was initially launched by the UK’s Israel lobby, which was (with good reason) fearful of what a Corbyn-led government in London would spell for Israel’s current impunity for human rights violations, illegal settlement building, and unwillingness to work toward a resolution of the conflict. He pointed out that the British political establishment had latched on to and, indeed, become active participants in, this smear campaign because they and the Israel lobby shared a common enemy in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. In Finkelstein’s words:

The British elites suddenly discovered ‘we can use the antisemitism card in order to try to stifle genuine… leftist insurgencies among the population’. And so what used to be a kind of sectarian issue waged by Jewish organisations faithful to the party line emanating from Israel vs critics of Israel, now it’s no longer sectarian because the whole British elite has decided they’re going to use this antisemitism card to stop Jeremy Corbyn and the political insurgency he represents.

I ultimately parted ways with The Canary after the then-leadership decided in 2022 that they would only occasionally commission freelance contributions and would reach out if they wanted anything on a particular topic covered. I have not heard from them since. Just as I was leaving, I noticed that something of a mutiny was at bay, with talk of a coup against the publication’s leadership to replace it with a co-operative structure in which they would do away with their former bosses. The Canary’s founder and former editor Kerry-Anne Mendoza subsequently denounced and disowned it on social media, advising her followers to unfollow its Twitter accounts. She stated in May 2023: “It was overtaken by [a] coup last year, attempted to trash the reputations of the people who built it, and is now a cesspit.”

I have always trusted and respected Kerry-Anne and her judgment. However, I also sensed that perhaps there was another side to the story that I hadn’t heard and, therefore, shouldn’t dismiss it as completely worthless just yet. Moreover, given the dearth of independent, left-leaning coverage on both sides of the Atlantic (and especially in terms of UK news), I decided that I would continue to follow The Canary’s output on social media and read any pieces that struck me as interesting. Initially, it seemed that things were much the same at The Canary and, though it seemed to have wound down its international coverage somewhat, it was still putting out decent stories from an independent perspective that the corporate-owned mainstream media in the UK was failing to cover.

But then, around June of this year, I began to notice something strange afoot at The Canary. First, one Joe Glenton wrote a most peculiar article titled “The provisional wing of Corbynism is getting a bit tiresome.” He started off by smugly congratulating himself for helping Corbyn’s team out with door knocking and veterans affairs in spite of being “about 400 miles to the left of Jeremy Corbyn” and “on the radical and anti-state end of the Left.” But the main purpose of the piece was to argue that, though the subsequent election of Blairite Kier Starmer to Labour’s leadership “grieves me as much as the next recovering Corbynista,” it is nonetheless surely “time to move the fuck on.”

To illustrate his point about the supposed atavism and unjustified dejection of Corbyn’s followers, he pointed to “[a] row about new film about that period, The Big Lie” that was caused by the film getting pulled from a screening at the UK’s Glastonbury festival — one of the country’s major annual popular music festivals. The film exposes the dishonesty of the antisemitism smear campaign against Corbyn and the workings of how it was pulled off. After conceding a) that “maybe” the film has merit, b) it was wrong for it to have been pulled, and even c) that he hasn’t even seen it, Glenton then goes on to state that there was something wrong with “the tone of debate around the film.”

One would think that looking into the workings of the smear campaign against Corbyn is amongst, if not the, most important matter for the British left given that its best chance of achieving radical social and political change in decades had just been railroaded. But apparently for Glenton, those who are expressing their outrage at attempts to suppress the film are engaging in wasteful, perhaps even dangerous nostalgia for a bygone era. He states: “There’s a group of people who insist on reliving the Corbyn years and spend their energy mired in its memories.”

He then preposterously dubs this supposedly cultish phenomenon “Provisional Corbynism.” For those of you who don’t know, the use of the term “Provisional” is a reference to a split in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the late 1960s and early 1970s in which more hardline elements within the IRA split from the “Official IRA,” who favored reformism, to form the more militant “Provisional” faction of physical force Irish republicanism. Such language, needless to say, is deliberately provocative to the point of being just plain childish, which Glenton seems to affirm by stating “I do this to take the piss out of it because I think it is silly.”

He then states:

The politics of these 2015–2019 nostalgists sometimes seem [to] verge on the manically conspiracist. I’ve seen it up close on several occasions from a range of individuals. Ask anyone who worked at the pre-revolutionary Canary what it was like.

Ultimately, this is a politics of endless re-litigation, of ‘Jeremy should start his own party’, and of urging anyone remotely left-wing who gets a platform to do the same.

Yes, Corbyn was treated badly. But this band of Corbyn’s fandom are keeping themselves looking back at the heady days of 2018 to the detriment of building any meaningful resistance here in 2023.

What seems to escape Glenton is the possibility that maybe, just maybe, it is perfectly possible to both organize with a vision for the future now and look back at what went wrong in the past at the same time. That something so elementary would escape him casts doubt on both his own mental poise as well as the editorial standards in the post-coup Canary more broadly.

The publication’s readership seems to largely agree given that the piece got savaged both on social media and its own comments section, with users condemning both Glenton’s vanity and seemingly terminal simple-mindedness. Perhaps this is petty of me, but I was also struck with the decline in copyediting standards that had seemingly befallen The Canary, spotting at least three typographical errors throughout the article.

But after reading it again and scrolling through the various reactions to it, I thought to myself that perhaps this was a one-off, an anomaly that shouldn’t deflect from what is otherwise still solid output from my old stomping ground. But less than a week after Glenton’s article came another hit piece on Jeremy Corbyn making largely the same argument, this time titled “Jeremy Corbyn won’t save us — nor should he be expected to” and written by one Maryam Jameela. I could tell that this article was going to be a stinker from the very first sentence, which reads “Revolutionary change is not built by people, but by communities.” Of course, communities are made up of people (what else?) and so I assume what she meant is that “revolutionary change is not built by individuals, but by communities.”

But what really rubbed me the wrong way about this article was the following sentence: “There is a particular tendency amongst left-wing white folks in the UK to rally around figures on the left as saviours.” This is exactly the kind of sectarian language that has led so many white people into the open arms of faux-populist far-right figures like Donald Trump in the US and his counterparts throughout Europe. It is an archetypal example of the empty, toxic and tokenistic brand of identity politics that has so severely poisoned public discourse.

As I have argued before at both The Canary and CounterPunch, the source of this race-, gender- and orientation-obsessed ideology is not, as Fox News would have you believe, the political left. Rather, it comes largely from corporate-aligned center-right faux-progressives such as establishment Democrats in the US and Blairites in the UK. It is a disingenuous and duplicitous exercise that provides supporters of neoliberal capitalism, interventionist foreign policy and corporate control of the economy with a thin veneer of legitimacy to cloak their true ideological orientation. And it is largely cost-free to the corporate world whose interests this political faction represents. Corporations now use identity politics to pass themselves off as enlightened progressives with rainbow flags and statements in favor of Black lives and trans rights while they continue to exploit people and planet alike in service of their bottom line.

I also find it completely hypocritical of Jameela to speak like this; imagine how she would feel if I — a white person — made a sweeping generalization about what “tendency” people of color have toward this, that or the other. I imagine she would be outraged — and rightfully so! But ironically, it is people of color like herself who this kind of language ultimately harms. Because it serves to alienate potential white allies while giving ammunition to fascistic figures like Trump and his ilk who would love nothing more than for an “us vs. them” mentality to set in on both sides of the ethnic divide.

After reading these pieces, I strongly considered writing a response then and there criticizing both Glenton and Jameela and distancing myself from The Canary. But ultimately, I decided to hold off and spare myself a potentially ugly war of words on social media, not to mention the burning of bridges with a former employer. And as a straight white male from a privileged background — the ultimate antithesis of a minority — I was well aware of the risk of getting shouted down with the usual identity politics-based emotional blackmail that I would have been taking by publicly criticizing Glenton — a working class man — and, especially, Jameela — a woman of color.

But earlier this month, I came across a Canary article which proved to me beyond all doubt that the publication had truly lost its way, and which made me feel that it was almost a duty to speak out. This article is titled “Novara faces reckoning after showing its arse over racism in the Lucy Letby case,” and was written by a former editor of mine named Afroze Fatima Zaidi.

To fill those of you in who don’t follow UK current affairs very closely, Lucy Letby is a British former nurse who was recently convicted of murdering several babies who were under her care at a hospital’s pediatric care unit. Her conviction and the details of the case have been a massive news story in Britain, and it has naturally prompted commentary on all manner of issues, from hospital oversight to police protocol and so on. What seems so obvious, however, that it feels absurd to even be typing it, is that race had absolutely nothing to do with this case. The facts are thus: Lucy Letby is white; she lived and worked near Chester in northwestern England, an area that is overwhelmingly white; her victims were probably mostly, if not all, white (though this will be difficult to ever definitively know). In spite of all this, Zaidi felt the need to make this case into a racial issue.

She states in her opening paragraph, for instance: “Predictably, media coverage of the case depicted Letby, a young white woman, in a sympathetic light.” She added that “[p]eople expressed disbelief over how ‘someone like her’ could have committed such heinous acts,” adding that “[t]he subtext behind ‘someone like her’ is obviously someone who is a young, attractive white woman from a conventionally respectable background.” Now, certainly some of the sources Zaidi is referring to are not the most enlightened when it comes to matters of gender and ethnicity. But to state that they “obviously” were referring to race when they say “someone like her” is not just unprovable but also could constitute libel.

Moreover, making something about race when it is obviously not, as with Jameela’s piece, is also potentially dangerous. Because, again, it can alienate potential white allies and hand propaganda ammunition to the political right by allowing them to paint the left as obsessed with identity issues. Already, the far-right tabloid the Daily Mail has responded (albeit not specifically to The Canary) with a piece titled “It’s monstrous to claim that Lucy Letby’s ‘white privilege’ left her free to kill.”

Zaidi also states “a senior doctor of South Asian origin, Dr Ravi Jayaram, repeatedly raised alarm bells regarding Letby — but hospital management shut him down.” She doesn’t present any evidence that he was shut down because of his race and there are reports that white doctors who had expressed concerns — including the unit’s lead consultant, Dr. Stephen Brearey — were shut down as well.

Zaidi also implies that white people are somehow not allowed to argue with people of color on this topic, asking rhetorically: “Why would a group of ‘leftists’ — none of whom happen to be Black — argue with a Black woman about the role of racism in shielding white women within healthcare?” This, of course, is absurd; each of us (even, dare I say it, a straight white man like me!) is perfectly entitled to engage respectfully with ideas expressed publicly by anyone about any subject irrespective of who’s what. This is how an open society works and we’re the better for it.

What is most preposterous about Zaidi’s piece is the fact that she attacks fellow left-leaning outlet Novara Media for criticizing the racialization of the Letby case. One of Novara’s long-time contributors Ash Sarkar stated on Twitter/X:

This isn’t going to make me popular, but I think it’s incredibly reductive to say that Lucy Letby would’ve been caught sooner if she was a woman of colour, or that she was protected by her race. For one thing, I think that massively understates just how wrong things went.

For Zaidi, it is “bizarre… that talking heads from Novara Media decided to suggest this case doesn’t have to be about race.” And since Sarkar is herself a woman of color (descended from Bengali immigrants to Britain), Zaidi presumably considers such a statement to be a treacherous breaking of ranks, as if one’s perspective about every matter on Earth must always be viewed through the prism of one’s skin color. She finishes her piece with one of the most disgraceful sentences I have ever seen published anywhere: “With allies like these, who needs serial killers.”

With this ridiculous and harmful article, The Canary has reached peak absurdity. A publication that used to provide a balanced and fair-minded counterweight to the UK’s overwhelmingly corporate-owned and right-leaning media landscape has degenerated into a foghorn of sectarian identity politics that slings mud at all those who don’t toe that line — whether or not they be allies, and, evidently, even whether or not they happen to be persons of color themselves. The Canary’s credibility is finished — it is not just an empty vessel but now something that actively works against, rather than in support of, the better world for which we on the left strive.

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Peter Bolton

Journalist covering global affairs from a decidedly left perspective.