People on the left and centre-left of the political spectrum spend a great deal of time and energy critiquing the methods those on the right use to manufacture consent for their ideology through the media. If we think we know so much about how it’s done, why do we struggle to do it ourselves?
One of the recurring themes of the Labour leadership election that has just concluded was “media bias.” Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn continually expressed outrage throughout the campaign at the “MSM” (mainstream media) and what they perceived as unacceptable media bias against their hero both from sources they might once have considered neutral such as the BBC or the Independent and from sources that are generally considered left-leaning such as the Guardian, the Mirror and Channel 4. Corbyn’s detractors within the party, meanwhile, drew regular attention to the forces of the right-wing press (the right-wing national newspapers, Sky News and ITV and London’s Evening Standard) and the need for the Labour leader to deal effectively with the vitriol they so often seem to unleash on the party at election time.
As Labour struggles to reunite after a bruising and divisive contest, this has all led me to ponder just how biased the UKs media really is and what, if anything, can be done about it?
First, let’s consider those well-known newspapers we associate with the political right. The Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Sun and the Express (as well as their Sunday counterparts and the Metro) are all owned by a group of five white male billionaires with right-wing views: Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, Richard Desmond and the Barclay Brothers. To have amassed the fortunes they have, these men have had to ensure their publications appeal to a wide audience and reach many millions of customers and this has enabled them to drip their own views into the national conversation along the way. This was particularly evident on their front pages the day before the general election last year.
To what extent these exercises in (what one could be forgiven for calling) propaganda actually succeed in influencing voters is unclear. It is quite possible that these newspapers are simply meeting a demand that exists independent of themselves for the sort of content they offer. But their role in reinforcing negative attitudes towards immigrants, women, benefit-claimants and our European neighbours seems unhelpful at best and downright malevolent at worst. So one is forced to ask why these titles dominate the print media. 1.8 million people buy the Sun on an average day and 1.6 million buy the Mail, compared to just 164,000 who buy the Guardian and 55,000 who buy the Independent. Left-of-centre doesn’t sell.
One response to this is to insist that many more people, especially younger people, access news online rather than in newspapers and this is often accompanied by an assumption that this format provides greater balance, or even a left-wing emphasis. It is far from clear that this is the case. Unsurprisingly, the BBC website is the most popular new website in the UK but it’s closely followed by the Mail Online in second. Over the course of the last few months a website called “The Canary” has risen to prominence, setting itself up as a sort of left-wing Click-Bait answer to the Daily Express: alarmist headlines and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories designed to enrage potential readers into clicking on its links. Nothing sells like hate but there is no sign that the Canary is gaining any traction outside of the small group of uncompromising left-wingers it initially targeted. And for every one of them, there are three right-wing extremists getting their news from similar sites at the other end of the political spectrum such as the odious Breitbart News Network. The idea that the media will start to generate less heat and more light with the growth of websites like these strikes me as seriously questionable. Instead, I fear there is a risk that many people are able to cut themselves off altogether from content that challenges their existing worldview and, by sharing article after article saying the same thing over and over again with like-minded people, they are creating dangerously isolated pockets of groupthink. They start out by clicking on links which chime with an initially sensible and understandable point of view, and end up believing that Sadiq Khan is secretly working for ISIS or that Angela Eagle is conspiring with MI5 to kidnap John McDonnell’s hamster.
So what about good old “Auntie” then? For a long time, voices on the right have decried the supposed left-wing bias at the BBC caused by its tendency to employ “metropolitan liberals” (people who live in cities and don’t hate Muslims and gay people) as journalists. During one of the election debates last year Nigel Farage criticised the audience as “extraordinary even by the left-wing standards of the BBC” when they dared to voice their disagreement with what he was saying. This is a common complaint among UKIP supporters and more hard-line Conservatives: that the BBC is overrun with woolly lefty bleeding-heart liberal types like…well, a bit like me, I suppose. However, in recent months, many on the left, especially Jeremy Corbyn’s adoring fans, have been routinely levelling the opposite criticism: that the BBC is beset by right-wing bias. Much of this criticism has been bizarrely focussed quite specifically at the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, but it has also been applied to issues like the choice of guests on Newsnight and the decision about how high a profile particular stories get in the TV news headlines and on the coporation’s website.
The BBC seems to take something of a lead from the print press in terms of what it deems newsworthy; the Andrew Marr Show begins each week with a paper review in which journalists and politicians talk through the day’s front pages and a similar review is broadcast every evening on the news channel. This procedure, overseen by those “metropolitan liberal” editors, leads me to suspect that, if the accusations of bias coming from both left and right tell us anything, it’s that the BBC is as close to neutrality as is possible given the range of views the British public hold.
So, with a largely neutral BBC, a print press that is skewed heavily to the right and now an online realm that includes a range of different echo-chambers, many of them entrenching quite extreme and uncompromising views, it is very difficult for the Labour Party to make itself heard by the majority of the electorate. How, if at all, can it address this challenge?
During New Labour’s pre-9/11 heyday, a highly disciplined and meticulously organised media operation led by Alistair Campbell was used to force the party’s message out despite press hostility, Tony Blair flattered and indulged Rupert Murdoch in a bid to lessen that hostility and the entire party became a well-oiled spin machine: messages were focus-grouped, soundbites were field-tested and MPs thoroughly briefed on the party line before any interaction with the media could take place. Voters think they want honest, genuine, heartfelt politicians. But the politicians who have won any sort of significant election in Britain in the last twenty years have been those best able to emulate Campbell’s spin machine.
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has, in many ways, been a reaction against New Labour’s mistakes and, while I sided against him during this leadership election, I have also been frustrated with the stubborness and utter lack of contrition on the part of Tony Blair’s most vocal advocates, not just about Iraq but also about Labour policies that ended up laying the groundwork for the worst excesses of this Tory governent (such as PFI in the NHS and aspects of its academies programme.) Unfortunately, Corbyn’s devoted followers have responded to this impasse by dismissing everything that happened during those years and so the very idea of a competent media operation has come to be regarded as some sort of “Red Tory” sell-out as bad as any other.
This is a dangerous and misleading attitude and it has to be challenged. Jeremy Corbyn has won two leadership elections. I voted for him (reluctantly) the first time round but several issues (including his handling of the antisemitism row, numerous PR blunders and his frankly duplicitous attitude to the EU referendum) rendered me unable to vote for him again in good conscience. Nonetheless, he is the leader and unless we are going to leave the Tories completely unopposed those of us who didn’t support him this time have no choice but to try and unite around him. However, unless he and his supporters can accept the need for a coherent media strategy, no amount of unity will make any difference to the scale of the electoral catastrophe towards which the party is hurtling. Timing announcements to maximise press coverage isn’t selling out- it’s a way to use the media to your advantage. Briefing your shadow ministers thoroughly before they go into interviews isn’t “Blairite”- it’s just a sensible precaution.
Labour aren’t going to win an election on Twitter, nor by relying on the popularity of obscure online publications peddling empty outrage. To change the country, a party must win an election in the country as it was before that change, not after. Most voters don’t follow the intricacies of politics between elections. They tune in and make a gut reaction on the basis of the narratives they see playing out on the BBC and in the newspapers. For as long as we allow the Tories to control those narratives, we allow them to control the country and, by extension, our own lives.
There is bias in our media and it presents Labour with a problem. It needn’t be an insurmountable one but it won’t be solved by simply ignoring it, shouting “MSM bias” and hoping it goes it away. We must face up to it, own it and undertake the painstaking work of turning it to our advantage.