It’s The Media, Stupid
20 January 2020
As soon as the general election was called for the Tories, liberal commentators moved quickly to shut down debate about the role of the media in the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
“Blame the media blame the media blame the media”, sarcastically tweeted Janine Gibson, former US Editor at the Guardian and now Assistant Editor at the Financial Times. Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff was equally dismissive, tweeting: “I see the official line is to blame Brexit. Or the media. Anything but the leader & the people who have kept him there.” BBC Director General Tony Hall wrote to the corporation’s staff after the election dismissing accusations of bias as “conspiracy theories”, according to the Guardian.
How do these defensive assertions compare to the actual evidence?
Noting that the British press “is habitually pro-Conservative is news to nobody”, the authors of a Loughborough University study of the press during the general election explain their analysis “challenges the view that 2019 was ‘business as usual’ in partisanship terms.” Writing on The Conversation website, the academics highlight “how substantial the negative coverage of Labour was throughout the formal campaign and how it intensified” as polling day approached. Comparing the findings with a study they conducted of the 2017 general election they note “the results show that newspapers’ editorial negativity towards Labour in 2019 more than doubled from 2017. In contrast, overall press negativity towards the Conservatives reduced by more than half.” As Matt Zarb-Cousin, the Director of Communications for Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign, repeatedly says: being a Tory means playing politics in easy mode.
This study broadly echoes previous research on press coverage of Corbyn. For example, a 2016 London School of Economics study of the first few months of Corbyn’s leadership found he “was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy.”
“The overall conclusion from this is that in this case UK journalism played an attack dog, rather than a watchdog”, the authors noted.
Writing towards the end of the 2019 general election campaign on the Media Reform Coalition website, Dr Justin Schlosberg showed how the supposedly impartial broadcasters often mirrored the reporting of the partisan press. He discusses a number of paired examples, including TV news coverage of the response to the Labour and Tory manifestos by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). With the well-regarded economic research institute critical of both manifestos, Schlosberg notes the IFS response to the Labour manifesto was covered 15 times by TV news in the two days after its launch, compared to just once in the two days after the Tory manifesto launch.
The role of the media in the election was also underlined by accounts of what people were saying on the doorstep to Labour Party campaigners and journalists. “I had a handful of angry people say, ‘I would shoot him’ or ‘take a gun to his head’, whilst in the next breath calling him an extremist”, Labour MP Laura Piddock, who lost her seat, reported. Sebastian Payne from the Financial Times tweeted quotes from people he had met during the campaign: “Ian in Darlington: ‘I’ve voted for Labour; my family always have. I think he is a traitor, looking after terrorists’.”
This is “a completely sane view from this former Labour voter, which he totally came up with on his own, via his own independent and impartial research, without any help from the British media”, was journalist Mehdi Hasan’s amusing response.
Reflecting on his experience of campaigning for Labour in his home constituency of Bridgend in a blog on Medium, Dan Evans-Kanu recounts “a huge amount of people regurgitated, verbatim, media attack lines about Labour and Corbyn. Many would preface this by saying ‘I seen on the news that…’ or ‘they say that Corbyn is…’” He has an interesting conclusion: “In many ways, I feel that elements of the cultural studies movement and postmodernism, in emphasizing human agency vis a vis the media, have obscured the extent to which the media influences people.”
This far-reaching media influence is confirmed by two recent academic studies.
In last year’s book The Media, The Public and the Great Financial Crisis Dr Mike Berry, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Journalism at Cardiff University, explains how “print and broadcast media were key factors in the development of public understanding and attitudes” during the crash.
Berry was also one of the five co-authors of the 2019 Glasgow Media Group study Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief. The book includes a specially commissioned March 2019 Survation poll, which found “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-semitism” when “the actual figure was far less than one per cent.” Conducting four focus groups around the country to explore this huge disconnect, the authors note “the media and the extensive coverage that the story has received feature very prominently in the reasons that were given” for higher estimates of levels of anti-semitism in the Labour Party.
“Even amongst people who claimed to never read a newspaper and declared themselves completely uninterested in the subject it was clear that the story had cut through because of its sustained prominence in newspaper headlines”, the authors explain. Unsurprising when one considers the authors found a massive 5,497 articles devoted to the topic in a search of eight national newspapers between June 2015 and March 2019.
Indeed, it is worth exploring the media’s coverage of antisemitism – an issue which has dogged Corbyn’s leadership. Conducting a search of the BBC website in June 2018, Evolve Politics found 224 results for “Labour anti-Semitism”. In contrast, their search for “Conservative Islamophobia” uncovered just three articles. Likewise media watchdog Media Lens conducted a search of the main UK newspapers between 1 November and 12 December 2019 using the Proquest database, finding “Boris Johnson” and “Yemen” were mentioned in 30 articles, while “Corbyn” and “anti-semitism” were mentioned in an extraordinary 2,386 articles.
To be clear, it’s not just the right-wing press. A 2018 Media Reform Coalition report by Schlosberg – Labour, Antisemitism and the News: A Disinformation Paradigm – highlighted how the liberal media were often as bad, sometimes worse, when it came to reporting the so-called antisemitism crisis in Labour. The Guardian and BBC News, in particular, come off very badly in their coverage of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism: of 28 examples of inaccurate reporting made in regard to the IHRA definition “half… were found on TheGuardian.com and BBC television news programmes alone”, Schlosberg notes.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that, in many ways, the British media is a sophisticated propaganda system adept at protecting elite interests, rather than the obstinate, questioning fourth estate of journalist’s self-serving fantasies.
Of course, Labour’s election defeat was not solely down to the media, but the evidence shows it played a central role.
Those who wish to see a transformative government of the left in the future need to reflect on this reality and consider ways forward.
As always, it is vital that alternative, left-wing media is expanded, with more readers and more influence.
In addition, the left needs to start seriously challenging corporate media. Echoing the recommendations contained in Bad News For Labour, Long-Bailey has suggested Labour set up a dedicated rebuttal unit to quickly and effectively correct media lies and distortions. The University of East London professor Jeremy Gilbert goes one further, recently tweeting: “We need a mass campaign of regular canvassing, leafletting and counter-propaganda that goes on all the time, way beyond the electoral cycle. Unions should be pressured to bankroll it. Every single one of us would have to commit a couple of hours/week.”
Interestingly another option that has been increasingly raised is for left-wing writers to boycott the Guardian. Why write for a newspaper that played a key role in fatally weakening Corbyn, Media Lens, British historian Mark Curtis, journalist Matt Kennard and David Graeber from the London School of Economics have all asked?
As US media analyst Robert McChesney once said, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.