The BBC Trust recently upheld a complaint against the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, ruling that one of her early reports on Jeremy Corbyn breached accuracy and impartiality guidelines.
But is this breach of editorial standards indicative of a wider problem? Corbyn’s supporters certainly think so. A YouGov poll last year found that an overwhelming 97% agreed that the “mainstream media as a whole has been deliberately biasing coverage to portray Jeremy Corbyn in a negative manner”.
This perception is not limited to the Labour Leader’s supporters. Among all Labour members, affiliated members and supporters who said they were “undecided” during last summer’s leadership election, 87% agreed that the media was biased, as did 51% of the public as a whole. These are pretty striking figures – especially given that the survey asked about deliberate bias, rather simply whether the media have been unduly negative in their reporting.
While it’s very hard to prove deliberate bias, negative reporting is a more straightforward proposition to demonstrate – and the evidence so far strongly supports the intuition of the public.
The Media Reform Coalition, a pressure group set up in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal, has released two reports (the second with Birkbeck’s media department). Another by LSE analysed three months of newspaper reporting. The findings are broadly consistent: critical perspectives on Corbyn dominate the news media which has tended to play down those that support the Labour leader. And it’s not just a case of unbalanced reporting – the LSE report found that Corbyn has been misrepresented, vilified and ridiculed.
The claims of bias have received some commendable attention from BBC Newsnight. But the overall response from the news media has been dismissive. In response to the Media Reform Coalition’s second report, the BBC described the campaigning organisation as a “vested interest group”, but failed to engage with its findings. Even the recent ruling by the BBC Trust was publicly repudiated by the BBC which stood by Kuenssberg’s report, having rejected the complaint four times.
Responding to the earlier LSE report, the Guardian’s media commentator Roy Greenslade conceded that the press had been overwhelmingly hostile to Corbyn, yet he denied this was a problem:
Yes, Jeremy Corbyn has suffered a bad press, but where's the harm? https://t.co/GG35z7WBu1
— Roy Greenslade (@GreensladeR) July 19, 2016
I am not in the least bit surprised by the coverage of Corbyn. With something like 80% of his parliamentary party against him, would democracy benefit from a failure to reflect that reality?
Greenslade was less philosophical the previous February when he criticised newspapers for their “assault” on the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband.
The national newspaper assault on Ed Miliband and Labour has already reached absurd proportions more than two months ahead of the general election … No chance is being missed to heap scorn on Labour’s leader with a stream of critical and negative headlines.
In fairness to Greenslade, the circumstances then were different – his article on the treatment of Miliband was written in the run up to a general election – but does anyone seriously doubt that Corbyn would receive even worse treatment? What we have witnessed in the case of Corbyn and Corbynism is plainly a more extreme version of what Greenslade objected to in the case of Miliband: a highly politicised media seeking to discredit a left-wing leader.
A structural problem
The response of the news media to the rise of Corbyn and Corbynism has meant that the question of media bias has been newly politicised for broader sections of the public. Defending the status quo, Greenslade questioned whether there is a public “hunger for unbiased political coverage” or whether people “want politicians treated with respect”. But this entirely misses the point – the problem with the news media is not that it is irreverent, it is that it serves a particular set of political interests at odds with its purported democratic function.
And this structural problem is unfortunately not confined to the right-wing press. As I describe in some detail in my book on the BBC, over the past 30 years the broadcaster – which has always been a “small c” conservative institution and a much more trusted source than the press – has been radically reformed in accordance with the dominant pro-business, neoliberal political settlement.
Under the new charter introduced this year, this process of institutional change is to be further extended. BBC TV’s programme making, with a few exceptions, will be fully marketised and open to the private sector, as will a majority of the BBC’s radio output.
Corbynism seeks to develop a political movement that can transcend neoliberalism. It therefore finds itself at odds with the prevailing culture of the contemporary BBC, which in any case has always been orientated towards mainstream politics. Corbyn’s supporters have been highly critical of the Corporation’s political reporting, with Kuenssberg being a particular focus of complaints. And in a Vice documentary, Corbyn himself complained that: “There is not one story on any election anywhere in the UK that the BBC will not spin into a problem for me. It’s obsessive beyond belief.”
Naturally, this has been dismissed in some quarters as unfounded paranoia. But again it is supported by the research – and concerns have also been raised from surprising quarters. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World at One back in May, the former BBC chair, Sir Michael Lyons, referred to “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party”.
Where’s the harm?
Does any of this matter? As Greenslade notes, it doesn’t seem to have dented Corbyn’s popularity with Labour party members – as was clear enough from his increased mandate in his second leadership election victory. But it seems unlikely that the relentlessly negative reporting will have had no impact on broader public perceptions of Corbyn and the direction of the party under his leadership. And this is what would matter in a general election.
But elections aside, the way the news media is structured matters a great deal on a day-to-day basis. It’s not so much that it tends to legitimate the status quo – which it does – but that the structure of the media gives strategic advantages to certain actors. This is well illustrated by the struggles in the Labour Party where the Blairite faction, though it has been unable to offer anything at the level of political ideas in response to Corbyn, has been able to make good use of the news media in its attempts to oust the left-wing leadership.
Movements are of course able to achieve successes in spite of media “bias” – and even outright hostility – especially with the opportunities afforded by new media. We can see this in the resilience of the Labour leadership, and arguably too in the ascendancy of Trump, who while obviously very much part of the US elite, was certainly not the favoured candidate of the establishment.
We should not overstate the power of the media. But the fact that its overall politics and structure is weighed heavily in favour of elite interests certainly has important consequences for the operation of mainstream politics, and presents significant challenges for any transformative political project.