Corbyn has had a rough ride throughout the mainstream media. The myth that he is “unelectable” has been pushed, until recently, like a seeming self-fulfilling prophecy and not just by the right-wing tabloids. Both the BBC and traditional left – likes of the Guardian and the Independent – have been equally on board.
The snap election though has brought this situation to a head. What Corbyn has done to shift the Labour party could – through the process of this election – rupture and re-align the traditional left-wing media. And if it does not, it seems likely that the already expanding non-corporate digital media will only grow faster to fill the void.
It is interesting to ask why the traditional left has been so anti-Corbyn. What explains the pro-establishment chorus, where once the country had a wider spectrum of mainstream media? The one-sided nature of corporate media during Scotland’s independence referendum echoes the treatment of Corbyn’s Labour. It is worth noting that many manifesto pledges that are electrifying people below the border have been delivered or are on offer from the processes of devolution and potential independence. The re-alignment of Scottish media after the indyref of 2014 gives some clues as to what could happen next. Understanding why the whole media is so anti-Corbyn also offers reasons for the rightward lurch of the traditional left.
London’s pre-election media landscape
Hostility concisely defines Corbyn’s relationship as Labour leader with the corporate media, until recently at least. The Media Reform Coalition surveyed 494 articles about Corbyn in eight national papers from the Sun to the Guardian. They found that 60% of the articles were negative: only 13% positive. It was a ‘barrage of abuse’.
Looking at the media as a whole, one reason the message is pro-corporate (and by extension anti-Corbyn) is simple. Five billionaires own between 70-80% of the print press. They do not own newspapers to tell their readers another world is possible. This platform threatens their billions. Likewise, corporations steer newspapers via massive advertising deals. Peter Oborne, former Telegraph editor described how the paper committed a ‘fraud on its readers’ in failing to investigate HBSC, due to their advertising accounts.
Revolving doors explain the pro-government and pro-corporate lines. A key example is the one million free Evening Standards given out daily, edited by George Osborne. Camilla Cavendish – former associate editor of the Sunday Times – spans the other direction to Number 10’s policy unit. Andy Coulson went from News of the World editor to David Cameron’s Communication Director, before he went to jail for his role in phone-hacking. Corbyn is also a target as he wants to break the media moguls’ monopoly, and calls for the second half of the Leveson Inquiry to proceed.
Sharpening focus onto the supposedly impartial national broadcaster, the BBC relentlessly attack Corbyn. A key example happened during the first attempted Parliamentary coup, when the flagship Daily Politics stage-managed a live resignation of a low-level front bench MP for “maximum political impact” – in the words of Andrew Alexander, the editor, on a since deleted blog post.
BBC’s Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg pushed for this intervention. After the Paris attacks she was criticised by the BBC Trust for mis-reporting Corbyn’s words, without sanction. Another example was how Kuenssberg regurgitated a Tory attack on Labour’s manifesto verbatim.
The previous Political Editor Nick Robinson faced similar claims of anti-Corbyn bias, when the Radio Four Today programme presenter tweeted about Corbyn’s first speech of the election campaign:
“No-one should be surprised that [Jeremy Corbyn] is running v the ‘Establishment’ & is long on passion & short on details. Story of his life.”
Social media reacted strongly against this, including Peter Oborne – who supports the Conservative Party. He replied: “If Nick Robinson wants to enter politics he should step down as presenter of the Today Programme.”
Motivations behind the anti-Corbyn coverage overlap with the billionaire-owned media. The revolving door from Downing Street to Television House to the big corporations is also well used. Former Head of the BBC Trust Rona Fairhead previously held a senior position at HSBC, directly connected to money laundering to terrorists and drug cartels. And after Andy Coulson left Number 10 he was succeeded by Craig Oliver, previously a senior BBC News editor.
The BBC is part of the British establishment. James Harding, the Director of News and Current Affairs – who defended Kuenssberg – is emblematic. From the same school as George Osborne, he then went to Cambridge. This background is typical. A 2014 report found over one in four BBC executives went to private school. The BBC also suffers from being dragged with the pack. For instance, it is impossible to report the day’s headlines of the main papers without giving the Murdochs of this world a multiple chance to insert their opinion.
But what of the traditional left-leaning media? It is well known they have hardly been warm to Corbyn. The Media Coalition research shows that the Independent, Guardian and Observer produced many negative pieces from day one of his leadership. The Observer had one negative comment and editorial piece, the only mention, in the week he was elected. The Independent pushed 6 of 9 disapproving comment pieces. The Guardian was relatively warm, with only 5 negative from 25 comment pieces.
Alex Nunns for Novara Media tracks the anti-Corbyn hostility even before Corbyn became leader. Ever since the polls showed that he led the first leadership race, columnists lined up to attack Corbyn – including Polly Toynbee and Martin Kettle. This stance contradicted the Guardian’s own readership research, who favoured him. Despite this, the paper backed the Blairite Yvette Cooper, singling out Corby for being too radical.
This hostility only continued after September 2015. One example is the paper misquoting Corbyn to give the false impression of anti-Semitism. Crucially, the Guardian also acted as cheerleader in the coup that led to the 2016 leadership election. After the Brexit vote Polly Toynbee wrote a column entitled “Dismal, lifeless, spineless”, a day later this was followed by “Jeremy Corbyn is a great campaigner – but we need a hard-headed negotiator”, and then on Sunday the Observer published the piece by “chief plotter” Hilary Benn that set off the “firework” for the coup. (These quotes come from a Guardian piece explaining its role in making this news).
Similar reasons explain why the Guardian or other supposed left-wing parts of the corporate media would attack Corbyn. It too receives a great deal of revenue from corporate sponsorship. For instance HSBC had a bigger advertising account with them than the Telegraph. A revolving door too connects it to the bank, the many links have been revealed by former Guardian investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed, detailed here by Media Lens. Many Guardian writers are also still enamoured by Tony Blair’s New Labour project. Corbyn’s success is effectively the death knell for this project.
But still, this raises the question – why? What drew people who started on the left towards Blairism? Apathy is usually an accusation directed at the general public – including those who maybe were ardent fighters for social progress in their earlier lives, but are too comfortable or disillusioned now to question the status quo –but it is interesting to consider how the generally well-off journalistic profession often is so privileged, in lifestyles and backgrounds, that they do not want or need to rock the boat. Looking at 2014 research into class and privilege, overall one in two journalists from broadsheets, and two out of every five tabloid journalists went to private school.
Mapping this landscape, everything seemed strong and stable for the government, until the façade fragility was revealed by the election.
The election has brought this situation to a head. It has shattered the supposedly insurmountable media landscape and Corbyn’s Labour is getting ever closer to Theresa’s lead.
But it is also worth considering not just how much the attacks from the whole corporate media have damaged Labour. What if the corporate media was balanced; what if the media had attacked the Conservatives? Amongst the under-explored lines of enquiry is the government’s cosy relationship with HSBC, and how George Osborne lobbied to stop the US taking criminal action against the money laundering claims. (These are laid out for all to see in the film All the Plenary’s Men. It shows how George Osborne – who has accepted political donations from HSBC executives – made sure no criminal charges were brought for money laundering by US authorities against the bank. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of what could have been covered.)
The country is facing multiple crises of inequality, poverty, climate change, tax evasion and so on. The reason these do not get into the media – or at least they are not given the same platform as the headlines against Corbyn – is that they are all products of the system.
The Tory Election Fraud story is another example. Channel Four News and the Daily Mirror deserve immense credit for breaking this story. But imagine if the rest of the pack had got on board. More would have been made of the decision of May to call the election on the same day 29 MPs were charged. The public outcry would have made it less possible for the charges to be swept so neatly under the carpet.
But the positive news is that the election campaign is creating that tipping point. Election reporting rules means the mainstream media can no longer ignore Labour’s platform. It is inescapable that the gap in the polls is narrowing all the time. Non-corporate media is filling the void to report on the real progressive alternatives Labour’s manifesto represents. This creates pressures for mainstream media too to warm their approach, the signs of a change in tone are certainly there. One example is a comment piece by Polly Toynbee. Corbyn is now the wrong man, but with the right policies.
There is a precedent to this transformation, too. The media landscape was stacked against Scottish independence. With commentators like the BBC’s Nick Robinson leading inaccurate reports against the Yes side. The Project Fear campaign was as much of a mainstream media venture as a New Labour or Tory plan.
The one-sidedness ruptured Scotland’s media landscape. In response to the No vote – within days – money poured into new digital media, which had already gained immensely in readership and quality. The investigative news platform the Ferret and CommonSpace are two notable new examples. The quality output of Bella Caledonia throughout indyref and beyond is another.
Looking below the border, digital media has been quietly growing and gaining in financial backing and readership. The long running New Internationalist has dramatically increased its co-operative ownership through a community share offering. There are campaigns to back quality digital journalism. Impressively more tabloid style left-wing journalism is flourishing. For instance, The Canary readership has recently overtaken the Times for UK web traffic.
What indyref shows is that once the genie is out of the bottle, it will not be forced back in. This election is rewriting many ideas about British politics. One impact regardless of the result could be to transform the media, to realign a left or enable new media to fill the void.