As election manifestos are rolled out, journalists must take care to give equal and proportionate scrutiny to new policy proposals on all sides.
This morning on Radio 4’s Today Programme, John Humphries conducted an exemplary interview with the Conservative minister for health and pensions, Damian Green. Every question was focused on the Conservatives’ recently announced ‘package’ of workers rights . There was not a single nod to the editorial agenda of the leftist press; no suggestion that the promised new rights marked another cynical attempt to co-opt Labour’s policies without any substance; or an absurd attempt to portray the party as on the side of workers when its wider austerity agenda is anything but.
This is as it should be. But the same degree of in-depth scrutiny has not been given to policy proposals by Labour over the last few days. Earlier on the programme, the shadow health secretary John Ashworth was interviewed for less than 6 minutes on Labour’s policy announcement of the day, promising an additional £37 billion for the NHS. This compared to over 10 minutes at peak time given to Damian Green (plus an earlier feature on the same issue).
Whilst the NHS consistently ranks well above workers rights in opinion polling of ‘the most important issues‘, the latter was the focus of today’s Tory campaign communications and lead headlines across the conservative press. Was the BBC slavishly following the Daily Mail’s agenda in selecting this as its own lead story of the day?
It would be overly simplistic to jump to such a conclusion. Editors may well argue that the imbalance merely counters a disproportionate spotlight given to Labour at the end of last week and over the weekend. This followed the leak of the party’s manifesto and Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy speech to Chatham House on Friday.
But here’s where it gets tricky: much of that coverage was devoted not to serious policy analysis and scrutiny of claims, but to questions regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, insinuations of ‘chaos’ within the party, and vacuous allegations that Labour’s policies mark a return to the past. All of these lines of questioning can be traced directly to narratives that have long been perpetuated by the right wing press.
Arguably the most egregious example occurred on Friday’s edition of the Today Programme when Nick Robinson described the Sun’s lead headline as listing “a day of disasters for Labour”. The selection of this story attracted widespread criticism on social media, as well as from Labour’s Barry Gardiner (shadow secretary for international trade) in the interview that followed. Robinson retorted that listeners “expect us to read out newspaper headlines which we’ve been doing for many years without backing them, endorsing them or criticising them”.
But the anchors do not just read out newspaper headlines during these segments – they actively select which headlines are read in what order, as well as how much detail and airtime is given to each. In any case, the notion that broadcasters can include regular segments reviewing the national press in a way that is free of bias and distortion is simply illogical, given the dominance of right-wing titles.
But what about the coverage on the BBC’s flagship news analysis programmes, those devoted to precisely the kind of in-depth probing that may be absent from the more time restricted bulletins? In an earlier interview with Barry Gardiner on Thursday’s edition of Newsnight, presenter Emily Maitlis repeatedly asserted that the leaked manifesto amounted to a socialist throwback to the 1970s. In doing so, she was again inflecting a right-wing tabloid narrative as the basis for serious questioning of a raft of new policy proposals. On Sunday’s Andrew Marr show, the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry was subjected to a constant line of questioning that sought to point out discrepancies in Labour’s manifesto position with statements made by Jeremy Corbyn several years ago as a Labour backbencher. But it was left to Thornberry herself to point out a discrepancy in the position of defence secretary Michael Fallon (her co-interviewee) on Syria, having attended a party thrown by Bashar Assad in 2007.
There was nothing wrong with these lines of questioning per se, but rather the incessant manner in which they were pursued by interviewers. The cost was greater attention to the detail and consequences of policies which the electorate have a right to be exposed to, over and above personality politics. The BBC in particular must be more sensitive and alert to agenda building and spin doctoring by off the record sources. The unauthorised manifesto leak was clearly intended to play to the Tory’s narrative of ‘chaos’ within the Labour Party and further distract attention away from the manifesto’s content. Whether or not that goal was achieved, Nick Robinson and others ought to have seen the writing on the wall.
Note: we are partly crowd-sourcing our election media monitoring. If you see, read or hear something on the news that doesn’t sound right, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject heading “election coverage alert”. We will do our best to respond to all submissions and will publish those that we think carry the most weight, along with our own analysis.
This article was amended on 16 May. Previously it stated that Nick Robinson on the Today Programme described a lead story in the Sun Newspaper as listing “a day of disasters for Labour” and that this phrase was not used by the Sun. That was incorrect – the article under review did use this phrase and consequently we apologise for, and withdraw our statement that Nick Robinson offered “his own editorial spin on what the story was about”.