Election campaign reveals a media system that’s not fit for purpose

By Media Reform Coalition / Monday December 16, 2019 Read More

MRC asked some leading advocates of media reform for their reaction to the result of the general election.

Angela Phillips: The media and the polls

Outrage about the bias of the media has been a constant over many years of elections but the past four years allow us to make a fairly direct comparison between events.  The main thing that has changed is not the media, but the leading figures in the campaign. Boris Johnson won for the Tories in 2019 for all the reasons that Brexit won in 2016. They had the man, the message and the machine. 

In four short years a few more people have reached voting age and a few of the oldest generation have died, but not enough at either end to make a dramatic difference. Unemployment levels have been steadily dropping over the period with a slight upturn this year and levels of poverty, particularly in-work poverty, are rising. So the campaign was played out against the same backdrop of malaise. Work has returned but it is not the kind of work that comes with pride, a reasonable wage and solid trade-union membership. It is insecure, low paid and above all individualised. The influencers of the past were trade union organisers who emphasised solidarity. Today’s influencers come from obscure online sources passed on by mates. Messages need to be short, unsubtle and easy to pass on if they are to be noticed at all.

Media coverage at elections is always biased against Labour because of the agenda-setting role of the pro-Conservative press (online as well as in print).  The only period when this has not been the case is during the Blair years when the Murdoch empire swung behind New Labour. There have been some changes in the ownership and editorial of key newspapers in the past two years, but they are unlikely to be responsible for the change in outcome. The ferociously pro-Brexit Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, retired earlier this year to be replaced by a man with a slightly more liberal outlook. The Daily Express, another flag flyer for Brexit, was taken over by the Daily Mirror group. Both papers dialled up their Leave credentials to maintain their audiences, while subtly dialling down their racism. Immigration coverage faded from view in the last two weeks of the 2019 campaign, compared to 2017 and in particular, compared to the Referendum campaign where it was a key issue. With just two years between the campaigns, the loss of some two million votes was a disaster for Labour. The media doesn’t help Labour’s cause, but it is hard to pin the blame solely on the media given the very short time between the polls.

Arguably, the key difference between the campaigns lies with the Tory leadership team – the same people who brought us Brexit. The May election was not run by Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson took a back seat. The election slogan: “Strong and Stable” proved a liability when May’s flagship social care policy was panned by her own supporting newspapers and she was forced into an ignominious retreat. This coincided with a strong Labour manifesto launch with a few key issues that caught attention across the media. Even though the Labour coverage was negative, the subject matter was popular. This time around there was no such Conservative mis-step. The manifesto contained practically nothing. Certainly nothing that would distract from the message of, ‘Get Brexit Done’. By comparison, the Labour message was confusing and kept changing, with new offers being added every week and constant stories about dissent in the ranks and defecting MPs, to add to the list of reasons to attack the party and distract from any negative messages about the Johnson and the Tories.

Half of us now get news on social media, which is higher than it was in 2017, but that half swings to the younger (more Labour-leaning voters). Older voters still watch TV news, even if they communicate with their mates on Facebook. Given the way in which social media algorithms favour strident and angry over calm and rational debate, it is likely that much of the election material circulating attacked the other ‘team’. Certainly the Conservatives used their social media to attack Corbyn more than they used it to support their own side. Corbyn was more restrained in attacking Johnson (which possibly made him appear weak rather than honourable) and many of the strongest Corbyn advocates spent their time on-line attacking other members of their own Party.

On TV, the story was once again the amplification of those issues selected by the print media, but this time the TV coverage itself (the key interviews, audience debates and the follow-up commentary) also had an important influence and, possibly as a result, the TV coverage leant far more heavily on the issue of Brexit than the newspapers did. This was a big win for the Conservatives because their message was straight-forward and easy to get into every news item. The Labour approach tended to get muddied by different interpretations of the policy on Brexit. 

And then there is gender. Women are judged more harshly as May found to her cost. She lost support for refusing to attend a TV debate. Johnson dodged an interview with Andrew Neill and came out the better for it. People who had never before voted Tory were unlikely to rally to the cause of a rather stiff woman who showed little charisma or strength. This time around  the move towards  the Tories was a great deal stronger for men than for women. Perhaps men who have never voted Tory are more likely to forgive a male leader his foibles as long as he comes across as strong, determined and, well, male? A stunt, in which a tousle haired bloke with a dubious record of personal behaviour and integrity, drives a bulldozer into a polystyrene wall might at first glance seem risible. But it seems to have hit a chord. The election was won the same way as Brexit: simple messages, strict party discipline and constant attacks on the other team. 

Tom Mills: Complacency on display at the BBC

This was a terrible election for the BBC, which seems to have lost any sense of its public, democratic purpose. It spent the campaign floundered from one editorial aberration to another, while its senior political reporters acting in the most reckless fashion, shocking many of their younger, more junior colleagues. 

There was the editing out of the Question Time audience laughing at the Prime Minister in the clip for the BBC’s news bulletins. There was the failure to secure an interview with Johnson for the Andrew Neil Interviews, only to then grant the Conservative Party’s request for an interview with Andrew Marr instead, having just at first refused to do so. There was Laura Kuenssberg tweeting a fabricated story about Labour activists attacking a Tory advisor, without any basic fact checking. There was Emily Maitlis (who mused about the possibility of a ‘coup’ against Corbyn ahead of the last election) retweeting remarks about ‘Corbyn’s cult’. Finally, a day before polling day, the BBC press office was forced to issue a statement saying that it ‘does not believe it, or its political editorial, has breached election law’ following on air remarks made by Kuenssberg, which appear to have prompted a statement from the Electoral Commission.

Beyond these shocking episodes, we can at this stage can only make provisional judgements as to the shape of the BBC’s overall reporting, including the prominence given to particular policy issues, and the nature of the coverage of the different parties. Loughborough University have been monitoring reporting over the election, and we will have a wealth of research to examine soon. But what evidence we have already supports the allegations of ‘bias’ levelled by Labour, which are anyway in keeping with the findings from previous research: Justin Schlosberg examined television reporting during the campaign for the Media Reform Coalition and found marked imbalances in reporting of Labour and the Conservatives that is masked by the equality of access. 

My inclination as an academic is at this stage to remain measured in tone and tentative in judgement, but the BBC management has not afforded anyone this courtesy. Its director of news and current affairs, Fran Unsworth, responded to concerns about reporting in the most arrogant fashion, dismissing allegations of bias as ‘conspiracy theory’, and the Director General, Tony Hall, released a statement to staff on Friday echoing the same remark. 

Frankly I find the complacency on display at the BBC shocking. With the election concluded, attention now turns to the Conservatives’ intentions towards the BBC. In principle, I believe that public media should be staunchly defended against incursion by governments or markets, but it is hard to see how after this election those of us who hold this view, and wish to defend public media, will be able to mount an effective defence. The BBC has done this to itself. It was warned, but would not listen.

Des Freedman: Media bias knocks the wall down

Following the 2017 general election, I wrote that “media bias had hit a wall” when voters refused to bow to Tory media moguls and give Theresa May a majority. Two years later, ferocious media attacks on Jeremy Corbyn helped to knock down this wall of stubborn resistance with dozens of Labour seats falling to the Tories as a punishment for the party’s position on Brexit.

First, it’s worth noting that press attacks on Labour were even more vicious than last time round. Negative coverage escalated in its intensity during the 2019 campaign while reporting on the Tories was – with the consistent exception of the Mirror– positive overall. Compare this to 2017 where, according to researchers at Loughborough University, “newspaper treatment of the Conservatives was broadly more sympathetic but not consistently: during the third week of the campaign, for instance, coverage of the party was more negative than positive, and negativity towards Labour was at its weakest.” There was no such indecision in the Tory press this time round.

Second, broadcasters tended to amplify the Tory agenda rather than systematically to confront it. We saw this with the attention provided to issues such as Brexit and the economy that played to Johnson’s interests with far less coverage of health and the environment that would have benefited Labour. We also saw increased levels of stenography with key broadcast commentators like Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston all too ready uncritically to repeat Tory spin and reluctant to call Johnson out with the same energy as the vitriol reserved for Labour.

Unencumbered by a responsibility to tell the truth, Johnson simply lied on air about Tory plans to build 40 new hospitals and about Corbyn’s threat to scrap MI5 knowing that by the time the fact checkers got around to challenging their veracity, the damage was already done. Never has ‘stopwatch politics’ and stilted impartiality so clearly failed to capture the wider issue agenda or to hold elite power to account.

Media bias alone obviously doesn’t explain the election result. Labour’s shift on Brexit punished them this time around in a way that it failed to do so last time round while their campaign lacked the insurgent feel of 2017. But dismissing the power of hugely influential commentators, channels and platforms on the basis that “this is always what they do” both lets them off the hook and wastes the enormous anger that is currently aimed at top editors and journalists.

Frankie Boyle was right to argue that “media plurality is an issue we need to address in this country: the alternative is living in a timeline where, because Corbyn has wonky glasses, in a couple of years you’ll be living in a tent city outside an Amazon warehouse trying to GoFund a tonsillectomy.” That future has come closer because of Johnson’s victory that was aided by a propaganda campaign that illustrates just how desperate vested interests were to maintain the status quo. 

Justin Schlosberg: Some thoughts on BBC bias

First, I don’t believe there’s any kind of conscious, intentional favouring of ‘the right’ by BBC journalists or editors. But they do over-represent a metropolitan, liberal elite demographic.

That translates into an institutional paranoia of being seen to be ‘anti-right’ and creates a degree of over-compensation in both the sources and issues that gain most prominence, and sometimes in the relative treatment of sources. And most importantly, this shapes which sources are ‘trusted’ or seen as inherently credible (eg senior Tories or right wing Labour versus ‘the left’).

That paranoia/pressure is hugely intensified by hard right government and a predominantly hard right press, poised to jump on the BBC and threatening the license fee at every turn.

Another issue is that journalists just don’t understand how to implement impartiality in a post-consensus world. In the EU referendum they adopted a ‘X claims A, Y claims B’ approach to balance which proved to be disastrous in allowing falsehood to spread unchecked.

In this general election, they took the approach of ‘scrutinise claims on both sides equally’ but ran into a problem. The vast majority of falsehoods were spread by the Tories and Lib Dems but ‘presentational’ impartiality meant that Labour had to be presented as equally culpable.

The biggest problem, however, is a herd-like group think about ‘what the story is’. When IFS attacked the Labour manifesto, that was a far more of a ‘story’ than the equally scathing IFS response to Tory manifesto. It just somehow ‘made sense’.

When anti-semitism allegations surfaced in the Tory party it just didn’t seem like much of a headline (in spite of ticking every box of news value criteria).

None of this meant that the BBC was wholly or explicitly towing the Tory line. But then explicit, conscious propaganda is never that effective.

Natalie Fenton: Delusions of democracy

General elections with multiple parties contesting seats are supposed to be a key indicator of democracy in action. But the simple existence of elections does not make a democracy. Elections must also be free and fair. So let’s put GE2019 to a simple test: was it free and fair?

Fair elections means elections that are fundamentally honest. But in an age of social media, honesty is not straightforward. Corbyn had tweets sent in his name from fake accounts and First Draft found that 88% of Conservative Facebook campaigning ads were deemed by Full Fact, the UKs leading fact checking organisation, to be misleading. The BBC also stood accused of dishonesty through misleading editing (and later apologised – twice). Rather than honesty being the driver of content, this election, more than any other, felt like it was fuelled by a political economy of lies. Lies are simply more crowd pleasing, circulate rapidly, are based on intensely affective responses, are mood inducing and therefore are often more commercially attractive. But lying also erodes trust and so it is telling that the Ofcom news consumption survey for 2019 notes that in age of distrust ‘word of mouth’ is now considered a legitimate source of news.

Fair also means everyone has equal opportunity to get their point across. This election has seen lack of clarity about who bankrolls the politicians. Billionaire donors have been shown to protect the position and interests of those with wealth and power. Money in politics and campaigning has corrupted the electoral system turning the digital landscape into a playground for the elite. New techniques of digital manipulation give rise to sophisticated propaganda that is only just beginning to be understood.

Being free to participate fully requires being well informed – this relies upon the adequacy of processes, institutions and organisations of knowledge production. Yet this election saw unprecedented levels of misinformation, obfuscation and bias across most mainstream media. The Conservatives changed their Twitter account to look like a fact checking service; Johnson refused to be interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC and clumsily hid a reporter’s phone in his pocket,rather than respond to questions about the NHS. The study by Loughborough University showed that the Press were overwhelmingly negative about the Labour Party.

Fairness and freedom are about the ability to hold power (including media power) to account. Yet both have been in short supply during this election. The Conservatives have been elected on a mandate to drop the second stage of the Leveson inquiry and repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts act (the final and integral part of the Royal Charter Framework of Press Regulation). There is no sign that they intend to regulate the tech giants to make elections and electioneering any fairer or freer. Quite the opposite. Democratic delusions abound.

John Pilger: The raw class factor of #GenElec2019

Labour lost because, unlike the election campaign in 2017, the party promoted a second referendum.  Whatever this was dressed up as – a “people’s vote” or the leader’s “neutrality” – it meant that Labour was prepared to renege on a democratic vote in 2016 in which the majority of the British people voted to leave the EU. 

Above all, there was a raw class factor. Go back to the day after the 2016 vote and mark the sheer contempt that flowed out of bourgeois metropolitan London for those who dared defy what I’d call the Guardian Standard. Indeed, look at the class vitriol on this issue that dripped from the pages of that newspaper then, and now; it was emblematic of the disregard of millions of people who voted the “wrong” way. 

It’s surely unsurprising that they would take their revenge, especially when Boris Johnson’s campaign sold them an epic lie in the slogan, “Get Brexit done”. However, in taking their revenge, how sad that so many angry and misguided people should reward their true class enemy and its caricature of a leader. 

Of course, there are other important factors, such as the vicious personal vilification of Jeremy Corbyn and, significantly, the bogus anti-semitism smear of him and others who had supported the Palestinians: a vendetta that shames all those who promoted it.”

Lynne Segal: We shouldn’t lose our rage

It feels so hard to heave oneself up from the swamp of despair, seeing so much passionate energy for change trampled by a self-serving elite, as contemptuous of truth as they are of most of the people they continue to govern. 

We know our only hope is somehow to nurture those cross-generational forms of resistance and solidarity that were energised over recent years of hope, where so many new and creative ideas were developed, whether for citizens wealth funds, investment in local economies, shorter paid working time, commitments to financing home-care, life-long learning, mental health provision, and so much more. 

The overlap between those confronting climate emergencies and those fighting poverty, racism and deterioration of jobs and services won’t disappear overnight. But nothing will be easy, as we struggle to keep alive the imagination needed for connect movement campaigns and collective survival strategies with any levers for power, while confronting those deep regional divides. 

We never simply win, or simply lose, people like to say, which is in itself too simple. But hopefully what we never lose entirely is our rage against all that is wrong and our belief that things could be different, now is the time to care a little more, understand a lot better, and support all progressive struggles wherever they emerge.