John McDonnell

Opening up a serious debate about media bias

John McDonnell

JEREMY’S RE-ELECTION AS LEADER OF THE PARTY with an increased mandate was a huge tribute to the determination of rank and file Labour Party members, supporters and trade unionists. They showed yet again that, despite all that the establishment has thrown at us, we will not be cowed into submission. I chaired Jeremy’s campaign committee again and I am currently assessing some of the lessons learned as we now unite the Party and prepare for a General Election, which could come at any time.

One lesson is pretty obvious. We need to develop a practical strategy to respond effectively to the level of media bias against us. If anyone on the left dares to raise the question of media bias they are immediately pounced on as paranoid whiners and conspiracy theorists. I am sure that this article will be seized on in the same way. However we can’t let this risk prevent us having an honest debate about this issue.

This time around it has been invaluable that two independent detailed analyses of the media coverage of Jeremy and his campaign have exposed that the traditional media treatment of Jeremy and his supporters has gone beyond anything we have previously witnessed. A quote from one report says that the media has gone from being a watchdog to an attack dog when it comes to reporting Jeremy Corbyn. Both the LSE study on the press and the Media Coalition study of the BBC coverage confirm the role played by the media in misreporting and even denigrating Jeremy and his campaign. The Media Reform Coalition report, led by Dr Justin Schlosberg from Birkbeck University, demonstrated:

  • twice as much airtime given to critical, rather than supportive voices;
  • huge imbalance in favour of issues pushed by Corbyn critics on early evening BBC and ITV bulletins – especially pronounced in headline stories;
  • strong tendency within the BBC main evening news for reporters to use pejorative language when describing Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters;
  • domination of views opposed to the Labour leadership in all but one of the online outlets sampled, and across both left and right leaning titles.

The report concluded: “Overall, our findings strongly suggest that in a period of intense conflict and instability within Britain’s largest political party, mainstream news gave disproportionate prominence and attention to voices critical of the Labour leadership, and systematically marginalised or maligned opposing views. While this does not appear to have ‘harmed’ the Labour leadership according to recent polling of its members, it raises serious concerns regarding the diversity of political news coverage to which the majority of citizens are exposed.”

Although the media may not have harmed Jeremy when it comes to polling party members, it is pretty obvious that it has had an impact on the overall poll ratings of Jeremy and the Labour Party among the general public. There is some evidence for this in a recent YouGov poll on Labour’s economic policies. What this shows is that there is significant and usually majority support for Labour’s economic policies among the general public as long as you do not refer to them as Labour’s policies.

The polling demonstrated, “with regard to taxation and spending, 45% of people support Labour’s anti-austerity platform (reversing the government’s planned spending cuts and increasing tax for the wealthiest). This compares to just 13% who support the current levels of cuts, and 22% who think the cuts should continue but be scaled back. On the subject of public/private ownership, 58% of people oppose any form of private sector involvement in the NHS while 51% support some degree of public ownership of the railways, mirroring Labour’s position on these issues since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. However, when asked which party ‘currently has the best policies on taxation and spending’, 30% identified the Conservatives compared to 16% for Labour.”

The Media Reform Coalition which commissioned the poll felt the reason for this was that, “We feel that much of the media have been more preoccupied with dismissing Jeremy Corbyn as ‘unelectable’ than with seriously reporting on the policies he represents. This is not about a failure of communication on the part of Labour so much as a failure of nerve on the part of a great swathe of the news media. Without a change in approach, our democracy is in deep crisis”. In the coming months it will be absolutely critical for us to ensure we communicate our narrative, messages and policy programme effectively. We have used social media successfully and, with Jeremy’s packed meetings around the country, we have virtually reinvented word of mouth as a means of mass political communication. I have also repeatedly said that we always need to improve how we seek to get our message across via the traditional media, both press and broadcast media.

Nevertheless there is still a need for a campaign that doesn’t just expose the media bias that exists but, working co-operatively with journalists and broadcasters, also develops strategies to overcome it.

Shadow Chancellor, MP for Hayes and Harlington, Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and Chair of the Labour Representation Committee. John has been involved in Labour Briefing since the early years.