The media can only ignore Jeremy Corbyn's surging campaign for so long, writes Des Freedman
Social media networks have been buzzing for a few days now after Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, managed to use a Conservative slogan as the headline for her analysis of the Labour manifesto. Obviously no journalist wants to be accused of plagiarism but the issue is less to do with deliberate deceit than with drinking from the same well – or, as one bloggerput it, that Kuenssberg and other top journalists ‘know which side their bread is buttered on.’
You don’t need to search for a ‘smoking gun’ – an editorial meeting where reporters are told to favour one side over another or an old Conservative Party membership card. Instead, you need to understand the shared assumptions at top levels of BBC News (led by the former Times editor James Harding) that the government is to be ‘respected’ while the credibility of the opposition – with its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, inspired by something else other than the ‘Westminster bubble’ – is to be constantly tested and regularly doubted.
Now, no one would mind should the standards of critical interrogation be applied to all parties. But there doesn’t appear to be a level playing field despite the regulatory requirement to be impartial. It comes out in relatively small ways: with the snide tweets from leading BBC commentators, the endless repetition of Tory-supporting newspaper headlines in its press reviews, or in the ways in which the agenda is framed in routine ways. For example while the chancellor, Philip Hammond, was given the peak-time slot on Wednesday’s Today programme to comment without interruption on Labour’s manifesto, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, was invited on Friday to speak about the Tory manifesto but only after a two and a half minute introduction from Laura Kuenssberg, presumably in order to set the appropriate (and more mollifying) tone.
Is the BBC alone in favouring Conservative voices and ideas? Perhaps not always but, judging by recent performance, it is certainly leading the pack. Consider analysis by researchers at Cardiff University which shows that, in the first week of the election, Tory Party sources accounted for some 45% of election coverage on the BBC’s News at Ten compared to just over 25% for Labour ones. This is far more unbalanced than any other broadcaster with both Sky and Channel 4 News airing more Labour voices than Tory ones on their main bulletins.
Buffeted by government pressure (especially from the most zealous free marketers inside the Conservatives) and locked into an attachment to an increasingly discredited neoliberal consensus on politics and economics, the BBC’s newsgathering operation seems determined to protect the status quo and to undermine its challengers – even when these require serious and systematic investigation.
It won’t be impartiality regulations that will foster an informed debate about the manifestos and lead to serious reporting of Corbyn and Labour (that doesn’t resort to weary allegations about the wealth-destroying impact of policies that are proving to be increasingly popular). The requirement to be impartial won’t stop some agendas from being prioritised, some politicians from being undermined (or let off the hook) and some questions from never being raised in the first place.
Can anything penetrate the elite-driven coverage of the BBC newsroom? A Labour campaign growing in confidence and a shrinking of the Tory lead would certainly make a difference as evidenced by the substantial coverage given to Corbyn’s rallies in Yorkshire earlier this week. The bigger the event and the more lively the campaign, the harder it will be for the media to ignore the mounting challenge posed by Jeremy Corbyn.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), chair of the Media Reform Coalition and secretary of Goldsmiths UCU.