Des Freedman considers the pitfalls of delivering a socialist message on a hostile media terrain

The issue of media bias now sits at the heart of the Labour leadership election and, beyond that, of debates about whether radical politics can ever get a fair hearing given the current media landscape.

On the one hand, there is overwhelming evidence of the systematic delegitimisation of Jeremy Corbyn in the mainstream press and the disproportionate attention paid to critics of the Labour leader in our main TV news broadcasts. In response, his supporters have launched the ‘We Are His Media’ hashtag and argued that Corbyn should take advantage of the growing power of social media (and by association, the waning power of mass media) to sidestep a media establishment that is determined to discredit him.

On the other hand, influential commentators on the left like Owen Jones and Ellie Mae O’Hagan are calling for the Labour leader to develop a ‘coherent media strategy’ that aims at reaching ‘ordinary’ voters (as opposed to activists) via these hostile media platforms. Corbyn, they argue, has to use all available channels to map out his vision for a progressive politics.

I want to make four points about the implications of this increasingly polarised debate about the need for a left media strategy.

First, we shouldn’t overstate the power of the media in determining political opportunities for the left. Radical politics has always had to contend with hostile media and has, at times, made huge gains despite entrenched opposition by powerful opinion makers. Do you think the Chartists had an easy ride from newspapers when pressing for labour rights in the 1840s? Did the suffragettes have universal support in Fleet Street when campaigning for the vote (remember that their motto was ‘deeds not words’)? Progressive movements have always had to organise in the face of sustained attacks from elite media whether it was the victory of Syriza in Greece in 2015 or the very narrow defeat for Scottish independence despite every newspaper bar one backing a ‘no’ vote in 2014. This isn’t an easy thing to say as someone who helped to found the Media Reform Coalition, but we need to avoid thinking that the media alone create the terrain on which campaigns are fought and ideologies formed. Battles are won not because of the sophistication of a media strategy but because of the strength of grass roots support for change and the effectiveness of your ability to neutralise your opposition.

Despite this – and this is my second point – all major campaigns for social change have had their own media. The Chartists had the Northern Star, the Suffragettes had their own self-titled newspaper, the Bolsheviks had Pravda, Gandhi founded Harijan to help build his anti-colonial struggle while Solidarity in Poland had Robotnik and the Algerians had the unofficial Voice of Fighting Algeria during their struggle for independence from the French in the 1950s (brilliantly described by Frantz Fanon. None of these were commercial enterprises but instruments with which activists communicated with each other, publicised their activities and spread their vision. They were the organising frameworks of emergent mass movements designed not supplant the news outlets of their enemies but to strengthen their own campaigns. That is the model that I see in relation to the use of social media by Corbyn supporters: of course hashtags and memes alone do not topple governments and win elections but they can help solidify and give confidence to movements whose capacity to use traditional communications system is limited. When Owen Jones writes that social media campaigns are counter-productive because you simply ‘energise your core supporters…but fail to reach out’, he appears to fail to see the value of an energised and informed membership in making the case for progressive change to wider layers of people.

This relates to my third point: that while social media are valuable organising tools, they do not constitute the spaces where, by and large, people get their news. Mainstream news outlets remain extremely influential – though not decisive as I have already suggested – in shaping agendas and in legitimising specific perspectives on, for example, immigration, race, austerity and indeed on political leadership (anyone remember Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich during the 2015 general election?). Legacy news organisations – especially the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 – remain by far the top news sources for adults in the UK with BBC One alone used by some 48% of the population. The BBC’s reach, in particular, is vastly greater than that of any other source which is precisely why the Media Reform Coalition’s research that uncovered routine bias against Corbyn in its main TV bulletins was so important. It is true that younger audiences are much more likely to turn to online sources but who do you think provides the bulk of the original content that is then aggregated? Of those people who rely on the internet for news, some 56% of them use BBC sites – far more than the 29% who use Facebook which, of course, relies on others (like the BBC) to generate original news content.

For those who are talking about a ‘paradigm shift’ from traditional to new media in the face of a growing distrust of elite sources, it may be true that print circulation is declining rapidly but it is not true that Murdoch, Dacre and Desmond have lost the ability to influence both the conduct and the coverage of public affairs. Academic research on the agenda-setting influence of right-wing newspapers on broadcast coverage of the 2015 general election together with the domination of those same voices of coverage of the EU referendum points to the continuing ability of established voices – online and offline – to distort conversations about contemporary politics and to systematically undermine progressive arguments.

The implication of this is not that we ought to develop a media strategy (let alone as set of policies) that is focused on the priorities and routines of the BBC and the Murdoch press. If we believe that key media institutions are failing our democracy, then we need to fix them. Labour therefore ought not to accommodate to media power but to challenge it. This would involve curbing the influence of the biggest media moguls, addressing the systemic bias towards vested interests inside some of our biggest newsrooms, and supporting the creation of new, independent sources of journalism. Media reform needs to be a central part of any progressive strategy – as Corbyn himself has alluded to.

The final point is that there is little use in simply calling on Corbyn to take the media more seriously. Of course, he needs a media operation that uses Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to communicate with his supporters and that makes available key Labour figures to articulate its policies inside mainstream media. But it’s just not that helpful to tell someone who has been at the brunt of so many misrepresentations and diminutions that the mainstream media are, as Ellie Mae O’Hagan put it recently, ‘a conduit through which Corbyn can communicate with millions of people. To that end, he must focus on it using it to his advantage.’ The problem is that news is not a neutral and transparent space but one framed by the agendas and priorities of those at the top – whether they are billionaire proprietors or humble editors internalising the views of those around them. ‘Britain is a capitalist state, largely controlled by corporate, government and financial interests’, argued Peter Oborne back when he was the political editor of the Telegraph. ‘British journalists’, he continued, ‘will almost always favour the rich, powerful and glamorous over the poor, weak and unfashionable’ – and, one might add, their representatives.

In this situation, repeated calls for ‘coherent media strategy’ in the middle of a very divisive leadership election are rather mischevious – a proxy for more generalised concerns about Corbyn’s leadership: that he has not developed policies that speak to the interests of working people across the country, that he is a weak leader, that he attends too many rallies, that he is a poor communicator. Of course these are all memes that have been actively nurtured by those who are desperate to undermine him – not least those in the media who can hardly be relied on to grant him free passage.

Jeremy Corbyn may indeed have made mistakes but it would be an even bigger mistake to imagine that a polished and professional media strategy – the kind of thing we saw under the leadership of Tony Blair – will be sufficient to fend off his enemies and assure his electoral popularity. Corbyn’s strength depends not on the skills of another Alistair Campbell but on his ability to nurture a social movement that can truly articulate the concerns and hopes of millions of British people. That would be a hard story to ignore.

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.