Des Freedman and Justin Schlosberg unpick astonishing levels of media bias in recent political coverage
The media don’t seem to rate the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn that highly. This is hardly headline news. Indeed, allegations that media outlets have been especially hostile to Corbyn is met with widespread indifference by commentators who say they would expect nothing less. It is, after all, the responsibility of journalists to nail the flaws and inadequacies of public figures.
We believe, however, that the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn have gone beyond the normal and entirely legitimate investigation of a politician’s record and appear to be aimed at purposefully destabilising, rather than soberly evaluating, Corbyn’s leadership. As a recent letter to the Guardian signed by over 100 media academics argued: ‘We do not expect journalists to give any elected leader an easy ride but Corbyn has been treated from the start as a problem to be solved rather than as a politician to be taken seriously.’
We now have three pieces of substantial empirical research that all reach similar conclusions about the comprehensive denigration of Jeremy Corbyn together with the disproportionate amount of attention paid to his critics.
Last October, the Media Reform Coalition assessed press coverage of Corbyn’s first week as Labour leader. This was immediately following the unprecedented scale of his victory and before any negative poll ratings concerning his performance. Out of a total of 494 news, comment and editorial pieces, 60% were negative about Corbyn with only 13% positive. The research concluded that the ‘press set out to systematically undermine Jeremy Corbyn…with a barrage of overwhelmingly negative coverage.’
Earlier this month, researchers at the London School of Economics looked at over 800 articles on Corbyn in eight leading newspapers. They found that the majority of coverage overall was either ‘critical’ or overtly ‘antagonistic’ and concluded that the press had moved from a ‘watchdog’ to an ‘attack dog’ role that was aimed at delegitimising the Labour leader because of his willingness to depart from the political establishment.
The media commentator Roy Greenslade responded in the Guardian by arguing that this was hardly surprising and that readers would neither demand ‘unbiased political coverage’ nor be ‘unduly influenced’ by the shenanigans of an over-excitable press.
It’s true that every attack that comes either from the usual suspects in the right-wing press or from the slightly more unexpected source of the Guardian simply bolsters the anti-establishment credentials of Corbyn to his supporters. But to argue that anti-Corbyn sentiment in the national press will have absolutely no impact on the undecided and the wavering is a fantasy.
That is why this week’s new research by Birkbeck, University of London in association with the Media Reform Coalition, that focuses on broadcast and online coverage of the current Labour leadership campaign is especially important – and worrying. Television news is not simply the most widely consumed source of news but it’s also supposed to be impartial in a way that no one expects the press to be. Similarly, the internet is often said to offer a counterweight to dominant newspaper owners and is, at least theoretically, able to offer a much more diverse range of issues and perspectives.
However, instead of impartiality and diversity, the research identified further evidence of misrepresentation and hostility. Twice as much television airtime was given to critical, rather than supportive, voices of Corbyn in the main evening bulletins while there was a huge imbalance towards the issues promoted by critics of Corbyn – a phemonenon that was especially pronounced in headline stories. There was also a strong tendency within the BBC’s bulletins to use pejorative language when referring to Corbyn and his supporters with the latter regularly described as ‘far left’ and ‘hard core’ despite the fact that many of Corbyn’s ideas – concerning, for example, opposition to public spending cuts and rail nationalisation – are shared by millions of UK citizens. The report points to a reliance on a kind of militarized discourse and notes ‘the degree to which the Labour leadership and its supporters were persistently talked about in terms that emphasised hostility, intransigence and extreme positions.’ Corbyn’s opponents, on the other hand, are all too regularly described as ‘moderate’ in both their political views and actions.
Online stories were a little more balanced than this but nevertheless they were still almost twice as likely to be written by, or focus on, sources critical of Corbyn with the most balanced coverage to be found in those outlets that do not (or at least no longer) operate on legacy platforms – titles like the Independent, IB Times and Huffington Post.
We are not arguing for a kind of ‘impartiality’ that effectively led to much of the broadcast coverage of the EU referendum being constipated and where ‘sense’ and ‘nonsense’ were all too often offered up as equivalents. We want the media to be neither an attack dog nor a poodle. Of course journalists should be able to ask tough questions of Corbyn but they should not do so on the basis that he occupies some sort of ‘extreme’ position on the political spectrum that is an affront to good old British ‘common sense’.
We expect that the media should ask the same tough questions of Owen Smith as well as Corbyn and that they should attempt to give the same airtime to supporters and critics of Corbyn. Journalists should be especially careful when assigning descriptive labels to a particular set of political views such as ‘moderate’ or ‘hard’. They should avoid the use of single anonymous sources and should provide proper evidence when serious claims are made about violence and intimidation. Indeed, if more journalists pledged to investigate the roots of Corbyn’s popularity and the reasons for Labour’s hugely increased membership, as opposed to thinking that these developments are somehow a ‘problem’ that needs to be tackled, our political culture might be just a little less poisonous and a little more robust.
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