To fight the deliberate misrepresentation of Labour's radical policies, we must address the reasons underlying the systematic media bias, argues Des Freedman
Class war dominated this election. Of course, psephologists, academics, columnists, voters and non-voters will point to multiple reasons to explain the overwhelming Conservative majority: Brexit fatigue, Corbyn’s leadership, a bloated Labour manifesto, cultural realignment and media bias. All of these contribute to the ‘complex picture’ that lies behind the result.
But none of those explanations undermine the fact that the 2019 General Election was won by a party wholly intent on waging war against the (rather modest) redistributory policy proposals of Corbyn’s Labour Party. In the face of a climate disaster, public health emergency, education meltdown and housing crisis, the Tories – bankrolled by hedge fund cash – mobilised their troops to launch an offensive to defend elite power and privilege. This involved both vilifying and ridiculing Labour policies on these issues.
The Sun dubbed the Labour manifesto a “declaration of class war” which would “destroy property rights, the job market and the economy.” Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph described Labour’s environmental proposals to create a low-carbon economy as “class war”. Robert Peston asked his viewers on ITV to take a side in “this election’s new class war”.
It was, however, only Labour’s proposals to redistribute resources that were seen in these terms; Tory attacks on public ownership and higher taxes for the rich weren’t seen as class war but a necessary defence of incentives for wealth creation.
But this was, most definitely, a class war election. The problem is that the left weren’t able to fight this war with the same ruthlessness, visibility and insurgency as their opponents. The Tories flooded Facebook (especially in the last week of the campaign) with ads, 88% of which, according to First Draft, contained misleading claims about the NHS, tax cuts and Labour policies. Their ideological allies in the press, meanwhile, ensured that news coverage of Labour was unremittingly and increasingly negative with even online push notifications skewing heavily against Labour and in favour of the Tories. Billionaire proprietors waged war on behalf of their political representatives.
To what extent did broadcasters, blessed with a privileged viewing platform and the obligation to respect impartiality, rise to the occasion? While they may have been scrupulous in giving the two main parties equal airtime, they weren’t quite so balanced in the stories they highlighted. TV news agendas were dominated by Brexit, the economy and taxation (all comfortable issues for Boris Johnson) with health (Labour’s preferred topic) coming in fifth and the environment not featuring at all in the top five. Moreover, 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.
The BBC, due to its high trust ratings and still dominant grip on news consumption in the UK, holds a special responsibility in this regard. Yet this was a disastrous election for the BBC – twice being forced to apologise for misleading editing that showed Johnson in a good light, failing to honour the promise allegedly made to Labour that the prime minister would be scrutinised by Andrew Neil, repeating Tory spin verbatim, highlighting allegations of anti-semitism against Jeremy Corbyn over those of Tory Islamohphobia and generally, as Peter Oborne put it, “behaving in a way that favours the Tories”.
For example, when Labour revealed documents that showed that the NHS would be part of a trade deal with the US, the BBC’s main radio and TV bulletins on the Saturday night before the election led not with a detailed discussion of the allegations themselves but with the ‘threat of foreign interference’. The headline for BBC News Online was “PM: We must find source of UK-US trade document leak”. Stenography doesn’t constitute good journalism at the best of times but during an election, it’s particularly pernicious and anti-democratic.
Many weapons are used in class war but media power is a central part of the generals’ arsenal. Highlighting systematic media bias is neither conspiratorial (despite what the BBC argues) nor simplistic. Indeed, ignoring bias is precisely one of the privileges of media power (which is why it’s perhaps not surprising that the Guardian’s article on “five reasons why Labour lost” didn’t even mention the media).
Until we address the reasons underlying this bias – including concentrated media ownership, Oxbridge-dominated executives and elite capture – any radical opposition will have to be prepared for sustained vilification and misrepresentation and will need an insurgent movement to face this down. Polarisation is often seen as a dangerous element in today’s politics but in a class war, you need to take sides.
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), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
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