If you follow Jeremy Corbyn on Instagram, or any of his other increasingly buoyant social media incarnations, you could be forgiven for thinking that the man is in the midst of a campaign.
Over the last few weeks, Corbyn has travelled the length and breadth of the country, staging rallies across Scotland, Wales and the North of England and leaving, in his wake, a sizeable social media snail-trail which demonstrates, if nothing else, the sincerity of his statement that: “[Although] the election campaign ended on June 8, the campaign to elect a Labour government started the next day.” Why then, in the media ‘silly season’, when substantive political news is at its most scarce, have so few outlets deigned to pick up the story?
The Huffington Post weighed in on this question during the week of 22 August, reporting Corbyn’s repeated demand to be treated with “respect” by the media during a rally in Milton Keynes. The “doom merchants”, Corbyn said, should be aware that the 2017 election was just a “dry run” for the next campaign, when Labour will fulfill the promise of the shock election result that took place on June 8.
For many, the idea of media bias against Corbyn is old news, put to rest in the wake of the general election, with a string of features from offending parties such as The Guardian and The Telegraph whose tone was pitched somewhere between stunned concession and grudging apology. However, the extent of the bias, which was verified in a report by Dr Bart Cammaerts, Professor of Media & Communications at the London School of Economics, still seems to outweigh the somewhat tepid response to it.
The study found that since he was elected Labour leader, 57% of news articles were either critical of Corbyn or clearly antagonistic, with 67% of opinion pieces reflecting the same tone. The study also found that 35% of coverage from the Daily Mirror, the only British newspaper that has consistently supported the Labour Party since 1945, was either critical or antagonistic. And The Guardian, which despite having a mixed record of political endorsements has a lengthy history of backing progressive politicians, had more than 30% negative coverage.
For some, the bias against Corbyn is a systemic problem, an institutional aversion to anti-establishment politicians, which is as old as the media itself. “A lot of people talk about the idea of balance, impartiality and evidence-based reporting in the British media,” says John Callaghan, Professor of Politics at Salford University and author of The Far Left in British Politics. But you have to remember that when the BBC was set up in in 1922, it was essentially a monopoly. Lord John Reith ran the institution as a private company until 1926.
“As a result, much of their news coverage was anything but balanced. They routinely censored broadcasting views which they thought were too radical or too unconventional. In the post-war years that monopoly became a duopoly, which went on until even more recently. I think that the consequence for political journalists has been that they often became very cosy with the politicians they were supposed to be covering, and they became assimilated into that Westminster culture.”
Steven Fielding, director of the Centre for British Politics and professor of Political History at The University of Nottingham, also attributes Corbyn’s denigration in the mainstream media to his position outside the Westminster establishment. “The lobby is an institution, and it’s a social institution as much as a political institution,” says Fielding. “Jeremy Corbyn is not a figure the lobby knew anything about, and he was not a figure who wanted to engage with them in the same way that his predecessors had.
“He was not playing by the lobby’s rules, and all of the people they had historical contacts with in the Labour Party thought he was a bit weird – an odd, marginal, eccentric figure who suddenly became leader. That goes beyond politics, it’s more of a cultural thing. They just did not get Jeremy Corbyn and I think their frame of reference is really different to that of Corbyn and his supporters.”
Fielding, who has authored several books about the Labour Party, including Labour: Decline and Renewal and The Labour Governments 1964–1970: Labour and Cultural Change, attributes some of the negativity surrounding Corbyn and his campaign to Corbyn himself. “I know quite a lot of journalists who were not wholly antithetic to the Labour Party that said one reason that Jeremy Corbyn was not getting so much coverage was because he was not going to them.
“Corbyn’s office was very badly managed and they did not do the things that journalists would have expected from a conventional party leader in terms of getting stories out. I think to some extent things have flipped since the election – around the time of Glastonbury he was getting ridiculously positive coverage – but that was because he had done very well at a general election. Journalists are crowd followers and they are bullies. If somebody is doing well they follow them, and if somebody is doing badly they tend to put the boot in.”
“It may be more difficult for the media to post negative stories about Jeremy Corbyn at the moment,” says Nina Davies, a former producer for BBC Radio Wales, “but the guns of the establishment are out for him and they have plenty of people eager to help.”
[pullquote]”Journalists are crowd followers and they are bullies. If somebody is doing well they follow them, and if somebody is doing badly they tend to put the boot in.” – Steven Fielding[/pullquote]
Davies worked for the BBC for more than 10 years and sees the bias against Corbyn as indicative of something more insidious, a dangerous and unprecedented move towards partisanship from nominally impartial organisations like the BBC. “One of my biggest problems with the BBC,” Davies says, “is that they introduce people as experts without explaining where the funding comes from.
“Nigel Lawson, for example, is regularly introduced as a climate expert, despite being funded by the Heartland Institute. Everyone has an agenda and I find it useful to know what that agenda is.”
Davies believes that this “carelessness” owes much to the influence of James Harding, the former Editor of The Times, who was named Director of BBC News in 2013. “I think Harding has made the bias that much more blatant. I think he’s still a Murdoch man at heart and he has picked up a lot of Murdoch’s biases – against unions, against Palestine, against ‘big’ government.
“Whether it’s Jeremy Corbyn or the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the media has become the mouthpiece of the establishment in a way it wasn’t before. The centre in British politics has moved so far right, it seems inevitable that the media would too.”