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Corbyn in the MediaPaul Myerscough
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‘Corb snubs​ the queen,’ ran the headline on the front page of the Sun on 16 September, in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s tight-lipped participation in the singing of the national anthem at a commemoration of the Battle of Britain. The Times led with ‘Veterans open fire after Corbyn snubs anthem,’ the Telegraph with ‘Corbyn snubs queen and country.’ Three days into the job as leader of the Labour Party and already he wasn’t doing it right. What colour poppy, white or red, would he wear to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day? Would he kneel to the queen when he was admitted to the Privy Council (see Martin Loughlin’s piece on p. 29)? On the day after he was elected, he spoke at a mental health trust fun day in his constituency instead of going on the Andrew Marr Show. Later that day he was filmed as he hurried along the pavement outside Westminster in silence, refusing to answer reporters’ questions: it ‘looked like a perp walk’, Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian.

‘He isn’t playing the game,’ the Times journalist Jenni Russell complained on Newsnight. It was a metaphor, and it wasn’t. Corbyn was being tested: not on his policies, which have hardly been at issue so far, but on his willingness and capacity to play the role of modern political leader. Would he – could he? – perform the countless vital tasks that come naturally to David Cameron or Tony Blair: everything from how to comport yourself at the despatch box to the best way to climb out of a chauffeur-driven car, from how to use an autocue to knowing which pop band to choose on Desert Island Discs. If you don’t know which tie to wear with which suit, let alone what to say when you are asked whether you would be willing to press the Button if it ever came to it, how can you expect to be taken seriously in the Oval Office, or by the chief of the defence staff, or by swing voters in Nuneaton?

This, the ceaseless work of appearing plausible, is one part of what is meant by electability. The other part is actual policy. Yet this, too, is a matter of seeming, especially for an opposition leader, especially for this opposition leader. The media coverage of Corbyn’s first few days oscillated giddily between stories demonstrating his personal insufficiencies for the role of leader and wailing about what might happen were he ever to become prime minister: ‘Unions threaten chaos after Corbyn win’ (Telegraph); ‘Abolish the Army: New leader’s potty plan for world peace’ (Sun); ‘Comrade Corbyn’s access to security secrets’ (Daily Mail). There will, of course, be more, much more, of this from the right-wing press. In the Sun, ‘Court Jezter’; in the Telegraph, ‘Jeremy Corbyn must be stopped: The Labour Party and the country need rescuing from his dangerous campaign.’ The better Corbyn does, the worse it will get; the worse he does, the worse it will get. Fear and loathing on the one hand, derision on the other.

The more puzzling case is the Guardian. Anyone rooting for Corbyn at the start of the summer had reason to think that Kath Viner’s appointment a few months earlier as the paper’s editor-in-chief was propitiously timed. She had the backing of the leftists on the staff; she would surely be more open to the ‘new politics’ than the paper would have been under Alan Rusbridger. It hasn’t worked out that way. What started with denial, as the unions and constituency Labour Parties came out for Corbyn and people registered as supporters in their tens of thousands, soon turned to horror, and finally to stunned resignation. A scattering of dissident voices on the payroll – Seumas Milne, Owen Jones, Zoe Williams, George Monbiot – were drowned out by a host of detractors, from within the paper and without: Tim Bale, Nick Cohen, Anne Perkins, Michael White, Martin Kettle, Peter Hain, Alan Johnson, Tony Blair (twice), Jonathan Jones, Frank Field, David Miliband (whose razor-sharp instinct for leadership contests led him to back Liz Kendall), Steve Coogan, Matthew D’Ancona, Betty Boothroyd.

Papers aren’t just papers any longer. A lot of these commentaries appeared online, some of them only online, where they are now archived among the thousands of articles the Guardian has published on Corbyn or the leadership campaign in the last four months. There it can be seen from the headlines just how much of the day to day news coverage sought to hold back the Corbyn tide. On 20 August alone, with his victory all but certain: ‘Corbyn has until May to prove himself, Labour MPs say’; ‘Dyab Abou Jahjah: the Arab “extremist” causing problems for Jeremy Corbyn’; ‘Corbyn has the vision, but his numbers don’t yet add up’; ‘Corbyn is no Trotskyist, Watson insists’; ‘Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitic claims’; ‘Corbyn’s Iraq War apology will do him good – if not Labour’; and ‘Rupert Murdoch predicts Corbyn win.’

Above all this, throwing it into the shade and into context, were the contributions of the Guardian’s big beasts, Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Freedland. Toynbee began by comprehensively misreading the moment, refusing to believe that party activists who had ‘heard what people said on the doorsteps’ about Miliband and the deficit would vote for Corbyn. ‘My hunch,’ she wrote on 23 July, ‘is Cooper is the one to beat.’ As reality set in, her hunch became a plea, in which she was joined by the paper itself: in its editorial of 13 August, the Guardian came out for the ‘steadfast’ Cooper. These editorials, the commissioning and presumably sometimes the writing of them, are part of Freedland’s empire as ‘executive editor, Comment’. Whoever wrote this one, evidently with Viner’s sanction, echoed Freedland’s sentiments in the only intervention he made under his own name during the campaign, to warn against the ‘purity of impotence’: ‘The Corbyn tribe cares about identity not power.’

By disdaining those who refused to face the necessity of choosing ‘purity or power’ – Martin Kettle this time – the Guardian’s central cadre of electoral realists fail to recognise that the 49.6 per cent of Labour Party members (and 83.8 per cent of registered supporters) who voted for Corbyn didn’t believe that Burnham, Cooper or Kendall offered a better chance of electoral success in 2020 than Brown managed in 2010 or Ed Miliband did earlier this year. Indeed they didn’t believe that, in a changing political landscape, their man necessarily stood a worse chance in 2020 than Burnham, Cooper or Kendall would have. They were not, as Freedland suggested, along with Helen Lewis in the New Statesman and Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times, merely indulging a fit of narcissism or nostalgia. The party members who voted for Corbyn hadn’t suddenly thrown their toys out of the pram just because Miliband lost. This is not a story of the last five years, but the last twenty, and their disillusionment with New Labour is about a great deal more than the Iraq War. For them, Miliband was not ‘too left-wing’; on the contrary, he was a final attempt at compromise. And when it failed, they realised they had had enough. It was too difficult to go on knocking on doors, summoning the necessary conviction, working towards the slim possibility of victory in the hope of implementing a platform of ever-weakening amelioration of the worst effects of neoliberalism. They looked at the candidates on offer, and saw that they had nothing left to lose.

The result of all this is that the Guardian now finds itself in the uncomfortable position, journalistically as well as politically, of being outflanked on its left by the Labour Party. Unless it can find common ground with Corbyn’s supporters – not just the sixty thousand who have joined the party since he was elected, but the tens of thousands more who registered to vote for him and the others, many of them young, who will be gathered up by his network of campaigners in the next months and years – the paper will remain cut off from Labour, and from a new generation of potential readers. For the moment, it is adrift. Toynbee’s latest word on Corbyn is that with his answer on the Button – ‘No, never’ – he may already have ‘ruled himself out of ever becoming prime minister’.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The Guardian, like the Telegraph, can hardly be said to have much influence beyond its own politically well-defined readership. Perhaps, as Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, pointed out recently, it is otiose for people to complain about the influence of newspapers when none of the broadsheets is read by more than 1 per cent of the adult population and even the Mail reaches only 3 per cent. But that isn’t how influence works. The media do not merely generate the political weather. They play a large part in creating the climate in which information is received and understood. A notion such as ‘electability’, to take the example at hand, is unthinkable without the media, which, in their every representation of a political leader, ask (and supply the authorities to help us decide) not only who is and is not electable, but what should be the criteria by which electability is judged.

The hegemon in this respect, as Nelson acknowledges, is not the Guardian, or even the Daily Mail, but the BBC. And because of its place in the national life, because of its dominant role in people’s reception of news and commentary, because of its freedom from commercial influence and its editorial doctrine of independence and impartiality, accusations of political bias in its coverage of news and current affairs are always with us. Studies of bias typically go in for a lot of counting; for what it’s worth, a Cardiff University study last year showed that the BBC was more likely than ITV or Channel 4 to use sources from the right than from the left. Recently, Aditya Chakrabortty, one of the Guardian’s true live wires, highlighted another Cardiff study, of the Today programme’s coverage of the banking crisis in 2008, showing that one in three of its interviewees in a six-week period was from the banking sector, with the ‘rest of British society – politicians, regulators, campaigners – far down the pecking order’.

But the numbers will only get you so far. Bias isn’t just a matter of ‘source access’. The causes of the BBC’s institutional bias aren’t just a matter, either, of the backgrounds and educations of the people who work there, or the politics of the journalists involved: the fact that Andrew Neil, the presenter of Daily Politics and This Week, was the editor of the Sunday Times in the Thatcher period; or that Evan Davis, the presenter of Newsnight, was part of the team at the Institute of Fiscal Studies that devised the poll tax; or that the policy editor of Newsnight, Chris Cook, used to be an adviser to David Willetts; or that Nick Robinson, shortly to replace James Naughtie on Today, was once president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Doubtless most of the time these men do a bang-up job, suspending their personal beliefs in the service of professional integrity. Nor, in its manifestations, can bias best be measured by the corporation’s excesses, such as John Ware’s Panorama hit-job on Corbyn broadcast three days before voting closed in the leadership election (Ware sneering about Corbyn’s ‘friends’ over unidentified footage of Hizbullah soldiers marching in black balaclavas). It’s more a matter of the everyday, the gradual accretion of decisions taken and declined, the issues thought worthy of discussion, in what order, in what way and by whom, a line of questioning, an inflection in the voice: unquantifiable things which form the ideological weave of broadcasting as much as headlines and the arrangement of text and images on a page do of print.

Still, there is something crasser than this in the way the BBC has treated Corbyn so far. I will take just one example. David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 7 October was shown live on Andrew Neil’s Daily Politics. As the speech ended, Neil turned for a first reaction to his studio guest, Michael Heseltine, who after he went to the Lords in 2001 backed Cameron’s election as leader in 2005 and more recently carried out an audit of the UK’s strategy for economic growth for George Osborne. ‘It was,’ Heseltine said, ‘one of the most visionary speeches by a Conservative leader that I’ve listened to, but beyond any question it was the most courageous.’ A week earlier, over the sound of the applause following Corbyn’s inaugural speech as leader to the Labour Party Conference, Neil went through the same routine, asking his studio guest for his first impression, which was, therefore, the first impression conveyed by the BBC. This time the guest was Lance Price, former special adviser to Tony Blair. ‘I’m sorry,’ answered Price, ‘I wanted to be as positive as I could be about his speech. I’m not a fan of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, so what I have to say won’t come as a huge surprise. I had low expectations and this fell well, well below them. It was a truly dreadful speech.’ ‘That bad?’ Neil marvelled.

Such moments of breakdown in the BBC’s editorial principles are a consequence not of the imposition of a producer’s or presenter’s personal views, but of the dislocation that Corbyn’s election has produced between the new state of party politics and the broadcaster’s entrenched conception of what constitutes impartiality. Because its notion of political balance between left and right is defined by the Labour and Conservative Parties, its spectrum of opinion has narrowed and its fulcrum drifted to the right in concert with New Labour. Corbyn has reopened the gap, but the BBC has not adjusted. So far as it is concerned, with his election the Labour leadership has put itself beyond the pale. Its norm remains a ‘balance’ between the Tories and the Labour right. By defining himself against the establishment, Corbyn becomes an outsider, an insurgent, who can be discussed ‘fairly’ by the BBC only in the way that, say, Radio 5 Live can ‘fairly’ cover England’s opponents at the World Cup, or the way the Today programme talks ‘fairly’ about Syrian refugees. One should be respectful towards them, but they remain irrevocably other. Meanwhile, when the BBC wants to discuss Corbyn, its instinct is to call in Kenneth Clarke and John McTernan.

‘Britain and Twitter aren’t the same thing,’ Cameron said in his conference speech, by way of explaining why the pundits had got the May election so wrong. Cameron seems unruffled by #piggate (see also #hameron, #baeofpigs), but where once a Tory leader’s target would have been the Guardian, or the BBC, Cameron knows that at present he has nothing to fear from them. He also knows, though, that his own shrinking, ageing party isn’t geared to take advantage of social media, and that Corbyn’s success will continue to depend not least on how effectively he can combine the oldest and newest forms of campaigning: digital networks with town-hall meetings. The mainstream media will remain stony ground.

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Letters

Vol. 37 No. 21 · 5 November 2015

Paul Myerscough refers to the BBC’s ‘dominant role in people’s reception of news and commentary’ (LRB, 22 October). The actual figures demonstrating that dominance are startling. Using data published by Ofcom and the official measurers of TV, radio and newspaper consumption, I have calculated that the average UK adult consumes 56.7 minutes of news and current affairs each day from UK sources; 39 per cent derives from TV, 29 per cent from radio, 18 per cent from newspapers and 14 per cent from online news sites. Because of the BBC’s super-dominance in TV and radio news and current affairs consumption (75 per cent and 85 per cent shares respectively), and its strong position online (nearly 50 per cent), the BBC’s overall share is 60.6 per cent, compared with 6.3 per cent for Murdoch’s newspapers, 5.7 per cent for the Mail group, 5.1 per cent for ITV, 4.2 per cent for Independent Radio News, 3.2 per cent for Sky News, 2.8 per cent for the Guardian (thanks to its online readership), 2.6 per cent for the Mirror group, 2.4 per cent for the Telegraph group, 2.4 per cent for the Express group and 1.2 per cent for Channel 4. No other provider has more than 1 per cent.

If any commercial organisation commanded a 60 per cent share of news consumption, there would be a national outcry, and demands that the organisation be broken up. But the BBC’s dominance – which has been growing steadily, as newspaper circulation declines and ITV News loses audience share – doesn’t merit even a mention in the government’s Green Paper on the BBC’s future. Of course if Myerscough is right that ‘the BBC’s institutional bias’ is now effectively in the Tories’ favour, that might explain their indifference to the situation. Meanwhile, the left seems primarily concerned about which of the newspaper moguls has a larger share of a disappearing readership.

David Elstein
London SW15

Like Paul Myerscough, I was struck by the different way the leaders’ speeches to the Labour and Tory Conferences were treated by BBC2’s Daily Politics. The studio guest for Cameron’s speech was Michael Heseltine; for Corbyn’s it was Lance Price, Alastair Campbell’s second in command as Blair’s spin doctor, and for several years now quite removed from the UK political arena running a French B&B. I complained to the BBC and received this reply:

As well as being a highly experienced journalist and political commentator, Lance Price has held significant roles in the past for the Labour Party, most notably being their director of communications and overseeing their 2001 general election campaign. With this in mind, we felt he was well placed to give an informed analysis of Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was controversial, even within the party itself. Mr Price clearly stated on the programme that he was ‘not a fan’ of Mr Corbyn’s leadership, but we believe it was important to hear his views, as they represent a significant strand of thinking within the party and among Labour supporters.

It seems especially worrying that the BBC justifies the invitation to Price on the basis that Corbyn’s election was ‘controversial’. Is this not a case of the BBC positioning itself as arbiter of who is fit to be elected as Labour leader, just after record numbers of party members had voted for him?

Rosie Brocklehurst
St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex

Paul Myerscough uses two tropes which are increasingly common among Corbynistas. First, he identifies scepticism as being about an inability to value qualities beyond ‘seeming plausible’. There has been plenty of that, it’s true, and the voters are obviously a shallow lot for being influenced by it, almost as bad as the BBC for covering it. But he discounts the possibility that, for many on the left, the main problem with Corbyn is simply that they disagree with him, and feel that many of his views actually are – as opposed to merely portrayed as – some combination of simplistic, populist, outmoded and distasteful.

Second, Myerscough reserves special disappointment for the Guardian’s new editor and her ‘cadre of electoral realists’. Realism? Could anything be worse? Apparently it could, in this case ‘disdaining’ (i.e. disagreeing with) Corbyn’s supporters and alienating potential readers. Another view might be that the cadre represents the views of people like me who just want the more progressive party to have a chance. It’s hard not to think of the Scottish referendum, where questioning of the Yes campaign risked the most scornful charge of all: lack of optimism.

While Labour are having what I like to think of as a holiday from the voters, the Tories are trying to grab the centre ground. The SNP still appears to be the go-to party for genuine opposition to the government, and its level of organisation stands in sharp contrast to Corbyn’s flat-footed start. Maybe a hopeless media operation is another element of the new politics. Who knows? What is clear is that excuses for the next election are piling up early.

John McGowan
Lewes, East Sussex

Vol. 37 No. 22 · 19 November 2015

Using Ofcom data and his own analysis, David Elstein (Letters, 5 November) attempts to demonstrate the BBC’s ‘super-dominance’ in the matter of the public’s news consumption (75 per cent) compared with that of Murdoch’s newspapers (6.3 per cent) and the Mail group (5.7 per cent). Robert Peston, in his British Journalism Review Charles Wheeler Lecture in June, said he found it ‘most frustrating’ the way that BBC news ‘is completely obsessed by the agenda set by newspapers … There is slightly too much of a safety-first [attitude]. If we think the Mail and Telegraph will lead with this, we should. It’s part of the culture … The safest thing is to go with what the newspapers are going with, even at a time when the influence and power of newspapers is radically declining.’ If, as Elstein says, ‘the left seems primarily concerned about which of the newspaper moguls has a larger share of a disappearing readership,’ it may be with good reason, when two or three print media proprietors are so easily able to use the broadcast media’s leverage to amplify their own agendas.

Mike Hine
Kingston upon Thames

Vol. 37 No. 23 · 3 December 2015

Mike Hine cites Robert Peston’s frustration with what he sees as the BBC’s over-dependence on the agendas of certain newspapers as evidence that their proprietors still exercise strong influence (Letters, 19 November). This issue was addressed in Ofcom’s report of December 2010 on News Corp’s bid to buy the part of BSkyB it did not already own. Research submitted by the consultants Perspective tracked the news media sources of stories appearing in four media enterprises – the BBC, Reuters, the Guardian and the Daily Mirror – from June to November 2010. It found that 75 per cent of BBC stories were sourced from news agencies (Reuters, Associated Press and the Press Association); 14 per cent were sourced from the Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Sun, the Express and their respective Sundays combined; 8 per cent were sourced from the Guardian, the Mirror, the Observer, the Financial Times, Al Jazeera and Channel 4. By contrast, the BBC itself was the source for 19 per cent of Reuters stories, 26 per cent of those in the Mirror and 27 per cent of those in the Guardian. (That the BBC should be a much stronger contributor to newspaper reporting than newspapers are to its reporting is no surprise given the scale of its journalistic resources.)

Like other TV news broadcasters, BBC TV and radio regularly offer explicit selections of newspaper headlines. Sky News devotes thirty minutes each evening to the following day’s front pages. But simply watching the preceding bulletin – or listening to the rest of the news programme – immediately exposes the difference not just in news agendas, but also tone, between broadcasters and newspapers. All broadcasters are required to comply with the rules relating to accuracy and impartiality. The public sees TV news as far more impartial than biased (72 per cent v. 22 per cent, according to Ofcom), but the reverse with newspapers (36 per cent v. 56 per cent). So all kinds of stories and treatments in newspapers are simply ignored by broadcasters.

A second difference is that broadcasting is a rolling news provider. The fixed front pages of newspapers can only have a fleeting impact on broadcasters. So, for instance, as I write today, leading the news this morning on BBC radio was the latest recommendation from Nice on HRT. The Telegraph also put that story on its front page, but it clearly wasn’t the ‘source’ for the story: that was Whitehall. By lunchtime, World at One had abandoned HRT and led on the EU prime ministers’ conference in Malta (which barely featured on that morning’s front pages). By six o’clock, that had made way for another government announcement, this time on the NHS. By the time the ten o’clock bulletins are broadcast, the next day’s front pages will barely have been available, so have minimal influence on the bulletins’ content: indeed, Valletta was back leading the news, linking to an expanded section on the migrant crisis (as the BBC calls it), followed by the NHS story, then a report from Iraq, and in fifth place coverage of a double suicide bombing in Beirut that claimed 43 lives.

Third, the primary driver of BBC news output is BBC newsgathering. The total ‘wordage’ of a typical 30-minute bulletin is a tiny fraction of that of a newspaper: but each chunk of reportage is the result of an allocation of expensive newsgathering resources. To assign a reporting team simply in response to a story in that morning’s newspapers is quite rare. In tonight’s News at Ten on BBC1, two major packages – from Lesbos and Sinjar – clearly had their genesis long before anyone decided on the next morning’s headlines.

Why does Peston say what he does? Because two of the issues where the BBC’s own regulators (first the governors, then the Trust) concluded the BBC had paid too little attention to public concerns over a lengthy term were Europe and immigration (and latterly the link between them). BBC News executives had disdained the heavily editorialised reporting of these issues in the likes of the Telegraph and the Mail; now, nervous of being criticised again by their overseers, they must take notice – and be seen to have taken notice – of what these papers say. But that is not the same as allowing them to influence the BBC’s news agenda or its treatment of individual stories. BBC news executives read the right-wing newspapers as well as the Guardian: but their output owes very little to either.

By the way, the contrast with Murdoch’s 6.3 per cent and the Mail’s 5.7 per cent was with respect to the BBC’s 60.6 per cent share of all news consumption, not its 75 per cent share of TV news consumption, as cited by Hine.

David Elstein
London SW15

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