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June 17, 2017
PRESS GANG -- THE BIASED MEDIA
By George Monbiot,
The media was exposed in this election as wildly out of touch with the nation. This is
not surprising, as it lives in a hall of mirrors.
The election was a crushing defeat – but not for either of the major parties. The
faction that now retreats in utter disarray wasn’t technically standing in the election,
though in the past it has arguably wielded more power than the formal contestants. I’m
talking about the media.
The billionaire press threw everything it had at Jeremy Corbyn, and failed to knock
him over. In doing so, it broke its own power. Its wild claims succeeded in destroying
not Corbyn’s credibility, but its own. But the problem is by no means confined to the
corporate media. The failure also belongs to the liberal media, and it is one from
which some platforms might struggle to recover.
There is no point in trying to hide or minimise this – this election has been a disaster
for all mainstream outlets. They missed the moment because they were
constitutionally destined to do so. The issue that caused this disaster is the one that
eventually fells all forms of power: the media has created a hall of mirrors, in which
like-minded people reflect and reproduce each other’s opinions.
The broadcasters echo what the papers say, the papers pick up what the
broadcasters say. A narrow group of favoured pundits appear on the news
programmes again and again. Press prizes are awarded to those who reflect the
consensus, and denied to those who think differently. People won’t step outside the
circle for fear of ridicule and exclusion.
A study at Cardiff University* shows how the broadcasters allow themselves to be led
by the newspapers, despite the massive bias of the printed press. For example,
during the 2015 election campaign, opinion polls revealed that the NHS came top of
the list of voters’ concerns, while the economy came third. But the economy, on which
the Conservatives were widely perceived to be strongest, received four times as much
coverage on TV news as the NHS, which was commonly seen as Labour’s strongest
suit. This appeared to reflect the weight given to these issues in the papers, most of
which sought a Conservative victory.
An analysis by the Media Reform Coalition and Birkbeck College found that, despite
the rules on impartiality and balance, when Corbyn’s leadership was being challenged
last summer, the BBC’s evening news bulletins gave almost twice as much airtime to
his critics as they gave to his supporters. They often ascribed militancy and
aggression to him and his supporters, but never to his challengers. One report on the
BBC News at 6 finished with the words “This is a fight only one side can win. The
others are being carted off to irrelevance. The place for political losers”. The
accompanying shot showed a dustbin lorry setting off, painted with the word Corbyn.
This problem also affects the Guardian. According to a study by the London School of
Economics of the representation of Corbyn by newspapers in his first two months as
Labour leader (in the autumn of 2015), around a fifth of news articles in this paper
lacked balance. Overall, roughly 18% of its coverage was judged supportive of
Corbyn, 53% was neutral, and 29% was negative. This is a better balance than in the
other liberal papers. Indeed, the Guardian had more diverse and more pro-Corbyn
voices than any other mainstream outlet. Only the Guardian and the Mirror supported
both Labour and Corbyn in election editorials.
But the scales still didn’t balance. Even I, who was supportive at the beginning of
Corbyn’s candidacy and during his election campaign, fell into despair about his
leadership during the winter after a series of fiascos in parliament, and tweeted: “I
have now lost all faith.”
As a result of such leanings, the liberal media have managed to alienate the most
dynamic political force this nation has seen for decades. Those who have thrown so
much energy into the great political revival, many of whom are young, have been
almost unrepresented, their concerns and passion unheeded, misunderstood or
reviled. When they have raised complaints, journalists have often reacted angrily,
writing off movements that have gathered in hope as a rabble of trots and wreckers.
This response has been catastrophic in the age of social media. What many people in
this movement now perceive is a solid block of affluent middle-aged journalists
instructing young people mired in rent and debt to abandon their hopes of a better
Why has it come to this, even in the media that’s not owned by billionaires? It is partly
because this industry, in which people without a degree could once work their way up
from the floor, now tends to select its entrants from a small, highly educated pool. The
use of internships narrows the selection further. Wherever they come from,
journalists, on average, end up better paid than most people. Whatever their
professed beliefs, they tend to be inexorably drawn towards their class interests.
But the biggest problem, I believe, is that we spend too much time in each other’s
company, a tendency that’s fatal in an industry that is meant to reflect the world.
There has been a major effort by some media, including the Guardian, to get away
from Westminster and hear the voices of the rest of the country. This is good, but it is
not enough. What counts is not only the new people and new ideas you encounter but
also the old ones you leave behind. The first ambition of a journalist should be to
know as few journalists as possible; to escape the hall of mirrors.
The media as a whole has succumbed to a new treason of the intellectuals, first
absorbing dominant ideologies, then persuading each other that these are the only
views worth holding. If we are to reclaim some relevance in these times of flux and
crisis, we urgently need to broaden the pool of contributors and perspectives.
We should actively recruit people from poorer backgrounds, and diversify our
expertise. Newsrooms tend to be largely peopled by humanities graduates. Over the
years, I have found myself explaining to other journalists how to calculate
percentages, that two orders of magnitude greater does not mean double, that
animals and mammals are not synonyms, and that CO2 stands for carbon dioxide.
There is a lack of contact not only with most of the population, but also with the
material world and its physical parameters.
We need to interrogate every item of the news agenda and the way in which it is
framed. We should ask ourselves where our own interests lie, and how we might
avoid reproducing them. And, to the greatest extent possible, we should avoid each
other like the plague.
* Justin Lewis 2015. ‘BBC bias revisited: Do the partisan press push broadcasters to
the right?’. In John Mair, Richard Tait, Richard Lance Keeble (eds) The BBC Today:
Beyond the Crisis?, Abramis.