Brave new world ends an Orwellian view of political press bias


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The Independent Online

Earlier this year I was sitting in Alastair Campbell’s kitchen, asking Tony Blair’s old attack dog what the past decade had taught us about the Dr David Kelly tragedy, when he launched into a tirade about the political imbalance in the British media.

“One of the Orwellian things run by the right wing press in this country is that we have a left wing press and a left wing BBC,” he said. “It’s complete nonsense! The basic media prism in Britain is right wing. Virtually all of the owners are right wing. Most of the “commentariat” send their kids to private schools therefore they run state schools down the whole time.”

After so many slanging matches with editors during his Downing Street years, you would expect the mouthpiece for New Labour to have such a view. But his characterisation of the British news media is becoming increasingly outdated as publishers respond to the challenges of the internet.

When it comes to the reach of the commercial news media, the (ABCe) electronic circulation figures tell a different story to their (ABC) print counterparts. Whereas the physical newspaper market is clearly dominated by the Tory press, the same bias is not so apparent in its digital equivalent.

When the football season begins next month, The Sun will take its website behind a pay wall and its reach will decline dramatically, just as The Times became a niche online read after it introduced charging three years ago. The Daily Telegraph site has introduced a metered pay system, although it only kicks in after 20 articles a month.

Soon, the top five commercial news websites will include (now making £56m a year in digital revenues), and (including the Sunday People), none of which are exactly cheerleaders for David Cameron’s party.

Yes, at the top of the league is the mighty Mail Online (with 128 million monthly browsers and more than 8 million a day) – but that website is less political than the Daily Mail. The bullying front page headlines that so intimidate the paper’s enemies are outshone by the apparently-addictive “sidebar of shame” and its bikini shots.

Richard Desmond’s right-wing stable of the Daily Express and Daily Star has  little online traffic having only recently shown any sign of interest in the internet (something that may change with the proprietor joining Twitter last week as @DigiDesmond, later switching to @RichardDesmond).

A similar leftish kilter exists in the political periodical market where the New Statesman – with its roots in the Fabian Society – gives a sound online beating to the right-wing Spectator – despite being thrashed by the “Speccie” in print (64,000 sales to 25,000). And Twitter, which now plays such an influential role in the news cycle, seems to embrace liberal hashtags much more readily than reactionary ones.

And then there is of course the BBC. Despite being regularly branded by Conservatives as the voice of a liberal metropolitan elite, it is more even handed than any newspaper, enjoys colossal traffic, and is never going to hide behind a pay wall in Britain.

It’s a different scenario from online news in the US, which is favourable to the Republicans, dominated as it is by the websites of the television news networks and the influential recommendations of the Drudge Report, which leans firmly to the right.

What’s going on here? Clearly, the shaping of the market has been heavily defined by the business decision of Rupert Murdoch’s News UK. Beyond that, one theory is that heavy internet users tend to be younger and less conservative than print readers.

According to Paul Bradshaw, online journalism lecturer at City University, London, part of the explanation for the changing political tone of British online news is that so much of it is consumed at work, where it might be easier to stay clear of politically contentious material. And the web is constantly demanding that you share news stories via social media – but not everyone wants to fly their political colours on Facebook. “You might be willing to read a story that’s anti-immigration – but less willing to share it because you are worried what people would think about you,” says Bradshaw.

In online news, the old left-right flag-waving seems less appropriate. Political stories – once the natural splash for a serious paper – often don’t carry the same clout online. So the culture among mainstream news providers is to be more inclusive, maximising traffic. Going too far risks the public censure of a stream of negative comments. Better to steer the middle course.

It’s a fact, supported by academic research, that the British press expresses stronger Tory sympathies than the people heading into the polling booths (1997 was an exception when so much of the press backed Mr Blair). In that sense, Alastair is right. But the bias has been greatly softened by the evolution of our online news media.

Husain on Today, but who replaces Dimbleby in 2015?

The welcome addition of Mishal Husain to the presenting line-up on Radio 4’s Today was personally announced by the director general Tony Hall.

The DG was anxious to see the wider significance of the appointment, noting that “there will be another female voice on the programme, which I think is really important”.

According to BBC newsroom rumours, he is keen on another significant change, namely giving Huw Edwards the nod over the veteran David Dimbleby in hosting election night in 2015. Dimbleby, 74, has been a fixture on such occasions since 1979 and has said he would have to be “dragged kicking and screaming from my chair”.

One correspondent told me it would not be a good idea to jettison the “calmness and class” of DD, who demonstrated his enduring stamina with an 18-hour marathon stint in 2010. But Edwards was in charge for the recent local elections and, under Tony Hall and his news chief James Harding, the Welshman’s time for anchoring a general election may have come.

How The Sun was embarrassed into adopting a more modest Page 3

When it began last year, the “No More Page 3” campaign wasn’t taken too seriously by Britain’s biggest tabloid. No matter how many people signed the  petition, the numbers were a tiny proportion of The Sun’s circulation.

The paper thought it could waft away the killjoys who wanted rid of a British “institution” and who probably never bought the paper anyway. When editor Dominic Mohan moved upstairs last month, new editor David Dinsmore insisted Page 3 was here to stay.

But is it? Saturday’s edition featured a photograph of successful model Laura Shields, covering her breasts with her arms. According to Jules Stenson, PR man and long-standing News of the World features chief with connections on The Sun, this modesty was significant. It is part of a “reinvention” of Page 3, which begins with the removal of bare nipples from the Saturday edition (more likely to sit on the family kitchen table than on the dashboard of a white van). Stenson tweets that the plan is to make the images “less tacky and less 1970s”.

There are surely business reasons behind this – but it’s a small victory for Lucy-Anne Holmes and her savvy campaigners, who hijacked The Sun’s royal Baby Monitor webcam at St Mary’s hospital last week to deliver a monologue to the paper’s website.

Twitter: @iburrell