Labour’s left need to stop getting hung up about media bias and get on with the campaign

Having a pop at the media distracts Labour from what should be the more important task of tackling those areas where the party has yet to convince potential supporters: the party’s position on Brexit for one

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The Independent Online

Read all about it. Labour’s ahead in the election race!

Well, OK, not quite. But the latest indications from pollsters Opinium and ORB, published at the weekend, have Labour on 32 per cent, its best rating for six months. If that prediction materialised in June it would mean a better result – at least in terms of vote share – than the party achieved under Ed Miliband in 2015.

As for reading all about it, it rather depends where you get your news. In a letter to The Guardian on Saturday, more than 40 academics expressed their concern that media bias against Jeremy Corbyn was distorting political discourse. “We are not asking for eulogies of Corbyn”, they said, “but for reporting that takes seriously the proposals contained in the manifesto and that doesn’t resort to a lazy stereotype of Corbyn as a ‘problem’ to be solved.”

In 90 seconds: Corbyn launches Labour's official General Election campaign

Unease over the perceived misrepresentation of Corbyn’s leadership and policies is hardly new. Writing for The Independent last summer, the LSE’s Bart Cammaerts described a study into coverage by eight national newspapers which concluded: “Jeremy Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy.”    

Sure enough, a glance at some of the reporting of last week’s leaked manifesto bears out the idea that the press – or at least a significant proportion of it – isn’t wild about Corbyn’s vision for Britain.

“Labour’s manifesto to drag us back to the 1970s”, shrilled the Daily Mail’s front page on Thursday, while the Sun went with “Jezza’s got the Trots”. A day later the Daily Express was reporting on “Calamity Corbyn’s day of chaos”.

Corbyn supporters point out that these pejorative headlines all seem rather at odds with the reaction of the general public to the policies that Labour’s manifesto actually set out. In a ComRes survey for the Daily Mirror, 52 per cent of respondents said they supported renationalisation of the railways, while 71 per cent of those surveyed support the idea of banning zero-hours contracts. And 74 per cent were in favour of the proposal to keep the retirement age at 66.

The Labour faithful will be waiting keenly for the results of the next set of opinion polls – the first to rely on fieldwork taking place after the manifesto pledges were made public. If the apparent support for Jeremy Corbyn’s policies translates to a further bounce in the polls, it’ll be one in the eye for the right-wing media barons.

Yet just as some of the media portrayals of Jeremy Corbyn are disingenuously simplistic, so is the idea that blame for Labour’s probable election defeat can be laid purely at the door of the disreputable MSM or some sort of broader establishment stitch-up. Indeed, arguments along those lines simply give the impression that Corbyn’s core supporters are more interested in dismissing readers of the Mail or the Sun, than in trying to win their votes. Barry Gardiner’s attack on the BBC last week taps into the same current, with the media presented as the enemy – both of the party and, by extension, of the people.

Media-bashing worked for Donald Trump but it’s not a game Jeremy Corbyn and his team should be getting into. For one thing, it bolsters the narrative that he is at odds with the fabric of British society. For another, it indicates an acceptance that the British media can – and will – dictate how the public will vote. That has been always been arguable at best, and it is increasingly less likely as voters obtain information from an ever-wider variety of sources.

Moreover, while having a pop at the media is all too easy, it distracts Labour from what should be the more important task of tackling those areas where the party has yet to convince potential supporters: the party’s position on Brexit for one, Corbyn’s personal leadership abilities for another.

Most importantly though, persistent accusations of media bias and of the press interfering in the democratic process have the capacity to undermine the current focus on Labour’s improved standing. And let’s make no mistake, this election campaign is not panning out quite how many predicted. Ukip’s collapse is on course to be more complete than anyone anticipated. The Lib Dem revival, meantime, is yet to emerge. Theresa May might be enjoying a comfortable poll lead but it is plain the Tory brand is less strong than the Prime Minister’s personal ratings.

And as time goes by, even May’s individual qualities – for so long her number one selling point – appear less convincing. Her refusal to take part in TV debates, her bland answers to straightforward questions and her apparent anxiety about being caught off-guard have done her no favours. Corbyn’s man of the people act – and the natty “For the Many, Not the Few” slogan – is starting to look less forlorn.

Labour will lose the election. But, who knows, it might not be quite the catastrophe some are still predicting. Either way, those on the left need to stop getting hung up about media bias – real or otherwise – and get on with the campaign, which may still have surprises in store.

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