In many democracies across the world new political leaders get a so-called honeymoon period. As our analysis of the journalistic representation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first two months as party leader in eight national newspapers demonstrates, this did not apply to Corbyn. Our rigorous and statistically representative analysis concluded that when it comes to the coverage of Corbyn in his role as leader of the opposition, the majority of the press did not act as a critical watchdog of the powers that be, but rather more often as an antagonistic attackdog.
Over half of the news articles were critical or antagonistic in tone, compared to two thirds of all editorials and opinion pieces. Besides the almost total lack of support in the latter, especially in the rightwing media, the high level of negativity in the news reporting struck us as noteworthy here. According to the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), newspapers are obliged to ‘make a clear distinction between comment, conjecture and fact’ and this also did not apply to Corbyn. Furthermore, Corbyn’s voice is often absent in the reporting on him, and when it is present it is often presented in a highly distorted way. In terms of the news sources used in the articles, the civil war within Labour is very enthusiastically amplified. In most newspapers, including The Daily Mirror and The Independent, Labour voices that are anti-Corbyn outweigh those that are pro-Corbyn.
In addition to this, a prevalent way to deride Corbyn is through scorn and ridicule. Three in ten news stories, opinion pieces, or letters to the editor mock Corbyn or scoff at his ideas, his personal life, his looks and/or his lifestyle. Besides these character assassinations, some of the popular mantras repeated over and over again in connection with Corbyn are: that he is unelectable, that his ideas are unrealistic and loony, and that he is unpatriotic. Most problematic in this regard, according to us, is the persistent association of Corbyn with terrorism. In some newspapers, for example in The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Express or The Sun, between 15 and 20 per cent of their Corbyn-related coverage associates him with IRA, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and/or terrorism. Linked to this, we see that over one fifth of all articles denote him as a danger or as dangerous, a frame that David Cameron was also keen to feed.
The rough treatment by the British newspapers of (Labour) politicians is, of course, not an entirely new phenomenon in the UK (think Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), but I would argue that this was nowhere near as destructive, as vicious and as antagonistic as is the case now with Corbyn. Many in our team of researchers are not British and compared to the media in our own countries we were also all quite astonished by the systematic and way in which Corbyn is being actively delegitimised by the media; this is unworthy of a democracy. We all want and need a strong and a critical media, a watchdog of the powers that be, but maybe we do not need an attack dog who kills off anyone who challenges the status quo and dares to suggest we need a different kind of politics.
The most ridiculous claims made about Jeremy Corbyn
The most ridiculous claims made about Jeremy Corbyn
1/11 He called Hezbollah and Hamas ‘friends’
True. In a speech made to the Stop the War Coalition in 2009, Mr Corbyn called representatives from both groups “friends” after inviting them to Parliament. He later told Channel 4 he wanted both groups, who have factions designated as international terror organisations, to be “part of the debate” for the Middle East peace process. “I use (the word ‘friends’) in a collective way, saying our friends are prepared to talk,” he added. “Does it mean I agree with Hamas and what it does? No. Does it mean I agree with Hezbollah and what they do? No.”
2/11 ‘Jeremy Corbyn thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a tragedy’
Partly false. David Cameron used this as a line of attack at the Conservative Party conference but appears to have left out all context from Mr Corbyn’s original remarks. In an 2011 interview on Iranian television, the then-backbencher said the fact the al-Qaeda leader was not put on trial was the tragedy, continuing: “The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy.”
3/11 He is ‘haunted’ by the legacy of his ‘evil’ great-great-grandfather
False. A Daily Express exposé revealed that the Labour leader’s ancestor, James Sargent, was the “despotic” master of a Victorian workhouse. Addressing the report at the Labour conference, Mr Corbyn said he had never heard of him before, adding: “I want to take this opportunity to apologise for not doing the decent thing and going back in time and having a chat with him about his appalling behaviour.”
4/11 Jeremy Corbyn raised a motion about ‘pigeon bombs’ in Parliament
This one is true. On 21 May 2004, Mr Corbyn raised an early day motion entitled “pigeon bombs”, proposing that the House register being “appalled but barely surprised” that MI5 reportedly proposed to load pigeons with explosives as a weapon. The motion continued: “The House… believes that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out thus giving nature the opportunity to start again.” It was not carried.
5/11 He rides a Communist bicycle
False. A report in The Times referred to Mr Corbyn, known for his cycling, riding a “Chairman Mao-style bicycle” earlier this year. “Less thorough journalists might have referred to it as just a bicycle, but no, so we have to conclude that whenever we see somebody on a bicycle from now on, there goes another supporter of Chairman Mao,” he later joked.
6/11 'Jeremy Corbyn will appoint a special minister for Jews'
False so far. The Sun report in December was allegedly based on a “rumour” passed to the paper by a Daily Express columnist who has written pieces critical of the Labour leader in the past. The minister did not materialise in his shadow cabinet.
7/11 ‘Jeremy Corbyn wishes Britain would abolish its Army’
False. Another gem from The Sun took comments made at a Hiroshima remembrance parade in August 2012 where Mr Corbyn supported Costa Rica’s move to abolish it armed forces. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every politician around the world…abolished the army and took pride in the fact that they don’t have an army,” he added. The caveat that “every politician” must take the step suggests Mr Corbyn does not support UK disarmament just yet.
8/11 Jeremy Corbyn stole sandwiches meant for veterans
False. The Guido Fawkes blog claimed that the Labour leader took sandwiches meant for veterans at at Battle of Britain memorial service in September but a photo later emerged showing him being handed one by Costa volunteers, who later confirmed they were given to all guests.
9/11 He missed the induction into the Queen’s privy council
True. After much speculation about Mr Corbyn’s republican views and willingness to bow to the monarch, his office confirmed that he did not attend the official induction to the privy council because of a prior engagement, but did not rule out joining the body.
10/11 Jeremy Corbyn refuses to sing the national anthem.
Partly true. The Labour leader was filmed standing in silence as God Save the Queen was sung at a Battle of Britain remembrance service but will reportedly sing it in future. Mr Corbyn was elusive on the issue in an interview, saying he would show memorials “respect in the proper way”, but sources said he would sing the anthem at future occasions.
11/11 He is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Cheese
True. The group lists its purpose as the following: “To increase awareness of issues surrounding the dairy industry and focus on economic issues affecting the dairy industry and producers.”
In my view, this exposes some serious shortcomings and problematic tendencies in the reporting on Corbyn and of politics in general. Inevitably, all this brings into the fray the issue of concentrated media ownership in the UK, and intrinsically linked to this the undeniable fact that the British newspaper landscape is heavily skewed to the right (although it must be acknowledged that Corbyn has also received quite some flak from the left-leaning newspapers).
In this regard, it would be healthy and urgent, I think, to reflect more on how increased media power should be counter-balanced by a higher degree of democratic responsibility from the part of the media and journalists. Surveys consistently show that a very large majority of UK citizens (and by extension newspaper and TV audiences) do not trust politicians and journalists at all – a mere 20-25 per cent of people believe that journalists and politicians tell the truth. Journalists – and the media organisations they represent – have an ethical and dare I say democratic obligation to address this high degree of distrust.
What the majority of reactions to our report on social media and on the site of The Independent in the mean time show is many citizens – even those that do not support Corbyn – feel that the media in general is failing them in terms of correctly and fairly representing the elected leader of the opposition.
Bart Cammaerts is an Associate Professor and PhD Director at the London School of Economics and Political Science.