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.
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.
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