Having endured weeks of scrutiny over his attendance and possible involvement at a wreath-laying ceremony in a Tunis cemetery, Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with the media is arguably worse than it has ever been – which is saying something.
A press dominated by conservative-leaning publications was never likely to give a socialist an easy ride. But there is no doubt that some of the criticisms levelled at Corbyn have been vicious in their tone, even when they are not wholly without foundation.
For supporters of the Labour leader, all this is just further evidence that the biased “MSM” will do anything to stop Corbyn winning power – motivated, so the theory goes, by anxiety that a Labour government would take measures to reduce the power of the press. The speech which Corbyn is giving in Edinburgh today is unlikely to quell publishers’ anxiety, or their antipathy.
Media ownership rules have long been in Corbyn’s sights. His contention that too much power is concentrated in too few hands is, on the face of it, appealing, although it somewhat ignores the degree to which the rise of digital media has atomised the scene. And when it comes to print, with advertising and circulation revenues in steady decline, there is a decent argument that it is only through the consolidation of ownership that newspapers can remain financially viable.
Corbyn’s potential regulation policy is the other major issue that gives print and digital media the pip. Labour is committed – still – to undertaking the second part of the Leveson inquiry promised by David Cameron in 2011. It may also seek to force print and digital news providers into a scheme of regulatory oversight that reports to a body established by the state.
It is notable however, that Corbyn today has turned to another issue altogether, namely the role played in the transmission of news content to consumer by tech giants such as Facebook and Google. This is a canny move, not least because it is a subject which news publishers themselves have been grappling with. Corbyn’s proposals to make the tech titans pay for the advantage they gain by acting as the interface between news provider and user chime – in principle – with what many publishers have been calling for. To dismiss his ideas out of hand runs the risk of appearing hypocritical. Which, of course, isn’t to say it won’t happen. (Proposals to beef up freedom of information legislation should also be welcomed by journalists.)
The Conservatives argue that any increased tax demands faced by Google et al would be passed on to the consumer, although since users don’t pay for search engines or social media accounts, this appears to be an overly simplistic counter. They might pass on the burden to advertisers or cut costs elsewhere, but customers won’t be fussed by that. In any case, taxation is only one of Corbyn’s suggestions.
What’s more, Corbyn is right when he identifies the need for greater investment in investigative journalism. It is an expensive endeavour in which results are not always guaranteed, yet it is also vital if the media is to maintain its ability to hold the powerful to account. Finding novel ways to fund such activity is to be applauded, although the notion of “news co-operatives” reporting on local government sounds to me like a socialist pipe dream (even if, in fact, it is really just building on the BBC’s existing local democracy scheme).
Perhaps the most startling of Corbyn’s ideas, however, relate to the BBC. Again, there is a degree of cunning here: if there is any target the right-leaning print media might agree to side with Corbyn on, it is the Beeb, which commercial publishers accuse of remit overreach. Paradoxically, many of those same publishers also believe the BBC to be pushing a “left-wing” agenda – and on that score, they will find Corbyn in outright opposition, convinced as he appears to be that the broadcaster is out to get him. I suppose both are possible, depending on how you define the political left.
In any event, Corbyn’s proposal that the BBC’s editorial boards should be elected in order to depoliticise the organisation will certainly brook opposition from many both inside and outside. After all, far from depoliticising a corporation which already has numerous safeguards in place to ensure editorial independence, elections could easily have precisely the opposite impact if they become a plaything of political activists.
At the heart of Corbyn’s professed vision for the media is a need to restore trust. And it’s true of course that tabloid intrusions, agenda-driven headlines and newspaper hatchet jobs have raised questions about the media’s integrity in recent times. Moreover, Corbyn accurately identifies that the media remains inadequately diverse (although the idea that the BBC should declare the social class of all its contributors feels a tad Soviet).
However, some of these questions about trust actually disguise something different, which is simply distaste (even hatred) that a significant number of people have for media outlets that hold different political views to their own. That blurring of lines has been encouraged by politicians of all hues in recent times – most obviously Donald Trump in the US – to bolster the notion that media criticism can be discounted because journalists aren’t to be trusted, or are purveyors of “fake news”. It is interesting that a survey earlier this year showed journalists’ trust ratings had risen significantly; still not to the heights they would like, but might this not reflect a realisation among the public that the banalities of social media and persistent critiques of politicians are not the be-all and end-all? Efforts to improve diversity within newsrooms has made some headway too.
When Corbyn talks of a need for the UK news media to be bold and radical if it is to prosper in the future, he is right: but with old business models in decline that fact is also self-evident. The solutions he proposes are interesting in their way but they are underpinned by a hostility to the status quo (economic and political) which goes beyond merely wanting to see journalists be more widely trusted.
Corbyn knows his opponents in the press are not going to disappear. Better then to write off the entire “mainstream media” as untrustworthy and biased, just as Trump has done so effectively in the States. Indeed, that Corbyn deploys the phrase “fake news” in his speech today is no accident. That approach won Trump the White House; it might, even minus Trumpian bombast, propel Corbyn to Downing Street.
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