Monday, 19 October 2015

On Media Bias

Here's a simple way to make clear the type and quantity of media bias we have in Britain.

First, ask yourself who you consider more extreme: Nigel Farage's Ukip or Jeremy Corbyn's Labour?

If the answer is Corbyn, think about policy for a moment. Is it really the case that, say, returning the top rate of tax to 2010 levels or creating an investment bank is more extreme in terms of negative impact on the average person than Ukip's plans to increase private participation in the NHS, cut taxes for the wealthy, and reduce immigration? 

If you consider Ukip less palatable than Corbyn's Labour, you are probably in tune with the electorate as a whole. According to a ComRes poll about 13% of voters plan to vote Ukip at the next general election. Labour has 29%. That puts the party a long way off victory. On these scores Corbyn won't easily win a general election. Nevertheless it's clear even at this early stage and given the obvious fractiousness of the party, a sizeable minority of the population identifies with Corbyn. The Tories are well ahead with 41%. 

Just as the 13% of Ukip voters deserve to be treated with respect over their views (since shouting them down is hardly a way to convince them to change their minds), surely the much larger 29% of decided Labour voters deserve proportionate respect?

Yet the response to Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party has been aggressively negative by any standards. Here's Paul Myercough at the LRB:

"The media coverage of Corbyn’s first few days oscillated giddily between stories demonstrating his personal insufficiencies for the role of leader and wailing about what might happen were he ever to become prime minister: ‘Unions threaten chaos after Corbyn win’ (Telegraph); ‘Abolish the Army: New leader’s potty plan for world peace’ (Sun); ‘Comrade Corbyn’s access to security secrets’ (Daily Mail). There will, of course, be more, much more, of this from the right-wing press. In the Sun, ‘Court Jezter’; in the Telegraph, ‘Jeremy Corbyn must be stopped: The Labour Party and the country need rescuing from his dangerous campaign.’ The better Corbyn does, the worse it will get; the worse he does, the worse it will get. Fear and loathing on the one hand, derision on the other."

I realise of course that complaining about "media bias" sounds whiny, much in the manner of a Ukip voter. Which is why I included the reference to Ukip at the beginning. Obviously Labour has been through a fractious leadership election. This is a period of heightened attention for them. The only comparable period for Ukip was the period in the run up to the general election. 

For that period the University of Loughborough did content analysis of all the big media outlets. In terms of both appearance and speaking time, the Conservatives won by a landslide. Yet the Tories also bagged the prize for amount of positive coverage. Indeed, while the Tories had very positive media coverage overall, the aggregate score for all other parties was negative. In the case of Ukip, the margin of negativity was much smaller than for Labour, negative coverage of which dwarfed all others. Adjusted for circulation (the Sun sells 1.8 million; the Independent 58,000 copies), the gap was even more extreme. 

The only party besides the Conservatives which came close to achieving a net positive result was Ukip. This will surprise Ukip voters, who widely feel the media is biased against their party. But while some media coverage of Ukip is hostile - by the liberal sections, but also by Tory loyalists - Nigel Farage is mostly depicted as cheeky and risqué while it is Corbyn who is dangerous.

Given that in the months leading up to the election most polls put Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck, this shows the media was well out of step with (at least the perception of) public opinion. In the end the Conservatives won a majority in Parliament despite support from only around 25% of the electorate. 

So media scorn towards Labour can't be put down to the uncertainty of the Corbyn leadership or it being more gaffe-prone than other parties. Even before Corbyn much of big media was mounting a clearly identifiable daily attack on Labour, giving more space and more positive coverage to the Conservatives and proportionately more positive coverage to Ukip during the election.

More recently, while Labour has U-Turned on a Fiscal Charter vote, the Tories have done the same on funding for Saudi prisons. Not to mention the accusation that David Cameron dallied with a dead pig's head, made by a vengeful former non-dom ally. Meanwhile, Ukip has a history of racist outrage and has suffered a decidedly gaffe-prone post election period, including a string of stagy, pseudo and authentic resignations.

Not all polling data is reliable - especially in such an uncertain and volatile period for Labour - and not all of it is negative. The picture that is emerging is one of Corbyn firming up the traditional Labour vote, especially in areas where he makes clear left-of-centre pitches.

Why should this provoke such outraged reaction from the media? Like Corbyn or not, it appears he has the support of between 30 and 35% of voters. The unremitting negativity of the media shows it is not interested in representing the views of the public but in manufacturing them. The truth is that UKIP's anti-immigrant, free market xenophobia is more palatable to the media than Corbyn's social democracy.

The media plays a key role in deciding elections and electability. Its extreme hostility to the left - in practice an attempt to blot out the views of a sizeable chunk of the public - is grossly undemocratic. If you doubt media bias toward the left, just ask yourself why Corbyn's Labour - which, however you look at it, rivals the Tories in popularity - should not be permitted to make its case fairly to the electorate as a whole. 

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