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Politics, bias and the media

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TV, print and online media exposed its pro-Tory sentiment during this year’s general election campaign. Nick Clark looks why this is and whether it can be resisted
Issue 2684
Popular media personalities often cosy up to politicians rather than challenge them
Popular media personalities often cosy up to politicians rather than challenge them

You know something’s wrong at the BBC when even the right accuse it of being biased in favour of the Tories.

In an article in the Guardian newspaper last week, conservative Peter Oborne wrote that “in the 2019 general election, the BBC has been behaving in a way that favours the Tories”.

He said a series of apparent errors or mistakes in the BBC’s election coverage had created a “widespread impression that the BBC is putting its thumb on the scale for the government”.

The tipping point for many seemed to be when the BBC gave in and allowed Johnson to do a softball interview with Andrew Marr after the London Bridge killings.

Having said they wouldn’t interview him at all unless he appeared for Andrew Neil, they gave him an open invitation to appear statesperson-like and use the attack to the benefit of the right

Even Dan Hodges—a Mail on Sunday columnist committed to attacking Corbyn over anything and everything—wrote afterwards, “I don’t want to come across like I’m channelling my inner-Corbynite.

“But I really do think when this election is over there needs to be serious examination of what’s happening to BBC political programming. That was farcical.”

It’s not just the BBC.

By and large, the Tories get an easier ride from all sections of the media.

Almost every national newspaper is openly hostile to Corbyn and Labour. But television news—which by law is supposed to be neutral—is biased too.


There isn’t the same scepticism and scrutiny of Tory claims and promises—often simply reproduced uncritically—as there are of Labour’s.

And there isn’t the same media focus on the reams and reams of actual racism from Boris Johnson as there are on the false accusations of antisemitism against Jeremy Corbyn.

There are no constant calls on Johnson to apologise for—to pick just one example—claiming Muslim countries are “centuries behind the West” because of Islam.

Will fake news win the general election?
Will fake news win the general election?
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And when he appeared on This Morning last week Johnson claimed he was “sorry for any offence” that he compared women who wear the burqa to “letterboxes.”

And after his mealy mouthed half apology, Johnson was invited to take a smiling selfie with the hosts.

Add it all together, and Labour supporters quite rightly question the agenda of those who produce the news. A lot of this anger focusses on certain high profile, leading individual journalists.

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston, for instance, both get accused of favouring the Tories.

There’s truth in this. Both are inclined to be more sympathetic towards the Tories than they are of Labour under a left wing leadership.

Partly this is to do with who they are. Both are from very wealthy backgrounds. Kuenssberg went to a prestigious private school and comes from a family of high court judges, business people,

managing directors and diplomats.

Peston is the son of a Lord and can adopt the title “The Honourable Robert Peston” if he wants to.

But these are just examples of a broader fact—that the top levels of journalism are full of people from wealthy, privileged backgrounds.

A study by the Sutton Trust this year found that almost half of the most influential broadcasters and editors went to private schools.

That’s compared with 7 percent of the overall population.

It also said that only a third of them went to comprehensive schools—and that more than a third of them went to Oxford or Cambridge.

It’s a fact that inevitably contributes to media bias.

“While most news journalists will aspire to leave their opinions outside their place of work, it is somewhat inevitable that they will bring their experiences with them,” the report said.

“If journalists and others working in the media all come from a similar background and have similar experiences, there is a danger that even with the best efforts to reach out, there are likely to be important stories, nuances or angles that they simply miss.”

The automatic bias top journalists have comes from a particular way of seeing the world. But it’s not just to do with individuals’ backgrounds.

It’s to do with media ownership.

Just three companies dominate the national newspaper industry in Britain. They’re the Daily Mail Group, Reach, which prints the Express and the Mirror, and Rupert Murdoch’s News UK.

Online you can add to that the Guardian and the Telegraph.

But the people who really dominate online media are Google and Facebook.

All of these are owned by multi-millionaires and billionaires. It means their output reflects their interests.

Sometimes this is deliberate and overt.

Take the lies of Murdoch’s Sun and The Times, or the Telegraph and the Mail, whose owners unashamedly want a Tory victory.

Other times the bias is implicit and unthinking.

The way the media reports and talks about politics just naturally reflects the worldview of the people who own and run it.

Right wing ideas make less sense when people are fighting back

This explains why so many posh people get top journalist jobs—but it’s also behind the way all mainstream journalists approach politics and decide what’s important.

The idea that we should all worry about whether businesses, bankers and financiers can keep making huge profits, is one example.

That politics is simply about the speeches, movements and plots of a handful of people in parliament is another.

Anything that challenges that is treated as either laughable or dangerous, because to them it is.

You can see that in the way the media treat Corbyn. The way they laugh at him when he doesn’t do politics the way he’s supposed to.

Or the way they sneer and scaremonger about the support of a mass membership of ordinary people behind him.

That same world view makes them automatically deferential towards the government of the day.

Earlier in the election there was a minor scandal over the way the BBC edited Johnson’s performance on the leaders’ Question Time.

Johnson was asked if he thought it was important for a prime minister to be truthful—and was laughed at.

That was in the live broadcast. But by the time that clip made it to the BBC news, the laughter was edited out.

The BBC apologised, but said the edit was edited simply to make the clip shorter. But even that is damning.

The fact that the Tory prime minister was laughed at by a studio of people on live television just wasn’t judged important enough to show.

This isn’t just something that benefits the Tories.

When Tony Blair was prime minister, the BBC faced similar accusations of being too close to him. 

The protests against the Iraq war saw millions rejecting right wing ideas

The protests against the Iraq war saw millions rejecting right wing ideas (Pic: Ray Smith)

That’s important, because it tells us that media bias has always existed—and it hasn’t always stopped the right from losing.

Right wing governments—Tory and Labour—have been brought down before, despite receiving the support of the media.

Near-blanket support for Blair’s Iraq war didn’t stop two million people marching against it in 2003.

And regardless of whether Labour wins the general election, there’s still mass support for Corbyn in spite of—and even because of—the near unanimous derision of him in the media.

Most of the time people can accept the bias of the media because it seems to fit with the way that society works. 



Other times our experience of the world runs up against it completely.

Support for Corbyn’s ideas comes precisely out of the fact that it challenged the media’s common sense that austerity, privatisation, racism and war are things we just have to accept.

It tapped into that feeling—and in even a limited way—suggested that ordinary people can fight back, challenge and defy those at the top.

When there’s struggle and a fightback—strikes and protests—they can tip the scales against those at the top.

Right wing ideas from the media make less sense when you’re fighting together for higher wages, better jobs and services, against those who tell you those things aren’t possible.

That widespread dissatisfaction isn’t going away—it’s up to the left to harness it against those who want to side with the right.

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