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History of the Press

Watchdog or Attack Dog? Jeremy Corbyn and the myth of the ‘free press’

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According to a recent study, Jeremy Corbyn has been subjected to sustained abuse by the British press and denied a fair platform from which to air his views, contrary to what the leader of the main opposition party in an open, democratic system might expect. 1 The authors argue that although traditional liberal conceptions of the media portray it as a watchdog, holding the powerful to account, in this instance it has acted more as an ‘attack dog’, relentlessly pursuing him. Is this a new phenomenon? Or does it have historical precedents?

It is striking that even an event of the magnitude of Brexit has failed to shift the troubles of the Labour Party from the headlines, even as the Government went through its own leadership crisis. The question of Corbyn’s suitability as party leader and potential Prime Minister has remained ever present. Political opponents have even claimed he has made Labour a ‘threat to national security’.

Corbyn’s supporters have bemoaned what they see as a concerted political and media campaign to undermine him. 2 The report supports this claim to some extent, arguing that he has been delegitimised in a number of ways. Over half of all news articles and two-thirds of editorial and opinion pieces in the sample had an antagonistic tone. Corbyn’s own voice was often missing, or else sometimes presented in a distorted form. 3 His character, personal life and image were often ridiculed. And, most damagingly, he was usually linked to ‘loony’ or ‘outdated ideas’, and dangerous groups. 4

The British press has always been deeply intertwined with politics, and the composition of those producing the news has consistently resulted in certain political figures and movements being denigrated. The emergence of a radical press in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries gave outsiders a platform, with titles such as the Chartist Northern Star amassing huge readerships. However, they disappeared following the repeal of the stamp duty in 1855. Production costs rose, and advertising revenue was needed to break even as a result.

The trend throughout the remainder of the century was for newspapers to be linked to the parties that dominated Westminster – the Conservatives and Liberals – or factions and individuals within the parties which could give them financial backing.

This situation unravelled during the interwar period due to new commercial considerations and the emergence of Press Barons. Although newspaper owners such as Northcliffe and Beaverbrook challenged Conservative leaders, they remained ‘small-c conservatives’ and hostile to left wing politics. Rothermere was most ardent, and it is no surprise that it was in his Daily Mail that the Zinoviev Letter, a fraudulent document linking the Labour Party with the Soviet Union, was printed prior to the 1924 general election. 5 By the 1950s commercial success freed newspapers from relying on formal links to political benefactors, though papers still generally backed certain parties or positions, usually of a right-wing nature.

Rupert Murdoch is often portrayed as some kind of bogey man, but it is undeniable that he signalled a renewal of a more partisan press. Spearheaded by his paper, The Sun, the 1980s saw Labour leader Michael Foot face a slew of personal insults, and use of the term ‘The Loony Left’ to describe various left-wing figures, including Corbyn himself. This culminated in the notorious 1992 election result headline: ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’. 6 More recently UKIP gained press and financial support from Richard Desmond and his Express titles.

The media has always policed the status quo, helping inform the range of acceptable policies at any particular moment. 7 It’s also right that public political discourse should be monitored by the media, and difficult questions asked of politicians. The fact that certain views are deemed legitimate and sensible is inevitable. Yet it’s clear that, in many cases, figures and policies that could easily be questioned don’t face same level of scrutiny across the press – George Osborne’s economic policy being just one example. 8

Historically, the British press has ferociously attacked politicians regarded as against the interests of business, and, compared with the electorate, has disproportionately backed the Conservative party. The market may cater to many people’s individual appetites, but it has failed to provide a suitable watchdog.

Of course, recent events also explain coverage of Corbyn, especially longstanding tensions within the Labour Party. Corbyn and McDonnell have made bad decisions and shown naivety, playing into the hands of eager journalists. This is inexcusable. They and their press team must be aware of the historical precedents. They personally experienced similar press reactions in the 1980s, and saw the long-lasting hostility endured by Corbyn’s political hero, Tony Benn. The way events unfolded, intensified by the media, has led to a siege mentality on both sides, resulting in a vicious cycle. It remains to be seen if Corbyn can succeed. If replaced, it will be interesting to see if another politician with radical policies fares differently.

There is no simple remedy. Ideally, the public should demand more from those that supposedly monitor the political world on their behalf. Regulation is tricky, and political views must not be censored. A press standards organisation with more licence and willingness to act against inaccuracies would help. After the press largely escaped repercussions following Leveson, this is another warning sign that we need to think about ways to temper its worst excesses, especially as the myth of the free press continues to be spun.

Aaron Ackerley is a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Sheffield. His research examines economic knowledge and ideas as cultural constructions, and charts how economic narratives were constructed in the newsroom, presented in print and consumed by readers during the interwar period. You can find Aaron on twitter @AaronAckerley and @RaidersFilmBlog.

Image: Jeremy Corbyn speaking outside parliament about Bahrain, September 2013. [Wikicommons].

Notes:

  1. The study is from the LSE Department of Media and Communications. It charts coverage of Corbyn across eight national newspapers between 1 September and 1 November 2015, from his rise as a candidate, to the early days of his leadership.
  2. Straying into the realms of conspiracy theory; but that’s not to dismiss the possibility that nefarious activities may have occurred.
  3. This is odd as, historically, elite voices in important positions have been given far more space to express their views, while certain types of voices, such as union leaders, have not been given much of a platform. The LSE study found that once again union leaders were largely ignored, and when they did feature it was often when they were disparaging Corbyn (p. 5).
  4. Such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA. Frequently linking him to Communists and Marxists repeats rhetoric which Labour leaders have faced for a century.
  5. One counterweight during this time period was the Daily Herald, the official paper of the Trade Union Congress which achieved a truly mass readership. More recently the Daily Mirror has supported the Labour Party, but does not reach as big an audience.
  6. It is also telling that although The Sun did back New Labour in 1997, it was only after Tony Blair had re-situated the party as a more centrist, pro-business entity, and abolished Clause IV.
  7. Chomsky and Hermann famously theorised that the liberal media play a role in delineating the permissible, in effect saying: “Thus far and no further”. Thus, The Guardian has been accused of a concerted campaign to undermine Corbyn, despite its reputation as one of the more left-leaning British newspapers. A former Guardian readers’ editor responded to the accusations.
  8. It was contrary to most expert opinion and failed to meet his own targets. Another infamous example was the failure of the media to properly interrogate Tony Blair’s justifications for the Iraq War. There is now a whole cottage industry that has sprung up online which attempts to track the media’s failure to question such decisions and the hypocrisy of the media.
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‘Don’t throw away our history’? Churchill, Leveson and the ‘freedom of the press’

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You can always tell that journalists are getting worried about regulation when they start dredging up stirring quotations about the ‘freedom of the press’. There are plenty of famous historical figures to cite – John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville and many more – to add weight to any argument about protecting newspapers from the claws of the state. The Sun’s front page today 1 provides one of the best examples yet of this tendency. Under the dramatic headline ‘D-Day’, a grave-looking Winston Churchill is displayed alongside lines he penned in 1949:

‘A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny. Where men have the habit of liberty, the Press will continue to be the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.’

To reinforce the point, the Sun gives MPs voting on a ‘press law’ a stark warning: ‘Don’t throw away our history’.

Rousing words indeed – even if they are slightly undercut by the smaller photograph at the top of the same page showing the Duchess of Cambridge catching her shoe in a grate, inadvertently suggesting that the press is more likely to be vigilant in watching celebrities then in guarding the ‘rights of the ordinary citizen’. The D-Day rhetoric also fell rather flat as soon as it was announced that the main political parties had reached agreement on a compromise system of regulation, forestalling the need for a grand parliamentary battle. Deploying Churchill in this way, though, is a tendentious use of history. The former Prime Minister was by no means an unfailing supporter of the ‘freedom of the press’. During the Second World War, Churchill threatened the Daily Mirror with suppression when it printed what he regarded as critical comments about the war effort. When he suffered a stroke in June 1953, while serving as Prime Minister for the second time, he conspired with sympathetic newspaper proprietors to hide the seriousness of his illness from the press. And when, the following year, cabinet discussed the spate of press reporting of ‘homosexual offences’, Churchill suggested that an amenable backbencher be encouraged to introduce into the House of Commons a bill preventing the publication of details from prosecutions of this kind. He was eventually dissuaded by a memorandum pointing out that this was a serious encroachment on the principles of open justice and press freedom.

More importantly, perhaps, the Sun’s suggestion that ‘press laws’ and ‘statutory regulation’ are the main threats to the vibrancy of British journalism is to misread the evidence from recent decades. Since the Second World War, politicians have been falling over themselves not to set up a system of statutory regulation, and direct parliamentary intervention is certainly not what Leveson or his supporters are demanding. The main threats to press freedom and transparency in public life come from elsewhere. It is here, indeed, that the example of Churchill is instructive. Churchill’s warnings to the Mirror were part of a long and continuing tradition of state attempts to use the Official Secrets Act and ‘Defence Notices’ (now known as ‘Defence-Advisory Notices’) to limit discussion of matters impinging on ‘national security’. The hushing-up of Churchill’s stroke was typical of ways in which information can be manipulated, distorted, leaked or restricted in the course of informal contacts and briefings between ministers, proprietors and journalists. And if the publicity given to ‘homosexual offences’ is no longer an issue, current proposals for secret or closed courts pose a challenge to the principle of ‘open justice’. The intense focus on the ‘statutory underpinning’ of the proposed new regulatory body is serving to distract attention from a range of vital issues relating to the relationships between the press, politicians and the public.

When in doubt, the tabloid press routinely reaches for wartime analogies and the big book of Churchill quotations. More often than not, these comparisons do more to obscure than illuminate the real issues. In this case, Churchill’s actions, rather than his words, can help us see where the true dangers lie.

Adrian Bingham is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. His research was quoted in volume 1 of the Leveson Report and he is the author of Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life, and the British Popular Press 1918-1978 (Oxford, 2009).

You can see Adrian’s blog on the original Leveson Report here: http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/reports-please-lord-leveson-history/

You can find other History Matters blogs on public history here.

Notes:

  1. Originally accessed at http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/ on 18 March 2013
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No more reports, please: Lord Leveson and the uses of history

No More Reports Please: Lord Leveson and the uses of History

It is clear that Lord Justice Leveson knows his history; more interesting, in many ways, is the way that he is prepared to use it as a rhetorical weapon against his critics. The Executive Summary of his weighty volume opens with the eye-catching statement that ‘For the seventh time in less than 70 years, a report has been commissioned by the Government which has dealt with concerns about the press.’ In his concluding remarks he adds that ‘No-one can think it makes any sense to contemplate an eighth.’ The message – repeated again in his press conference, and frequently picked up in the outpouring of opinion on his findings – is clear: we must not repeat the mistakes of the past, but instead establish a new set of relationships between the press, politicians, police, and the public. History has indicated that ‘last chance saloons’ simply don’t work with customers as resourceful and well-connected as national newspapers.

The report itself contains an impressively detailed 24-page section on the history of press regulation based not only on the evidence of the many witnesses but also on the research of academics in the field, including myself. Leveson identifies several ‘strongly recurring themes’ since the 1940s. Recommendations for a rigorous system of self-regulation have repeatedly been watered down or evaded altogether. ‘The historical lessons’, Leveson notes, ‘are clear enough’, most notably ‘the inability of “self-regulation” to address the underlying problem sufficiently’ and the ‘distinct and enduring resistance to change from within the press.’

The press was not regulated until the Royal Commission on the Press, reporting in 1949, recommend that a body be established ‘to foster those tendencies which make for integrity and for a sense of responsibility to the public’. Editors and proprietors came up with a system so tame it is amazing they got away with it. Writing to one of his directors in December 1950, Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Express newspapers and a determined opponent of regulation, was surprised to find the proposed General Council of the Press ‘innocuous’. ‘The Council has no authority at all,’ he continued. ‘I can see that there is no means of imposing penalties. Am I right in all that? If I am right in all that we might possibly change our attitude to it.’ He was right: there were no penalties other than the publication by the Council of critical judgements, and that is the way the system has remained to the present. Fleet Street has consistently taken advantage of the fact that politicians, especially Conservatives, have rarely exerted much pressure on the industry to clean up its act. As negotiations on the Press Council dragged on past the Conservative election victory of 1951, Beaverbrook suggested speeding up the process: ‘I advise you to get on with the Press Council while the Tory Government is in power… It might be a good plan to batten down your Press Council in some form that would be useful but not obstructive.’ Spotting, and utilising, any signs of weakness or disunity among the supporters of reform, the press has dragged its feet so effectively that it has remained subject only to the minimum of oversight.

But there are other, less explicit, lessons that shape Leveson’s report and its recommendations. One is the need for realism when taking on the press. The failure to establish a more stringent regulatory regime in the early 1990s, when the newly-established Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was struggling to rein in tabloid excesses, was partly because Sir David Calcutt’s recommendations for reform were easily portrayed as too draconian. Calcutt’s Review of Press Self-Regulation, published in January 1993, called for the establishment of a statutory Press Tribunal, in which a judge would sit with two lay assessors to adjudicate on complaints, as well as for the introduction of three new laws against intrusion. ‘Sir David’s proposals’, Leveson notes wryly, ‘were seen as a step too far by even the most adamantine critics of the press’. As a result, it became very difficult to achieve a consensus about the way forward.

Leveson has not made the same mistake of over-playing his hand. His knowledge of history means that he is acutely aware that ‘freedom of the press’ is a potent rallying cry, and that there is a deep-seated anxiety at Westminster about anything that can be portrayed as state ‘censorship’. Leveson has gone out of his way to argue that his proposals do not amount to ‘statutory regulation’, even though they will be characterised as such; instead, he defines his solution as ‘independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process’. His recommendations are, in essence, a historically-informed balancing act: statutory underpinning to ensure compliance from a perennially backsliding press, but with sufficient safeguards to prevent Parliament or the Government directly restricting the publication of material or intervening in the regulatory process.

Even this compromise position seems too much for the Prime Minister, who resorted to the well-worn ‘slippery slope’ argument and cautioned against ‘crossing the Rubicon’ of state control. Leveson himself will be under few illusions about the difficulties of maintaining the political momentum to implement his recommendations. Another historical lesson he highlights is that the ‘window of opportunity for reform’ is short. What is different this time, though, is that the campaign for reform is more organised and media savvy, than ever before. It has shrewdly engaged the public through the involvement of ‘victims’ of the press, such as the Dowlers and the McCanns, as well as celebrities, such as Hugh Grant. Mr Cameron’s immediate declaration of opposition to a statutory underpinning for the regulatory regime is a serious blow to Leveson and his supporters, but it will be difficult to kick this report into the long grass. A tougher form of regulation is undoubtedly coming, but it would be foolish to underestimate the press’s ability to wriggle out of its responsibilities. I wouldn’t yet bet against that eighth report.

This opinion piece originally appeared at History & Policy (December 2012), http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion/opinion_100.html

Adrian Bingham is a Senior Editor of History & Policy. His research was quoted in volume 1 of the Leveson report.

You can find other History Matters blogs on public history here.

Image: NS Newsflash

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