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 And, most damagingly, he was usually linked to ‘loony’ or ‘outdated ideas’, and dangerous groups. 4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].
- 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. ↩
- Straying into the realms of conspiracy theory; but that’s not to dismiss the possibility that nefarious activities may have occurred. ↩
- 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). ↩
- Such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA. Frequently linking him to Communists and Marxists repeats rhetoric which Labour leaders have faced for a century. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩