The Labour leadership election appears to have got the UK press and broadcasting media in a real tizz.
One of the most aggravating aspects of the reporting is the constant appendage of ‘left-wing’ to any reference to Jeremy Corbyn. He is the ‘left-wing MP’ who is challenging for the party leadership. Strangely though, the other candidates, who all oppose him, some quite vehemently, are not described as ‘right-wing’. In the interests of ‘balance’ the BBC and other public service broadcasters, including Channel 4 and ITV, should treat all the candidates equally, so why this kind of labelling?
For overseas readers I should point out that the Labour Party is supposedly a socialist party and should have left-wing policies. The right-wing of the Labour Party has attempted to redefine the party as ‘centrist’ and thus demonises any one identified as ‘leftist’. Presumably the BBC has bought this as well as the Guardian and the Independent, both newspapers priding themselves on more objective reporting. Interestingly, the Independent recently produced a list of nine policies/positions espoused by Corbyn which have been supported by the majority of voters polled in a recent survey. Perhaps then the new ‘centre ground’ is on the left?
The local elections in England last week produced two examples of quandaries for broadcasters.
The big story for the BBC and other commentators was the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by a curiously charismatic Nigel Farage. UKIP are a right-wing populist party promoting withdrawal from the European Union. In this respect they are related to similar parties in many other EU member countries. UKIP has no seats in the UK Parliament and is unlikely to gain many in 2015. Its main impact is as a ‘protest party’ for voters who feel increasingly disenfranchised by the major political parties. UKIP does have other ‘policies’, some of them favouring extreme solutions to UK problems, but these are rarely discussed.
The BBC (and the other UK-based news broadcasters) are constrained by public service broadcasting remits demanding impartiality and balance. This means they must try to give airtime to each of the major parties in an election campaign. As the number of parties expands this becomes more difficult. UKIP put up hundreds of candidates across the councils polling on May 22 and they couldn’t be ignored. Indeed they polled a significant number of votes and surprisingly won seats on councils where it had seemed very unlikely. The council elections took place on the same day as the European elections in which UKIP were forecast to be the most supported party (but which didn’t count the votes until May 25th). UKIP’s success is certainly a ‘story’ – and a big story. All news organisations must go after the big story.
But UKIP isn’t the only story. The Green Party in the UK has been growing steadily in terms of local councillors elected and it also has one MP in the UK Parliament (UKIP doesn’t as yet have any). The Greens won less seats than UKIP but overall they increased their vote more successfully. During the campaign and during the analysis of the results the Greens were barely mentioned whereas Farage and UKIP were the headline story. ‘Balance’ in this case is a judgement about the ‘news values’ of the story and the factual information available. On this occasion the BBC in particular were criticised for focusing too much on (and giving over too much airtime to) Nigel Farage and UKIP.
This was brought into sharp relief in an aside on BBC Radio 5 Live. A listener contacted the Drivetime programme on May 23rd and asked for more hard information about the poll results (including how the Greens were actually doing). The response was that there was too much information to broadcast and that the listener should go to the BBC website. But there are still many BBC licence fee payers who do not have broadband and cannot access the web – and others who are driving during ‘Drivetime’ (4-7pm). Denying these listeners access to information is unfair. Again this is a question of balancing a remit to provide factual news and a need to find a ‘sexy’ story – the success of UKIP with its appeal to xenophobia and ability to win seats from the main parties. And again some would contend that the BBC got the balance wrong.
Steve Bell’s jubilee mug – restoring balance in the UK’s media landscape?
Three issues converge in the UK over the next few weeks and together they raise questions about the partiality of UK media. One of them, the Leveson Inquiry has been running since November 2011. Why haven’t we commented on its recent findings? Partly, I think it’s because from my point of view I don’t want to cheer about the fall of Murdoch until I’m convinced that he has actually lost any of his power. But this last week has raised questions about the attempt at balance operated by the BBC – which is required to be impartial as part of its charter.
The Leveson Inquiry this week interviewed Tony Blair and explored his relationship with Murdoch. Blair’s position has always been that it was important to have Murdoch ‘on side’ because that was the only way of trying to shift the built-in bias of the UK press against Labour. Polly Toynbee in the Guardian commenting on Blair’s performance agreed that the UK has by European standards a completely unbalanced press with 80% of circulation controlled by right-wing proprietors and editorial staff. Whether this excuses Blair’s strategy is another matter.
The press of course is not required to be impartial – but public service broadcasters in the UK certainly are. On this score, Leveson has also been important. Its exposure of phone-hacking by Murdoch’s News International has implicated the current Conservative-led government in a cosy relationship with Murdoch on several levels. Earlier this week the right-wing political blogger ‘Guido Fawkes’ posted a video which shows an off-air argument between a Tory spin doctor and a BBC reporter. Fawkes (aka Paul Staines) presumably thinks that the interview shows the BBC to have a left-wing bias since the reporter, Norman Smith is being asked to defend his reports on Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt which suggest that the minister has got questions to answer about his support for Murdoch during the attempted purchase of the rest of BSkyB. (Hunt was supposed to be responsible for overseeing this process ‘in the public interest’.) Perhaps Staines was just being mischievous in posting this? However, it has attracted the usual wave of comments about the ‘left-wing bias’ of the BBC so perhaps it has worked for him?
We don’t necessarily want to promote Guido Fawkes but you can find his stuff for yourself if you want. Wikipedia offers a background on his blog.
While all of this is going on, the UK media is preparing for two public celebrations. The first this weekend is the Diamond Jubilee – 60 years since the accession to the throne of Elizabeth Windsor as constitutional monarch. According to various polls around 30-40% of the UK population is Republican yet you would be hard-pressed to recognise that from the media coverage. Certainly there is far less coverage of opposition to the scale of the celebration than there was in 1977 when the ‘Silver Jubilee’ took place. Those who are not interested in street parties and flag-waving may be keeping a lower profile. Is that because the presence of so many millionaires in Cameron’s cabinet (Hunt is one of them) indicates an increased deference for wealth and aristocracy? It seems unlikely.
The third challenge to balance comes with the Olympics. The issue here seems to be the attempt to convince everyone in the UK that the games held in London are a national event and part of that is the coverage of the torch relay around the country. Balance in news reporting isn’t just about ‘left’ and ‘right’ – it should also be about the mix of news items. I felt that the coverage on flying the torch to the UK from Greece was probably over the top, but I’m interested now in the stories emerging about the progress of the torch around the country. Particularly interesting are the complaints that not enough local people are involved as torchbearers. The UK media has tended to become ever more metropolitan-focused and reporting of events outside the M25 (the orbital motorway around London) is often not necessarily ‘un-balanced’ but just generally uninformed. On the other hand, we do expect to receive far too many stories about travel chaos in the capital. We all pay the same BBC licence fee and the papers cost the same wherever you live!
Before the Olympics comes the European Football Championship. Perhaps because England aren’t thought to be very good at the moment, the flag-waving has been muted so far. The latest coverage seems to have converged on stories about Ukraine as an unsuitable host nation. Since this is partly based on reports that Ukraine is a dangerous place for British Asian and African-Caribbean supporters, it will be interesting to see how some of the more xenophobic voices in the UK tabloid press handle the next few weeks.
The new Con-Lib coalition government in the UK released its ‘austerity budget’ last week. Reporting this was a sensitive issue for broadcasters given the regulatory requirement for impartiality. Less so for newspapers with their freedom to publish ‘comment’ perhaps, but still an issue.
The main issue for government is to spin the most positive angle on what is inevitably bad news. The budget is about cuts – huge cuts of up to 25% in public spending. Everyone knows there will be pain, so how do the Tories (who dominate the coalition) to play it? Their aim is to create a ‘positive’ atmosphere and disguise the pain. PM Cameron and Chancellor Osborne are notoriously smooth and sleek. (Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell now shows Cameron as an overfilled condom, tight and smooth – see his video from the last election in which Bell discusses this image.)
Cameron worked in PR and his ministers continually use phrases like “We’re all in it together” to disguise the gross inequalities of their policies. Still, I was surprised that BBC Radio fell into the trap of using what I assumed to be Cameron-speak when it reported that one of the measures in the new budget would see a ‘relaxing’ of the previous government’s requirement that patients must be seen by a GP within 48 hours of seeking an appointment (and scrapping the right to a hospital appointment within 18 weeks of referral by a GP). See this report in the (Tory-leaning) Daily Telegraph for the use of language.
‘Relax’ is such a soothing, ‘easy’ word. It’s accompanied by the ubiquitous ‘free/freeing’ to be found everywhere in Cameron-speak. So, this isn’t a cut, instead it frees the NHS to be more efficient. Hmm! Well it is a cut if it means that most ordinary people seeking medical help find themselves waiting longer – they will feel it as a cut and I think that the BBC should have questioned whether using the term was appropriate. To be fair, this use of ‘relax’ has a long history with government spinners – Blair’s administration weren’t averse to using it when they thought it appropriate. (This is my attempt to be balanced!)
A different but connected example was in another radio report which quoted the new Tory Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles. He had just announced that he was going to restrict the publication of free newspapers by local councils because they may be being used for propaganda purposes and because they represented unfair competition for local commercial publishing ventures. The report was supported by a statement from the Newspaper Society – the ‘voice’ of the local newspaper industry proprietors. Unsurprisingly this supported Pickles. Not surprising really since they have lobbied the Tories to do this. So, where was the balance, the statement by local councils about why they ventured into publishing?
Well, I didn’t hear it on the radio, but on the BBC website it’s tucked in at the bottom of the report with a brief statement from the Local Government Association. Is this sufficient to balance Pickles’ wild claims about ‘town hall Pravdas’ (Pravda was the major government newspaper in the former Soviet Union)? The issue here isn’t so much about how useful local council publications are for residents – no doubt some are and many aren’t. It’s more about the agenda for news – how in this case broadcasters are led into stories via press releases and then how reports are constructed around provocative soundbites. The LGA in this case no doubt finds it difficult to respond as it represents a diverse range of councils. I suspect we will return to this. It also applies to far larger political questions such as the spin sustained over decades by the Israeli Government on its treatment of Palestinians. But that’s another story . . .
(See Chapter 12 in The Media Student’s Book on News)