On Corbyn and the Media

“We can fix our failing media by setting journalists and citizens free to hold power to account” (Corbyn, 2018)

This post folows the commotion caused be the speech of Jeremy Corbyn,  that he gave at the Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, 23 August 2018. It is my intention here to consider the proposals in light of some academic studies into media diversity and of the views journalists’ have of their profession.

The inference from the speech was that there are low levels of public trust in the media (particularly print) and the impact of the digital revolution. Corbyn (2018) maintains that “we need bold, radical thinking on the future of our media” to prevent the control of the discourse being dominated by a “few tech giants and unaccountable billionaires”. If, as Corbyn says, “a free press is essential to our democracy” and that journalists and media workers need to be “set free to do their best work” how does this stack up under scrutiny?

The reaction from the British press seemed sadly predicatable, for example “We can look forward to stories about glorious increases in tractor production in the Union of British Socialist States“, however the New Statesman was somewhat more positive stating “what’s actually in the proposals is generally to the good”.

Diversity in the media and journalism in particular has been a concern for many years, identified by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) from 2012, 2012 and again in 2017. The situation is seemingly a hard nut to crack. Social class is a significant barrier to entering the profession, with

…a high proportion of journalists having parents or carers in higher-level occupations, (managers and directors – 17% compared with 10% of all employed in the UK, and professional occupations – 48% compared with 19% across the UK) (adapted from NCTJ, 2017).

The Sutton Trust also found that in 2015 more than half (51%) of the UK’s 100 ‘top journalists’ attended fee-paying schools. The top 100 here chosen on their perceived influence on the public debate i.e. the ‘commentariat’.

Given that this speech is political and defines policy, it is wise to examine whether the diversity issue has any effect on journalists political beliefs and introduces potential bias, either consciously or unconsciously. For this  I turn to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Jounalism report, Journalists in the UK (2016).

An interesting view occurs when jounalists are asked about their political stance:

political stance

A little over half (53%) chose a position to the left of centre (on a scale of 1-5) and there is a clear increase in right-of-centre journalists in more senior roles. Of course, such self-reported political beliefs do not necessarily correspond to ‘objective’ assessments of political identity, but it is an interesting discovery.

As Corbyn points out, the ownership of the British media lies generally in the hands of a few powerful individuals and there are those who believe that influences such as ownership, commercial considerations, sourcing practices, and media management by vested interests carry much more weight than the beliefs of individual journalists (see e.g. Herman and Chomsky, 1994). If powerful institutions and individuals can influence what they want published, can supress alternative views and are far better equipped to get their messages across, journalists’ output – however accurate – simply mirrors the material they receive, resulting in a distorted picture of society reflected through the media.

UK journalists most commonly believe that their role in society is to hold those in power to account, to be accurate, and to provide information (Journalists in the UK, 2016). But to hold to these ideals, mearly passing on information is far from acceptable practice in a well functioning democratic society. It is easy to be critical, however commercial pressures are taking toll on journalist themselves resulting in pressure to

“focus relentlessly on the content that we know gives us the most return for our effort . . . and [be] ruthless about content that doesn’t” with regular performance assessments “taking into account audience traffic” to their content (Ponsford, 2015).

Journalists are being made to work longer hours and are being given less time to research stories, resulting in a reliance on unsubstantiated material and being

“…worried about an ‘emphasis on hits over quality’, about ‘traffic-related bonus structure[s]’ creating ‘the wrong incentives’, and about the ‘shift from proper journalism to . . . attention-seeking, fact-free, gossipy clickbait’” (Turvill, 2016a).

As Peston (2014), refelcted “newspapers are filled with reports based on spurious PR-generated surveys and polls, simply to save time and money” and called the “unhealthy deals” done between journalists and PR companies “hideous and degrading”. The credibility of journalism is threatened by excessive PR activity (Jackson and Moloney, 2015).

It would seem then that the implication is that as journalists are under pressure to produce content, often to drive traffic to media sites to generate advertising revenue (as sales and revenue of mainstream media organisations are in freefall) they have decreasing opportunity to research stories or corroborate evidence and live up to their ideals of holding power to account.

For journalism to retain (regain) it’s credibility as a profession and to play it’s vital role in protecting the democracy of our country, Corbyn’s speech suggests that the policy proposed is essential and most likely welcomed at grass roots level, giving power back to jounalists and away from the powerful elites.