I was asked the other day “what is wrong with the left?” or “where has the left gone wrong?” This is presumably in the context of the UK since this is quite a different political environment to the US, although there are obvious similarities. Let me answer this question in the context of previous general elections and the recent UK local elections. This is a very complicated answer and so I will be necessarily simplifying to a huge degree.
As ever, in philosophy, we need to parse the question a little bit. Wrong for what? Getting into power or in a more abstract, moral, sociological and economic sense? Or, what is wrong with the messaging as opposed to what is wrong with the message? I am going to start concentrating more on the former rather than the latter today, even though they are quite closely connected. Perhaps I might try and lay out my understanding of the latter in a future post.
In Britain, we have seen a rise in populism, a rise in the right, and a rejection of the left at the polls. If we look at general elections since 1979 when Margaret Thatcher was elected, we see the following for Labour and the left in general:
Lost, lost, lost, lost, Blair, Blair, Blair, lost, lost, lost, lost.
Judging by what the local elections might tell us, and due to a number of factors that I will detail in a minute and in coming pieces, this trend of Labour losing is set to continue, and some analysts are saying that Boris Johnson could be our longest-serving PM.
So the question might be, why did Blair win? Yes, they had an expensive and slick campaign. But one vital thing that they did was to copy Bill Clinton’s methods, which involved setting up focus groups around the country and asking what would swing their votes. After doing this, they developed a manifesto that ticked all those boxes. In other words, this was a very cynical and targeted campaign to win the centrist swing voters:
But New Labour did not win only because of a well-constructed and lavishly funded campaign. It won because its architects –Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Philip Gould and Alastair Campbell – all paid attention to voters’ concerns and aspirations and shaped party policy to reflect and engage with them.
Labour, in this way, moved to the centre. Really, winning the centre wins the election. This will probably be the same in America as well. We will come onto talk of the media next, but it is worth noting that vast swathes of the UK media skew to the right, and constantly tell the UK public that Labour are radical, hard-leftists when they are not. They did this with Jeremy Corbyn more recently, even though his actual manifesto and campaign policy promises were incredibly popular across the board with the general public:
Those reactions were fascinating.
What I’m saying is that, with the help of the media, the Conservatives have managed to appeal to the centre more often than Labour do, even if this is through misinformation and propaganda.
Back to Blair. Aside from that, there are natural ebbs and flows to politics, and the country was pretty much fed up with Conservative rule. As The New Statesman stated back in 2017:
The most depressing lesson for the party is that Labour only wins a working Commons majority after a prolonged period of Conservative rule. True of Blair in 1997, it is equally so of Attlee in 1945 and Harold Wilson in 1966. If there is any good news for Labour in this, it is that the Conservatives have already been in office for seven years; the bad news however is they’re probably less than halfway through their term.
2021 is here and things look worse than they did back in 2017. We can’t really mention Blair’s victory without talk of the media.
The media and political ignorance
The UK’s media is seen as the most right-wing in Europe. Six billionaires own the majority of the UK media (The Guardian being a very interesting exception in how it is organised – and why I love it). See my pieces on how the media won Brexit for the Leavers, which came out of my public debate on the matter: Brexit and the Media and Brexit, the Media, and the Future of Democracy.
Speaking of finances, media bias is also influenced by the other primary source of funding – current owners. Six billionaires own the majority of most major national papers in Britain, including papers like the Daily Mail and The Sun on the right, and The Independent on the left. While owners usually don’t play a hands-on role in their publications, they do have the power to bias content, should they choose to do so. For example, reports suggest that Murdoch, who owns The Sun and The Times, might pressure his editors to ensure that publications match his own political leanings. One former employee claimed that newsroom editors often asked themselves “what will Rupert think of this?” before publishing content.
Perhaps the most unanticipated influence on bias, however, doesn’t come from business leaders, but from political ones. Direct politicization of newspapers in Britain has led to somewhat predictable results. Boris Johnson’s attack on news outlets like the BBC have probably left journalists with a negative opinion of him, one that is hard to completely keep out of their coverage. For example, the BBC did not cover Johnson’s remarks after he snubbed them by using an in-house crew to tape it.
The fact that there are so many different influences on the media today makes it hardly surprising that the news in Britain displays biases, just like in the U.S. Indeed, as the connectivity of the world increases, the opinions of supporters, owners, and politicians influencing media biases are likely to only become even more commonplace. And as readers, it’s going to be our responsibility to reward newspapers for impartial reporting, in order to stop media bias from further spread.
Here’s an interesting correlation. The Sun newspaper literally (purportedly) wins elections on behalf of Rupert Murdoch. It is the biggest selling tabloid and skews heavily right. The only time in the last 45 years Labour won was when Blair won. The Sun switched to support him.
Liverpool doesn’t sell the Sun in its city since they took the police’s side on the terrible Hillsborough disaster. Liverpool’s local elections just now returned precisely no Conservative councillors out of 90 councillors. Not one Tory.
And no Sun.
Perhaps it’s not what people want to buy, it’s what they are sold.
But this is a simplistic analysis because, one can argue, the newspaper and the media in general follow public opinion rather than inform it. My guess is that it is a little of the both. There is absolutely no doubt that the media landscape in the UK is largely right-biased. There is a huge amount of misinformation and disinformation and is this means that the electorate are largely politically ignorant and ill-informed.
We are ill-informed: foreign media are reporting Johnson’s antics for what they are – “corruption”. Our media aren’t.
An example of ignorance (and this gets onto the message as much as the messaging):
In the Birmingham suburb of Kingstanding, for example, I had a long conversation with an 18-year-old who passionately wanted the minimum wage increased, but did not know either what Labour stood for or what a trade union was.
We need to politically educate the masses, and part of this falls to the media to do. But the left don’t have a chance against the vast right-wing media machine, its vested interests and the lies. Lies lies lies, and political ignorance (not in a pejorative sense). Here’s another example from the recent by-election in Hartlepool, part of the “Red Wall” of supposedly impenetrable Labour bastions now falling for the Tories. Hartle[ool went to a Tory candidate, an ex-Cayman Islander parachuted in rather than a local Labour doctor. Why? Poor messaging, but also lies. Lies that are then regurgitated and not challenged by the media:
Here, the BBC interviewer didn’t challenge his reasoning – he listed three problems that he put at the door of the Labour local MP. All three issues were national issues resulting from a decade of Tory defunding. And they blamed the Labour MP! And the reporter didn’t challenge them! And so the misinformation and disinformation is allowed to perpetuate.
The media definitely inform, or fail to inform, people. I’ve talked about this before with regard to the spiral theory as to whether media influences opinion or opinion influences media. It’s both in a spiral that means that people jump from one newspaper to another once they have reached an ideological tipping point.
A case study in point is my own father who went from a reasonable Daily Telegraph reader, with moderate viewpoints, to becoming a Daily Mail arch-Brexiteer, who has since migrated to the Daily Express, and is espousing really quite problematic views. I have seen a spiral downwards towards a pretty much far-right position. A position he would not have been in had he continued to read the Daily Telegraph. I get sent things daily by him that are so egregious I often cannot bring myself to reply because it will damage our relationship irreparably. However, I often do reply and hit him with a torrent of facts and figures (in response to outright lies presented in the Mail, for example) and rational arguments, and it is water off a duck’s back. It has absolutely no lasting impression.
“He does well at the Despatch Box but that gets no coverage.” This is something a commenter said, rightfully, about Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who won Labour leadership because he is competent, middle class, and should appeal to the swing voters.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement recently. Starmer is competent in a political context, but hardly anyone knows about this, watches it, or much cares. It’s all about social media, and media savviness. Which is to say it is a lot about our media. Which is to say it is a lot about our media landscape and how it fully supports the right in a massive way.
The centre/centre-left: The Independent (now out of print)
The left: The Mirror, The Guardian
Wow. Just look at that list. In 2020, The Daily Mail alone had a print readership double that of The Guardian and Mirror combined. It is also the most read online news source in the world. The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Mail Online are phenomenal in the media landscape:
The Mail brands reach total monthly audience of 31.1M, according to new figures
The newsbrand also reaches 8.2M Britons each day, 15 per cent of the population
In my local store on a Saturday, they get a delivery of a literal tower of Daily Mails (DM) that is as tall as me. They get about five Guardians. Five. There is no mechanism to break this consistent reinforcement of misinformation and disinformation.
The DM is also one of the least reliable, skewing massively to the right – remember, they supported Nazism in the 30s. As Huck report:
According to research by YouGov, the British media definitely has a skew to the right – and the greatest out of the seven European nations polled.
But why? Well, papers like the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun have colossal circulation figures that tower over smaller, more left-leaning ones like the Guardian. Looking at 19 papers, including big hitters like the Daily Star, the i, and the Financial Times, the Guardian has the lowest daily circulation at just 138,000. That’s in comparison to the Sun, which has the greatest circulation at just over one million. In terms of reach, left-wing publications pale in comparison to the big business of both right-wing broadsheets and tabloids.
There’s also no way to discuss a right-lean in the mainstream media without looking at the “non-partisan” outlets at the centre. Of course, the BBC is a gigantic, multi-platform organisation branching off in multiple directions, but a 2013 analysis of BBC output found that contrary to popular belief, Tory voices got the most airtime. You’ve also got those with heavy Conservative Party involvement – like Andrew Neil – presenting, which doesn’t help the case for impartiality. To add insult to injury, a 2013 study found that the Beeb was more likely to interview business executives than trade union representatives, with a ratio of 19 to one in 2012.
I campaigned for the Alternative Vote back when the Tores went into minority government with the Liberal Democrats. “Yes” were winning until David Cameron, the then PM, phoned four editors one night and asked them to start campaigning “No”. Overnight, the vote switched and we lost Proportional Representation. All down to the media. Of course, it came back to bite the voters on the arse when the same voters picked UKIP in the general election, and four million votes returned 1 MP! This will be discussed in my next piece concerning First Past the Post.
The media. Still hugely important.
And now TV news media is moving to the right, in a big way. We have two centrist news channels. Despite what the right might tell you about the BBC, it is largely free of opinion and traits are very safe path. We also have Sky News that skews to the centre-right. We simply do not have any left-wing news media at all. And we are about have two avowedly right-wing news organisations in the form of GB News and UK TV News
Two brand new right-wing news channels, one of them being Murdoch’s.
Be warned. As The New Statesman observes:
Here in Britain we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Two new right-leaning television news channels will be launched this spring – a prospect that fills me with foreboding. Right now this deeply fractured, ill-informed country needs the gradual “Foxification” of its broadcast media (and concurrent weakening of the BBC) like a proverbial hole in the head.
Is “Foxification” too strong a word? Not if you recall the blueprint for advancing the right’s agenda that Dominic Cummings unveiled when he ran a think tank called the New Frontiers Foundation back in 2004.
He called the BBC a “mortal enemy” and “determined propagandist” whose “very existence should be the subject of a very intense and well-funded campaign”. He continued: “There are three things that the right needs to happen in terms of communications…1) the undermining of the BBC’s credibility; 2) the creation of a Fox News equivalent/talk radio shows/loggers etc to shift the centre of gravity; 3) the end of the ban on TV political advertising.”
Part one of that strategy has been underway for several years. Conservative ministers, backed by press barons with their own vested interests, have relentlessly attacked what Boris Johnson likes to call the “Brexit Bashing Corporation” – labelling it the mouthpiece of the liberal metropolitan elite, boycotting its news programmes, threatening to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee and calling its future funding into question.
Part two is now taking shape. News UK TV – an evening-only service offering news and political debate – will be financed by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and overseen by David Rhodes, a former Fox News and CBS executive.
GB News, backed by £60m from predominantly right-wing financiers, will be a 24-hour service fronted by Andrew Neil, the chairman of the Spectator. Its chief executive will be Angelos Frangopoulos, who built up Murdoch’s Sky News Australia and turned it into an echo chamber for that country’s right-wing Liberal government.
GB News will serve “the vast number of British people who feel underserved and unheard by their media”, says Neil, an unlikely champion of the left-behind who seems to forget that he has long been a stalwart of Britain’s mainstream media and was one of the BBC’s star turns for 25 years.
Unlike America’s Fox News, of course, the new channels will be bound by Ofcom’s impartiality rules – but those rules can be bent. “Balance” can be achieved over a day – as at LBC, where Nigel Farage was offset by the liberal James O’Brien, or over a series of programmes rather than just one. Forceful right-wingers can be balanced by lacklustre opponents. The former can be promoted much more heavily than the latter. Highly-opinionated presenters such as Piers Morgan already get away with a degree of pontification unthinkable a decade ago.
Commercial imperatives, moreover, all push in one direction only. In its early years Fox News was relatively mainstream, but it soon realised how to drive up ratings and advertising revenue. The trick was not expensive, high-quality journalism, but the stoking of division, tribalism and outrage, and the decrying of rival channels as purveyors of liberal agendas and fake news.
That led to the increasing polarisation of US broadcasting as Fox’s rivals on left and right were themselves forced to become ever shriller and more partisan. Opinion trumped fact, and normal democratic discourse was poisoned.
How striking it was to see James Murdoch, of all people, castigating the US media in the Financial Times for stoking the “toxic politics” now threatening American democracy. “Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years,” he said, albeit without mentioning Fox News by name.
A similar if subtler process of broadcasting polarisation here would have another unfortunate consequence. It would enfeeble the BBC, with its obligation to provide balanced and impartial public service journalism, because its news output would inevitably seem staid and boring by comparison.
So before we talk about the message, and before we talk further about mechanisms (deunionisation, Scotland, First Past the Post), we have a system that is stacked against the left so that it is hamstrung in being able to get its message out to the electorate in the same way that the right can.
Follow the money. The money, because it will naturally be in the hands of the few who hold the capital strings, will favour the right.
This problem is only going to get worse. Especially when this government is putting in Paul Dacre, the hated-by-the-left infamously right-wing ex-editor of the Daily Mail, in charge of Ofcom, the government media regulator. The Fox is in the hen house. The Byline Times list 10 reasons why this hellish appointment should not happen:
- Dacre has a known, visceral objection to the statutory regulation of journalists, which is one of Ofcom’s most important jobs.
- He has a 20-year record of repeatedly breaching regulatory codes and of failing to improve his conduct in response to regulatory action.
- He failed to notice his own Daily Mail staff commissioning unlawful activities and failed to investigate this when it was pointed out to him.
- He repeatedly published misinformation on an important medical matter affecting the lives of millions of children.
- He has a well-known and frequently expressed hatred for the most important organisation regulated by Ofcom.
- He has limited respect for, or understanding of, the rule of law.
- He has shown no understanding of ethical boundaries when challenging those whose beliefs he dislikes.
- He created myths about the Stephen Lawrence case that have been used to defend him against charges of racism.
- He broke a public promise made by his employer to the readers of his newspaper.
- His workplace conduct is widely reported to be far below what is reasonably expected of a very senior public servant.
So far, so bad. I am fearful of where our country is going, politically, and I can see no way out of this because the people in charge are the ones making the rules, and they are making them to favour…themselves.
And most of the electorate don’t seem to care. They will continue reading the disinformation, lapping it up, and voting for who they are told to, or who continues to perpetuate the narrative they are fed. They don’t care about Johnson’s lies and his corruption. Why? I don’t know, immigrants or something. Something the Daily Nail told them.
To be continued.
- Do We Drive the Media or Does the Media Drive Us?
- Media Bias and More Partisan News for the UK
- The Bias and Downright Lies of the UK Media over EU Referendum
- Brexit and the Media
Stay in touch! Like A Tippling Philosopher on Facebook: