Here’s the thing with media coverage of politics in this country. The broadcasting regulator Ofcom states three things clearly in its guidelines for political coverage on TV:
News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.
Significant mistakes in news should be corrected on air quickly.
No politician may be used as a newsreader, interviewer or reporter in any news programmes unless, exceptionally, it is editorially justified. In that case, the political allegiance of that person must be made clear to the audience.
All very sensible rules that are in place for a purpose – to prevent the broadcast media from abusing its power and exerting undue influence over the public.
Yet this system is rendered pretty much null and void by the complete absence of anything resembling the same rules for the British print media.
Bizarrely in this country, we have one rule for one medium and one rule for another. Regarding the three points above, newspapers continue to get away with:
Frequent inaccurate reporting and no attempt at impartiality.
Mistakes corrected months later (and often not given due prominence).
Employing politicians and those with clear political allegiances as journalists (or in some cases, editors).
The bias in political reporting within the UK press is obvious to many people. The UK came bottom out of 33 European countries in a recent study on public trust in the press. Yet there seems to be no effort to do anything meaningful about it. The current main press regulator IPSO is laughably weak and ineffective. It doesn’t even cover all of the main UK press outlets, and many of those it does seem to be not bothered in any way by its puny sanctions. The worst three offenders – the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Express – transgressed its rules 43 times between them in 2016.
This contrast between print and broadcast media is magnified during election time. Whereas TV channels are reminded to show extra care not just in reporting but in giving due prominence and airtime to political parties, the printed press ratchets things up a couple of notches and serves up an extra helping of bias.
The partisan nature of reporting is even seen as a thing of pride among some, with the nation’s best selling daily The Sun fond of boasting that it has the power to win elections for the party it throws its support behind.
Exactly how much influence newspapers have in shaping political opinion is open to debate. Some may say that in the age of social media, their influence is declining. Others may counter that social media has enhanced the power of these publications, with the ability to share and retweet stories broadening their reach (with the Mail Online site ranked 8th most popular global news site with 53 million visitors a month, and the Guardian 10th with 42 million).
While not everyone who reads a particular paper will share its political views, it’s fair to say that a percentage of people will be influenced. After all, if there was no correlation between these things, then the impartiality rules imposed by Ofcom wouldn’t exist.
So why can’t the printed press be subjected to the same regulatory checks as broadcast media? Surely if a political party proposed this, it would be a vote-winner with the public. Who wouldn’t want an honest, impartial press over a corrupt, partisan one telling people what to think?
The impartiality of the press benefits two groups in society – the owners of the newspapers guilty of impartiality and the political parties they support. The parties get a free form of advertising via the support, while the owners get to exercise unfair influence over political proceedings. While democracy gives each of us a single vote, press laws give newspaper proprietors an opportunity to steer millions of votes in a direction of their choosing.
While all of the main parties benefit from some form of support from the British press, historically it’s the Tories who have benefited the most (see table below). 4 of the 5 biggest selling dailies support the Conservative Party and this is strongly reflected in their editorial behaviour. The 6th and 7th biggest selling papers (Daily Star and Daily Express) are owned by Richard Desmond, who has donated over £1 million to UKIP. Labour and the Liberal Democrats enjoy more support among the lower-selling broadsheets, with the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror the only non-Tory paper in the top five. Critics who say that the British press is the most right-wing in Europe can point to these statistics to back up their views.
Newspaper owners are among the wealthiest people in society. The combined wealth of Rupert Murdoch (The Sun, The Times), Viscount Rothermere (Daily Mail), the Barclay Brothers (Daily Telegraph) and Richard Desmond (Star and Express) is £20 billion. It makes sense for them to back political parties that are going to offer lower taxes for the highest earners and be favourable towards big business. If the papers can get away with it, you can’t really blame them for trying to skew results in their favour.
Seen in this light, the negative campaigning against Jeremy Corbyn in large sections of the press makes a lot more sense. A left-wing Labour government would be very bad for them. Labour has promised to raise corporation tax along with tax for the highest earners, so these billionaires stand to lose under a Labour government. Taking advantage of lax almost non-existent press laws to influence proceedings and make sure this doesn’t happen is a rational self-interested response.
But this article isn’t about being pro-Labour or anti-Tory. It’s about levelling the playing field and not giving one or other party an unfair head start. To do this requires one of two things – either new laws are introduced to bring the printed press into line with the broadcast media in terms of impartiality, or papers are forced to declare their support for political parties by printing their logo on each page so that it’s made clear to the public that they are little more than marketing pamphlets in terms of political coverage.
Until something like this happens, the UK press remains a corrupting institution that diminishes our democracy rather than being a positive symbol of it.
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