The media serves an important if not vital function in a democratic society. But, what if the bulk of the mainstream press becomes controlled by a handful of foreign-based billionaires?
Anyone can see the obvious perils of a state-controlled media, but the dangers of the extreme opposite scenario are not widely understood.
In the UK and the US, we are justified to mock countries like Russia for their consumption of a state-owned media and propaganda, but we need to acknowledge that we have serious problems of our own at the other end of the spectrum.
In the last thirty years, the bulk of the UK and US media has become controlled by just a handful of corporate billionaires. Between them, they control the lion’s share of mass-media. Highly biased, normally with a strong political sway, and largely unregulated.
Loss of balance
In the US, restrictions were lifted in 1987 that previously required the holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced. The removal of this act gave rise to news channels such as the Fox News network, owned by Rupert Murdoch who is also the owner of News Corp in the UK.
Fox grew to prominence in the 1990s as a highly partisan network. But people are increasingly questioning whether it has crossed a line and has become an outright propaganda operation for the Trump administration.
There is little doubt this has been happening in the UK for decades too. Murdoch’s UK interests, such as The Sun newspaper, as well as other openly right-wing newspapers have also faced criticism regarding their highly partisan reporting.
Notably the Daily Mail’s reporting of the Brexit campaign saw them issue a ‘celebratory commemorative issue’ after the vote to leave the EU. This was followed by several ominous and threatening headlines naming politicians and judges on front covers as ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘conspirators’ who dared hamper Brexit on a legal or political basis. Some pointed out frighteningly similar headlines from Nazi party state propaganda in the 1930s.
Highly biased and partisan reporting has become somewhat of the norm in the UK press. Such is the power of this reporting, there has been visible shifts in attitudes to previously very normal ideas.
Socialist concepts such as the NHS, free education for all, and social security may be proud British institutions that reflect our sense of fairness and values. Yet the UK press has succeeded in making ‘socialism’ a dirty word.
Ask someone in the UK if they support the NHS, or free education for children, and nine times out of ten they’ll say ‘of course.’ Ask them if they agree with democratic socialism and you’d wonder if you had just insulted their mother. The two are the same thing.
Whether you agree with Brexit or not, it’s hard to argue against the influence of anti-EU rhetoric that has been drip fed to the public over the past two decades. Ironically, Boris Johnson was once the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, where he was credited with creating the “euromyth.” This was the cavalcade of stories claiming the EU was threatening Britain’s way of life (you can see a list of these ‘euromyths’ here). He even takes credit for the ‘straight bananas’ myth. Later he was sacked for making up stories.
Conversely, concepts like ‘trickle down economics’ whereby the ultra-wealthy or global corporations should be given more tax breaks than their workers because they ‘create wealth’ which trickles down to people like us, have been given credence. Bottom-up economics, despite proven to circulate more spend than allowing the wealthy to horde it in offshore accounts, is almost a forgotten concept.
Even investing in our own future through capital projects and education has been squashed in the era of austerity, whilst scandals of epic proportions, like the Panama Papers, were barely covered in the news.
Smear, smear and more smear
If our mainstream press has become a propaganda machine for the right-wing, it’s no wonder that the first openly socialist leader Britain has had in twenty years has been the victim of perhaps the longest continuous smear campaign ever seen against a politician in the UK.
In 2016 we ran an opinion piece titled “Think Corbyn is a loser? Oh dear, you’ve been brainwashed.” This was referring to the amount of smear in the UK press directed at the Labour leader. But, it seems, things have got a lot worse for the UK’s official leader of the opposition.
No other politician in the UK has faced the sheer volume of smear that Corbyn has. This article by the Independent calculated that 75 per cent of all press coverage of Jeremy Corbyn, factually misrepresented him.
When studying the last half century of political smears, Corbyn tops the chart. Smear campaigns agains him, in terms of volume, makes the national newspaper attacks on the likes of Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband look like April Fools jokes.
Anyone older than 30 might remember Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich on the front cover of The Sun. Those over 40 may recall the infamous ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’ headline referring to the 1992 John Major Tory victory where the tabloid had led an increasingly personal campaign against the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock, culminating in the famous election day headline: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”
The smears on Corbyn are almost daily, which perhaps demonstrates what a threat Corbyn is to the proprietors of those particular media outlets. The list of smears is simply too long to list, but a small selection of some of the more ridiculous ones can be seen here.
It sinks in, however hard we try to resist it
Ask ten people over thirty what they think of Jeremy Corbyn, and chances are you’ll hear some pretty damning responses. But interestingly, most of the negative responses merely parrot headlines seen in the Mail, Sun, Express and Telegraph. You’re hard pushed to hear something new.
Corbyn hasn’t even been safe from the ‘bastion of independent journalism’ the BBC. The London Economic reported news that one of Britain’s leading barristers has evidence of BBC bias against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project alleged that the BBC has indulged in showing “coded negative imagery” of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn since his election in 2015. Even this week, BBC Panorama produced what is widely regarded as a hatchet job on Jeremy Corbyn and antisemitism within the Labour party.
It doesn’t even begin to stop there. Last year, The London Economic reported that over £2m taxpayers’ cash was spent by the Conservative Government funding an infowars unit which smeared Corbyn and Labour.
Think about it for a second. Government spending taxpayer money to smear the opposition. It is something you might expect in a Banana Republic or an authoritarian state. Yet it’s happening right here in the UK.
Throw enough mud…
Every freelance journalist in the country knows that any dirt on Corbyn or his closest allies will fetch a decent sum of money from certain newspapers. Whilst freelancing, I personally received order from a journalist at one of the UK’s leading newspapers telling me ‘we’ll take anything you’ve got on Corbyn.’
The problem for the newspapers is that Corbyn is actually pretty boring (in news terms). There really isn’t much dirt to dig up.
As a media outlet, it isn’t easy to smear a popular politician who held his seat for approaching 40 years and has dedicated his life to peace and democratic socialism, standing up for the working class.
Hacks in the press rooms have been tasked by their superiors with siphoning through decades old leaflets, newsletters, videos and interviews to try and pull out a line or two that may, if taken out of context, portray Corbyn in a negative light. Hence why a continuous newsreel of loosely interpreted ‘Corbyn the terrorist sympathiser’ and ‘Corbyn the anti-Semite’ stories are shoved down our throats.
Most people, even those who don’t like Corbyn are baffled, if not bored by the continual headlines.
Whilst antisemitism, racism and Islamaphobia exists in almost every political party (and undoubtedly needs to be challenged at every level), if you take the care to look at Corbyn’s constituency work and history, even to suggest that he is in any way personally hostile to or prejudiced against Jews is almost laughable.
In a political period where we have leaders and high profile politicians like Trump and Boris overtly making racist comments and failing to condemn racist actions, it makes the whole Corbyn smear seem even more absurd. Yet the mud sticks, and it keeps coming.
You can’t win an election with the media against you
Some Remainers believe that the motivation to get out of the EU for many of the ultra-rich was to escape from the EU’s forthcoming clampdown on tax avoidance. If there is truth in that, then imagine the threat Corbyn poses to those individuals.
The bigger problem for Corbyn now is that the centralists in the Labour party fear that the media propaganda machine will never let-up on Corbyn, and that without mass mainstream support, he will never get elected. This would be unthinkable against perhaps the most disastrous and unpopular Conservative Government in living memory.
They are mindful that the media does sway the voters and today more than 60 Labour peers put their names to an advert in the Guardian accusing Corbyn of failing to tackle antisemitism.
Tony Blair bowed down to power of the media moguls and got them onside. But at what cost?
Chris Renwick’s social media post (the most shared article during the 2017 general election) summed this up:
We’ve waited forever for an honest politician to come along but instead of getting behind him we bow to the establishment like good little workers.
We run around like hypnotised robots repeating headlines we’ve read, all nodding and agreeing.
Whether or not you support Corbyn or agree with his politics, we need to ask ourselves if this is the kind of media we want. It’s up to us to reject the spin and bias, and seek accurate and truthful reporting.
Ollie McAninch is a former public and private sector economist turned digital media pioneer. After working in the media for over a decade, he helped develop The London Economic to promote independent investigative journalism.When he isn’t contributing articles, Ollie spends the bulk of his time looking after animals, pressing apples and planting trees.
This article originally appeared in the The London Economic.