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UK election: Media elitism and its threat to progressive change

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Jeremy Corbyn is arguably the most smeared politician in the history of Western democracy. 75 percent of Corbyn media coverage factually misrepresents him. Still image from the BBC.

On December 13, British progressives awoke to the grim reality of having to face yet another five years of Conservative Party leadership under Boris Johnson. The landslide Tory victory, which came as a shock to many, was made even more injurious by the hope and encouragement of a galvanized youth-led movement behind Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Despite this mass mobilization, Labour was served with their worst result since 1935. As soon as the exit polls were read out, predicting a significant Conservative majority, hope turned to incredulity. Pundits and campaigners wondered if Corbyn’s brand of democratic socialism was to blame, while others turned to Labour’s weak position on Brexit as a probable explanation.

It didn’t take much time for Corbyn to announce that he would not lead Labour in the next general election, effectively resigning his post. His departure has been welcomed by many. Some Labour MPs took to Twitter minutes following the exit poll results, denouncing Corbyn for having pushed the party “too far left” and noting how their working-class constituents cared more about getting Brexit done than supporting progressive policies.

Adding to the harsh criticisms emanating from his own party, Corbyn faced significant and enduring contempt in Britain’s billionaire-owned tabloid press. Indeed, the mainstream media portrayal of Corbyn is a factor that should not be discounted from the critical analysis that will take place over the coming weeks and months. In addition to launching coordinated smear campaigns, the scale and vitriol of which are arguably unprecedented in the history of Western democracy, the British media displayed a significant disdain for the leader and overt favouritism for his Tory rival.

Left-wing media

Perhaps most disappointing was the traditional left-wing media’s reactions to the Labour campaign. The Guardian, traditionally a left-leaning newspaper (though it increasingly espouses neoliberal ideas), engaged in blatantly dishonest reporting regarding Jeremy Corbyn. As soon as he was named Labour leader in 2015, The Guardian started peddling claims of alleged antisemitism (allegations astutely debunked here by Leo Panitch).

This charge, which was levelled at Corbyn by the more moderate factions of the Labour party in reaction to his criticism of Israeli government policies, was systematically rehashed by The Guardian despite a lack of evidence. Moreover, in its coverage of the campaign, the paper published pieces on Corbyn’s possible ties to Russia (he doesn’t have any), his lack of dedication to housework and his lack of catchy slogans.

In their halfhearted endorsement of the Labour Party, The Guardian ostensibly suggested to voters that they hold their noses and vote for Corbyn in spite of him being an “unpopular” and “flawed choice” with an “overwhelming” manifesto. Since the election, The Guardian has published numerous pieces blaming Corbyn for Labour’s loss. Most of these were penned by commentators who favour a return to a form of Blairite neoliberalism.

Going even further than The Guardian, New Statesman, a magazine founded by Fabian socialists in the early twentieth century and until now considered a progressive publication, refused to endorse Corbyn. The magazine also repeated the unfounded claims of antisemitism and piled on by describing Corbyn as an “unfit leader”. Towards the end of the campaign, as Corbyn provided evidence that the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) was under threat of privatization by the conservatives, New Statesman dismissed the evidence and stated that the quoted document proved “nothing new”.

Together, The Guardian and New Statesman cater to a considerable proportion of Britain’s “leftist” readership. The result of this persistent smear campaign presumably left a significant impression on progressive voters. What is certain, then, is that Corbyn had to spend considerable time and energy defending his reputation and character rather than advocating for his party’s platform. As the results came in on December 12, it became clear that Labour voter turnout in some key areas had dropped in comparison to the 2017 election. One can imagine that the substantial negative coverage may have contributed to this phenomenon.

The BBC bias

The BBC’s coverage was unapologetically biased during the campaign. As opposed to the publications mentioned above, the BBC does not claim to display an ideological lens. As the national public broadcaster, it presents itself as a neutral commentator. However, this neutrality was lost to anyone paying attention to the BBC’s coverage of the general election.

Several incidents revealed the broadcaster’s marked favouritism for the conservatives. When Corbyn agreed to participate in an interview with reporter and host Andrew Neil, he was faced with probing questions on his leadership and electoral platform. Boris Johnson, who declined to be interviewed by Neil, was neither confronted on his decision to skip the interview nor presented with the same level of scrutiny. During the last weeks of the campaign, a BBC reporter said, live on air, that she hoped Johnson would get the majority he “so deserves”.

Days away from the election, a BBC correspondent was also caught illegally reporting on early results that favoured the Tories. As a result of the broadcaster’s clear favouritism, Corbyn’s campaign filed an official complaint to the head of the BBC stating that they had evidently abandoned their “obligations to fairness and impartiality”. This is the sort of biased and defamatory reporting one would expect from the tabloid media.

Media ownership

The dangerously poor quality of the election reporting is not altogether surprising when viewed in the context of the pronounced concentration of media ownership in the UK. Five companies, most headed by billionaires, effectively control 80 percent of the media.

The UK’s Media Reform Coalition asks in their most recent report, “What does it mean to have ‘independent media’ when many of our most influential news organizations are controlled by individuals and Boards that are so closely connected with vested interests?”

This election clearly exposed how elite interests fear Corbyn and his promises to address systemic inequalities in British society. The UK media landscape is deeply influenced by prominent oligarchs like magnates Rupert Murdoch and aristocrat Jonathan Rothermere. These figures have a vested interest in conserving the status quo which has permitted their enrichment at the expense of the collective well-being of ordinary citizens.

Lessons to be learned

One can see a similar dynamic taking place in the United States with the Bernie Sanders campaign. First, Sanders, who is Jewish, has also been ludicrously accused of antisemitism in reaction to his support for the rights of Palestinians. Second, Sanders has been vilified and ignored by the US mainstream press.

In a series of polls commissioned by legacy media outlets, Sanders has either been ignored, or has seen his support diminished by manipulative media tactics. Though polling data consistently shows that Sanders is the most likely to defeat Trump in the upcoming 2020 election, the media routinely masks or ignores his broad popular appeal. Media outlets have been caught preemptively cutting away from Sanders while he is speaking, exaggerating his health concerns and dismissing his clear lead in the polls. Other candidates who represent a challenge to the status quo, such as Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang, have also been the targets of media smears and manipulative tactics.

Moreover, by openly distorting information and reality, that mainstream media in both the UK and the US has shown itself to be the propaganda arm of elite interests. This is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman famously deconstructed the power and role of the media in their famous work Manufacturing Consent. However, it does seem as though these tactics, traditionally hidden from view, are now being deployed for all to see. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people are turning away from mainstream media towards new and alternative outlets. The proportion of people who now get at least some of their news from Youtube, Twitter and Facebook now stands at 68 percent.

In reality, we are replacing traditional monopolies with new ones, or else witnessing the merger of elite interests as is the case with Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezoz who now also owns the Washington Post, an important Beltway outlet.

Even if traditional mainstream media is to be replaced by online platforms, the issue remains the same: it is profoundly dangerous to accept the consolidation of ownership and power over these outlets, which so many rely upon to understand the world around them.

The people who stand to gain the most from leaders like Corbyn and Sanders are being fed increasingly ruthless lies about these candidates by the elites who fear their progressive policies. The extent to which the democratic process is being hijacked by monopoly interests in deeply troubling and should be a focal point of public debate.

Elizabeth Leier is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. Her interests include international politics, foreign policy and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter.

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