Corbynism and the Corporation: BBC Bias and the Case for Media Transformation

by Tom Mills

15 August 2016

In an interview for Jacobin magazine earlier this year, Jeremy Corbyn discussed his leadership campaign’s use of social media. He compared it to the situation in the early 1980s when the left of the Labour party, which was then still strong, was more at the mercy of a hostile new media. He mentioned The Sun – no surprises there – but also referred to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as an obstacle to change.

To liberals, and even some leftists, it might seem provocative to refer to one of Rupert Murdoch’s mouthpieces in the same breath as the world’s most prestigious public service broadcaster. But in the period Corbyn was discussing, the BBC was widely regarded as a conservative organisation, and not only by the radical left. James Callaghan, who was very much on the right of the Labour party, thought the BBC small-C conservative “on every issue that mattered” and polling data suggests that much of the public viewed it in similar terms.

Whilst most respondents to the Independent Television Authority’s annual surveys regarded it as non-partisan, up until 1997, of those who perceived some political ‘bias’, the greater proportion always regarded it as pro-Conservative, regardless of which party was in power. On the radical left – including the ‘Bennites’, of which Corbyn was one – the BBC was mostly regarded as an ‘Establishment’ institution, hostile to the left and the organised working class, elitist, bureaucratic and in need of democratisation. I mention this because I think this historical context is useful in understanding the current debates about the politics of the BBC, and the claims and counter-claims about the news media’s treatment of Jeremy Corbyn.

The complaints of media ‘bias’ emanating from Corbyn supporters have been met with some derision and condescension from political commentators, many of whom seem to regard ‘Corbynism’ as a form of mass hysteria, and view its grievances with the ‘mainstream media’ as just another feature of its paranoid politics. But to think Corbyn has been treated fairly by the press, or by the BBC, is to my mind as delusional as anything emanating from the political fringes.

There are as yet no peer-reviewed studies – social science is a slow process – but three research reports have so far appeared which support the Corbynistas’ case against the news media. The first, published by the Media Reform Coalition late last year, was a rather basic quantitative analysis of press articles published in the first week of Corbyn’s leadership. It categorised articles as either positive, negative or neutral, and found that 60% of stories on Corbyn were negative, and only 13% positive.

The second, conducted by the LSE’s Department of Media and Communications, appeared a month ago and is more thorough and authoritative. It supported those earlier findings, reporting similarly that around 60% of newspaper articles were critical or antagonistic towards Corbyn. This time though, less than 10% were found to be supportive. Even more seriously, perhaps, the researchers found that around three quarters of articles either misrepresented or ignored Corbyn’s political views. They concluded that “most newspapers [were] systematically vilifying the leader of the biggest opposition party, assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.”

The most recent study was published a few weeks ago by the Media Reform Coalition and conducted in partnership with the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck. It examined reporting of the ‘coup’ against Corbyn and was particularly interesting because it looked at television coverage as well as newspaper reports. The researchers found that online comment pieces were overwhelmingly critical of Corbyn, that primary sources in news items were much more likely to be critical than supportive, and interestingly that online sources not associated with a print publication (such as the Huffington Post UK) tended to be relatively more supportive.

However, the most striking findings in that report relate to the BBC. The researchers found that BBC News at Six not only gave almost twice as much unchallenged airtime to Corbyn’s critics than his supporters, but that it also gave much more attention to issues mobilised by Corbyn’s opponents.

The obvious defence from the BBC’s perspective would be that this pattern of reporting reflected what was actually going on: Corbyn’s critics were more numerous than his supporters and the issues covered were objectively more newsworthy. As an abstract argument this has at least some merit. What appears on the media can’t be treated in isolation; it reflects what is going on in society and the ways in which perspectives on what is going on are politically mobilised. But the problem as an actual defence of the BBC’s reporting in this case is that the same patterns were not evident in the equivalent reporting on ITV, where supporters of Corbyn were given slightly more uninterrupted airtime than critics, and the attention given to particular issues was much less dramatically weighed against Corbyn. That being the case, this pattern of reporting cannot be explained away with reference to the superior media strategy of Corbyn’s critics, as has often been the case in response to such criticisms.

What then might explain this apparent bias in the BBC’s reporting? After the BBC dismissed the report as nothing more than the product of a ‘vested interest group’ (an argument I have already addressed elsewhere), the former BBC journalist and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason, wrote on Twitter: “The old BBC would have taken evidence like this seriously” adding “The pre-Hutton BBC would not have let it happen.” I don’t think either remark is quite correct.

The BBC has long been attentive to criticisms from the right and from powerful interests, whilst for the most part ignoring criticism from the left, and the findings of reputable scholarly studies. The first major study of the BBC was undertaken by the sociologist Tom Burns in the ’60s and ’70s, who published his findings as Public Institution and Private World, a title that obviously alluded to the secrecy of the Corporation, which initially attempted to block the publication of his study. The first substantive research on BBC reporting, meanwhile, was conducted by Glasgow University in the 1970s, and was dismissed by the broadcaster on the basis the sociologists who conducted the study were ‘Marxists’, which in fact they were not.

More important though is the question of whether the BBC’s poor reporting on Corbynism can, as Mason implies, be attributed to the changes that took place at the Corporation post-Hutton, and thus be treated as something of a contemporary aberration in its longer history. Here the picture is not straightforward, but the problems with the BBC are certainly more longstanding.

The Hutton Inquiry followed a critical report aired on BBC Radio which claimed Downing Street had ‘sexed up’ its dossier to strengthen the case for war on Iraq. This eventually led to the resignation of the then BBC Chair and the Director General, Greg Dyke; the fallout from which is widely, although certainly not universally, thought to have resulted in a more risk-averse culture at the BBC. But these events can easily lead to misunderstandings and the broader context is important here.

The journalist behind the offending BBC report, Andrew Gilligan, had been appointed by the BBC specifically to address the generally uncritical tone of its reporting, signalling a shift away from the stifling editorial culture which had taken hold under Dyke’s predecessor, John Birt. Birt headed the BBC for much of the 1990s and was a committed neoliberal who in the wake of the ferocious attacks on the BBC during the Thatcher period introduced market-based managerial reforms and centralised editorial control. This was part of a much longer process of transformation which I describe in some detail in my forthcoming book, The BBC: Myth of a Public Service.

It was a political struggle which rolled back some of the cultural legacies of post-60s liberal and radical culture which had been institutionalised at the BBC, and at the same time pushed BBC journalism in a much more pro-business, neoliberal direction. All this change took place in an institution which was in any case fundamentally orientated towards official culture, and deeply embedded in the worlds of Westminster and Whitehall, and the close relationship between the BBC and the political elite was, if anything, further entrenched post-Thatcher.

Britain is without a doubt now in a profound and protracted period of crisis much more severe than that of the 1970s, which was when a serious left programme of democratic media reform was last on the political agenda. At that time the BBC felt its legitimacy under threat and responded by doubling down with the imperilled social democratic order. We are seeing something very similar taking place now, with the Corporation showing little willingness to give a fair hearing to Corbyn and his supporters, or even to show much intellectual curiosity about the conditions which have given rise to movements like ‘Corbynism’.

The BBC is a public service broader which given its elitist culture and structural ties to the British state, seems largely unable to report accurately on matters of great public significance – and not only the current political tumult in the Labour party. From the perspective of Corbyn supporters, the hostility of the BBC and the wider news media is a serious strategic problem. But if this problem is to be adequately addressed, we need to think not only about how the news media can be effectively circumvented by a transformative political movement, but how it might be radically reformed so as to better meet the demands of 21st century democracy.

This means not only addressing narrow problems around political ‘bias’, but also thinking about transforming the news media and the wider communicative structures of society in a way that will benefit journalists, cultural workers and the public alike. This will mean reversing the substantive gains on this front which the neoliberals made from the mid-1970s onwards – gains which underline the current conspicuous failures in BBC political journalism.

Tom Mills is a London-based sociologist. His book, ‘The BBC: Myth of a Public Service’, will be published by Verso in November.

Photo: Kyle Cheung/Fickr

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