In British politics, almost everyone is black-pilled. For intellectuals and activists, this means they have come to the fatalistic realisation that ideas no longer matter or, if they do, our political class is incapable of acting on them. The general public feels the same way, but for them, it is an implicit belief rather than an overt grievance. Everyone understands that ours is an era defined by declining trust in politics, and a slow foreclosing of the notion that tomorrow can be better than today.
More bizarre still is that within this vacuum, all sides believe their opponents have triumphed. Socialists say conservatives have prevailed, while conservatives declare that a revolution in values, begun in the 1960s, leaves their worldview obsolete. Liberals, whose aversion to big ideas is itself a form of ideology, insist that political dogma has returned and zealots run riot.
Central to all of these assumptions is the idea that the media is partisan and one-sided. Here, once again, both left and right contend that the other is all-powerful. But things get particularly interesting when it comes to the British media because – and hear me out here – both sides are correct.
Billionaire-owned press v liberal broadcasters.
When the left thinks of media bias in the UK the conversation understandably turns to how rightwing billionaires own much of the country’s press. In our digital age, these may no longer be the titans of old, but their influence remains. The Mail has a daily print circulation of 700,000, while the Sun, Mirror and Mail Online have the second, third and fourth largest audiences of any digital outlet (the BBC is first). Indeed the Mirror is conspicuous in an environment where billionaire families – the Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays – exert control over two-thirds of the nation’s newspapers. The left, including myself, often points to this as evidence that the system is rigged against the policies we support. And we are right.
At the same time, however, conservatives admonish broadcast media. They say the BBC failed to adequately cover discontent with the European Union before 2016, and that the corporation is obsessed with the talking points of a metropolitan chatterati. They maintain that current affairs on Channel 4 is basically Fox News for liberals, pointing out that Jon Snow allegedly sang “Fuck the Tories” at Glastonbury in 2017, while Krishnan Guru-Murthy muttered how Tory MP Steve Baker was a “cunt” outside Downing Street. In 2019 the channel even broadcast a comedy showing an entirely fictional rightwing campaigner – named Neil Fromage – being shot in the head.
The left generally, and I think understandably, has little issue with any of this since it feels it is only fair to have a counterweight to the print and online press. Conservatives, meanwhile, see this as a brazen double standard, and one that only socialists could maintain. After all, how would the liberal left respond if the Telegraph mockingly executed a parody Keir Starmer? How would it react to a Labour staffer being the subject of a five-minute tirade on BBC Newsnight, just as Dominic Cummings was with Emily Maitliss? Whether you agreed with her or not, BBC presenters are meant to keep their personal views to themselves.
A fair stalemate?
The arguments on both sides are internally coherent and understandable (although, as is probably clear, my sympathies are with the left). But in general it has been a productive and relatively equal stalemate. The trenches of each side peer out into a clearly defined no man’s land. The nation’s political conversation a demilitarised zone, where debate couldn’t drift too far to the right or the left.
Under normal conditions, this set-up works. Labour is given a fair crack by broadcast media while it is monstered by the Telegraph, Sun and Mail. Meanwhile, the Tories enjoy gushing praise from the papers and generally struggle on TV and radio. A major downside with all of this is that when both parties do agree on something – however rare that may be – both print and broadcast seemingly call a truce and go along with them. When they are both wrong, as was the case regarding the need for austerity after 2010, this is a catastrophe, not only for democracy but for effective government. In 2010, it meant that the media didn’t just fail to cover the biggest story of the last decade, but actively cheered on our national decline.
It’s also a problem when either major party seeks to offer radical solutions to things rather than shamble along. During the Jeremy Corbyn years this homeostatic system, where the press is conservative and the broadcast media various shades of New Labour, viscerally broke down as both relentlessly attacked the opposition (often more so than the government). For socialists, this raises vital questions of strategy. While confected hysteria was predictable from the Sun, Times and Mail, it wasn’t from the BBC, LBC and Sky. After a decisive leadership victory in 2016, few would have predicted that anti-Corbyn pundits, and has-been Blairite MPs, would end up squatting in TV studios until they got their way.
Rather than improving, this phenomenon is – if anything – getting worse. Recent co-hosts on Good Morning Britain include Ed Balls (husband of Labour’s shadow-home secretary Yvette Cooper) and Alastair Campbell. David Lammy, himself the shadow foreign secretary, hosts a show on LBC. A few weeks ago we were even treated to the bizarre spectacle of Lammy interviewing Mike Katz about Corbyn before himself being interviewed by Balls on the same issue (Balls was interviewed by Andrew Neil). When broadcast media does try to compensate for the fact that it’s primarily composed of liberals and New Labour supporters based in London, it turns to certain individuals to act as cartoonish avatars for wider discontent. That is why Nigel Farage has appeared on Question Time more than anyone else.
Punch-and-Judy politics is hard-wired into our media.
There’s much to criticise in Britain’s two-party system, which is why I’m in favour of electoral reform. But Punch-and-Judy politics isn’t just limited to Westminster. It’s hard-wired into our media with broadcast and print only offering two flavours of politics: free-market conservatism or re-heated Blairism. Britain is infinitely more varied than that, particularly its younger people, whose values and policy preferences skew left. If their views aren’t reflected in the mainstream media they will simply switch off.
This was all neatly summed up on the BBC’s Politics Live show this week when it asked whether only the centre can win elections. The answer to that is obviously no, otherwise Margaret Thatcher would never have entered Downing Street let alone transformed the country. Meanwhile, Brexit wouldn’t have happened, Donald Trump would still be presenting The Apprentice, and the last liberal prime minister wouldn’t have been Lloyd George in 1922. One luxury of only seeing politics in black and white is that actual thinking is optional. In an age of such heady challenges – from climate change to spiralling inequality and national decline – that is particularly unacceptable.