Very often, when one points out the incessant and almost exceptionless thumping the mainstream media has given Jeremy Corbyn since (before) he was elected Labour leader, the response from his detractors is to blame Corbyn’s team for their poor media management. That the press is against Corbyn is a conspiracy theory or, if it is true, it’s a founding block in the edifice to ineptitude that is ‘Compo Corbyn.’ A savvier leader, one with sharper suits and no bicycle clips, wouldn’t suffer so; he’d simply caress the jackals’ bellies until they sang ‘The Red Flag’ — while still finding time to single-handedly stop Brexit.
On Twitter, I’ve several times seen the following quotation from Enoch Powell invoked in support of this view:
For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.
But it’s a poor metaphor and a poor argument. Yes, the sea can be choppy and destructive; it can run you aground, leave you in the doldrums, or sink you altogether; but it has no agency or will. Whatever it does to you, it’s nothing personal. To think otherwise is the same superstitious ascription of intent that has led people to worship both sun gods and sons of god. So the metaphor fails because the press is not like the sea. My guess is old Enoch was never a sailor, not even on a river of blood.
The press most certainly can sink a politician and will often mean to do just that. Despite its name, the media is not a neutral medium, bestowing fair winds and misfortune without favour, through which politicians chart their course. To think that buys into the fish tale of the press as the ‘Fourth Estate,’ some more or less fair arbiter between political competitors. In fact, the media is largely the corporate media — not an independent power centre but one largely subordinated to big business.
I’m not going to spend several thousand words unpacking this argument. If you’re new to it, read Manufacturing Consent by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky or look at the work produced by Media Lens. In short (and to simplify) the media is a sub-department of business and is structured by its imperatives. This happens in two ways. The first is its structural dependence on advertising revenue. Looked at in simple, institutional terms, the bread and butter of a newspaper company is not selling newspapers but selling readers to advertisers. That’s why newspapers can be given away and why news websites hate ad-blocking. A celebrated historian of British newspapers, Francis Williams, asserted in 1958 that the press ‘would never have come into existence as a force in public and social life if it had not been for the need of men of commerce to advertise. Only through the growth of advertising did the press achieve independence.’[i] Note the use of the word ‘independence,’ there. It’s only intelligible when we recall that the principal threat to press freedom was once the state. There’s a whole history of state control and the radical ‘unstamped’ press that I shan’t go into here. It’s enough to say that the press gained its freedom from government at the expense of being owned by rich men.
The same criticism applies to the commercial broadcast media – it sells viewers’ attention to advertisers on whose revenue it depends. This view was endorsed as long ago as 1989 by the Economist, which noted that, since projects ’unsuitable for corporate sponsorship tend to die on the vine,’ the media ‘have learned to be sympathetic to the most delicate sympathies of corporations’.[ii] In a 2000 Pew Centre for the People & the Press poll, about one-third of the 287 US reporters, editors, and news executives who responded said that stories that would ‘hurt the financial interests’ of the media organization or an advertiser go unreported. 41% admitted avoiding or moderating stories to benefit their media company’s interests.[iii] Even the influential right wing US radio pundit, Rush Limbaugh, hardly a fellow traveller of Noam Chomsky, agrees. A ‘turning point’ in his career came when he realized that ‘the sole purpose for all of us in radio is to sell advertising’.[iv] In 2004, Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant TF1, described the purpose of his company thus:
…let’s be realistic: fundamentally speaking, the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product … If an advertising message is to register, the viewer’s brain needs to be made available. The object of our programmes is to make it available: that is to say to entertain the viewer, to relax him and prepare him between the adverts. What we sell to Coca-Cola is an availability of human brain time.[v]
The second way that the media is subordinate to business is through a process of ideological filtering of its staff, which occurs from school through higher education and into the workplace. There is little need for advertisers or owners to actually tell journalists what they may or may not write because by the time they’re in the job for a while they will have internalised the ‘correct’ values. As Alan Rusbridger, late editor of the late Guardian, conceded several years ago in an interview with Media Lens,
I’m sure… that the pressures of ownership on newspapers is, is pretty important, and it works in all kinds of subtle ways – I suppose ‘filter’ is as good a word as any; the whole thing works by a kind of osmosis. If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, ‘Rupert Murdoch’, or whoever, ‘never tells me what to write’, which is beside the point: they don’t have to be told what to write… It’s understood. I think that does work, and obviously the general interests of most of the people who own newspapers are going to be fairly conventional, pro-business, interests.[vi]
Or, as Noam Chomsky once said to Andrew Marr, ‘I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.’[vii]
It’s not a perfect system, as Hermann and Chomsky concede, but it is very effective.[viii] There will be occasional deviations by a few more independently-minded journalists, but the overwhelming weight of the system still favours the neoliberal consensus of the past forty years. And this isn’t to touch on the personal preferences of many journalists at the higher end who have done very well out of the current system and so have a class interest in keeping it.
It should be obvious, then, that the idea that a socialist party simply needs to manage the press better is a nonsense. The corporate media is not there to be won over, it can’t be ‘managed’ into giving Corbyn a fair hearing. In fact, once one understands how the media works, the burden of proof would rest with anyone those who claimed that it wouldn’t be biased against Corbyn.
The only time the media has approached even-handedness with Corbyn was during the imposition of impartiality rules on broadcasters during the 2017 General Election campaign. For the BBC, these came into force on 3rd May, although for commercial broadcasters, they began with the announcment of the dissolution in Parliament, which was 27th April. Their coincidence with the upturn in Labour polling, as shown in the Britain Elects poll tracker, is striking. The Blue and Red horizontal lines represent Tory and Labour polling and my addition of the green vertical line shows when the OFCOM broadcasting rules came into effect.
Opponents of this line of thought will point to the Blair Governments and their far better treatment from the corporate media when compared with both Foot, Kinnock, and Smith before, and Brown, Miliband, and Corbyn afterward. It’s certainly true that Blair and Alasdair Campbell employed a thorough and systematic approach to managing the media, from the ‘Rapid Rebuttal Unit’ and the Excalibur computer, to combative press briefings and a deliberate campaign to ‘woo’ newspaper editors and previously ignored areas like women’s magazines. Yet Rupert Murdoch besieged Labour before and after Blair; it’s not tenable to believe that this changed merely because his editors had been bought a good lunch. Rather, New Labour were the Sun on Sunday to the Tories’ News of the World. New Labour’s real success was not to win over business but to capitulate to it. A genuinely socialist party can make no such concessions, which is why a cellar-full of Krug won’t win editors over to Corbyn. Hence, we see that, once again, old Enoch was wrong. The press is not the sea on which Corbyn sails, it’s a fleet of enemy ships.
Correction 9th August 2018
Following feedback in the comments, I have corrected a typo in which I incorrectly stated that Theresa May called the election on 27th of May. I have also clarified the timeline of events. For more details, see Eleanor Bley Griffiths ‘Here’s why the media is banned from reporting on general election campaigning while the polls are open,’ Radio Times 8th June 2017, available at https://www.radiotimes.com/news/2017-06-08/heres-why-the-media-is-banned-from-reporting-on-general-election-campaigning-while-the-polls-are-open/
For OFCOM rules, see the ‘Election Reporting’ section of the Channel Four Producers’ Handbook: https://www.channel4.com/producers-handbook/media-law/other-laws-affecting-broadcasting/election-reporting
[i] Quoted in James Curran and Jean Seaton (1981 ) ‘Power Without Responsibility. Press, broadcasting and the internet in Britain,’ p. 4.
[ii] ‘Castor oil or Camelot?’ in The Economist, 5th December, 1987, quoted in Noam Chomsky (1989) ‘Necessary Illusions. Thought Control in Democratic Societies,’ p. 8.
[iii] ‘Fear & Favor 2000: How Power Shapes the News’, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting Annual Report available at https://fair.org/extra/fear-amp-favor-2000-the-first-annual-report/ (accessed 06/08/2018).
[iv] Quoted in Pratkanis & Aronson (2001), ‘Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion’ p. 56.
[v] Cited in Ignacio Ramonet, ‘Final edition for the press’, in Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition), January 2005, available at http://mondediplo.com/2005/01/16press (last accessed 06/08/2018); Full quote available at https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temps_de_cerveau_humain_disponible (last accessed 06/08/2018). The full quote in French reads: ‘Mais dans une perspective business, soyons réaliste : à la base, le métier de TF1, c’est d’aider Coca-Cola, par exemple, à vendre son produit… Or pour qu’un message publicitaire soit perçu, il faut que le cerveau du téléspectateur soit disponible. Nos émissions ont pour vocation de le rendre disponible: c’est-à-dire de le divertir, de le détendre pour le préparer entre deux messages. Ce que nous vendons à Coca-Cola, c’est du temps de cerveau humain disponible’. My thanks to Daniel Simpson for the translation.
[vi] Media Lens (2000) Interview With Alan Rusbridger, Editor,The Guardian, available at http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/interviews/80-interview-with-alan-rusbridger-editor-the-guardian.html (accessed 06/08/2018).
[vii] Andrew Marr interviewed Noam Chomsky for a series called ‘The Big Idea,’ which was broadcast on the BBC in February 1996. The thirty minute programme can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/GjENnyQupow
[viii] The model proposed by Herman and Chomsky has been criticised. James Curran (2002), for example, argues that the radical critique is ‘bedevilled by a simple “system logic”’, which assumes that ‘business-controlled media serve business’ thus ignoring or downplaying countervailing influences such as the need to maintain audience interest to remain profitable, the need to preserve their legitimacy, and the need to consider the ‘professional concerns of their staff.’ (James Curran ‘Media and Power’ p. 223).