The British media has never had much time for Jeremy Corbyn.
Within a week of his election as Labour Party leader in September, it was engaging in a campaign the Media Reform Coalition characterized as an attempt to “systematically undermine” his position. In an avalanche of negative coverage 60 percent of all articles which appeared in the mainstream press about Corbyn were negative with only 13 percent positive. The newsroom, ostensibly the objective arm of the media, had an even worse record: 62 percent negative with only 9 percent positive.
This sustained attack had itself followed a month of wildly misleading headlines about Corbyn and his policies in these same outlets. Concerns about sexual assaults on public transport were construed as campaigning for women-only trains. Advocacy for Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies was presented as a plan to “turn Britain into Zimbabwe.” An appeal to reconsider the foreign policy approach of the last decade was presented as an association with Putin’s Russia.
In the months which followed the attacks continued. Particularly egregious examples, such as the criticism of Corbyn for refusing to “bow deeply enough” while paying his respects on Remembrance Day, stick in the memory. But it is the insidious rather than the ridiculous which best characterizes the British media’s approach to Corbyn.
One example of this occurred in January when it was revealed that the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg had coordinated the resignation of a member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet so that it would occur live on television. Planned for minutes before Corbyn was due to engage in Prime Minister’s Questions, it was a transparent attempt to inflict the maximum damage possible to his leadership.
The bias at Britain’s public broadcaster has become so blatant that it has drawn criticism from prominent former employees. Kuenssberg’s predecessor, Nick Robinson, described himself as “shocked” at the regularity of the attacks, and the former chair of the BBC Trust Sir Michael Lyons, made comments earlier this year condemning the “quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour Party.”
But perhaps the most extraordinary episode has been the accusations of antisemitism levelled at Corbyn and the Labour leadership in the run up to May’s local elections. As Jamie Stern-Weiner demonstrated in this excellent article in OpenDemocracy, “the chasm between the evidence and the sweeping condemnations which have appeared in the press is truly vast.”
In the week-long controversy only one allegation of antisemitism was made against an MP. The rest were based on social media comments made by eight junior party members in a party of hundreds of thousands. Some of these, as in the case of the dispute in Oxford, were even proven to be fabricated. Despite this, media headlines described Labour as a “cold house for Jews,” a “cesspit” and a “racist party.”
The British media’s bias against Corbyn made it a useful weapon in the coup attempt against his leadership orchestrated by right-wing Labour MPs.
In the days after the Brexit vote forty-six MPs resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in forty-eight hours, spacing out their announcements to allow them to occur on an hourly basis live on air. The narrative for these resignations was set up in a BBC article on June 26th by Kuenssberg which accused Corbyn of having “deliberately sabotaged” the Remain campaign despite providing no evidence of such a plot.
This was to be only the beginning of the inaccuracies about Corbyn in the mainstream press.
On June 29, the Guardian reported that Thomas Piketty had resigned as an advisor to Corbyn citing his “weak” leadership of the Remain campaign. This prompted another economic advisor, Anne Pettifor, to release an email sent more than two weeks before the result from Piketty explaining that his resignation was due to “time commitments” and “making clear that I do support Jeremy and his attempt to bring Labour more to the left.”
The next day the Guardian caused a stir at the launch of a report into antisemitism in the Labour Party when it misquoted Corbyn as having compared Israel to ISIS. In fact, as it later had to admit in a correction, he had done no such thing.
This prompted the author of Labour’s antisemitism report, Shami Chakrabarti, to condemn the “deliberate misrepresentation” of Corbyn’s speech, while Daily Mirror journalist Kevin Maguire said that “facts, fairness, rationality and proportionality” had been “lost in a frenzy to destroy Corbyn.”
But it was too late — the controversy had already seen “ISIS Israel” trending on Twitter for most of the day.
On July 1, the Guardian again misreported a crucial detail in relation to Corbyn when it implied that John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, had come out against freedom of movement after Brexit. This drew criticism from many on the Left before McDonnell had to step in to correct the record.
The next day the media had contrived another controversy relating to Corbyn, this time what the Telegraph described as a “furious confrontation” with a journalist at an anti-racism rally. Articles initially reported that Corbyn had “lunged” at a “female journalist.” However, when video of the incident was released, it became clear that he had simply turned around and said “if you want to arrange an interview speak to my press office. Thank you.” The journalist in question later came out to say that she had, in fact, not been “lunged at.”
It can be tempting, when examining the media’s response to Jeremy Corbyn, to be drawn to the ridiculous excess of the right-wing press when it criticizes his gardening skills or accuses him of eating noodles, but the problem in the British press runs much deeper than this.
The BBC’s willingness to offer its live broadcasting as a venue for transparent media manipulation by establishment Labour MPs are a timely reminder of its inability to be relied on as a public service broadcaster.
Even the traditionally left-wing media — not only the Guardian and Observer, but also the Daily Mirror — have been more than willing to join the chorus of voices calling for Corbyn to step down. This is not a response to the market but rather a political decision, as their own research demonstrates that their readerships do not agree with this editorial line.
At the time of writing there is not a single mainstream media outlet in Britain with an editorial line supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. This is despite the fact that, under Corbyn, Labour this week became the largest social-democratic party in the Western world with 600,000 members.
A representative media environment, even one that was responding to market pressures, could be expected to reflect this groundswell of support. But Britain does not have such an environment.
Around 70 percent of Britain’s newspapers are owned by just three companies: Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, the Daily Mail’s General Trust, and Trinity Mirror. In broadcast media over 80 percent of the national audience share goes to Murdoch or to the BBC. This concentration of media ownership allows for a tiny clique in Britain to effectively control the flow of information to 65 million people. Their power to do so is not held to any meaningful account, and their willingness to use their position to subvert the democratic will should not be doubted.
Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party was an earthquake in politics which reflected a deep disillusionment in the political and economic system. His tenure in that position has been shaped by a media environment which is no less in need of such an earthquake.