LONDON (Labour Buzz) - On September the 2nd last year Boris Johnson told the country he would seek a general election if parliament thwarted his Brexit schemes. It seemed a bold move, especially considering that everything else he’d touched in his brief time as prime minister, had turned to mud. But Boris had reason to be confident. His friends in the press would have his back every step of the way.
Of course, there’s nothing new there, but this time was very different as a new study from Loughborough University shows.
The details of this report are damning. Loughborough’s research highlights a surge in negative coverage of the Labour party, particularly at the end of the campaign. This was hardly, ‘business as usual’. In 2019 press hostility to Labour was double that of the 2017 campaign. Meanwhile negative coverage of the Conservatives halved.
The disparity widened as the election entered its final stretch. The final week of the campaign saw hostility to Labour go into overdrive. Coverage of Labour and other opposition parties became increasingly hostile while also becoming more friendly towards the Conservatives.
As you can see from the data, the attacks became more intense as the campaign progressed, almost as if it were a concerted and coordinated campaign.
However, things get even worse when circulation is taking into account.
These figures show that the highest circulating newspapers such as the Sun, Daily Mail and Telegraph abandoned all pretence at being an independent media outlet to become effectively part of the propaganda wing of the Conservative Party.
Boris Johnson also dominated the latter part of the election. More space was given to his platform than Jeremy Corbyn in the final week. As for other Labour politicians, most of the candidates now vying for leadership were pretty much marginalised.
Both party leaders dominated coverage of their respective parties. Johnson and Corbyn accounted for 68% and 56% of all appearances respectively, but Johnson dominated press coverage with 57% of all Conservative appearances compared to 28% for Jeremy Corbyn.
As well as dominating coverage the media also focused on his pet topic: Brexit. Interestingly, this coverage bookended the campaign, dominating the first and final weeks. However, very little of that focus was on the fiscal impact of Brexit which allowed the mantra ‘get Brexit done’ go largely unchallenged.
Few things in this report will be that surprising, but we can also look beyond the traditional right wing. Bias could be seen everywhere as Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald pointed out.
“We’ve always had the print media, which is page after page after page of press barons absolutely destroying and vilifying Labour leaders from time immemorial,” he said. “What’s changed in this election is the way the broadcast media have joined in with that battle.”
This could be seen in a series of ‘mistakes’ such as removing laughter from the Prime Minister’s answer on Question Time, tamely allowing him to dodge an interview with Andrew Neil and swapping out Remembrance Day footage showing him place a wreath upside down. It could be seen in the cynical decision to alter the message of a report into false political advertising which found that 89% of Conservative adverts were false compared to 0% of Labour’s. The final report attempted to suggest all parties were equally culpable.
Time and again, they parroted contributions from the infamous ‘Downing Street Source’ even when that source proved to be about as reliable as a Boris Johnson promise. Laura Kuensberg and Robert Peston happily regurgitated false reports about an attack on one of Matt Hancock’s aides.
The Loughborough report and the tone of coverage in this election should raise serious questions about the role of the press both now and into the future. It suggests a level of collusion between press and government which you’d expect to see in Russia, rather than a European liberal democracy.
From the outset the press took a clear decision that they would attack Labour, support the Conservatives, and give the prime minister an unchallenged platform, while marginalising his opposition. The game was rigged from the outset and, make no mistake, it definitely changed the result.
Labour won the argument. Surveys show that on nationalisation, taxation, the environment and even the idea of free broadband, the public broadly agreed with Labour’s manifesto, but they lost the election because people voted for something very different. They were working on the basis of an alternative reality concocted straight from the imagination of Dominic Cummings.
It was a reality which allowed Johnson to claim poverty was falling when it’s rising, that police numbers are rising rather than falling or that houses are being built which aren’t. It created a fictionalised monster of Jeremy Corbyn who the press claimed, with a straight face, represents an ‘existential crisis’ to British Jews, and it persuaded both leavers and remainers that Corbyn was somehow secretly supporting the other side.
Truth has always been a fragile creature in any election, but never before in British politics has it been absent altogether. For that we have to thank the Great British press. The question now is: will their treatment of the next Labour leader be equally deranged?
(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Michael O'Sullivan)