The #GE2017 Corbyn surge and the TV impartiality myth that will not die

I try and avoid arguing about politics on Facebook.

It is bad enough getting dragged into discussions on Twitter and being snarked at by complete strangers, but at least the consequences are short-lived.

Falling out with people on Facebook, where I actually know my connections, can spill over into real life.

Nonetheless I did get caught up in a minor Facebook argument about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party and why he performed much better than polls suggested at the start of 2017’s General Election campaign.

The original poster suggested it was because of election rules on broadcasting, meaning TV and radio news had to give Corbyn a fair hearing and cut back on distorted reporting, which misrepresented his positions.

This is a popular explanation. Indeed, it has been put forward as a theory by some of Corbyn’s outriders in the media.

But, like the Youthquake theory, it is almost certainly not true.

In elections broadcasters do have to obey some quite strict regulations that are covered by the Representation of the People Act of 1983 and the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.

But these aren’t as onerous as some people seem to imagine.

There is a duty to be duly impartial, of course. But that exists at all times, not just during election periods.

There is also a stipulation to give due weight of coverage to major political parties.

That can have big benefits for parties such as The Greens or UKIP, which struggle to get TV news bulletin coverage in non-election periods but are guaranteed free hits for manifesto launches and dedicated campaign reporters.

But that would be unlikely to affect Labour in the same way. Political correspondents will seek comment from both Labour and Conservatives as a matter of routine.

The other rules are more concerned with fairness in constituency reporting, rather than in national reporting

It also stands to reason that if broadcasters were routinely biased against the Labour party, you would expect it to win complaints to the regulator Ofcom or, in previous years, the BBC Trust.

Naturally, there are complaints but it is very rare for them to be upheld.

According to Ofcom, from March 2017-April 2019, more than 500 complaints of political bias or inaccuracy were made against BBC News but not one was upheld. In the same time period, just one complaint was upheld against Sky News.

Why then does this myth continue to keep being trotted out as an explanation for the Corbyn surge?

It is, I think, that it flatters Labour’s supporters who view Corbyn’s leadership as a radical insurgency against the establishment.

It is a comforting image: the media hoist by its own petard. Impartiality rules forcing the media to come to heel and be honest for once. And when people see the unmediated truth, they see that Jeremy Corbyn is a much more attractive figure than they had previously thought and understand his policies are sensible solutions to modern Britain’s problems.

But I don’t believe it is true.

While I’ve written elsewhere of the importance of the digital campaign in disintermediating Labour’s message, like so much of British politics at the moment, the surge is explained by Brexit.

Labour successfully managed to remain ambiguous enough about its Brexit intentions to satisfy a range of voters, including Remain voters who were voting against the explicit Leave messaging of Theresa May’s Conservatives.

All these things are nuanced, of course, May’s poor performance as leader, the unravelling of the Conservative election manifesto, Jeremy Corbyn’s positive campaign, and the terror attacks, will all have played a part in the result.

But the great political schism of our time, Brexit, seems to me to be the biggest motivator in driving Remainers sceptical of Corbyn’s leadership to back Labour at the ballot box.

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Fake news interview on BBC Northampton

On Tuesday I spoke to the BBC’s Helen Blaby about fake news and trust in journalism.

First attempts at media punditry

A couple of interviews done for BBC Radio Northampton’s Helen Blaby programme

Were the media right to use images of the murdered U.S. journalists? (Phone quality)

Favourite programmes on ITV as Radio Times launches a new poll

Content marketing for beginners

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A couple of posts done for the University of Northampton as part of its new social media marketing campaign

Should the paparazzi be allowed to stalk Prince George?

Wait before sharing the murder video of two U.S. journalists.

Libel reform – Andrew Caldecott’s nine principles for a public interest defence

I attended an interesting Press Gazette conference last week on the new defamation act and its implications.

Much of it looks like good news for journalists, especially digital journalists, with improved protections against spurious libel claims.

There’s still much to be tested in the courts but it is especially heartening to see the Reynolds’ Defence now formalised as the Public Interest, or Section 4, Defence.

This essentially says journalists have a defence against libel action if they can show that a story was on a matter of public interest and that they reasonably believed that publishing was in the public interest. And that defence can hold even if they cannot prove that the allegations are true.

Among the conference speakers was Andrew Caldecott QC – one of the country’s most experienced media lawyers. He outlined his nine principles for ensuring a successful public interest defence.

1. The journalist must report fairly what they know.

2. What is the nature of the allegation and how is it pitched? IE Is it a serious allegation? Are we saying that they’re guilty or that there are merely questions about behaviour?

3. Never tinker with direct quotes.

4. Watch the sub-editor. And if possible hold copies of emails to sub-editors warning of the danger of tinkering with copy or over-egging headlines on sensitive stories.

5. Seek and publish the response of the target of the story.

6. Carefully place any denial of allegations by the target. Having it in the final par makes it look like it’s disbelieved.

7. In online copy be sensitive to changing circumstances. That doesn’t mean re-editing published stories, but writing new ones in light of new information.

8. Keep your notes and emails. Post-Leveson it’s not acceptable to say they’re no longer available.

9. Be careful what you put in emails. It may be used against you in the future.

A good set of guiding principles. As ever, McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists has chapter and verse.