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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Publish and be damned? Why we shouldn’t play the terrorists’ news game

The news that 49 people have been murdered in two mosques in New Zealand is appalling.

It is hard to imagine a worse crime.

But this media-literate killer decided to not only live stream the killings but produce a “manifesto” of his ideas too.

This presents a dilemma for news organisations – should they use material created by the killer?

On the one hand it may help explain why the crimes took place, what the motivation of the killer was, and why he chose to act as he did.

On the other, it is clear that he wanted this material transmitted and shared in order to spread his poisonous theories around the world. By using the material journalists risk doing his bidding.

In a breaking news situation, there is an immense temptation to throw on-screen any material from a terror attack.

Footage of dramatic events is the essence of visual news.

But, as I’ve written before, we all have a duty to think twice about using this kind of material.

And that’s not just professional journalists but also social media users who find it troublingly easy to share horrific content.

All of us have to play a part in not spreading hate. And that includes those social media platforms who’ve recently discovered that they do have consciences and a role to play in society.

Why Theresa May will take part in a televised debate

Will she or won’t she? 

Theresa May has been quick to rule out taking part in a televised leaders’ debate as part of the General Election campaign.

It is the same old problem facing spin doctors in Downing Street.

On the one hand television delivers mass audiences and impact with voters.

On the other, your opponents may benefit more than you.

In most campaigns back as far as the early 1960s, Downing Street has successfully killed them off – sometimes with help from other party leaders.

The exception was in 2010 when Labour PM Gordon Brown felt he had little to lose and perhaps something to gain.

Following pressure from the broadcasters, and particularly Sky News, three leaders’ debates were aired.

The result was branded by the newspapers “Cleggmania” as everyone agreed with Nick.

But despite raised hopes of a breakthrough, on election night the Liberal Democrats actually lost five seats. 

By 2015 Prime Minister David Cameron was a lot less enthusiastic about the debates than he’d been as Leader of the Opposition.

After initially refusing to take part he finally agreed to a single leaders’ debate broadcast on ITV, as well as to being interviewed in series with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg and a challengers’ debate, which took place without him.

There’s some evidence the TV debates did help him successfully increase his majority.

Watched by more than seven million people, a survey conducted just after the election by Panelbase found that 38% of sampled voters were influenced by the debates.

Now Theresa May’s opponents are accusing her of being frit, ITV is saying it will “empty chair” her by going ahead without her participation, and the Daily Mirror is digging out its chicken suit once again.

So when Theresa May says no, listen for the but…

The broadcasters are trying to find a format Downing Street will agree with and, one way or another, the election debates will take place and Theresa May will have a role in them.

Digital still the poor cousin at the RTS TV Journalism Awards

The decision to award Steve Hewlett the Judges’ Award at the Royal Television Society Television Journalism Awards dominated the reporting of this year’s event.

That’s no doubt correct. But it did somewhat overshadow what a terrific night it was for Channel 4 News; the team  won programme of the year, Matt Frei picked up TV journalist of the year and Waad al-Kateab won a number of awards including Young Talent.

Before the event I spoke to Digital Editor, Jon Laurence, the driving force behind Channel 4 News’s incredible success with social video – especially on Facebook.

Despite recent changes to make the RTS a more level playing field and stop ITN’s domination of the categories through its multiple newsrooms, the awards still don’t recognise the contribution of digital to the success of news journalism.

I find that surprising and disappointing – as I said to Jon, although he was self-deprecating enough to laugh it off.

Still, with digital threatening TV’s audiences as never before, it’s surely sensible to celebrate TV newsrooms’ digital success. And perhaps phase out the ancient news technology award.

One final thought. While Tom Bradby won for Network Presenter of the Year, even as the reviews of the Nightly Show suggested the move of the news was a mistake, and the BBC won for Home Coverage with its series on prisons, this wasn’t a great year for the big bulletins.

The RTS has tried to increase the pool of jurors, including myself, but it would be a shame if the awards lost their sense of the industry awarding its peers because the independent jurors ended up voting for the shows they watch or appear on.

In Nations and Regions News, the category for which I was a juror, the broadcaster representatives still had a vote – unlike some of the more hard fought categories, such as Programme of the Year. I wonder if that is a better solution than only independents voting. Perhaps some more tweaks to the rules might be advisable.

 

Cristina Nicolotti Squires poached by Sky News

One of ITN’s most successful and creative executives, Cristina Nicolotti Squires, has announced she’s leaving to become Director of Content at Sky News.

It is a big job with responsibility for news and current affairs across multiple platforms.

And it is a big loss for ITN. Cristina is a formidable presence in the newsroom. Smart, resourceful and passionate about news, she will be a tough act to follow as Editor of Five News.

Like her predecessors  Chris Shaw, Deborah Turness and Geoff Hill, she’s used the editorship of the comparatively small-scale Five News as a springboard to bigger things.

She moves to Sky at a time of considerable change. Many of the old guard are moving on. Not just on-air talent such as Jeremy Thompson and Eammon Holmes but some of the most experienced backroom staff too.

Head of News, John Ryley, is clearly preparing for a future of on-demand digital news as well as a live streamed channel – perhaps no longer delivered on TV nor based in a studio.

Professor Richard Sambrook from Cardiff University has written persuasively about 24-hour rolling news being a product of newsgathering technology that now looks outdated. Even the most traditional 24-hour channels, such as Al Jazeera, are considering what post-TV news looks like.

As 24-hour news veteran, I still retain an affection for the form. But there’s no doubt that it cannot compete with the immediacy of digital news, even if there is still value in a live stream of content. It is hard to gear up to rolling coverage if you lack the platform and resources to produce it.

So I will wait with interest to see what Nicolotti’s Sky News will become – how she’ll balance innovation with maintenance of the existing product. And hopefully she’ll kill off the ruddy awful “The Pledge“.

 

Is the media biased against Jeremy Corbyn?

Yes.

Of course it is but perhaps not in the way you think.

There have been several surveys released in recent weeks that appear to show systematic bias against the leader of the Labour Party. One by the Media Reform Coalition accused the BBC of giving more airtime to his critics, another by YouGov found most people felt the media was biased against Corbyn.

Even traditionally left wing publications, such as The Mirror and The Guardian, which tried at first to give Corbyn the benefit of the doubt have struggled to support him.

And the Labour leader’s team have explicitly tried to bypass the traditional press by speaking directly to supporters via Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

So, all the media hate Corbyn and want him out to placate their neo-liberal, corporate masters, right?

Well, no. The fact is that the Labour party leadership always faces a tough time in the press. Corbyn’s having a worse time of it than most. But is it worse than, say, Brown’s in 2008-10?

And the Corbyn team have struggled with issues of basic communication competence, even while raising issues worthy of discussion. They’ve ended up by becoming the story, rather than managing the story – too much effort has gone into dealing with what Lynton Crosby calls process stories .

Sure, there are some journalists and publications who will never support Corbyn – The Mail, The Sun, The Telegraph and so on. But some who might be persuaded to buy into the Corbynite agenda will be unpersuaded by incompetence. And by failing to cultivate support in the press, Corbyn’s team continue to fuel a narrative of “us vs them”.

The fact is that Corbyn needs to find a way to connect with the general public and that – still, at the moment – means fighting to ensure a fair hearing in at least some parts of the press and broadcast media. Public meetings and social media posts have their place but they can’t replace mediated communication – at last not yet.

That means that Corbyn’s team need to swallow hard and find ways to start placing positive stories – it might be too early to reveal the hard policies they’ll stand behind at the next election but they need to fly some kites to reframe the media narrative.

So, it matters for Corbyn. But does all this matter for the media?

Yes, I think it does. The sense from Corbyn’s supporters that the media is against them is probably to be expected, but the wider feeling of the general public of bias against Corbyn should give at least some journalists pause for thought.

The fact is that something is happening in the UK. Corbyn is tapping into a groundswell of opinion and not enough is being done by the media to explain that movement and understand what it means. The Westminster village often talks about wanting to get out of the bubble and find out what’s happening – here’s its chance.

 

Brussels attacks and tragedy hipsterism

Isis attacks

After both this week’s attacks in Brussels and last November’s in Paris memes like this one started getting shared on Facebook and Twitter.

As you can see, it suggests double standards on the part of media in failing to report on ISIS attacks where the majority of victims are Muslims rather than westerners. And because of that, propagating a world-view that is Islamophobic.

As you can imagine journalists who cover world news find this infuriating.

After the Paris attacks, a lot of people claimed the western media hadn’t cared about the bombing of Beirut’s Shia neighbourhoods in the same week.

For journalists like Channel 4 News’s International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum the truth isn’t that it wasn’t covered but that the viewers and readers just aren’t interested. The Guardian’s James Lartey branded the temptation to stake out the moral high ground, by claiming to care more, Tragedy Hipsterism – his tweets on the subject Storifyed here.

Even a cursory examination of the facts presented in the graphic above shows it to be nonsense.

  • March 15th 2016 – Ankara bombing – 37 killed. Claimed by militant Kurdish group Tak not ISIS – Google News holds around 10,000 articles, all major news sources are represented.
  • March 6th 2016 – Not Baghdad but Hilla, truck bombing – 47 killed. Around 1000 articles on Google News. Widely covered because of the significance of ISIS striking outside of its usual area of control in Eastern Iraq.
  • January 8th 2016 – Libya police academy bombing. Around 1000 articles on Google News.
  • November 12th 2016 – Beirut bombings. Around 1200 articles on Google News.

And so on.

The most laughably absurd claim here is that no-one headlined the 26th of June, 2015 Sousse hotel attack in Tunisia when 38 western tourists were murdered by a gunman. Not only does it run counter to the whole narrative of the meme but it’s also clearly fatuous – the story was covered everywhere.

So, why do people share this?

Many feel that it demonstrates an under-lying truth. That the western media cares less about the deaths of Muslims dying at the hands of ISIS than it does about westerners killed in cities closer to home.

That’s true.  All news organisations report news that has greater proximity and relevance to its audience than news that doesn’t. It’s a well understood practice. When a crane collapsed at the Grand Mosque in Mecca last year, it was a more significant story in Arab media than it was in the west.

But that doesn’t mean the western media doesn’t report these stories at all.

The conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya have all been extensively covered – despite the enormous risks in doing so – and that coverage acknowledges the fact that these are conflicts where the vast majority of those dying are Muslims.

And at a time when news services such as Al Jazeera America are being pulled because they can’t build audiences for serious coverage of these issues, it’s a bit rich to blame the media for failing to report them.

It’s OK to question the news values of the western media. It’s OK to worry about the tone of coverage and whether it sets up an us versus them narrative. It’s OK to worry that there may be a blurring of lines between reporting and propaganda. We should question and critically engage with news.

But how about doing it on an honest, factual basis that acknowledges that people are dying to report the stories that no-one seems bothered about reading.