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.