Speech: Momentum panel on media bias

I think I’m here as the token representative of the mainstream media. I used to work for the Daily Mirror full time and I now write freelance for the Guardian, Telegraph and a variety of different magazines and websites. A lot of people I socialise with are journalists, some of them are lobby reporters, and their personal political opinions span the spectrum from solidly left-wing to centre-right — and you can’t always guess based on the newspaper they work at.

Having that experience, I feel like I can confirm something everyone already knows: mainstream media outlets, like non-mainstream media outlets, aren’t unbiased, objective sources of information.

Sometimes that plays out in the sort of top-down way I think a lot of people suspect. I’ll give a couple of examples. In the run up to the last general election, Rupert Murdoch personally contacted senior editorial staff at the Sun to tell them they weren’t attacking Ed Miliband aggressively enough and he wanted them to step it up a gear.

That was fairly well publicised. My other example is an anecdote told to me by an acquaintance who works at a major national newspaper. He’d been working on a big project on tax havens and how they operate — this was before the Panama Papers leak, that obviously the Guardian was closely involved in — and the story got spiked. Basically, an editor told him it didn’t fit the editorial line of the paper and so he wasn’t allowed to publish it.

So, I’m not denying that kind of editorial influence exists. And newspapers like the Times, Telegraph, Sun — though they’ll publish the odd dissenting comment piece, and their journalists do report on stories that don’t support the paper’s stance — they’re always going to be hostile towards the Labour party, towards the left more generally, and certainly towards an unusually left-wing Labour leader.

All of that said, I think this generalised antipathy towards the mainstream media that seems to becoming more common on the left — and the idea that it’s a hostile, homogenous bloc — is foolish and self-defeating. Though alternative media and social media play an important role, realistically mainstream outlets reach audiences that are otherwise difficult to engage. Despite what it might feel like to those of us who are Twitter addicts, only a small minority of the population actually discuss politics online. And alternative media is vital in giving a platform to perspectives that aren’t otherwise well represented, but it’s mainly read by people who basically already share its ideological position. What I’m saying is it can be a bit of an echo chamber.

If you want to try and win over swing voters and put a left-wing, Labour government in power, I think you have to try and use mainstream media as a tool to communicate with voters.

And I’ll tell you a really mundane reason why coverage of Corbyn’s leadership hasn’t been as positive as it potentially could have been, particularly at the start: journalists struggled to get hold of him.

I know for an absolute fact that some articles you might have seen that seemed very one sided — where the anti-Corbyn line was there and there didn’t seem to be any attempt to provide the other side of the story — happened for exactly that reason. Press releases were sent out too late or not at all, phones weren’t answered. Partly I suspect it was a resources issue. Things have improved a lot in recent months, but it’s worth noting that Corbyn’s office still operates on about half the number of staff Ed Miliband had.

And that brings me on to another part of the challenge — which I think is actually as significant a cause of bias in political reporting as the ideology of media barons — and that’s I’d describe as ‘insider’ culture. Simply put, political journalists like being in the know. And they’re used to being in the know. I remember one lobby reporter telling me when Corbyn won the leadership contest: I don’t know who any of these people are. I’m used to having the whole shadow cabinet in my phone book, now I can’t pick some of them out of a line-up.

There’s a tendency to see anything outside of the existing mainstream as sort of unserious and unrealistic — and frankly just a bit bewildering. And that can make journalists seem to be advocates of the status quo.

As time has gone on I think political reporters have realised that things aren’t going back to ‘normal’ in the Labour party anytime soon, and they have started to take Corbyn’s leadership more seriously. But there still aren’t those same relationships, built up over many years of coffees and chats. If I was on Corbyn’s comms team, I’d really be working on building those connections. And actually, I think that’s already starting to happen.

As much as some people like to talk about the mainstream media as a homogenous bloc, it’s actually quite easy to identify reporters making a particular effort to cover Corbyn and Momentum diligently. Not necessarily because they’re sympathetic to the cause, but because they take their role seriously and they have a sense of fair play. Those are the people you need to nurture relationships with.

The other thing I’d say about journalists is we are normal, fallible, self-centred human beings. And like most people we don’t tend to enjoy being hated, and it makes us defensive and potentially more hostile. And while it’s important to call out and correct false stories, the generalised “fuck the MSM” stuff is really unhelpful on that personal level.

I know none of this is as exciting as talking about building alternative media, and circumventing conventional power structures, but I think it’s true. To achieve a Labour government you need to see the mainstream media as a tool, and do everything you can to maximise positive coverage, rather than writing it off as the enemy.