Yes, the national media is a privileged racket which defends the status quo
Here we go again. Following Labour’s media reform proposals, I appeared on Newsnight to debate the failings of the British media. My critique is as follows.
Britain’s national media is profoundly unrepresentative of the British population by every measure: class background, race, and — particularly in senior editorial positions — gender. Most of the press is owned by right-wing oligarchs; a large majority of press outlets backed the Conservatives in last year’s elections. The print media has systematically whipped up hatred against Muslims, migrants, refugees and benefit claimants, including through dishonesty and outright lies. Polling shows that the British public wildly overestimate everything from the level of benefit fraud to the number of immigrants in Britain to levels of teenage pregnancy, and media coverage is partly to blame. Dissenters are attacked as ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’, ‘SABOTEURS’ and ‘TRAITORS’. Ideas which a large majority of Britons support — take renationalisation of the utilities, which between 76 and 83 per cent of Britons support — are either militantly opposed by the media, or treated as fringe policies. The right-wing press has a key role in determining the daily news priorities of the broadcast media. BBC News itself has been found to be weighted towards establishment voices: a few years ago, a business representative was 19 times more likely to be interviewed on the 6 o’clock news than a trade union spokesperson, and I doubt this has substantially improved. The dramatic weakening of unionisation, and the growing precariousness of media work, has left journalists increasingly at the mercy of management. A suffocating groupthink afflicts the upper ranks of the British media. I could go on: these are all issues I’ve written about at length, including in my two books Chavs and The Establishment.
On Newsnight there was only really time to discuss two issues: that journalism is the second most socially exclusive profession after medicine according to an official report (all the evidence underlines how profoundly unrepresentative the industry is), and that the press is mostly owned by right-wing oligarchs. The response is similar to a few months ago when I raised this: mass hysteria and bitterness from certain journalists, who appear to treat the critique as a personal attack on them as individuals. Much of the responses have indeed been personal, rather than addressing the actual substance of the argument. One angry privately educated journalist argued that “you get to the top by being fucking good at what you do, never stopping, working all hours for the job you love and most importantly — passion. It has jack all to do with education.” Given the national media is riddled with unpaid internships — working for free with no promise of paid employment, in London, one of the world’s most expensive cities — and extremely costly postgraduate journalism qualifications are often a gateway in to the media, the industry discriminates in favour of those living off the Bank of Mum and Dad, rather than their talent. The media elite is dominated by the privately educated because parents who can afford to pay private school fees also have the money to allow their children to rise to the top of the media. That’s without going into the issue of how connections and patronage favour the privileged. The claim that anyone can rise to the top if they work hard enough reflects an ideology forced down our throats for a generation or more: that those at the top are the most talented, brightest, hardest working; those at the bottom are lazy, feckless and stupid. It is a convenient means to rationalise and justify inequality.
Another response to the critique is that it fuels a dangerous anti-media culture. Let me put this kindly. The calamitous lack of faith that most Britons have in their national press — by far the lowest trust in Europe, with estate agents being more trusted — is not because they are being critiqued. It is the media’s own behaviour, from phone hacking to smearing dead Liverpool fans, which has undermined trust. And what an argument in any case. Do we stop scrutinising and critiquing politicians because it fuels a dangerous anti-politics culture? The media is supposed to be a critical pillar in democracy. It sets the terms of the national debate, and plays a critical role in determining which issues are discussed, and what angles are taken on those issues. We don’t just have a right to scrutinise the media in a democracy— we have a responsibility to do so.
It is also said that that any criticism of the media is Trumpian. This is a classic logical fallacy. Take this as an example. Both the left and the Trumpian right criticise the justice system. The Trumpian right says it is insufficiently punitive and overly generous to criminals. The left argues it is institutionally racist, insufficiently focused on rehabilitation and effectively locking up huge numbers of mentally ill poor people. Would we therefore say that the left is being Trumpian in criticising the justice system? Or would we not conclude that actually they are both entirely different critiques? The left’s critique of the media — lack of representation for the less privileged, demonising minorities, dominated by oligarchs — has nothing to do with Trump’s demagogic onslaught, which focuses on their lack of sympathy for him personally (although, in actual fact, he enjoys mainstream support from right-wing broadcasters, while the British left lacks equivalent representation). The left wants the media to be freer: whether that be from the dominance of right-wing oligarchs, to giving journalists a conscience clause so they have the right to refuse immoral or illegal work, to allowing anyone regardless of background to succeed.
Another bemusing response is that I have no right to criticise the media because I’m not actually a journalist anyway, and I don’t have a NCTJ qualification. Logically, this is an intriguing line of attack. Can only elected politicians criticise the political system? Can only police officers criticise the justice system? Furthermore, are these journalists arguing that they can scrutinise and criticise other institutions, but they must be exempt from similar scrutiny and criticism?
And for what reason am I not a journalist? This in itself is an interesting and revealing point. The definition of journalist is “a person who writes for newspapers, magazines, or news websites or prepares news to be broadcast.” Columnists are a subset of journalists, distinct from news reporter, which I’ve never claimed to be. I’ve worked now as a print journalist for the best part of a decade and have written two bestselling political books: I’ve interviewed thousands of people, done extensive research, travelled Britain and the world as part of that work, written on issues ranging from austerity to LGBTQ rights to mental health to racism to war to workers’ rights. Recently, I’ve written articles about the plight of Deliveroo workers and gay refugees, based on the testimonies of both. I’ve won several awards for my journalism, including Stonewall’s Journalist of the Year. Why am I not a journalist?
It sounds like an overly defensive response, or humblebragging, but if I am to be excluded from the ranks of journalism after decrying its elitism, surely I have the right to appeal. If it is because I am not “objective”, then who does that leave standing? I’m an opinion writer whose job it is to express opinions, which I am open and transparent about, everyone knows where I’m coming from, and my opinions go in the opinion section. There are news reporters who are also profoundly publicly opinionated but their opinions go in the news section. That blurring of opinion and news is a genuine problem which afflicts the British media. But apparently one of the few very left-wing writers with a national platform is the problem.
Ah, but I’m a political activist, unlike other columnists. What makes someone an activist and someone not an activist? Activists attempt to persuade people of the rightness of their political opinions by various means. All columnists are political activists. And in any case, much of the British press are partisan instruments of the Conservative Party, using their position to agitate in favour of Tory policies, aims and ideals. The Tory press are the most influential political activists in the country.
What this is all partly about is an attempt to delegitimise the left in the media. Almost the entire British press is not just opposed to the left and the main opposition party: they are viciously opposed, regarding them as beyond the pale. Those with a public platform who are supportive of a party leadership which won 40% of the vote with a manifesto whose key policies — from nationalisation to hiking taxes on the rich and big business — are despised by most of the media are isolated exceptions. Central to our political worldview is a belief that change happens through collective struggle and action, and therefore active involvement in political movements is essential to all we do. We are routinely told that we are “activists” and “propagandists” — unlike a British press which is transparently right-wing propagandists — and therefore we should not have a media platform. Left-wing journalists are treated as interlopers, as somehow illegitimate. It sometimes feels as though the British media was a dinner party whose participants convinced themselves that they represented a broad range of opinion because they disagreed with each other within a narrow set of parameters, then a bunch of yobs gatecrashed the proceedings with ridiculous and absurd views who disregarded the right and proper etiquette.
The media’s respectable range of opinion ranges from hard right to centre-left (and even this faction is marginalised). A left which sympathises with the politics of party which nearly 13 million people voted for last year are treated as unwelcome infiltrators who lack legitimacy.
What’s this all really about? Deep down, the beneficiaries of a media system which rewards privileged individuals who are opposed to radical change are insecure. They know, deep down, that they are mostly there because of their privilege, and because their beliefs are not threatening to the existing system. Everyone wants to believe their achievements are down to their talent and hard graft. To be told otherwise brings that insecurity to the surface. And full disclosure here: I may have been educated in Northern comps, but if I’d been brought up in a neighbouring council estate, like many of my childhood friends were, would I be a columnist — yes, a journalist — with a national platform? Almost certainly not. Being a white middle-class guy grants me a whole range of privileges. To understand that is basic self-awareness. But do you know what, if I have a platform in the media then the right thing to do, unapologetically, is to whistle-blow on the systemic injustices of this industry.
It has, I have to say, been somewhat grotesque to see prominent journalists casting themselves as victims suffering from a vicious onslaught. What of the Muslims and migrants and refugees suffering the actual horrifying and indeed life-changing consequences of being victimised by the British media?
We all deserve better, our democracy deserves better, than the media we have. And however much the beneficiaries of a privileged media system howl and fume, the facts are the facts. Britain’s national media is a privileged racket, the British press scapegoats, vilifies and harasses minorities, it is mostly run by right-wing oligarchs, it passionately defends the status quo and victimises its opponents. That has to change: and it will change, which deep down, the beneficiaries of the current system know, which is why they are lashing out.