Media bias in the British elections

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Practice | 12/06/2017
Owen Jones of the Guardian lambasted the “Tory press” in UK and said they had literally been baying for Corbyn’s blood.
NUPUR BASU explains why the media got the election so wrong

 

Crush the saboteurs” bayed the Daily Mail, the morning after British Prime Minister Theresa May returned from a walking holiday with her husband and announced a snap election in the country on April 18.  

The Times, UK had the headline -“Landslide”. It was clear in those early days that the media was totally behind Theresa May in her decision to inflict another election on the country to get what she called a better mandate from the British people in order to negotiate a “Hard Brexit” for UK.

May’s principle rival, the leader of the Labour party Jeremy Corbyn, was written off by the media from day one saying the Labour party would suffer a humiliating defeat under him as Corbyn’s “own party leaders in Westminster were against him”.

While declining in the early days to join a TV debate, Theresa May warned against the “Coalition of Chaos” led by Corbyn. The press lapped it up and the May-coined phrase was used a thousand times in commentaries. There were early predictions of how badly Labour would do under Corbyn’s leadership and how that would result in the party finally being able to get rid of him as the Labour leader and elect a new one.

Theresa May’s win, as far as majority of the media in UK was concerned, was already scripted, done and dusted. There was no real need, according to them, to go to the people and listen to what they felt about the different political parties and their leaders.

"Theresa May’s win, as far as majority of the media in UK was concerned, was already scripted, done and dusted."

 

The media coverage over the next eight weeks merely built on the foregone predictions. Biased leading questions were put to electorate and “embedded” journalists followed May around in her bus asking her leading questions so she could attack Corbyn even more. As the campaign progressed and May got more and more aloof, it did not require rocket science to see that May’s campaign was crumbling. The multiple terror attacks on UK in the interim ripped her campaign even further. Yet the British media  which had embarked on such biased coverage chose to carry on in the same vein.

The closing days of the campaign saw the media getting nerves but still no admission or reversal of their earlier predictions.

It was only when the “Exit polls” were announced at 10 pm GMT of June 8 that the nerves spilt into the TV studios and newsrooms. The exit polls showed a hung Parliament with no one party getting a majority. A far cry from the premature one word headline -“Landslide!” that had been predicted for Theresa May on day one of the election announcement.

In a nerve-wracking night for the Tories on June 8, Theresa May and a pro- May media watched stunned as the real story unfolded. The Exit Poll done by one agency was relayed on all channels. And it was spot on. The electorate had delivered a hung Parliament verdict with the Tories sliding down the scale and Labour , under Corbyn, making big gains. The  Labour had wrested seats like Canterbury from the Tories  for the first time since World War II and London’s blue blooded Tory bastion, Kensington.  

Veteran television journalist ,David Dimbleby who conducted the election coverage for the BBC for the 10th time in his career had told Rosie Millard of Radiotimes in an interview just prior to going on the show that he thought that the “national printed press has given Jeremy Corbyn a rotten deal”.

“It’s a very odd election. If the Conservative story is how Theresa May is the ‘brand leader’, the interesting thing is that a lot of Labour supporters really like and believe in the messages that Jeremy Corbyn is bringing across. It’s not his MPs in the House of Commons necessarily, but there is a lot of support in the country. And I don’t think anyone could say that Corbyn has had a fair deal at the hands of the press, in a way that the Labour Party did when it was more to the centre, but then we generally have a right-wing press. My own prediction is that, contrary to the scepticism and lazy pessimism of the newspapers and the British media, it’s going to be a really fascinating night, and it will drive home some messages about our political system and the political appeal of different parties that no amount of polling or reading the papers will tell us.”

"Even the public broadcaster BBC had indulged in pro May and unfriendly Corbyn coverage."

 

But it was not just the right wing Murdoch owned print media that had unleashed biased coverage. Even the public broadcaster BBC had indulged in pro- May and unfriendly Corbyn coverage. Laura Kuenssberg, political correspondent of the BBC who was on Dimbleby’s programme, looked shell-shocked as the results came in. She is known to have little love for Jeremy Corbyn.

A Wikepedia account of Kuenssberg’s bio says and I quote : “In January 2017 the BBC Trust ruled that a report in November 2015 by Kuenssberg broke the broadcaster’s impartiality and accuracy guidelines. A viewer had complained about her item, which featured an interview with Jeremy Corbyn on the BBC News at Six which was edited to give the incorrect impression that Corbyn disagreed with the use of firearms by police in incidents such as that month's terrorist attacks in Paris. His purported answer to a question as broadcast in the report was in fact his reply to a different (unbroadcast) question, not specifically about that terrorist attack. The BBC Trust said that the inaccuracy was "compounded" when Kuenssberg went on to state that Corbyn's message "couldn't be more different" to that of the prime minister Theresa May, who was about to publish anti-terrorism proposals. The Trust said that accuracy was particularly important when dealing "with a critical question at a time of extreme national concern".

But the media never admits when it has gone wrong does it? Kuenssberg swiftly shifted blame to May for running a disastrous campaign and had little to say about the media getting it so wrong. After all bias is one thing. But getting it wrong because of your bias, is quite another !

In his inimitable style Richard Quest of CNN told Robin Oakley – “I think we all will agree on one thing – it is a bit of mess”! Then he went on to add very aptly – “Theresa May lost, but won..Jeremy Corbyn won, but lost”. Robin Oakley added : “She ducked the TV debate..you can’t do something like that- politics is about personality and she didn’t have the personality”.

"Bias is one thing. But getting it wrong because of your bias, is quite another !"

 

In post mortems later there was some sobriety. Janet Daley of the Telegraph admitted on “Dateline London” on BBC that the “least liked leader of the Labour party” had indeed surprised everyone with the election results. Daley conceded: “It is a return to ideological politics versus manipulating politics through advertising and Public Relations (PR).”

Owen Jones of the Guardian lambasted the “Tory press” in UK and said they had literally been baying for Corbyn’s blood. Even London’s posh Kensington, which had to have four recounts on counting day, had become the ‘’hotbed”of the Labour Party, he pointed out. He also lamented that post the elections results being announced, the media was not being critical enough of May’s alliance with the Irish nationalist party, the Democratic Unionists Party (DUP) which he described as anti-LGBT and misogynist.

Writing in the Daily Mail post results Peter Hitchins had an amazingly revealing confession to make in an article headlined : “Theresa’s Tories..as useful as a zombie on a broken bike”. 

“The laughable failure of Mrs Theresa May’s empty, tremulous campaign was in fact predictable. I suspected it would happen. But I mostly kept quiet about it here for the past few weeks.This was not because I have any time for Mrs May and her feeble, politically correct government, but because I did not much want to help Jeremy Corbyn either. And at election time, there’s no room for neutrality.”

What !!!!???

Senior former BBC journalist Mark Tully was critical of the biased coverage. Participating in a programme to discuss the UK election results on NDTV anchored by Prannoy Roy , Tully said : “Corbyn was crucified by the press.”

The tabloid mail’s biases continued post elections – the Daily Mirror’s headline reacted to Corbyn’s extremely positive performance with the stark English slang : “COR – BLIMEY ”.

Shami Chakravarty, Human Rights activist and Labour peer who campaigned actively for Corbyn told anchor Mathew Amroliwala on BBC – “Jermey Corbyn has been underestimated for ages..but look what he has achieved…and going forward we hope to get into government..”

George Osborne, the Conservative leader who took everyone by surprise by taking the job of the Editor of the London  Evening Standard just prior to the election. Known as a May adversary , the Evening Standard ran this headline the day the results were announced – “May’s right royal mess” and “Queen of denial”.

Two days later, Osborne put the knife even deeper into his former colleague, by describing May as a “dead woman walking”!

After weeks of sycophantic coverage, now that the chips are down for Theresa May,  and she is at the receiving end of brickbats. Apart from cruel jibes from politician-turned-editor Osborne, there have been uncharitable remarks like calling May a “pick pocket of the elderly ”, “lame duck leader”, “dishonest”, “cold-blooded”. The list of adjectives to discuss the British Prime Minister is getting longer by the hour. The media knows her days are numbered in Number 10 and she is now easy fodder. Robert Harris wrote in The Times – “As Churchill said, a bad leader must be poleaxed”.

Nick Clegg , of the Liberal Democrats who was one of the star losers, reflected in defeat : “In politics you live by the sword and die by the sword”. The adage could easily be applied to the media – you put your credibility on the line when you cover elections, and while it may not always be possible to predict precisely, journalists must have their ears close to the ground and listen to what the electorate is saying if it wants to cover elections without personal bias.

David Dimbleby in the interview to Radiotimes rightly said of election coverage : “It’s a theatrical drama, and the great danger is taking anything for granted. That’s the great excitement of an election. It is the only time you actually know what people think. Polls? You can have them until the cows come home. What matters is what people say. And then once you get that stuff in, you start to look for the stories and how politics reacts to the reality of what has happened. For me, the exit poll is the starting gun. For a political rollercoaster ride, and a night of thrills and spills.”

Journalists should remember that everytime they unleash biased coverage, it is the journalist and their organisation’s credibility that is at stake. The British media has a lot of  introspecting to do in the coming days on how it covered the 2017 Parliamentary polls.

And undoubtedly there are lessons in it for the Indian media.

 

(Nupur Basu is a senior journalist and documentary filmmaker)

 

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