The path to a fairer future
By Louisa Bull
MEDIANORTH is an organisation which Unite supports and we are really pleased to be working with you in tackling the whole situation we face in the UK media at this time. Indeed Unite was very pleased to assist with the production of the excellent ElectionWatch publications and you can be assured of our support in the future.
My contribution is around the ownership, regulation and ethics of the UK media and I am sure there will be some discussion around that in this session. However, before that I think it is important to comment on the current situation in the UK media following the General Election and Brexit.
Post the arbitrary move of the “Lobby” from the House of Commons to Downing Street last month, the actions of the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings and Lee O’Brien this week in attempting to divide those journalists that they wanted to have a relationship and those they wouldn’t allow in to the briefing is sinister in the extreme. A blatant attempt by Johnson to avoid hard questions and an attempt to direct the narrative from those media outlets that he perceives to be either friendly or under his control.
We should all applaud those journalists who walked out and I for one hope that the Lobby team refuse to be bullied by Johnson as this is a slippery slope that clearly demonstrates a government that is determined to control the news media in whatever way they can.
I think it is also important at this time to make comment about the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn during the General Election by some of the media in the UK. We know this is not a new practice, indeed, it was Ralph Miliband in the late 1960s who noted that:“The Press may well claim to be independent and to fulfil an important watchdog function. What the claim overlooks, however, is the very large fact that it is the Left at which the watchdogs generally bark with most ferocity, and what they are above all protecting is the status quo” and this rings true now.
In their attacks on Jeremy Corbyn the right wing media went further than ever before. They moved away from taking a legitimate critical stance in reporting, to one of active opposition. Through scorn, ridicule and personal attacks, through association and through lack of voice or misrepresentation they actively turned the minds of the electorate, developing an image of Jeremy they wanted to portray.
And I think we have seen the shape of things to come in the past week or so following Brexit in regard to hysterical attacks on the European Union, with newspapers such as the Express, The Mail, The Sun and others willing to tell any story that would support the Prime Minister, no matter how ridiculous his position on Europe may be and to possibly try to turn the country against anything the European Union does.
So this leads us to where we need to go for the future.
When the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom was set up many years ago, and the print unions were among its founder members, we were basically dealing with the national and provincial press and the early days of satellite television. Now we have to deal with the media as a whole which includes a declining printed media, more TV and radio stations than ever before and of course websites, blogs and social media such as Twitter and Instagram.
Unite is of the view that it will be extremely difficult to begin to pull together a narrative for media reform in the immediate future.
However the special issue of MediaNorth issued on 8th February does go some way into signposting where we need to go. It is clear that the UK in particular is divided and no matter what happens in the forthcoming Labour Leadership election, whoever is elected, will face a hostile press.
Of course the ownership of the media is still a major issue. As the Media Reform Coalition outlined “Britain has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world”.
– Three companies dominate 83% of national newspaper circulation.
– Five companies account for 80% of the national newspaper market if you include online readers
– Five companies own 80% of local newspaper titles – And two companies own nearly half of all commercial analogue stations.
There is little public accountability. The Independent Press Standards Organisation, set up by the newspaper owners after the Leveson Report, is toothless and since the advent of “fake news” newspapers, blogs and social media seem at liberty to say whatever they want with impunity. This has been driven through by bans on certain newspapers by the Conservative Party, the unwillingness of the Prime Minister and his Ministers to face scrutiny and now the first major attack on the BBC through decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee.
During the General Election there was considerable criticism of perceived bias by the BBC and at times it became impossible for many of us to defend some of the actions or comments of BBC reporters. Unite has always believed that you take the rough with the smooth but some of the reporting, particularly on the Labour Party, fell far short of the standards we would normally expect and with a complete lack of balance. Nonetheless, the government’s attack on the BBC will not help and is designed to undermine democracy and bully journalists into doing the bidding of the government.
If the BBC wants to win back the support of Trade Unionists and socialists it would do well to recognise that it made errors and the imbalance such as the high visibility of people like Nigel Farage, who is not elected to anything, must come to an end. To show impartiality and fairness, presenters need to be seen to be impartial, rather than take a partisan stance in regard to Right Wing politicians and commentators. Journalists have moved away from critical news reporting and now only provide commentary and opinion to inform the public.
So What is to be done?
It is clear that as an opposition the Labour Party needs to have a robust and coherent response to perceived bias wherever it occurs and where it is so blatant, as we have seen from Johnson, in terms of inaccuracy and the refusal to be scrutinised, this must be called out by Labour.
There needs to be a clear view from those people who care about democracy, that social society including Labour politicians, Trade Unionists and commentators, need to be defended against these attacks.
We need to be a critical friend of the BBC and ensure that as Granville Williams said in his recent article that lobbyists from Sky, Netflix, Amazon and others and the Tory supporting newspapers, are not allowed to bulldoze the BBC and other broadcasters into doing their bidding.
We also now need to build a coalition with the Labour Party and Trade Unions and progressives to call out the media bias that Nick Jones also highlights in the conference special publication.
In regard to social media, unfortunately there is a complete lack of regulation and it is almost impossible to control without the state having an ability to shut down websites etc. which is in nobody’s interests.
We believe we have to turn our attention to the abuses that seem to be allowed on social media almost daily. We need to campaign particularly inside the Labour Party and Trade Unions for Regulatory Bodies with real teeth where those people wronged and bullied in the social media can complain and secure recompense.
I hope I have given colleagues some food for thought.
This is going to be a long road. We can expect to see Johnson and his Cabinet behave in a dictatorial manner and with impunity and I do hope that with the support of Trade Unions, Labour Party and Progressives in the country that Media North can play an important part in holding Johnson and the government to account whenever and wherever is possible.
Louisa Bull is National Officer, Unite’s Graphical, Paper, Media and IT Sector. This was her presentation to the MediaNorth Conference, It’s the Media, Stupid! at Leeds on 8 February 2020
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