It would not be a proper election campaign without allegations of media bias. And not only against the press.
C P Scott, who edited The Guardian from 1872-1929, famously declared that “comment is free, but facts are sacred”. But we now wearily accept that newspapers will be partisan not only in their advocacy for particular parties but, in some cases, also in their reporting.
Broadcasting is different, though. For good historical reasons – the industry being dominated by a single or a handful of companies in many countries – broadcasters largely have been required by governments and regulatory bodies to pursue neutrality in their reporting of politics.
Some observers might scoff, arguing that not only is neutrality impossible to achieve in practice, but also that the appearance of neutrality can mask a commitment to the status quo. But it is perfectly clear that The Sun or the Daily Mirror and its Scottish stablemate the Daily Record report politics very differently to the broadcasters.
The arrival of the multi-channel world has not led to any weakening of UK telecoms regulator Ofcom’s insistence that broadcasters should “provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them”. This phrase is a direct quotation from Ofcom’s recently published consultation document on how it should regulate the BBC now that this task has been given to it as part of the recent Charter Renewal process.
But the impartiality requirement applies to other news providers, too. Which is one reason why many observers are uneasy about Rupert Murdoch’s company, 21st Century Fox, taking full control of Sky Broadcasting. These critics have noted the way in which Fox News in the US (another Murdoch organisation) can slant its reporting in order to advance a particular political agenda.
Fox News is able to do so in the US because of the abolition during the Reagan administration of the so-called fairness doctrine, under which news programming in the US had to be balanced when dealing with matters of public controversy. The fear is that 21st Century Fox, if it had total control of Sky, would push UK rules on impartiality to their limit.
View from the Beeb
But impartiality does not mean an unwillingness to challenge the assertions which politicians make. On Tuesday evening’s BBC Ten O’Clock News this week, Laura Kuenssberg pushed Theresa May hard on her pitch to the electorate. Meanwhile, later that evening on BBC Newsnight, Evan Davis argued forcibly to a Conservative MP that his government’s approach to deficit reduction had been exactly the one advocated by Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party, and ridiculed in 2015 by the Tories. So why, asked Davis, should any new promise to reduce the deficit substantially over the course of the next five years be believed?
The Sunday before, on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme, the prime minister had also become visibly uncomfortable as she was asked about the alleged fact that some lower paid NHS staff have to use food banks.
This is the context in which we should examine the latest media fairness row, which reportedly saw shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, accuse the BBC of spreading “Tory lies” about Labour’s spending plans. The interview in question took place on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the morning after the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbot, got into a terrible mess on LBC radio when asked about the cost of Labour’s proposal to employ more police in England and Wales.
Helena Horton and Laura Hughes reported the “incident” in the Wednesday online version of The Telegraph:
When he [McDonnell] was asked about a dossier released by the Conservative party which claimed Labour’s financial plans had a £45 billion black hole, the shadow chancellor responded furiously. Calling presenter Justin Webb a ‘scallywag’, he fumed about the question.
I have listened to this interview (check in around 1:09) several times and it seems a pretty even-tempered discussion. McDonnell certainly does criticise the BBC for, as he sees it, “uncritically” repeating Tory claims about his fiscal plans, and says that the corporation has a duty to examine the Tory assertions. But this sounds exactly like what any politician would say about their opponents’ claims as relayed by a broadcaster.
In the interview, Webb asks McDonnell whether the spending plans to be included in Labour’s manifesto will add up, and the shadow chancellor argues that his taxation proposals will fund Labour’s commitments.
Webb repeatedly pushes McDonnell on what will happen to personal taxes and McDonnell, laughing, tells Webb that he is a “scallywag”. McDonnell is not “fuming”, as the Telegraph piece alleges, and after the interview finishes, the other presenter, John Humphrys, makes a joke about the scallywag remark.
If there is biased reporting here, it is in the Telegraph’s online piece. This is very disheartening since once a upon a time readers could rely on that paper to report accurately, despite its editorial commitment to the Conservative cause.
We can be sure that as the election proceeds there will be more verbal fisticuffs on the airwaves. We are entitled to expect these exchanges to be vigorous but fair. It would be reassuring if we could have the same expectation of reporting in the British press, whether in print or online. On the evidence of this Telegraph piece, we are going to be very disappointed.