The British media is an irrefutably powerful force that affects every aspect of society, but which – believe it or not – isn’t always totally reliable. As if to qualify this, a YouGov poll has revealed the UK media is perceived to be the most right wing and biased in Europe.
Given that the YouGov data is qualitative, it’s easy to poke holes in. It’s based entirely on how a select group of people from across Europe perceive the British media to behave in its reporting, and the perceptions could be entirely inccurate. Nonetheless, if you cast your mind back to the coverage of the 2015 general election, you’re left with the unavoidable conclusion that the people may well be right.
During the months leading up to the election, the polls put Labour and the Conservatives on an even footing, with roughly one third of the vote each. Although this turned out to be wrong, the grossly imbalanced reporting which accompanied this polling data could well have contributed to its accuracies. According to Election Unspun, the coverage of the general election was overwhelmingly hostile towards Ed Miliband, with national newspapers supporting David Cameron, and outnumbering support for his challenger five to one. From the liberally applied Red Ed tag, to the helpful assessments of his wife’s clothing choice and a character assassination of his late father, it’s clear that the election brought out the worst in the media. A personal favourite was the comment in the Financial Times, which advocated a continuation of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition because Miliband was – God forbid – “too preoccupied with inequality”. The weighting of the coverage also reflected a clear bias: the Tories received 11% more coverage than Labour.
Speaking to Politico, US campaigner and Labour party adviser David Axelrod remarked: “I’ve worked in aggressive media environments before, but not this partisan.” Even Andrew Neil, a former editor of the Sunday Times, one of Rupert Murdoch’s publications, was shocked, commenting: “All pretence of separation between news and opinion [has] gone, even in ‘quality [newspapers]’ ”.
The timing of this change in the British print press represents a clear ambition to cast doubt and to affect public opinion, one which seems hell-bent on blurring the lines between opinion and fact, committed to furthering its own agenda with the least balance possible.
Has the bias now become so obvious that the majority of the public are aware of it, as the YouGov poll suggests? For instance, I know that if I pick up a copy of the Daily Mail or the Sun, the contents are likely to be over-exaggerated and broadly sympathetic to a right-wing way of thinking, and I’ve no doubt I’m not the only one. This isn’t necessarily a reason to avoid them. Reading an opinion piece that provides an argument in opposition to your own can highlight the weaknesses in your own thinking, and educate you to new ways of thinking.
Nevertheless, there’s clearly an issue in media ownership. Rupert Murdoch has a virtual monopoly on the British media, and the agenda of the publications under his ownership will always reflect his own opinions. Back in 2011, Ed Miliband was early to call for Murdoch’s resignation in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, so there’s clearly bad blood between the two; the coverage of Miliband’s politics was never likely to be fair and balanced.
The real issue, therefore, with the British media is inaccuracy in its reporting, and a conscious effort to mislead the public into conforming to the opinions of monopolising media moguls. The continued reporting style and insistence on blurring the line between fact and opinion has badly damaged the reputation of the British press, and as long as the public are concerned with this bias, a broad spectrum of opinions published in newspapers will never be taken for what they are, or should be: an attempt to educate the public. Fleet Street has a lot of work to do to re-establish its credibility.