We Can’t Win by Being ‘Media-Friendly’

Labour's leadership election is dominated by the idea that the party needs a more 'media-friendly' candidate - but Britain's media is a mouthpiece of the elite and won't support anyone serious about challenging them.

There’s been a clear shift in mainstream debate about what interests the press represents. Until recently, media bias against anyone who even mildly threatened the interests of the rich and powerful was denied – but the behaviour of the media during the general election has made this harder to explain away.

However, rather than calls for media reform to address this clear and frightening democratic deficit, a new defence has been wheeled out. ‘The media is like the weather,’ the argument goes, ‘and there’s nothing you can do about it – the Left is just going to have find a way to appease them.’

We are told the Left needs better communications, and who could argue with that? But the underlying message often seems to be that the Left really needs to adjust its politics to one the media might approve of.

Parallel to this conversation, Labour is holding its leadership election and this anti-democratic idea risks becoming hegemonic. The conversation we really need – about a radical reshaping of the media landscape – is unsurprisingly absent in most of the major media outlets. 

The fact that we are being pushed to accept the press as unchangeable is a step towards precluding radical transformation in our society. Is it really so impossible to imagine a democratised media rather than timidly accepting it as a force that will oppose any progressive reform?

Many of the discussions about who Labour should choose as its next leader rest on the idea that the party needs a slicker media performer, which is at least in part a return to New Labour ‘style over substance’ politics.

The media loved this approach, but it had some deeply damaging impacts on our politics. It’s worth remembering that Tony Blair, who was elected with a landslide on 71% turnout in 1997 followed this with the lowest turnout ever in 2001, down to 59%. It was overwhelmingly traditional Labour voters who were alienated.

The media is, of course, almost unanimous in its praise for Blair – because his style of politics played into their preferred ways of operating, even as it engendered apathy and non-participation among voters. Compare this to the utter hatred of Labour members (or anyone who was not an MP) who engaged in political activism over the Corbyn years. 

When we say a candidate is ‘media-friendly,’ we should remember whose interests those billionaire-owned outlets serve. It is absurd to suggest that someone with a left-wing economic agenda is going to win over a media which spends so much time defending the status quo.

The conclusion that the Left should be expending vital energy winning the hearts and minds of the chattering classes rather than the working class flies in the face of all recent evidence. Whether it’s Brexit in the UK, Trump and Sanders in the US or even Sinn Féin in Ireland, most winners of recent elections haven’t been ‘media-friendly’.

The right-wing of politics doesn’t feel this same need to tail the media. Trump, Johnson and Farage all ran campaigns against the media as part of the establishment, their disdain towards it cast them as rebels and outsiders. This is despite the fact the media was compliant in their respective sideshows, often delivering huge amounts of free advertising. It is the socialist Left that remains the true outsider. 

We need to be asking ourselves what is our media for? Are journalists there to shape culture and politics, or represent the people? The demand that Labour elect a media-friendly candidate would suggest the former. This is made all the more irritating by the fact that so many journalists will deny that the media plays any role in shaping politics – pretending instead that it simply reports.

The riposte is often that to claim the press influences people’s thinking is the same as saying that the British public are unintelligent and brainwashed. This is a fallacy. It is evident that the press has a major influence on how we think and behave – regardless how educated a person might be. And when it spends so much time relaying the views of the powerful, this is deeply corrosive.

To borrow Richard Seymour’s phrasing, the media currently constructs and conveys the government to the people rather than conveying the people to the government. There was a notable lack of curiosity among the media about Jeremy Corbyn before his rise. When he won, he was relentlessly attacked. Now we are spending far more time dissecting why he lost rather than why Johnson won, something which is clearly aimed at undermining any left-wing successor. All of this suggests a media not so much interested in covering socialist politicians as undermining them.  

This speaks to deeper problems in how our media covers politics. Why are our political programmes stuffed with commentators from think tanks, newspapers and businesspeople rather than nurses, foodbank users, the unemployed and homeless people? Surely if the aim was to hold politicians to account on behalf of the people, rather than relay political opinions from the establishment to the broader public, this wouldn’t be the case.

The same conditions led to Corbyn, led to Brexit, led to Trump and have led to Johnson, yet our media is engaged in endless discussions about personalities rather than the economic realities that are creating so much frustration among the electorate. That may well be why our media is so convinced that the only way for Labour to win the next election is to head back to the centre – rather than deal with the consequences of forty years of neoliberalism.

It is important to remember that media bias against the Left is not simply bias against left-wing politicians, it is bias against the kind of people Corbyn attracted to politics – people who refused to accept that the economy would simply continue to get more unequal forever. Anyone willing to abide by media contempt for our base in order to win favour isn’t likely to achieve much in terms of real change.

There is a reason why so many people who wanted a Corbyn-led Labour government found his character assassination in the media so painful. In many ways, it was not about him. It was about attacking the idea that certain people – young people on zero hour contracts, people suffering under Universal Credit, those who bore the brunt of the Bedroom Tax, grassroots anti-cuts and anti-racism campaigners – should participate in politics. The drumbeat to elect a ‘media-friendly’ leader is also about drumming home the idea that these people should return to the margins.

As it stands, the media is a profound obstacle to addressing almost every urgent issue we are facing, from climate change to poverty. It is imperative that we demand better. Change only happens when we interrogate the failings of the status quo. There’s nothing utopian about imagining a better media landscape. In reality, there are severe consequences for our movement if we fail to do so.