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Labour Must Fight the Establishment Media Moguls

Labour looks set to abandon a decade of commitment to media reform. Rather than seeking in vain to appease the media elite, the party can and should promote an alternative model of press pluralism.

During his son Ed’s prime-ministerial campaign, British sociologist Ralph Miliband was labelled ‘the man who hated Britain’ by the tabloid press, with one newspaper accusing him of drunkenly murdering a kitten named Winston. Decades before, in his book The State in Capitalist Society, he had put forward an analysis of how and why the media acts to sustain the status quo rather than hold power to account. ‘Most newspapers in the capitalist world have one crucial characteristic in common,’ wrote Miliband: ‘their strong, often their passionate hostility to anything further to the Left than the milder forms of social-democracy, and quite commonly to these milder forms as well.’

The idea at the heart of this is that a commercialised media landscape will always tend towards promoting conservative ideas – because of owners’ class interests, a reliance on advertising, and the ways in which political elites ‘manage’ the news. While a press might be ‘free’ in the sense that people can theoretically write what they like, real freedom demands pluralism. In the UK, three companies control 90 percent of the national newspaper market, with numerous invisible barriers influencing the perspectives we hear and limiting who we hear them from.

In these circumstances, the modern Labour Party has a choice. It can seek to appease the British press in the hope that it gets behind the party, or it can commit to serious reform. Sadly, ahead of today’s vote on the Media Bill, where it looks set to abandon a decade of support for Leveson-recommended Section 40, the former seems to be the plan.

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act was designed to incentivise papers to sign up to a genuinely independent regulator and to level the playing field between publishers and victims of press abuse. Opposed by the Tory Party and, unsurprisingly, powerful elements of the press, Section 40 has never been enacted, and the Media Bill seeks to repeal it once and for all. All signs suggest that Labour has dropped its post-Leveson commitments and will not seek to amend the aspects of the Bill that deal with Section 40. Indeed, beyond the technicalities of legislation, Keir Starmer’s strategy vis-a-vis the press, penning op-eds for the Sun and drinking champagne with Rupert Murdoch, seems to be one of appeasement. The idea is that if he plays nice, they will too.

The alternative, for Labour, is to dismiss the last splutterings of a media elite that has used its power to undermine rather than aid democracy. With public trust in the press shockingly low, and an alternative emerging through a digital world that holds space for diverse perspectives, this is the time to do it. Taking on the structures that stop the press being free, that render it more fifth column than fourth estate, is not simply a principled decision: it could be an election-winning one.

Labour’s Rocky Relationship with the Papers

In Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left, James Curran, Ivor Gaber, and Julian Petley speculate on how the Left became the ‘Loony Left’, ‘PC’ went mad, and bin bags, nursery rhymes, and toilets became things worth going into battle for. Prior to the 1980s, they argue, there were two key constraints on press partisanship.

First: professional norms. News stories were expected to be about ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ something was or wasn’t an outrage. These norms became dispensable as the post-war consensus ended with Thatcherism, political differences became entrenched and vicious, and Fleet Street threw all its editorial weight behind one side. News International played its part as a corporation, too, getting rid of a unionised print workforce during the 1986 Wapping dispute. Second: the fact that ‘large numbers of readers did not share the right-wing enthusiasms of press magnates’. Come the 80s, there emerged a means of circumventing this fact, of reeling people in regardless. Editors started ‘filling popular papers with entertainment, and making political coverage ‘entertaining’.’

And so the show began. It turned out the loonies on the Left, and all the mad things they wanted, made great copy. There was Tony Benn, ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’, about whom the Sun ran a 1984 feature headlined ‘Benn on the couch: a top psychiatrist’s view of Britain’s leading leftie’. ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone also found himself in the psychiatrist’s chair, when the Daily Mail tasked not one but three professionals with diagnosing him. ‘Probably the only way in which he could get [attention from his parents] was to be a naughty boy – which he still acts like’, one of them said.

Later on, Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, whose other coups included ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’ – a fake story about a comedian eating a hamster in a sandwich – ran the mother of all campaigns against Neil Kinnock. This culminated in back-to-back front pages: ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’, and the headline-turned-political aphorism, ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’. And with the Sun’s support, Tony Blair finally won it for Labour in 1997, flanked by two former journalists, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson – the Sultans of Spin.

The problem is, if you do too much spinning, you eventually start tying yourself in knots. The Sultans went on to push for war in Iraq, based on imagined weapons of mass destruction, with broad press backing and in the face of the largest protest in British history. As Alfie Steer writes, the invasion proved a watershed moment for public-press-politician relations. ‘The culture of political deception… ending with Iraq, shook the nation’s faith in the integrity of politicians and the political process,’ Steer writes. ‘This vacuum of public confidence in establishment politics was subsequently filled by the populist right.’

In the populist right, the papers found their ideal counterparts. You don’t need to create the drama if someone else, someone who handily shares your politics, will create it for you. Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson et al were all too willing to summon stigmatising soundbites on demand, and this exhausted iteration of the Conservative cabinet is trying its best to do the same. Villainising minorities, from Muslims to trans people, has become a sales strategy for a national press that, in a digital world, is floundering.

Now, however, the charade is self-cannibalising; the revolving door between press and politics is whirring too fast. Soon after resigning as prime minister over the ethics scandals, Boris Johnson started penning a column for the Mail, from behind whose ranks he safely pontificates about how the country should be run. Thanks to Prince Harry’s lawsuits uncovering historic press criminality, former tabloid hacks such as ex-Mirror editor Piers Morgan, are being dragged onto the stage too. And the British public, the audience – no longer focused on the world through a press lens – are feeling the cold bite of reality, looking elsewhere for explanations. In the online realm there is danger, but also room for diversity; there is space for new stories authentically reflecting everyday life. 

The Right Approach

In 2024, there is minimal public trust in the UK media to ‘do what is right’. We currently rank a poor 26th in the world for press freedom, thanks in part to ‘a lack of pluralism’ and the instability of the funding model for the BBC as a public service broadcaster. Our neighbour Ireland now ranks second, after its government recently accepted 49 of the 50 recommendations put forward by a Future of Media commission. These include a multimillion-euro new media fund, geared towards supporting digital transformation and reporting on local democracy.

This is the direction in which Labour should be moving. Rather than seeking in vain to appease a media elite whose days are numbered, the Labour Party should come out on the offensive, putting forward a model for supporting press pluralism and public interest journalism in the digital age. The alternative might place Labour on the right side of the moguls, but it will remain on the wrong side of history.