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Fourth Estate or Fifth Column?

Fourth Estate or Fifth Column?

The press baron Lord Northcliffe had a lifelong obsession with death. He maintained an aquarium in which goldfishes were separated from a pike by a partition. When bored, he would lift it and watch the water turn a cloudy orange-red as the pike devoured its prey.

Northcliffe’s rival, Lord Beaverbook, was a man of similarly crepuscular tastes, which he projected onto his customers when he instructed his editor at the Daily Express that ‘the public like to know… what men die of – and women too.’ 

The preoccupations of rich and powerful men are, of course, not merely notable for their service in lightening dense biographies with hair-raising anecdotes and pithy quotes. For as long as the press has existed in Britain, they have also informed the diet of reportage which has educated, informed and entertained the reading public.

A right-wing bias among those wealthy enough to own newspapers should seem relatively obvious, but has the last decade seen a further acceleration? In Ireland, our nearest geographical and cultural neighbour, there exist wealthy media owners and public anxieties around crime, immigration and the use of the public purse. And yet there exists no Irish paper that would depict a left-wing political figure in a dustbin, or their preferred right-wing candidate as the bright, white life-giving sun in the sky.

When, in 2016, Britain’s entire political class stood apart from her newspapers’ clamour for Brexit, did those organs presage the public’s antipathy to the European Union, or foment it within their readers via the thousands of verifiable untruths which formed the majority of that public’s knowledge of the institution? In the years since, how have fringe obsessions like climate denialism and the Human Rights Act been joined by Cancel Culture and vaccine scepticism as issues unsupported by the British public but espoused by the papers they read by the millions?

Do the paper-reading public fail to see the water they’re swimming in? And is that water, in the manner of Northcliffe’s unfortunate goldfish, getting cloudier as we speak?

We asked a series of journalists and experts how they explained the rightward drift in the UK’s media over the last decade, and how they saw the relationships between patronage, print and power in Britain today.

Nick Davies, (Guardian journalist responsible for uncovering the News of the World phone-hacking scandal and author of Flat Earth News).

A media mogul is going to be attracted by two things: power and money. By flukes of history, it so happens that at different times, the UK has had large amounts of both on offer. And that is unusual.

If you go back to the first half of the 20th century, when the UK was up at the top of the league table of global powers, you had the likes of Rothermere and Beaverbook, who were primarily propagandists. They were attracted to running newspapers here in order to try to influence world events according to their ideology. Their papers bristled with empire, white supremacy, nationalism and laissez-faire capitalism. Since 1945, the power of the UK has declined dramatically, so the ideological attraction of owning a paper in the UK has declined with it.

However, there was a long phase, which lasted until the internet blew up the business model, when media proprietors in the UK could expect to make shedloads of money. The UK was a peculiarly lucrative market because of the demographic fact of having a big population squeezed into an unusually small area, so that every single one of these tens of millions of households could be reached by an overnight train from London or Glasgow. There were fortunes to be made. Which is what attracted Rupert Murdoch and other profit-hungry corporations. They are not primarily political owners. However, simply as a matter of commercial logic, their profit-seeking means that they have a political agenda: they want low tax, small state, weak unions, low wages. And they make sure that their newspapers hassle governments until they get what they want.

At the moment, we are into a third phase, post-internet, where these corporations are struggling to make big profits. In the short term, that intensifies the pressure that they put on the political domain (see, for example, the campaign against Corbyn). At the local level, it has also meant that the corporate owners have been pulling back by merging and closing their titles. We may well see more of that at the national level. The shrivelling of news-gathering resources is a very serious problem, but if it happens to encourage the Murdochs to leave the UK to decide its own politics without their destructive interference, that would be some consolation.

Noam Chomsky, political philosopher and professor emeritus of linguistics, MIT

In a word, money. Orwell wrote about it. In his words, in free England unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. One reason is that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in suppressing such ideas.

Madeline Grant, columnist and parliamentary sketch writer for The Daily Telegraph

It’s both at once [the British press becoming more/less right-wing] I think, which itself reflects a growing rot in the British media. We are following America’s example, becoming more partisan in both directions. Law and order/asylum issues are good examples of things where I suspect the BBC is wildly out of touch with public sentiment.

This is true of most media publications (the British public is incredibly ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ in opinion polls) but because of the licence fee, the state broadcaster has a unique obligation to represent everyone. The trouble is that because of the bubble mentality, BBC staffers almost don’t know that they are ignoring these sentiments because they are so rarely exposed to them in the first place. How can you be less biased if you didn’t know you were biased to begin with?

In addition to this, journalists of all persuasions spend far too much time on Twitter, a left-leaning platform that is wildly unrepresentative of public opinion, leaving them detached from the views of their readers, and more concerned about the good opinion of other journalists than that of their audience. No wonder everyone hates us.

Alexandra Shulman, former editor of Vogue and GQ

I have a sense that the different viewpoints of the press have become more obvious and partial. If I read one paper, I will only get one side of the story and I know, judging by the title, what that side will be.

In many ways, it is now less about left and right political wings of thought, but more about a general mind-set which encompasses culture, emotions, society, etc. Left-wing is seen broadly as more ‘woke’, right-wing as more old-guard and entrenched. Both can be equally prejudiced in favour of their viewpoint whatever the subject.

I feel that social media has increased the tendency to follow news that conforms only to your point of view. It’s very easy to only receive news from your particular silo, so I wouldn’t necessarily term the split as between left and right in all cases. Certainly social media, which is fuelled by immediate reactions to 24/7 news, has made a big difference to the information an individual receives. When I edited Vogue this wasn’t a particular issue other than very occasionally, but in terms of print press in general I think that the echo chamber effect of digital media has encouraged them to take very specific stands – rather than investigate more sides of any discussion.

Peter Geoghegan, investigations editor, openDemocracy

I don’t subscribe to an entirely Marxist analysis of the media, ‘rich man owns newspaper and tells people what to think’. I don’t think it’s just a matter of the media framing things in a certain way and convincing their audience. 

But the history of the British press has been a history of very powerful people who own newspapers to push an agenda. I think it’s changed a bit, but it has been the case and it feels like people are squeamish about ever talking about it. In Ireland, Denis O’Brien’s role in the Independent Media Group was front and centre of the discussion, probably because it was so unusual in an Irish context. The Irish Times is owned by a trust. Historically, most newspapers there have been. In Ireland and Scotland, all the newspapers are what is called metro newspapers in America, they cover quite small geographical areas and reach a reasonably small number of people – four or five million – so you can’t really differentiate too much politically because you’ll lose readers, your potential audience is very small, whereas in Britain your potential audience is very big.

The UK press is also not really regulated. Yes, you have IPSO now, but lots of people aren’t members and you don’t have any real regulation. Then you have broadcast, which is heavily regulated by Ofcom and largely publicly funded, So, people often say, ‘Look, you have Channel 4 News, there’s “lefty” news, what are you complaining about?’ But the press really influences the line that broadcasters take. If you walk into a green room there’ll be seven or eight newspapers there, all taking the same sort of line with something.

That’s one of the reasons why you see quite politicised papers in general. So the structural issue is different between Britain and Ireland. The electoral system has a hegemonic aspect to it, where you just presume Britain is a right-wing country, because there’s a lot of electoral evidence for that. But, there’s also a lot of evidence that it’s not as right-wing as newspaper campaigning is. There isn’t a reason why you’d expect it to be quite so skewed to the right when it comes to its printed press.

Blair, for example, was obsessed with getting Murdoch on side, and the way that factor is talked about is quite unquestioning. You talk to Murdoch people, and newspaper people don’t criticise him too much because a) he’s broadly seen as being very good to work for and b) since newspapers have become less profitable – to the point where they’re not profitable at all – he’s one of the few people who still spends money on newspapers and seems to give a shit about them. But I think you can acknowledge the fact that he is someone who cares about the press, as well as the extent to which he has influenced British politics.

I think the issue of lobby correspondents has been huge. I have plenty of friends who are lobby correspondents and I say to them ‘just because someone tells you something doesn’t mean you should report it’. It sounds quite basic but it’s true. I think Britain has for a while now embraced the horse-race style of political journalism – and I think it’s very hard to make a case that has been a good thing for Britain, or the people of Britain. 

The class aspect of British political life and of journalism is well-covered ground but so vital to understand. The longer I spend in Britain, the more I work, the more I’m just constantly amazed at the interconnection between all these worlds, and how difficult it must be for people inside that world to understand how unusual it is from the outside.

Ash Sarkar, senior editor, Novara Media

Background is so important. Think of the Parliament pipeline – you go through private school, then Oxbridge, Edinburgh, Durham, UCL… and then you go into the orbit of Parliament, whether that’s news coverage or working as a Spad or whatever. You’ve also got the corrosive impact that Murdoch’s empire has had on both the tabloid and the broadsheet environment – the impact of American-style, hyper-commercialised news. So many people in power worked for the Spectator, including the Prime Minister, it’s this very chummy, insular world. There are people who say if you work for Novara you can’t be considered a serious journalist, that you’re not in the terrain of legitimate debate. But Robert Peston can write for a publication that has printed articles like ‘In Praise of the Wehrmacht’, and be considered an authority on adjudicating matters of anti-Semitism.

Westminster media culture is a bunch of circus ponies who are completely high on the smell of their own farts. If you go to SW1 and see how these people conduct themselves, they’re just wrapped in their own sense of self-regard. These are people who took briefcases to sixth form: in the real world they are not cool. But lobby access gives them this aura of mystique and importance.

I’ll never forget when Sajid Javid resigned. There was a piece of footage – behind the scenes – of Laura Kuenssberg on the phone saying ‘can I get confirmation on that quote?’ with some stupid dramatic music. They put the footage out on the Brexitcast or whatever, as if it was some vital undercover piece of television… and it was just a lady on a phone.

Of course, there are important and honourable things that journalists do, but talking on the phone to someone else who went to private school isn’t one of them. They feel the need to West Wing it up.

Let me tell you a story. I was on BBC Politics Live and it was me, a former Blair aide, Kwasi Kwarteng and some Lib Dem I can’t remember. The discussion was ‘are the hard left nasty?’, because someone got shouted down at an anti-Trump demo. Everyone was rounding on me, but I was just saying antagonism was a core part of politics, whatever. Meanwhile, Kwasi and this Blair aide are needling each other over the programme. The cameras stop rolling, we’re leaving the set and the aide starts screaming at Kwasi Kwarteng, swearing, slamming his hand on the desk… it was a whole big thing. I thought punches were going to get thrown. The host adopted this indulgent, schoolmarmish, ‘oh he really got rather wound up there’ pose. I was like, what the hell. I would never behave like this in any of these spaces, or swear at anyone. I make a point to be pathologically polite because I know I’m going to be held to a different standard.

Francis Wheen, journalist, broadcaster and deputy editor of Private Eye

Right-wing national newspapers aren’t a new thing in England: see the Mail and Express under Northcliffe/Rothermere and Beaverbrook, whose political propagandising provoked Stanley Baldwin’s famous ‘power without responsibility’ speech, written for him by his cousin, Rudyard Kipling. Beaverbook famously said that ‘I run the paper [Daily Express] purely for the purpose of making propaganda and with no other motive’. Though he was also being deliberately provocative here: he did indeed like making propaganda, but what he enjoyed even more was making mischief.

The question of certain Fleet Street newspapers’ stridently right-wing politics is inseparable from the question of ownership, and the type of people who have become owners in the past century or so, and their motives. Not all press barons buy papers because they want a personal megaphone through which they can yell their particular prejudices. Lord Thomson of Fleet, who bought the Sunday Times and Times, was scrupulously hands-off when it came to editorial politics and policy. But I do think Britain’s distinctive newspaper culture is influenced by the distinctive sorts of tycoons who have bought and shaped those newspapers. 

I don’t think Ireland has a comparable tradition of Beaverbrook/Rothermere-type proprietors. Even when a big-ego squillionaire has bought newspapers in Ireland – Tony O’Reilly, for instance – his political and editorial approach was markedly less raucous and right-wing than UK equivalents, as hacks in England found to their pleasant surprise when he bought the Independent and Independent on Sunday.

George Brock, chairman of the Public Benefit Journalism Research Centre, former Managing Editor, The Times, and former Professor of Journalism, University of London.

Very few people outside of the political/media class think of themselves as ‘left’ or ‘right’. That class thinks that everyone reads newspapers which reflect their tribal political loyalty. Years of market research show this to be inaccurate.

The first and most obvious thing to say is that what people truly think is not always what they tell opinion researchers that they think. Broad generalisations on this are frequently wrong. Resentment about immigration and the EU, for example, was in reality clearly higher in the British population than surveys showed – as the Brexit vote in 2016 made clear. That is also a clue to the way in which individuals often don’t hold opinions as a neat package which slots into the left–right political continuum or into the categories used by social scientists.

All that said, many countries across the globe in the last ten years have seen a diffuse rebellion against elites and their attitudes. It’s hardly surprising that those feelings pop up in increasingly deregulated media. And of course the people who tend to be good at owning and running media companies – a ferociously competitive business – are more usually on the right than the left.

But note this. With the costs of publishing being cut to the cost of owning a smartphone, the market for political opinion has the most diverse, open and plural conditions I have known in my lifetime (I will be 70 this year). So the apparent ‘dominance’ of opinions from the right is partly a matter of media owners and more broadcast channels, but the greater cause is the huge influx of individuals into new opinion spaces on social networks. That, and the new TV channels, suggest to me that there is a hidden market for opinions on the right; time will tell.

This profusion provided by technology undoubtedly democratises the expression of opinion but also puts us at the mercy of every fruitcake, loon and relentless bore on the planet. There is absolutely no way to match the political colour of every news and opinion platform to the opinions of the population. Nor should there be.

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