Pundit and campaigner Owen Jones has made a significant discovery, which he yesterday shared with Guardian readers. “We can no longer pretend the British press is impartial” he told, which I welcome, while feeling the need to point out that our free and fearless press, or at least the mid-market and tabloid part of it, has been nowhere near impartial for the best part of 40 years now. But he is right to suggest that the situation is deteriorating.
Jones is trying to make sense of why more and more people have either abandoned the daily outpourings of our free and fearless press, or have not gone there in the first place, as his sub-heading explains. “The country is more leftwing than its press, which savages dissenting views and defends a discredited status quo. No wonder people look elsewhere for news”. The press defends its own particular status quo. I’ll return to that later.
In pursuing his inquiry, he tells “Finally: there’s a debate about media bias”. There’s been a debate about that here on Zelo Street more or less since the blog started, picking up on the phone hacking scandal only to see most of the press, and those pundits who were either dependent on it, or were angling to be so, desperately trying to sweep the story back under the carpet. And it is that status quo the press seeks to defend.
Despite years of falling sales, the press still wields considerable influence. The printed word is a megaphone with the stamp of authority and credibility; the press establishment is in possession of that megaphone, and surely knows it. The status quo it seeks to defend is that influence, and to do so it enforces, by various means, a culture of Omertà, where no-one inside the tent gets to criticise the rest of the press establishment.
Anyone who does do the dirty on other papers - as the Guardian did with phone hacking - is subjected to a vicious backlash. It is partly for this reason that Jones’ own paper will not be going back to the days when Nick Davies exposed the late and not at all lamented Screws as a borderline criminal operation. They don’t want to be ostracised by the rest of the press club, shunned at awards ceremonies, and maybe worse.
But let me return to the central thrust of Jones’ argument. “Britain’s press is not an impartial disseminator of news and information. It is, by and large, a highly sophisticated and aggressive form of political campaigning and lobbying. It uses its extensive muscle to defend our current economic order which, after all, directly benefits the rich moguls who own almost the entire British press” he observes. Well, up to a point.
Two things here. One, the press defends the order that suits itself, hence the Murdoch press (via the Sun) calling shamelessly for a Leave vote in the EU referendum, then when Sterling tanked, coming in with undue haste for the 61% of Sky that it did not yet own - the cost in US Dollars having fallen to bargain basement levels.
And two, the lobbying works two ways, and this is where it gets a little more complicated - but easily understandable. All the major titles have experienced the vicious circle of falling revenues, staff cutbacks, and fewer journalists having to fill more of their newspapers. Into this vacuum have come mainly right-leaning lobby groups who understand the agenda of the press, supplying copy with a ready-made top line. Most of the press is also right-leaning, and hence the entrée for the TPA, IOD, IEA, CPS, ASI and the rest.
“Rather than challenging powerful interests, the press is more interested in punching down, disseminating myths and outright lies in the process: from Hillsborough to immigrants to benefit claimants. Polling shows widespread acceptance of myths on everything from the true levels of benefit fraud and teenage pregnancies to how many immigrants there actually are in Britain” tells Jones. Again, there’s more than that.
There are fewer journalists, so interesting and truly investigative journalism is pushed to the margins, where few publications indulge in it - notably Private Eye, which has maintained and even increased its circulation while mainstream titles have struggled. This Jones understands, noting “The explosion in opinion is problematic. It has all too often supplanted investigative journalism”.
As there are fewer journalists, the temptation to indulge in the cheap shock horror and/or smear is often too tempting. Hence the cynical preying on readers by constantly telling them that someone who is “the other” is swamping their country, getting something they’re not getting, getting something without working, not speaking English, not like them, and is held to be taking over the country, which is “paralysed by political correctness”.
Thus the agenda-driven nature of more and more newspaper output. This is how Jones puts it: “The distinction between “news” and “opinion” throughout much of the British press is blurred. I write opinion, and it goes in the opinion section of this newspaper. The press abounds with writers who are just as opinionated as me, but their opinions go in the news section”. There is more to it: the whole ethos of some titles is to pursue an agenda.
This was restricted to mid-market and red-top titles until relatively recently. Two events changed that: one was the increasing and all too obvious control over the Times titles being exercised by the Murdochs - see also under the Wall Street Journal - and the takeover of the Telegraph titles by the Barclay Brothers. The latter brought Tony Gallagher to edit the Daily Telegraph; he brought the agenda driven ethos of the Daily Mail.
Then we come to the punditerati: Jones observes “Pundits do play, at least in theory, an important role in democracy. The problem is that the British commentariat is by and large a cartel: its members are mostly there because of their views, their backgrounds, and - to varying degrees - their connections … The spectrum of opinion represented in the commentariat is limited indeed”. It is indeed a cartel, to which he has been granted access.
From within the cartel, Jones does not hold back in calling out others in its ranks: “The Financial Times’s Janan Ganesh once described Jeremy Corbyn supporters, for instance, as ‘thick as pigshit’”. He is too kind: former Murdoch hack Iain Martin smeared Grenfell Tower protesters as “Socialist Worker middle class twats”, while the serially clueless Tim Montgomerie called Corbyn supporters “lobotomised”. They then say the left are abusive.
But what Jones misses completely is the way in which the press establishment washes away the taint of complaint and criticism: it had the supine and useless PCC; now it has the equally useless sham regulator IPSO. He talks of the use of “opinion”: this is doubly useful. Apart from its relative cheapness, when a pundit lies - and there is an awful lot of that going on - IPSO will wipe their backsides with “It’s only an opinion column”.
Owen Jones may be right. But he has a lot further to go to paint the full picture.