A number of academic texts about the British media, such as Tunstall (1996), have concluded that the press is ‘partisan and right-skewed’ in the way it selects and angles news stories, in their leaders and in their backing of parties during election campaigns. At the same time it is claimed that columnists are ‘autonomous exceptions to the normal discipline of editorial approval and sub-editing cuts’ (Tunstall 1996, p.281), therefore not predetermined to be part of this bias. This essay will show that not only is there evidence of a partisan right-wing trend within the editorial stance and news reporting of the national press, but also that it is visible today in the opinions expressed by political columnists. My focus will not only be on the publications which are openly right-wing, but also on the columns in the liberal press.
The most obvious time when a newspaper has to reveal clearly its political preference is in the period leading up to a Parliamentary Election. Historically more papers have ‘voted’ Conservative than Labour during election campaigns ‘with The Express, Mail, Star, Telegraph, Times and Sun all espousing right-wing positions’ (Masterman, 1989, p.83). After labelling the Labour Party as ‘loony lefties’ in the build-up to the 1992 General Election, the ‘tabloid newspapers were judged to be so hostile to Labour messages that no useful working relationship was possible with them; neither group wished to sustain this position in 1992’ (Franklin, 1994, p.20).
In recent years several newspapers, especially those owned by Rupert Murdoch, have switched allegiance. This, however, does not signal a move to the left by the press; it is a result of the Labour party, led by Tony Blair, moving to the centre right as ‘for Blair, no effort was too great to win friends in the mass-circulation newspapers’ (McSmith, 1997).
Franklin (1994, p.13) states that the ‘media are not independent of politically and economically powerful interests within society.’ It would, therefore, be naive to think that whilst editorialising to pursue these interests, the same newspapers would allow substantial freedom to their political columnists to voice opinions that contradict the views expressed by these interests. It is more likely, however, that editors would employ columnists who reinforce the newspaper’s political position. The accepted idea that ‘editors are expendable; proprietors are with us until death us do part’ (Cudlipp, 1990, p.5 cited in Franklin, 1994, p.37) is also true of columnists and it would be quite possible for an owner or editor to replace a column writer who regularly rebelled against the political stance of the paper.
Edwards and Cromwell (2006) suggest that columnists are generally honest and believe what they are saying; there is no right-wing corporate conspiracy. The reason that their views are partisan is due to the system that selects them. Noam Chomsky also expressed this view, in an interview with broadcaster and columnist Andrew Marr. ‘I don’t say you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting’ (Chomsky, 1996 cited in Edwards and Cromwell, 2006, p.89). So, while columnists are technically free to say what they want, in reality if they held certain left-wing views they would not be working in mainstream media.
The general trend of columnists has been to criticise politicians, mostly those of the government, whichever party is in power. Whilst this may seem like they are acting impartially, the majority of criticism centres around government policy not being right-wing enough. By examining the columns of Richard Littlejohn (a writer for the Daily Mail and formerly of the Sun), it is possible to see examples of this. Whilst he has said his role ‘is to sit at the back and throw bottles’ (Guardian, 1993 cited in Franklin, 1994, p.15), and he has successfully done this to politicians both from the left and right, his views indicate that he thinks both sides’ policies are not right-wing enough in every instance. This has led him to criticise government environmental policies making such comments as ‘if the eco-loonies and climate change fascists are convinced they’re right, why not let their theories be tested forensically in court?’ (Littlejohn, 2008).
The current election campaign for London mayor is clearly divided between right and left. The paper devoting most coverage to the election, the Evening Standard, while not a national paper, requires analysis due to its influence as the only paid-for daily London paper. Wilby (2008) illustrates how the paper has forgone any duty to impartiality when it comes to scrutinising the two leading candidates, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. Even the columns of Andrew Gilligan, whom Wilby refers to as ‘a lefty like me’, shows considerable partiality towards the right-wing candidate, Johnson, by failing to subject him to the levels of scrutiny which Gilligan applies to Livingstone. While the majority of London constituencies in the last Parliamentary Election had left-wing views, 12 Conservative, 26 Labour, 3 Liberal Democrat, 1 Respect (London Housing, 2005), the press coverage available to them is not representative, with no paper to provide impartial or left-leaning reporting of the mayoral election.
Franklin (1994) illustrates how the media can help politicians to gain public support for their policies by communicating them in a favourable way. This was evident when Tony Blair made the case for the war with Iraq, which, by receiving popular support at the time from the media, displayed a right-wing bias within the press. Edwards and Cromwell (2006) argue that by not questioning the case for war, the press were themselves helping the British and American governments initiate an illegal conflict. At this time there was a distinct lack of opposition from left-wing columnists, with most leaders and opinion articles supporting the war. This resulted in Guardian columnist, Brian Whitaker, writing ‘[Saddam] could still save his skin by allowing weapons inspectors – who were thrown out of Iraq in 1998 – to return’ (Guardian, 2002, cited in Edwards & Cromwell 2006). There was no mention in the piece that the inspectors were told to leave by the US government who were preparing an invasion and likewise there were a lack of columnists from any newspapers questioning the decision to go to war.
Further acts of British columnists supporting the right-wing policies of the US government are explored in Edwards and Cromwell (2006) such as the Independent’s comment editor, Adrian Hamilton’s views that ‘the US’s worst crime was inaction’ with regards to plans for intervention in Haiti, promoting ‘the liberal media’s dissident credentials, without harming, or calling down the wrath of, power’ (Edwards & Cromwell, 2006, p.129).
While there are a handful of columnists who consistently represent the views of the left, such as John Pilger and Naomi Klein, in mainstream media, their paucity constitutes a significant under-representation of left-wing opinion in British society, as is the lack of left-wing newspapers, with ‘only the Guardian (Liberal/centrist) and The Mirror (right-wing Labour) reflecting centre or slightly left of centre positions’ (Masterman, 1989, p.83).
The previous examples show that while on the face of it columnists are autonomous, in reality their work, even when writing in left-wing publications, is skewed to the right. There are three factors that have led to this partisanship: Firstly, ‘there has been a persistent and growing tendency towards concentration of ownership’ (Franklin, 1994, p.34). Secondly, due to an increased reliance on PR material as disclosed in Davies (2007), which has been generated by large corporations keen to pursue a right-wing agenda. Finally, newspapers have become more reliant on advertising revenue and therefore advertisers have an increased influence on the news agenda (Edwards & Cromwell, 2006). These factors have a large influence on the work of political columnists, resulting in a significant right-wing bias in their work which is set to continue and possibly increase as newspapers become more dependent on advertisers and the ownership of newspapers contracts further.
Davies, N., 2007. Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media. London: Chatto and Windus.
Edwards, D. & Cromwell, D., 2006. Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media. London: Pluto Press.
Franklin, B., 1994. Packaging Politics Political Communication in Britain’s Media Democracy. New York: Routledge.
Littlejohn, R., 2008. Eco-loonies reject an inconvenient truth. London: Daily Mail. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/
columnists/columnists.html?in_page_id=1772&in_article_id=537512&in_author_id=322 [Accessed 23 April 2008].
London Housing, 2005. General Election results in London – 2005. London: London Housing. Available from: http://www.londonhousing.gov.uk/doc.asp?doc=14345&cat=2620 [Accessed 22 April 2008].
Masterman, L., 1989. Teaching the Media. London:Routledge.
McSmith, A., 1997. Faces of Labour:The Inside Story. London: Verso.
Tunstall, J., 1996. Newspaper Power The New National Press in Britain. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Wilby, P., 2008. Standards slip on impartiality. Media Guardian, 21 April, p.7
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This post was written by Matt Genner