One of the lasting impressions of the 2019 General Election is the extent to which news organisations have been biased against the Labour Party and its policies. One report from researchers at Loughborough University found that “British newspapers were half as critical of the Conservative Party in this month’s election as they were in the one two years ago.” While another study in The Guardian found that analysis of push alerts for “nine of the biggest UK news apps” showed that, on balance, “notifications about the Conservative party tend to be positive, while notifications about Labour are overwhelmingly negative.”
Okay, now this might be like complaining about the British weather, and a statement of the obvious. The British news industry is biased against the progressive and left-leaning parties in the UK. It always has been, and it always will be. Get over it. We might argue that any self-respecting political activist should factor this in as part of their campaign process before any campaigning is framed. The extent, however, of the rampant and obvious misinformation that was generated in the 2019 election campaign has certainly gone beyond the experience of previous elections.
Pippa Norris and Patrick Dunleavy note in a blog they have written for the London School of Economics, what they call the “framing bias” of most news organisations, which means that many are beset by an inability to “speak truth to power” in their reporting. They tend, instead, to favour the incumbent party mindset, regardless of the objectivity of the claims and counter-claims that they are reporting about.
Reflection of the election coverage by the BBC has itself settled on a narrative that “impartiality” is key to understanding the BBC’s coverage, which is a way oft self-explaining the BBC’s coverage of the election because it was equally distant from each of the opposing parties. Unfortunately this bias towards impartiality is itself part of the problem, as it devalues the duty that journalists should observe to uphold facts and be systematically objective. For example, if one party claims it is snowing outside, and the other claims that it is sunny, then it is a false assumption to presume that the impartial view must be that it is raining. This would be a reasonable and equidistant middle position. However, the job of news organisations is not to play ping-pong with the public relations lines and spin of trained media spokespeople, but to put their heads out of the window and check for themselves what the state of the weather actually is.
So, what can the Labour Party do to prepare itself for future elections and take account of this inbuilt bias, which is only going to get worse as more media is pushed into the narrow control of fewer global media corporations? Or, alternatively, as people are left to fend for themselves in the toxic social media networks in which they are easily manipulated. Social networks are clearly being run as echo chambers in which the views that are aired and responded to, are not explained or discussed, but are often attacked and maligned. How the different views are arrived at, and who else shares them, is so often far from open and transparent.
With social media it’s not possible to tell a universal or common set of stories, because we each consume our media individually, based on our likes and preferences, and our allegiances. What Dominic Cummings, Isaac Levido, and Lynton Crosby are expert at, is using social media to map pockets of indignation and resentment, and then turning these stories into political weapons. As former PM Jim Callaghan once said, a lie is often halfway around the world before the truth has even put its shoes on. We’ve just amplified and personalised the process.
So, I’ve been wondering if it would be possible to change the model of communication that the Labour Party adopts and practise? Would it be possible to aim for something different, something more participative and dispersed? Instead of a mass-media marketing campaign that is centralised, and which is developed from the top of the party using mass marketing techniques, would it be possible, instead, to decentralise the media process and find ways to encourage and facilitate Labour Party activists and supporters to tell their own stories, using simple tools and trust-based frameworks?
What would it take to train Labour Party activists to act as trusted and objective community reporters in their communities? What would it take to train party members to utilise the technology that is now common in their smart phones to tell simple stories of community life, enabling them to build and connect with other community story tellers in a network of small stories that are truthful, authentic and trusted?
What would it take to train party supporters to ensure that stories that are attached to the party’s campaign themes, both locally and nationally, can be validated and authenticated? What are the positive and accountable principles and values of reporting that need to be embedded in each branch, and at each level of the party, that will ensure the ethical practices of good reporting?
Community reporters don’t need to be interrogative or probing, instead they can be personal, local and concrete. Isn’t it better to tell stories that are based on the actual experience of the people who have lived through the pains and the joys of their community lives? The walk to school, the bus journey to work, the wait at the doctors, the engagement with a community to which we belong? The helping hand and the offer of support is a more positive story that counters the negativity, bile and indignation which is increasingly apparent in many people’s daily experience, and the Tories seem to feed off.
I am fond of quoting CG Jung, who said that ‘evil will prosper if people can’t tell their stories.’ The Labour Party, as it renews itself after the defeat at the general election, must consider how it can turn itself into a platform for telling the stories. These will be stories of strife and adversity, but they will also be stories of achievement and triumph in the face of adversity. Only then can we build a sense of belonging that isn’t defined or framed on our behalf by international corporations, technocratic manipulators or cynical marketing executives. Only when we take control of the stories we tell about our communities, and look after the people who want to belong to them, will we really have control.