An embattled Trump inveighs against the “liberal media” who are bringing him down. “No politician in history has been treated more unfairly.” Embattled Corbyn supporters, led by Len McCluskey, inveigh against the Conservative media (and BBC) who have never given him a chance to get up in the first place. And, pat on cue, dozens of media academics from around Britain write to the Guardian in plaintive terms.
“Our concern as media educators is that whole sections of the media are already committed to a narrative that paints Labour as unelectable and Corbyn as a barely credible candidate … Academic surveys have shown how newspapers belittled him from the moment he won his first leadership election, while broadcast bulletins systematically gave more coverage to his opponents than to his supporters …
“We are not asking for eulogies of Corbyn, but for reporting that takes seriously the proposals contained in the manifesto and that doesn’t resort to a lazy stereotype of Corbyn as a ‘problem’ to be solved.”
Serious points, seriously made. Is the manifesto a “plan to bankrupt Britain” in Mail eyes? Is “Labour’s tax raid pledge in tatters” already on the morning after for the Times? Look at the likely election endorsement line-up among national papers – in so far as that matters – and there’s no one batting four-square for Labour.
Maybe the Mirror will find some benign words to utter, just like its prime political commentator, Kevin Maguire. “Labour’s most exciting manifesto programme for decades is stuffed with smart ideas to improve the lives of tens of millions of Britons in big ways and small”. But even Kevin can’t keep his enthusiasm going all column long. “Good ideas and intentions are no guarantee of electoral success … Credibility and competence count as much as inspiring policies and invigorating politics.
“History proves those who deserve to win sometimes lose and those who win are Conservative losers.”
The Guardian already knew where it stood. “History has an ineradicable lesson: general elections are not won just on manifestos or pledge cards, but also on the believability of the person who is the party candidate for prime minister … It seems there is no platform Labour could adopt that would address the doubt in many voters’ minds about Mr Corbyn’s credibility as a potential prime minister.”
It’s no use looking towards an occasionally Labour-friendly FT this time around either – and the Indy of 2015 has vanished online. Labour, digital efforts apart, has nobody to thump its tubs. But who, pray, does that remind you of?
I’m not – repeat not – arguing for some bizarre political equivalence between Trump and Corbyn. But the position of the aspiring president and hopeful prime minister a few weeks before polling day is instructive.
Trump received cool-to-downright-chilly coverage during his campaign. The endorsement count against him was humiliating, going on humbling. Then, as now, you were constantly reminded of research that shows a paltry 7% of American journalists admitting to Republican allegiances – and 90% of Washington-based journalists voting Democrat.
You also remember the conclusions of Professor Tim Groseclose at George Mason University. “There’s something in the DNA of liberals that makes them want to go into jobs like the arts, journalism and academia more so than conservatives. Even if you’re just trying to maximise profits by offering an alternative point of view, it’s hard to find conservative reporters. So it’s natural the media is more liberal.”
Is that American situation replicated in Britain? There are no equivalent UK statistics, but – from personal experience at least – things aren’t so very different over here. Labour voters, past and potentially present, throng the desks at the Telegraph and Express. Of course the strong, top-down political leanings of most papers – conditioned by reader research – are an antidote to this. And of course the civil war within the party over the last few years is reflected along newspaper benches. You can sometimes feel that debate heaving, just off page.
But the fact remains that Labour has not, historically, been fishing in alien waters. And this, naturally, applies to the BBC too. Fairness and balance regulations, duly enforced, may put a lid on the situation: but they do not entirely disguise it.
So why, it may be asked, do those media academics suppose that “broadcast bulletins systematically gave more coverage to Corbyn’s opponents?”. Perhaps because those lecturers and professors – see Groseclose’s theory – are supporters of the left themselves. For, in these areas, we’re often talking compartmentalised, not general, truths.
The BBC has a self-imposed system of checks and balances. Often that necessitates he said/she said coverage of the “Call for Emily Thornberry” variety. But never mind the boredom (or the hopelessly inconclusive constituency profiles). The overriding point is that, in the heat of verbal battle, there can be no perfect equality.
Academic rigour can’t achieve it. Ofcom can’t deliver it. The new apparatus of BBC governance can’t contrive it – because such perfection doesn’t exist.
But Donald Trump got elected notwithstanding. His base remains steady on the polls come what may in DC, his credibility in Middle America strong. Jeremy Corbyn has won Labour leadership races twice in the teeth of Tory derision – just as Harold Wilson did nationally three times over.
Of course credibility matters. But the people who factor that in most effectively don’t sit in media offices. They’re ordinary voters picking up their poll cards and preparing to do their duty. The credible court of last resort.