In 2013 the then Labour leader Ed Miliband chose to launch a direct attack on the Daily Mail after it accused his father, the socialist academic Ralph Miliband, of hating Britain – a move seen as dangerous by some Labour advisers, with the party still fearful of the power of rightwing tabloids.
Half a decade later, Jeremy Corbyn used his speech at Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool to launch a direct attack on the British media, winning loud applause for his criticism that “a free press has far too often meant the freedom to spread lies and half-truths, and to smear the powerless, not take on the powerful”.
He also called on Labour activists to use social media networks – which he termed the mass media of the 21st century – to challenge British newspapers’ “propaganda of privilege”, aided by his team’s belief that attacks on Corbyn by the rightwing press increasingly helped – rather than hindered – the Labour leader.
Corbyn was not alone on this. The Unite boss, Len McCluskey, seen walking around the conference hall with a copy of Morning Star, told activists he would not listen to the “professional racists at the Daily Mail and the Sun”. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, also started his speech with an attack on “our friends in the media”. Delegates refused to take free copies of the Times on the basis it was owned by Rupert Murdoch.
It all demonstrated the extent to which trust in much of the mainstream British press was now at a low point among Labour activists. The potential of a Corbyn-led government was also forcing the media industry to take seriously proposals from party activists, which until recently were on the fringes of media academia.
“We are on the brink of government and are going to have to lay the groundwork for the next historical phase for reform of the media,” said Tom Mills, a sociology lecturer at the University of Aston who has held informal discussions with members of Corbyn’s team about press reform.
Speakers, during an event at the parallel Momentum-backed The World Transformed (TWT) fringe festival, proposed a series of ideas which would have been considered extreme only a few years ago, such as publicly funded regional news cooperatives with editors elected by the public to produce local journalism.
Angela Phillips, a journalism professor at the University of Goldsmiths, also warned of the challenges posed by the influence of Facebook and Google and called for a new approach, given many new leftwing news outlets were reliant on distribution through such sites.
“The way forward is to start cooperating across Europe by providing a new search engine based on public service ideas of what an algorithm should be,” she said.
Other ideas raised at TWT included a national voucher-based system for funding media, with every voter allocating their voucher to a favoured news outlet, and the ultimate aim of abolishing advertising in the media to avoid the incentive to create articles that only appealed to wealthy readers.
Whether any of this comes close to being incorporated into Labour policy could rely on which of the party’s two media policy power bases gets the upper hand. Last month Corbyn himself unveiled a range of policies – largely developed within the leader’s office – including a tax on big tech firms to fund the BBC and elections to the broadcaster’s governing boards. The Labour deputy leader, Tom Watson, who also holds the shadow culture secretary job and has campaigned on media issues for a decade, has adopted an approach that fits more with reform of the existing industry through a focus on regulation of tech companies, campaigns for greater diversity in journalism, and a public inquiry into online political advertising during the Brexit referendum.
What has changed recently was that rightwing media outlets were having to take Corbyn’s ideas seriously. News UK employees have been privately concerned that Corbyn’s proposed reforms could go further – with fears that an incoming Labour government could choose to heavily restrict the foreign ownership of newspapers, in an effective block on US citizen Rupert Murdoch. They are already used to being excluded from Labour-related events: the Sun was blocked from covering TWT due to its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster; while employees of the newspaper stayed away from the annual Labour party v journalists conference football match because the pitch was owned by Liverpool council.
The Labour leader also showed his attitude to the media by simply skipping much of the press round, which usually accompanied a party conference speech, such as a traditional interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Newspaper reporters learned the hard way about how they were now perceived by the party – their desks at the conference were situated outside the main building, in a tent in a car park accessed by following signs for a “dog exercise area”.
By contrast, Theresa May appeared to be making a pitch for herself as champion of the free press. The prime minister told the UN in New York on Wednesday: “I do not always enjoy reading what the media in my country writes about me. But I will defend their right to say it – for the independence of our media is one of my country’s greatest achievements. And it is the bedrock of our democracy.”
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