The disintegration of the Liberal Democrats, the SNPs surge in Scotland, the rise of UKIP, the Conservatives 2015 election win, and now the success of Jeremy Corbyn. When examining the significant political events of the last five years, one thing unites them all: the media didn’t see any of them coming.
Now with the press, having ignored their previous errors, predicting that Labour is ‘Red and Buried’ under Jeremy Corbyn, this failure demands explanation.
Why do our political journalists get so much wrong, so much of the time? The answer lies in the same place they find their news.
Back in June, the Sunday Times had a front page story of international significance. Under the headline ‘British spies betrayed to Russians and Chinese’, the newspaper reported that MI6 agents had been hastily reassigned after officials in enemy intelligence agencies cracked secret documents obtained by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Quite a scoop. But how did the Sunday Times reporter Tom Harper, who broke the story, come to know that the files had been breached by the Russians and Chinese?
“I don’t know the answer to that,” he told CNN.
What about the files? What did they contain?
“That’s not something we’re clear on, so we don’t go into that level of detail in the story,” he said, before adding. “We just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government at the moment.”
The Sunday Times had published a story on its front page seemingly without checking its most basic facts. The assumption seemed to be that if the government said it, it must be true.
Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Snowden story in 2013, dismissed the Sunday Times story as a “self-negating joke”.
As much as this sentiment breaks even the most the basic journalistic values, the truly shocking thing about it was just how common these stories are.
“It is by now well established,” begins American scholar W. Lance Bennett in his 1990 work ‘Towards an understanding of press-state relations in the United States’; “that the mass media in the US get most of its news from government officials.”
For America in 1990, we can read Britain in 2015.
Journalists working today have more work to do, less time to do it and fewer opportunities to make contacts.
In print journalism, where most stories in the broadcast media still originate, jobs are hard to come by, and redundancies are common. Those lucky enough to be in employment, work long and hard, with the development of online journalism and 24 hour news channels meaning articles have to be churned out at a rapid pace.
In local news, the situation is even more bleak, with newsrooms located far outside the area they’re supposed to be covering, occupied by too few trainees, earning too little money. The staff at the Islington Gazette recently moved nine miles outside Islington to Ilford. Their previous office was four miles away in Swiss Cottage.
By comparison, government communications teams, as with their corporate equivalents, are booming, and ready to fill in the gaps offered by overworked journalists. In the UK, even relatively minor government departments like the department of energy and climate change have more than 10 press officers, and a 24 hour phone line for emergency media enquiries.
The disintegration of local media and the under-staffing in national newsrooms, has left political hacks based in Westminster stuck to reporting almost exclusively on Westminster issues; filling in any blanks in their stories with the plethora of briefings from government press officers and communication officials in the less well-staffed opposition parties.
Added to this mix is an array of news agencies which have “accuracy” as their watchword, but choose to interpret the term loosely.
Reporters for these agencies, based firmly within the Westminster bubble, spend their days “accurately” and speedily noting down everything that is said, in parliament and in the media by leading politicians.
Their work then gets sent to news outlets and forms the basis of the stories we consume. The politicians being “accurately” quoted could be talking complete nonsense, but that doesn’t matter. As long as the spelling is correct, and the meaning is clear, these newswires have done their job. With no time to check facts, or think of new angles to tell the story, these journalists are left in a situation where they spend their days accurately copying down the inaccuracies of the political elite.
If this seems like an over-simplification, consider the ease with which the Conservative party was able to spin the election result in the immediate aftermath of May 7th.
After a campaign marked by almost historic negativity, in which the leader of the opposition was said to have stabbed his brother in the back and was set to connive against Britain’s interests with a load of dirty Scots, David Cameron declared “we’ve had a positive response to a positive campaign”, a line which led the news agenda the next day.
Days later, while announcing the most right-wing government programme in a generation, including a clampdown on trade unions so severe it was dubbed “Francoist” by one Conservative MP, the Chancellor George Osborne was able to call the Tories the “workers party”.
In Bennett’s theory, together with the idea that journalists get most of their news from the government, is the notion that opposition voices are only shown in the media at times of “elite dissensus”.
“Elite dissensus” is when the government and leading parties, and or leading figures within the government, disagree on key issues. In times of “elite consensus”, there is no opposition to speak of, and thus little is reported on. Those opposition voices outside parliament; NGOs, think tanks, university scholars, are either ignored, or given short-shrift.
With Labour in disarray after Ed Miliband’s resignation and their crushing defeat, no one was able to challenge the Tories rebrand as the “workers party”. Similarly voices of discontent are absent in reports on the government’s military strategy against Isis, or in the months after the 2010 election, the notion that Labour overspending caused the financial crash in 2008.
According to Bennett’s model, the media report the world as the political elite sees it. Today, with journalists unable to get a view of events outside London and other metropolitan areas due to the decline of the local press, this trend has intensified. Our media have failed to represent the world as it is because they report on a group, put into power with low turnout and high apathy, who are not representative.
Just as Corbyn has promised a “new kind of politics”, it is time for a new kind of political journalism.
We should change what we see as the political beat. Journalists should be encouraged to escape Westminster. New ways must be found for funding local journalism, so reporters can cover the council meetings, small-scale protests and community events that shape the world most people live in.
We should lose our obsession with speed, for speed’s sake and instead take time to think about not just what a minister is saying, but also why they are saying it.
Otherwise, when we’re asked to explain the next Corbyn moment, we’ll be echoing the words repeated by Harper in his CNN interview: “we don’t know”.
This piece was originally published by openDemocracy.