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Shouted down
July/August 2017


Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell: Their Labour is not just another mainstream party (RWendland CC BY SA 4.0)


Who were the winners and losers in the media coverage of the 2017 election? Some answers are obvious. Diane Abbott had a series of car crash interviews. The tabloids have been the kingmakers for 40 years — “It’s the Sun Wot Won It” — but failed to win it for Theresa May. Poll guru Professor John Curtice had another triumphant election, Jeremy Paxman did not. Philip Hammond was allowed to go into hiding.

Other winners and losers, however, tell a more revealing story. The best interviews were those which quietly sought information not the shouters. Nick Ferrari’s interview with Diane Abbott on LBC, Emma Barnett’s interview with Jeremy Corbyn on Woman’s Hour and Andrew Neil’s interviews with just about everyone sought policy detail while Paxman and John Humphrys huffed and puffed and got nowhere.

There was a fascinating divide between our broadcasters and a few lonely voices in the press and on social media over their coverage of Corbyn. TV and radio pretended that Labour under Corbyn was just another mainstream political party. It isn’t. You had to go to a handful of journalists for another perspective: Corbyn’s support for terrorist organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah and his failure to deal with the stench of anti-Semitism under his leadership. This was not politics as usual. Journalists like Daniel Finkelstein, Stephen Pollard and Guido Fawkes spelt it out. Take the May Day rally addressed by John McDonnell. He spoke to a crowd carrying Hamas and pro-Assad flags and large pictures of Stalin. The main news organisations, the BBC and ITN, didn’t report this properly. Why not?

The BBC had a bad election campaign following its biased coverage of the US election and President Trump’s inauguration. The audience at the Cambridge TV debate was partisan. The BBC was, too often, soft on Corbyn and McDonnell. It did not spend enough time analysing Labour’s wild, uncosted spending promises, often leaving it to Paul Johnson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies to expose the reality. In an article called “The age of lies: how politicians hide behind statistics”, Mark Damazer, former Controller of Radio 4, was surely right to call for more fact-checking by the media and for putting statistics in context. After the EU referendum and the 2017 election the media shouldn’t allow politicians to play games with economic figures.

The coverage of the so-called “dementia tax” was exaggerated, as anyone who has had to pay for the care of a parent with dementia will know. The crisis in social care is serious and should never have been turned into a pantomime. The same applies to national security after three recent terrorist attacks, and the debate after the Grenfell Tower fire has already become personal and emotional. These problems are systemic in broadcasting. The mainstream media are obsessed with personalities and human interest stories. The main lesson of the election is that we need an urgent review of our political coverage, and of the BBC in particular.  

 
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