Is there a right-wing bias in the British media? Here I explore some of the sociological evidence which suggests that there is a right wing bias in the media and point out some of the limitations of this evidence.
In a recent (May 2017) interview with the Radio Times, David Dimbleby pointed out that Jeremy Corbyn has been treated unfairly by the U.K. Media, but that didn’t appear to surprise him because he believes we have a ‘right wing’ press.
But is David Dimbleby right about the media being ‘to the right’? In this post I explore some of the available evidence to see how far it supports this view.
NB – I am aware that how you answer this question depends on how you define left and right, and that not only are there different dimensions to left and right (YES I have come across the political compass!), but that the meanings of left and right shift over time, so they are relative concepts.
Having said that, we have to start somewhere – so I broadly define ‘right wing’ as neoliberal – pro-privatisation of public services, deregulation and lowering taxation, an emphasis on economic growth rather than social progress, and a current commitment to austerity. I also include within my broad definition of ‘right wing’ anti-immigration sentiments (sorry, I know it’s vague!). Left wing I define as against further privatisation of public services (more to the left is in favour of re-nationalisation), an enhanced role of the state in regulating especially big business, and a belief in higher levels of taxation of especially the wealthy (those earning over £50K a year for example). Also included within a broadly leftist perspective is a commitment to end austerity and a commitment to internationalism – the free movement of people across boarders and so a much more relaxed attitude to migration than the right.
NB – That was all just off the top of my head, I’ll write something more articulate when I get around to it!
Something I find very interesting is that the first piece of evidence below gets around the whole tricky issue of operationalizing right and left wing… just by asking people ‘do you think the media is right or left wing’? This raises all sorts of sociological questions about objectivity and subjectivity and categories. From a teaching perspective I’m currently thinking this ‘measuring political attitudes’ topic could be the perfect one for explaining the difference between positivist and phenomenological approaches to social research.
Anyway – on to the point of this post…
Four pieces of evidence of right wing bias in the media
The general public certainly seem to feel that British newspapers have a right-wing bias, as the results of this March 2017 YouGov poll demonstrate:
The two most popular newspapers in Britain are the Daily Mail and the Sun (a joint readership of 10 million) and these are two of the most ‘right wing’ according to public opinion, which again suggests that according to people’s ‘gut feelings’ we do, indeed have a right wing press.
However, there are limitations with this evidence – it is only based on the subjective feelings of people – just because people feel a paper has a left or right wing bias, doesn’t mean that the paper actually has a left or right bias.
From a positivist point of view, in order to answer the question of whether there actually IS a right wing bias in the press, what we need is some more objective data, and in order to get that we need to find some content analysis of media sources which pin down, or operationalise more precisely what they actually mean by left and right wing views…..the rest of the sources below do just this, by focusing on specific aspects of right, or left wing thought.
A 2016 London School of Economic Report: Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press found that Jeremy Corbyn was represented unfairly in the media before he was elected party leader.
The research cites the following examples of unfair representation:
- through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits
- being denied his own voice in the reporting
- sources that were anti-Corbyn tended to outweigh those that support him
- He systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has
- The press repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK.
Given that Jeremy Corbyn’s views are much more left wing than most labour MPs, evidenced by the fact that JC is one of the most outspoken critics of right wing neoliberal austerity policies, his vilification in the mainstream media could suggest a right wing bias: the very fact that he is generally talked about critically, rather than being allowed to express his views without distortion suggests an attempt to prevent left-wing political view points coming to public attention, and if they do come to public attention, an attempt to dismiss them as silly.
HOWEVER, a fundamental limitation with this piece of research evidence is its lack of representativeness of coverage of people with left wing views – it only focuses on Jeremy Corbyn – it might just be the case that during 2015 there were other people with left wing views who were being taken more seriously, so the vilification of Corbyn might have nothing to do with his left-wing views, it might be purely personal. This is unlikely, I know, but we don’t know this from the above research.
Neoliberalism, Austerity and the Mainstream Media – a 2015 report by the university of Sheffield looked at how over 1000 news articles about the impact of social policies. The research specifically looked at whether news articles had a neoliberal framework – i.e. did they discuss things like austerity purely in terms of economics (‘squeezing public finances’) or did they widen their discussion to talk about the broader human impact (family breakdowns, illness and death for example)
If an article limited itself to how policies would impact people’s finances, or the wider economy, then it was classified as a ‘neoliberal frame’, if it focused on the impacts on family, education, health or other non-economic impacts on individuals, it was coded as a non-neoliberal frame.
To my mind this is much stronger evidence of a ‘right wing’ bias in the media than the previous two pieces – at least if we accept the operationalization of ‘neoliberal framing’ as indicating a ‘right wing’ point of view.
However, a problem with the above research is that the category ‘neoliberal frame’ is quite broad, and precisely what statements come within the category is open to differential interpretation by researchers.
Also – exploring neoliberal framing is a very general level of content analysis – for more valid evidence of a ‘right wing’ bias you would have to look at how the media treated specific neoliberal policies such as privatisation, deregulation, lowering taxation, or the issue of immigration…
A recent 2016 Report on the United Kingdom by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance noted that:
“Hate speech in some traditional media, particularly tabloid newspapers, continues to be a problem, with biased or ill-founded information disseminated about vulnerable groups, which may contribute to perpetuating stereotypes.
It singled out Katie Hopkins’ article in The Sun, published in April 2015, as an example of how bad things can get – the article was entitled “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants”, in which Katie Hopkins likened migrants to “cockroaches”, “feral humans” and that gunboats should be dispatched to prevent further arrivals.
While the above does suggest a clear right wing bias in The Sun, case studies are not representative, so we’d need something more quantitative to see how widespread such a tone of reporting is.
So that’s four pieces of evidence, based on systematic research of several sources (NB the last one did look at more than one article!) which suggest a right wing bias in media content, however, they all have there limitations, so I’ll leave it to you to decide whether there’s sufficient evidence here to conclude that we really do have a right-wing media here in the U.K.
Further pieces of evidence of right wing media bias
Jeremy Corbyn being accused of making a U-turn on a promise to abolish student debt, when he didn’t actually promise to abolish student debt.
In the run-up to the general election, Jeremy Corbyn made a comment about student debt. Speaking to the NME about the issue, he said: “I will deal with it.”
At the time, this was not widely picked up on by the national media. But – where it was reported – most papers accurately reflected that Corbyn had not explicitly promised to write off all debts. For instance, the Daily Mail said the Labour leader had pledged to “reduce or even write off” student debt.
But then (on Sunday (23rd July 2017) Corbyn was quizzed about this remark during a BBC interview.
Presenter Andrew Marr put it to him: “If you are a young voter and you heard those words: ‘I will deal with it’, you might have thought Jeremy Corbyn is going to relieve me of my debt.”
Corbyn was forced to defend his position, saying: “We never said we would completely abolish it.”
For some, this constituted a U-turn.
The Mail said: “Labour has backtracked on its promise to write off £100 billion of student debt.” The Telegraph said the party had “retracted its pledge to abolish student debt”. And Alan Sugar called Jeremy Corbyn a “cheat” and said he should resign for having “lied”.
So – the above is a great example of how a hostile right-wing editorial team from the BBC, fronted by Andrew Marr, can take a positive vote-winning part of Labour’s education policy, spin it out of context and turn it into a negative, which an even more hostile right-wing press further exaggerate.
If you know of any more systematic content analysis on this topic, please do share – sharing is caring – which is very much NOT a right wing idea of course!
In this post Craig Murray analyses the political background of senior bureaucrats at the BBC – finding that they range from Blairite to UKIP – in other words, very right wing.