Thursday, March 28, 2013

An Important Point Leveson Didn't Cover

Here is the BBC News at Ten O’clock. The headlines are:

  • Vote Conservative! That’s the message across the country for tomorrow’s general election – vote Conservative.
  • Nick Robinson, our political editor, reports why a Conservative majority government is the best answer to the country’s problems.
  • Our economics editor, Robert Peston, discusses the dangers to the economy of implementing policies promoted by the Labour party.
  • Peter Snow uses his famous graphics to show the confusion and disarray of a hung parliament and how we can avoid it.
  • David Dimbleby interviews Grant Shapps on the latest on the campaign.
  • And, finally, sport. The England coach, Roy Hodgson, says that England’s bid to win the world cup would be strengthened by the return of a Conservative government.


OK, you won’t be hearing these words on BBC News, or even ITV or Sky. This is because televised media are bound to give fair proportionate coverage to general election parties based on votes gained at the previous election.

Newspapers, on the other hand, have no such restrictions. They can give as much biased coverage as they desire. This would not normally be a problem if there was a balance – but the fact is there is a complete imbalance which has a major effect on our democracy.

Fact: Five of the country’s top selling seven national newspapers are staunch supporters of the Conservative party and right wing policies.

The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Express will all disagree with the Tories from time to time – but when it counts they will put all their considerable united muscle into helping the Conservative election campaign.

In the recent Eastleigh campaign, the Mail and Telegraph happily jumped on the lead given by Channel 4 News and pumped the Lord Rennard allegations for all they were worth – the Mail totalled about 40 pages in the week up to the by-election while the Telegraph called on Eastleigh’s voters not to vote Lib Dem as 'punishment'. Since the by-election concluded, you will note that the Rennard story immediately vanished. Coincidence?

When Nick Clegg won the first leader’s debate, in 2010, Paddy Ashdown correctly said ‘they will come for us now.’ Sure enough, all the papers ran various and different smear stories about Clegg on the day of the second debate. Had David Cameron won that first discussion, would he have got that treatment? I think not.

One image that stands in my mind was in 1992 – which had been a close campaign, and the result of which was still uncertain to the end. I went to the supermarket on election day and saw all the front pages lined up next to each other. Almost unanimously, they had pictures of John Major and the word ‘trust’ – the exception being The Sun with its famous front cover of Neil Kinnock in a light bulb asking that if Kinnock wins, can the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights. The Sun later argued, perhaps with good justification, that the media’s support was the clincher for John Major's subsequent victory.

The most powerful man in British politics over the last thirty years has been Rupert Murdoch. It was no surprise that first Tony Blair and then David Cameron sought to court him. The subsequent switchings of the Murdoch allegiance are clearly seen as major events in recent British political history. Even today, the news of Nigel Farage having dinner with the Murdochs was enough to raise eyebrows.

Should this be so? Should it be the case that one person should have so much power over British politics?

The Leveson enquiry concentrated on press ethics, as was its brief, but I would like to see a future enquiry broaden out to concentrate on the overwhelming political bias in one direction of our major newspapers.

Obviously the rights of a free press should be foremost but maybe there is a case for implementing the same sort of restrictions that TV has to adhere by – that in the final weeks of an election campaign, national newspapers must show impartiality and equality of coverage to all concerned.

I am not sure how we can work on the details. And after Leveson, media relations are understandably touchy at present. But hopefully one day we can restore a balance of opinions and allow people to make their own decisions based on a wide range of advice and information. And that the election is not about which paper it was wot won it.

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