Newspaper circulations may be continuing to fall, and increasing numbers of people are turning away from the night-time television news bulletins. They are looking elsewhere for their news and comment and are often finding it. This does not however mean that political agendas are not often being set by newspapers, with TV and radio media following in their wake. That agenda is increasingly raucous and predictable, parochial and often partisan. The Conservative Right may complain that the BBC is too left wing, yet the class composition and social attitudes of many of the corporations more prominent voices all too frequently reflect a narrow, innately conservative view of politics and of economics.
Take three recent examples. As Ed Balls unveiled Labour’s new childcare policy, the BBC did not feature any analysis of what such a policy might mean in practice, or compare and contrast it with similar policies elsewhere in Europe, it focussed instead on the likely costs of the new policy.
The BBC’s Nick Robinson explained that Ed Balls and the Labour Party had a problem in that the public perception is of Labour as the ‘tax and spend party’. This is perhaps a public perception, but it pertains to all parties and to all governments who exist to ‘tax and spend’, but whose difference lies in the priorities they attach to taxing and spending. The perception that Labour is a ‘tax and spend party’ is a perception that belongs therefore to Nick Robinson, and is a private opinion and one which professionalism should dictate should not be paraded on the Today programme.
Then there is John Humphreys, again on the Today programme, interviewing a former Labour Party official during the TUC. Humphreys claimed baldly, as a preface to his question; ‘people don’t like the trade unions telling the Labour Party what to do, do they?’ Consecutive polls have in fact shown that the public are remarkably relaxed about the union’s relationship with the Labour Party – they expect it to exist. They are also fairly consistent in showing that people don’t think that the unions have too much power. So here John Humphreys has been allowed to parade his own conservative opinions.
And then there is Andrew Marr, who routinely describes trade union general secretaries as ‘union barons’, neatly falling in line with sections of the Tory press. Trade union general secretaries are of course elected. Press ‘barons’ – and Andrew Marr – are not. The social background of many of our reporters and commentators is similar. It is largely middle class, Southern, and infused with an innate suspicion or lack of understanding of trades unionism or left politics. These attitudes may not necessarily express themselves in a partisan way, but lead to a large degree of conservative and liberal consensus. For example, the weekly columns of commentators such as Andrew Rawnsley, John Rentoul and Martin Kettle in The Observer and The Guardian are all so similar in outlook, they might have been written by the same individual.
Witness also the sudden frenzy around the use of the word ‘Socialism’ by a member of the public at an open air meeting with Labour leader, Ed Miliband in Brighton, where the latter is reported to have said ‘we are bringing it back’. Never mind that the Labour Party is a ‘democratic socialist party’; it says so on every membership card. ‘Socialism’, far from being a dirty word for the particularly moronic sections of the media is something deeply rooted in our history, in our lives and in our contemporary politics – here and in most parts of the World.
This week we are seeing just how a small section of the media attempts to fashion the agenda, and Labour’s sometimes defensive reaction to it. But such is the reach and depth of the problems being faced by people, so colossal is the failure of the free market model, that Labour and the Left now has to really begin to think outside of the box. It has to resist the temptation to fall into line with a conservative agenda. It should begin by acknowledging that the ‘Office for Budget Responsibility’ is not necessarily the right place to start or go to when it comes to rolling out the programmes needed to get Britain back to well paid, well trained, work.
In short, part of the job of all of us is to find ways and means of subverting and subventing the narrow club that is our media, what Harold Wilson quiet rightly described back in the 1970s as the ‘White Commonwealth’.