On Journalism and Bias

Accusations of media bias are commonplace in Scottish political discourse. Gabriel Neil says socialists need to rise above this and remind ourselves how journalism works at an institutional level...

It's become commonplace in Scottish political discourse to see accusations of bias in journalism be flung back and forth. Usually this takes the form of personal accusations: such-and-such is biased against Scottish independence, so-and-so has an agenda against the Labour Party, this media organisation is just full of bad people etc. For many people, prominent media individuals presenting (real or imagined) political bias should be attributed to moral failure, a lack of character or some kind of unholy backroom alliance between nefarious media people.

Political bias in the media undeniably exists – many would argue it’s important it does – but should we as socialists simply be calling out imbalanced reporting? Arguments revolved around pinning journalists for ethical shortcomings shouldn’t be convincing to those of us who see the world in terms of larger systems of power. In the political sphere, such explanations are usually liberal cop-outs that fail to get the root of the issue. The reality is that bias, and the journalistic industry’s wider weaknesses, stem from economic and class issues first and foremost.

The story of journalism in the 20th and early 21st century is one of decline. In the USA, between 1990 and 2016, 26 per cent of newspaper jobs were lost. In the UK, over 400 local journalism jobs were lost over a 17-month period between 2015 and 2017. And here in Scotland, venerable papers such as The Scotsman and The Herald have suffered considerable losses.

Some might argue that the number of journalists in Britain remains high – recorded in 2016 as being at 84,000, well up from 57,000 in 2007. But, crucially, this increase has not come in long-running newsrooms at old media organisations but in notoriously insecure freelance work and uncertain “new media” jobs. It seems journalism hasn’t been immune to the general trend across many industries in recent years, away from long term stable employment towards insecure “gig economy” style jobs.

Financial pressure on the industry has changed it dramatically, and that includes how news is reported and presented. Sensationalism, clickbait and outrage-pedalling are used to drive up numbers on social media. Journalists are strained by a lack of time and resources: press releases aren’t sufficiently scrutinised, often resulting in imbalance and the actions of powerful bodies being unchecked. 

And that’s just for those who manage to get into journalism at all. I distinctly remember from my own journalism course at university that anyone hoping to enter the industry should expect to work for free in intern positions for six to 12 months at a time before getting a sniff at a minimum wage job.

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Most journalism outlets are based in big cities with high costs of living, which most people simply can’t afford. Even putting aside the inherently exploitative nature of unpaid internships aside, ask a working class kid or single mother if they could afford to work for six months for nothing but “experience” and they’d ask if you’re joking. Is it really any surprise that UK journalism is 94% white and 55% male and has a significant gender pay gap?

These facts will be common knowledge to a chunk of people on the left, but it’s important we reflect on the ramifications of this from a political perspective. Journalism has become and industry where only people from relatively wealthy backgrounds can succeed, and where young people interested in the media can be forgiven for thinking they’re better off in PR or advertising if they want a decent standard of living.

Conservative ideas become the norm when any section of society is dominated by the wealthy. People are naturally frustrated with the presence of openly Conservative journalists like Nick Robinson operating at the BBC, but the fact is if he didn’t exist then someone exactly like him would be in his place. If the journalism industry leans towards the right, it’s because it has an institutional class bias.

It’s worth pointing out here that freedom of the press is a good thing. An awareness of what’s happening in society, from the level of bin collections up to international relations, should be a fundamental right for working people. We have freer access to information than any other time in history thanks to the internet, and that’s a part of the picture socialists should want to paint.

But a free press can’t be truly free if people aren’t truly free. Journalists shouldn’t have to live in fear of danger of financial ruin, restricted to insecure work that doesn’t offer the opportunities of research, reflection and investigation. In our society, immigrants, those who identify as LGBTI, the disabled, the unemployed and the wider working class need to be empowered to tell their own stories, to report on their own lives and experiences, to show the news where they are, and to ask the questions they need to ask. Oxbridge-educated wealthy white men are more than represented already.

Wider debates should be had on how we can best reform the journalism industry at an intrinsic level. Some media organisations have already tried to approach the news at a grassroots level, with crowdfunding being a good example. But when journalists are still forced to compete in a dog-eat dog market, it will be extremely difficult to get the kind of news we really need.

In the meantime, what can the wider movement do? Instead of just being dragged down to shouting accusations from the sidelines, we need to constantly reiterate the bread and butter facts. Instead of just hectoring the voices talking down to us, we need to campaign for redistribution of wealth and radical transformation. That’s the clearest path to a balanced journalism industry that delivers for people at the bottom as well as the top.

@GabrielNeil