The following speech was delivered at the Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival on August 23.
By Jeremy Corbyn.
Not many people know this about me, but the media is close to my heart. News reporting is a vital and a proud profession.
One of my early jobs after leaving school was on the Newport and Market Drayton Advertiser, and I chaired the National Union of Journalists’ parliamentary group. Working on the local paper was hard work but huge fun. And I found it incredibly rewarding because I could see the role we were playing in my community.
Too often, we take journalism and journalists for granted. At their best, journalists challenge unaccountable power and expose things that the rich and powerful would rather keep hidden. Far too often around the world, journalists pay for that with their freedom or even their lives. Fearless journalists and those who support them in their work are some of the heroes of our time.
I want to look not only at TV and digital, but also radio, print and social media. As we charge into the digital age, we need to see our media, delivered mainly through screens of various sizes, as part of one connected system.
The challenge of the movement I am proud to lead, whose aim is to transform society on behalf of the overwhelming majority, is to ensure technological, cultural and economic changes empower people, rather than oppress them.
The mission of socialism in the twenty-first century is to lead profound change so that it benefits the many, not the few.
And while audiences of this much-acclaimed lecture – and its non-alternative sibling – don’t normally hear a socialist perspective, this is certainly not the first time.
The inaugural MacTaggart lecture was delivered in 1976 by the radical Scottish playwright and theatre director John McGrath. His theatre company, whose aim was to take popular, political, working class plays to venues outside the mainstream, was called 7:84.
An odd name for a radical theatre company, you might think. Two numbers. Seven. Eighty-four. They represent a shocking statistic that McGrath had read in the Economist: 7 percent of the population owned 84 percent of the country’s wealth. McGrath’s influence was massive here in Scotland, but also with a wider audience much further afield.
Today we face the same issue — and in your fast-changing industry in particular: far too few people have a grip on most of the power, and it seems like our current system is making that situation worse.
So my message today is: for all the brilliant work done across its multiple outlets and platforms, the British media isn’t ready for the challenges of the twenty-first century and so cannot properly serve the interests of a truly democratic society.
We need to accept some home truths about the British media. While we produce some fantastic drama, entertainment, documentaries and films, when it comes to news and current affairs, so vital for a democratic society — our media is failing.
Now this isn’t just the view of someone who has had how shall we say, an interesting relationship with the media, particularly in the last three years. The latest statistics from the European Broadcasting Union show that the British people simply don’t trust the media. Trust in British TV news is below the EU average and it is more distrusted than its German, Swedish or Belgian counterparts.
At least our TV news operates under some basic rules ensuring an element of balance. We felt this keenly during the General Election campaign last year. When additional election rules on political balance kicked in, broadcasters were required to report the Labour Party in our voice effectively for the first time for two years so we could properly lay out our policies for the country. It turned out, to the surprise of much of the media, that our ideas are pretty much the common sense mainstream, and it was the establishment gatekeepers who were shown to be out of touch.
Preconceptions of editorial staff could still be spotted in less-regulated vox pops which were more slanted against us. A vox pop looks unfiltered but what makes it onto TV or radio is chosen by editors on the day.
Jon Snow famously told viewers after the election that the media “know nothing” and expanded on the idea in a lecture to this festival last year. Well, the point is that editors do know something, of course, but that something may be somewhat removed from what most other people really think.
Having said all that, broadcast media is clearly in a better state than the printed word, with newspaper circulation heavily down for almost every title while proprietors struggle to make far larger online readerships pay.
The print barons are failing in more ways than that. The British press is the least trusted press in Europe, including non-EU countries like North Macedonia and Serbia.
Let that sink in for a moment. The owners and editors of most of our country’s newspapers have dragged down standards so far that their hard working journalists are simply not trusted by the public. It’s a travesty.
A free press is essential to our democracy, but much of our press isn’t very free at all. And, as I’ll lay out in a bit more detail, I want to see journalists and media workers set free to do their best work, not held back by bosses, billionaire owners, or the state.
We must have this debate now. We must get to the bottom of why our news media is failing and work out what we can do about it.
For all the worry about new forms of fake news, we’ve ignored the fact that most of our citizens think our newspapers churn out fake news day in, day out.
It’s not much of a surprise then that in the last four years, one political earthquake after another has been missed by most of our media.
That is partly explained by how close so much of the media is to the rich and powerful. And I’m not just talking about the revolving door that saw George Osborne walk out of the Treasury to become editor of the Evening Standard. Leveson One and campaigning from people like our Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport and Deputy Leader, Tom Watson helped expose the cosy relationship between senior press and broadcasting executives, media owners and senior politicians.
Let me be clear, Labour is committed to Leveson Two and there is no better person to be leading for us on this than Tom. But we must also break the stranglehold of elite power and billionaire domination over large parts of our media. Just three companies control 71 percent of national newspaper circulation and five companies control 81 percent of local newspaper circulation.
This unhealthy sway of a few corporations and billionaires shapes and skews the priorities and worldview of a powerful section of the media.
And it doesn’t stop with the newspapers, on and offline. Print too often sets the broadcast agenda, even though it is wedded so firmly to the Tories politically and to corporate interests more generally. Just because it’s on the front page of the Sun or the Mail doesn’t automatically make it news.
A parallel process of concentration and tightening oligopoly is advancing in online news and could intensify with moves towards phone apps and push notifications. Multinational companies want to create worlds you’re locked into: your phone operating system, your music streaming app, your online viewing service, and your news.
These dynamics further undermine diversity and pluralism, and I have real doubts that such a model will value the high quality journalistic work that challenges the interests of the powerful and wealthy.
Labor Day is the traditional starting point for the fall election season. Once upon a time, that meant that leaders of both major parties would be competing for the support of unions and their members. Democrats and Republicans were once so ardent in their pro-labor messaging that President Franklin Roosevelt observed in the mid-1930s that: “It is now beyond partisan controversy that it is a fundamental individual right of a worker to associate himself with other workers and to bargain collectively with his employer.”
Today, everything has changed. And not for the better. In the face of globalization, automation and a digital revolution, union representation is more necessary than ever. And the political debate over labor rights is now deeply divided and badly warped.
With top Republicans identifying their party as an explicitly anti-union party, federal and state elections have become battlegrounds in which labor rights are at stake. There have been some redemptive wins, like the recent overturning of a so-called “right-to-work” law by voters in Missouri. But there have also been devastating defeats in historic labor strongholds such as Wisconsin and Michigan. Those states now wrestle with wage stagnation, even as the economy is supposedly booming.
Union membership has always been associated with economic advancement, and it still is.
Unfortunately, that fact matters less to Republican zealots like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker than the idea that busting unions might benefit them politically. Republican governors have used their positions to undermine institutions that challenge corporate power. And Democratic governors have too frequently been fair-weather friends who talk a good game but fail at critical moments to fight for labor rights. This is bad for workers as well as for the long-term health of the economy in states such as Walker’s Wisconsin.
As Rana Foroohar of the Financial Times business daily noted last year:
Labor unions in America get a bad rap. In Europe, they are viewed as an important part of the overall economic landscape, and a key reason wages have remained high in the face of global competition. Sadly, in the US, employers typically see unions as sclerotic enforcers of rigid and antiquated rules, entities to be squashed rather than worked with. Donald Trump certainly agrees. Getting rid of what’s left of the American labor movement has been a public goal of his… Meanwhile, Democrats failed to even mention the word union in their new ‘Better Deal’ economic plan…
But there are signs that at least some Democrats recognize the need to explicitly and aggressively stand up for organized labor. Democratic gubernatorial candidates like Ben Jealous in Maryland and Andrew Gillum in Florida have been outspoken in their support of labor rights. And some of the most interesting fights are shaping up in the battleground states of the Great Lakes region, where so much damage has been done by Republican governors.