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Jeremy Corbyn versus the British media?

May 30, 2017

Labour Party's Jeremy Corbyn has come out strong in a recent TV debate ahead of the June 8 vote. But London School of Economics media expert Shakuntala Banaji tells DW Corbyn still has to battle negative media coverage.

Parlamentswahlen in Großbritannien Jeremy Corbyn
Image: Picture alliance/AP Photo/S. Rousseau/ Pool Photo

DW: How do you rate Jeremy Corbyn's performance in Monday night's TV debate? Is his campaign gaining momentum?

Shakuntala Banaji: If there has been any change in the way in which the British public views Jeremy Corbyn, this is not solely down to the Labour leader but also to the tireless efforts of a cross-section of other Labour MPs, Labour activists, volunteers, members and alternative media producers who have tried to get the Labour Party message out to the public.

Corbyn gave a confident and calm performance on the May 29 TV discussion, first with a fairly antagonistic audience and then with an overtly hostile Conservative-voting interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, who interrupted his answers constantly. Corbyn came across as a politician of substance and refused to take on an autocratic style. He did not rise to the deliberately inflammatory accusations of terrorist sympathies, and the historical accusation that he had not supported previous wars such as that in the Falklands.

One of the most striking things about the May 29 TV appearances was the fact that Prime Minister Theresa May and Corbyn each received equal airtime in front of national audiences. Prior to the announcement of the snap election by May, Corbyn had been subjected to a devastating barrage of irresponsible and negative media coverage for two years. Report after report by scholars working in the field of mediation and politics drew the conclusion that mainstream media were biased, and had a policy of deliberately giving page and airtime to Corbyn's critics while under-representing or misrepresenting anything that he and his allies on the left wing of the Labour party said.

Mainstream British media often portray Corbyn as an irresponsible politician who favors Islamists. Is it truly the case or is it a media construct to malign the left-leaning politician?

Corbyn is an experienced member of parliament with decades of work behind him, and a record of considered, ethical voting in parliamentary decisions with regard to war and peace, social benefits, civil and human rights. He has consistently shown himself to be knowledgeable about and well-informed with regard to ongoing conflicts involving British armed forces abroad, and social issues at home. However, it should be no surprise that a mass media dominated by the militaristic ideological and corporate interests of international media outlets would attempt to delegitimize the just and equal society that Corbyn stands for by representing Corbyn's past endeavors as signs of his incompetence or softness. It is also not surprising that some readers and viewers also hold this view.

How would you analyze the overall media coverage of the upcoming British election? Has it been objective?

Very little about coverage of the British election could be considered objective, but this should not come as a surprise. Bias has to be seen within its context. Much of the mainstream media in the UK continued to express the pro-Conservative ideological stance of their owners in opposition to Jeremy Corbyn's old Labour views following the announcement of the election, and will step up their campaign of disinformation and character assassination in the coming two weeks.

Shakuntala Banaji
Banaji lectures on media at the London School of EconomicsImage: Privat

In the run-up to the announcement of the election, even the so-called "liberal" media have published material demonstrably more hostile to Corbyn than that published with regard to previous Labour contenders. Loughborough University recently published a report that suggests that during the run-up to the election, the British media disproportionately attack Corbyn and Labour.

There is a lot of fear in British society about Islamist radicalization, particularly after the terrorist attack in Manchester on May 22. Are the media playing up this fear?

Everyone I know in the UK was appalled and deeply pained by the horrendous bombing at the Ariana Grande concert. It is a frightening and depressing thought that our children and friends, and we ourselves, could be the targets of random acts of violence, whether linked to racist hate or to the power-hungry "Islamic State" (IS). However, the coalition government of 2010 and the current Conservative government have a history of playing up incidents of terrorism and security threats via the mainstream media in order to make themselves seem the most responsible choice of government with their "strong" militarist stance. A concurrent rhetoric about British values does include phrases and ideas that disavow British violence to others and which assume the "otherness" and difference of Muslim populations through a connection to violence.

The misery created by Conservative cuts in funding to schools, hospitals, social care services, the police, prisons, the privatization of railway and water and the lack of housing in the UK can apparently be pushed to the back of people's minds by playing up an apparently "external" security threat from Islamic radicalization and in a linked vein, from migrants entering the UK. While some will no doubt believe this objectionable rhetoric, it is my hope that other voters can see through it.

In general, how has the mainstream UK media responded to the Manchester bombing, and what could be the likely impact of these media narratives on the outcome of the June 8 vote?

Großbritannien Premierministerin Theresa May in Halifax
Banaji says May and her Conservatives have received much more favorable media coverageImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Lawson

It should not be forgotten that the current Conservative government received intelligence information about the possible radicalization and threat from the Manchester bomber on not one but several occasions, from within the Muslim community in the UK, and from overseas intelligence agencies, and failed to act upon it. The public would not know about these failures if some segments of the mainstream media had not reported them.

However, as with all incidents of terrorist violence against civilian populations close to us, the mainstream media have also populated their front pages and headline stories with images of destruction, stories of shock, anger, calls for revenge, disgust and personal stories of solidarity and resistance to terror. It is pointless to speculate on how these media narratives will affect the outcome of the June 8 vote. My hope would be that voters are able to see through the worst of the negative coverage and understand Corbyn's desire to push for proper, well-resourced policing at home, and peaceful solutions to crises outside the UK in an effort to bring better governance in areas where IS is currently active.

Shakuntala Banaji lectures on international media and the global south, film theory and world cinema and critical approaches to media, communication and development in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics.

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.