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In his new year speech, Keir Starmer held out his familiar vague promises of change after this year’s election and warned us that the Conservatives would go down fighting dirty, but he once again failed even to mention the media or the press.
Bizarre as it seems, the Labour Leader seems determined to go through this landmark year blithely pretending that the extraordinarily powerful, ideologically-driven and extremely destructive elephant that is our billionaire-owned national press simply isn’t in the room.
This is not merely a misjudgement. It is irresponsible.
If Starmer really cares about the future of Britain as he claims to, he cannot possibly imagine that real change is possible without making the Mail, The Sun, The Times and the Telegraph accountable for their lying and thuggery, and without freeing BBC journalism so it can serve the country as it should.
The logic behind the Labour silence on this issue is clearly that acknowledging the need for media reform would provoke the elephant and make it harder to achieve the essential first goal of winning the election. In other words, if Starmer is forced to defend himself against the inevitable charge of stifling press freedom, voters will be distracted from Labour’s strongest issue: the failures of the Conservatives.
There are several problems with this logic.
To start with, Starmer can’t seriously hope to determine the day-to-day agenda of a general election campaign. That power rests with the Conservative press and no one else. It will decide what gets talked about and the BBC will follow its lead as it always does.
For sure, Labour will have a campaign media plan. It will give daily press conferences and put up shadow ministers to utter soundbites. But this is blowing smoke into a gale. I recall a hapless remain campaign spokesperson, after the Brexit defeat of 2016, describing how the papers ignored everything they put out, to the point where someone called from the Mail to ask them not to bother sending press releases because nobody there was even reading them.
But what about the Mirror and the Guardian? Don’t they cover things more even-handedly? Sadly, they can be led by the right-wing papers just as much as the BBC. Even where they follow their own agenda, they do not address the swing voters Labour needs. In electoral terms, they don’t matter.
In short, whatever Starmer and his advisors like to imagine, they will fight the election on terms dictated by the Mail, The Sun, The Times and the Telegraph. So the question is: would it make things any worse if Starmer included media reform in his manifesto?
Here we have to make some calculation of how bad it will be – and the answer is that it will be as bad as the papers can possibly make it.
No reference to history is useful here because the press and the country have changed and this will not be an election like ones we have seen in the past.
Bear in mind the example of the 2020 US Presidential Election. Few saw it coming, but that ended in insurrection and a large part of the hysteria behind that insurrection was generated by Fox News, the proprietor of which, significantly, is Rupert Murdoch.
The culture of British right-wing national papers today is not far removed from the Fox model. They have shaken off the shackles of convention and respectability; they have little respect for the constitution or the rule of law; and they long ago gave up even paying lip-service to objectivity, accuracy or balance. They are wildly irresponsible propaganda tools, just like Fox.
The latest attack on Starmer in The Sun is just a small example. Because he worked to save people from the death penalty in jurisdictions around the world, The Sun is accusing him of helping murderers escape justice. This is interesting less for its twisted logic than for the sheer effort of research that the struggling Sun was prepared to put into it.
So far as the forthcoming election is concerned, the starting point must be that their behaviour will be worse than anything we have seen – worse even than their approach to previous Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Let your imagination run riot.
The law will be no obstacle, for one thing. We have seen in recent years that these papers care nothing for electoral law, for political convention or for the authority of the courts, and with the nightmare (in their view) of a Labour government in prospect they will not row back but go into overdrive.
Starmer should also recognise the lessons of the continuing phone-hacking litigation: that a lot of these papers think nothing of industrial-scale law-breaking if it suits their purpose. There is compelling (albeit feebly contested) evidence, for example, that long after unlawful practices were supposed to have ended, Murdoch’s people hacked the phones and spied on dozens of Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians, not only in pursuit of news stories but for political and commercial motives too. And we have seen that even when the law wakes up to such activities, it is so weak and slow in responding it scarcely troubles the perpetrators.
In his speech, Starmer warned about Conservative tactics in election year, but again he is looking the wrong way: nothing the Tory Party might do on its own could begin to match the whirlwind of destruction that the national press will bring down upon Labour, the electoral process, and the tradition of orderly transition of power.
This is not to suggest that Starmer and Labour won’t win. So calamitous have been the past few years of Conservative Government – for which the press bears so much blame – that he probably can’t lose now.
What it tells us, however, is (a) that these papers will not allow him to win without inflicting the maximum possible damage on him, his party and the country; and (b) that pretending, as Starmer currently does, that the UK has no press problem will not stop that happening.
In the short term, therefore, his policy is misguided. There are also long-term consequences of his refusal to face facts.
If he wins without promising media reforms, we should not kid ourselves that he will then set about implementing them anyway. That is naïve.
For a start, there is no history in this country of parties being more radical in office than in opposition. The moment they get into Downing Street, prime ministers start trimming in preparation for the next election – or to put it another way, Starmer as prime minister is likely to cling to the same logic about not upsetting the press that has Labour in its grip today.
And even if he wanted to introduce media reform when in office, he would be restrained by its absence from the manifesto on which he was elected. The constitutional foundations for action would be weak.
Probably more important, however, is that no matter how big a majority he wins, the right-wing press will give him no breathing space. They will hound him and his ministers day in and day out, deploying all their powers, lawful and unlawful, to limit his room for manoeuvre. Indeed their aim, Fox News-style, will be to make the country ungovernable so long as Labour is in office.
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Back in 2012, four prime ministers – John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the British press, following the exposure of the phone-hacking scandal. All four admitted that they should have done something about the press. But they all sent the same message: it is always easier for a prime minister to put it off, to duck the responsibility.
With Conservative help, the press weathered the Leveson storm – and instead of learning lessons, doubled-down on its own corruption. Just look at the damage it has done since then: from the UK’s hard Brexit to the short-lived premiership of Liz Truss; the Partygate scandal; COVID contracts, cronyism and pandemic mismanagement; rising numbers of food banks; the unlawful Rwanda scheme; and the near-destruction of the NHS and the criminal justice system. The list is endless.
If Keir Starmer does not find the courage to tackle it now, the right-wing press will continue and complete the destruction of everything that was good about the UK. And he will share the blame.