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The appointment of Robbie Gibb as Theresa May’s new director of communications is a glaring display of how the ‘impartial’ media has functioned in recent years. Gibb, who was the BBC’s head of operations at Westminster and editor of the important Daily Politics TV show, now joins the pantheon of BBC executives who ditched their media careers to fulfil their true ambitions as Conservative party stooges.
In a functioning democracy, a public service broadcaster has an incredibly important role, not only in presenting the facts in a fair and balanced way, but also in setting the terms of debate – of what is and isn’t acceptable within the cultural and political realms.
Defining the parameters of this ‘Overton Window’ is something that Labour has had to fight tooth and nail for – and despite the unrelenting war waged on the Corbyn project, the party’s visionary campaign and manifesto have forced the neoliberal consensus to concede ground, with the BBC now begrudgingly making concessions to the new playing field.
On the other side of the debate, the task is a lot easier, however. The Conservatives have long held a firm grip around the neck of the BBC, and so have had free reign in determining what is and isn’t politically ‘neutral’. It is no coincidence then that, for example, business representatives appear on the 6 o’clock news 19 times more frequently than trade union ones do.
When the 2016 culture secretary John Whittingdale unveiled a white paper outlining the BBC’s future, it was startlingly clear that the Tories were proposing a reformation in public broadcasting that would bring it ever closer to full state control: a new board was created in which 5 of the 12 members would be handpicked by the government and given powers to decide the strategic direction, budget, and all other activities at the BBC.Robbie Gibb isn’t the first and won’t be the last to participate in the revolving door between media and parliament – in fact, it’s been at full capacity for full time. David Cameron’s director of communications, Craig Oliver, was yet another BBC News editor who ditched his journalistic career to support the Conservatives.
But although many jump ship, many Tories – notably Andrew Neil (former Sunday Times editor and chair of the company that owns the right wing Spectator) and Nick Robinson (president of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1985) – remain on. Of course, having political opinions isn’t a crime, but these are people who have clear biases, serving a public institution which is paid for – by us – on the assumption that it will be non-partisan.
We live in a country where most of the press is objectively more right-wing that the public are, and it’s worrying that although 40 per cent of the public supported Corbyn’s Labour, virtually no mainstream media outlet did. This disparity between the views of the privately-owned media and the public makes it even more essential that the state-owned BBC is safeguarded from political intervention and vested interests – if we can’t rely on them, then who can we rely on?
However, the answer to that question is where we can begin to regain hope. The left is now successfully finding ways to bypass the traditional media entirely; a huge army of grassroots activists, mobilised largely by Momentum’s modernised campaign strategy, have been able to promote Labour’s manifesto face-to-face with the public and repudiate the false narrative (perpetuated by the BBC as much as other media) about Corbyn’s ‘unelectability’.
Social media, of course, has also been key, as well as new media like Novara, which provides refreshing and uncompromising support for the Corbyn project.
Labour should seize the opportunity to demand an end to BBC bias and reforms to the whole mainstream press – outlawing media monopolies for a start. However, it’s certainly exciting to think we are on track to win despite the opposition of almost the entire traditional media, with the tabloids’ power looking broken. We should be optimistic now in our ability to overcome incredible odds, and defy all the expectations, sneering and bias of the mainstream.