It is a truism in British politics that the tabloid press in the United Kingdom speaks on behalf of the working class. Like most truisms, it does not have the virtue of being true. It is however, the way that the tabloid press seeks to represent itself. It is also way that the tabloid press is understood by the vast majority of the political establishment.
When a newspaper such as the Sun runs an editorial comment piece titled ‘Working class Brits did not ditch the Labour Party … it ditched them’ – what else is it doing, other than seeking to present itself as a representative of the working class? When its downmarket cousin the Daily Star runs an article parroting this same attack line with; ‘Labour has ‘DESERTED proud and patriotic working class people’ – what is it doing but attempting to speak on behalf of the working class?
It is with remarkable synchronisation that this trope, manufactured in the heart of that most working class of institutions, the Conservative Party, was pushed by the tabloid press in the run up to the 2017 general election – with the blue-top Mail and Express all getting in on the act as well, backed up by broadsheets such as the Telegraph. Newspapers claim their legitimacy by spinning the frankly ridiculous take that their ultra-Thatcherite editorial lines speaks on behalf of, and in the interests of, the working class. This is easily accepted by political elites. Not least because the Conservative Party seeks to present itself as the ‘party of working people’ – so it helps to have apparently ‘working class’ newspapers pushing the party lines. The symbiosis between tabloid media and the Conservative Party is most evident when it wishes to launch a new attack line such as ‘magic money tree’; to whom does it turn to get the word out? Which publications does it use?
Sadly for these newspapers and despite the Conservative Party’s deeply held wish that it was otherwise, being accepted as a champion of the working class that is not simply a case of declaring yourself a champion of the working class. It takes a combined, sustained effort by politicians and pundits to declare anything vaguely left-wing as beyond the pale. What the most virulently pro-Tory sections of the tabloid press have attempted to do is to cast themselves as defenders of working class culture, and simultaneously who is left wing as automatically not working class. This has the rather strange result of painting the largest trade unions in the country as not ‘of the workers’ – purely because their politics aren’t wholeheartedly reactionary. It speaks to an assumption that reaction is the privilege of the working class – making the Sun ‘authentically working class’ simply by virtue of the fact that it adopts reactionary positions. That working class people got the paper effectively routed out of Liverpool after its role in peddling lies about the Hillsborough disaster is of little importance.
People who want to spin the line that the tabloid media represents the authentic working class run have a problem. Scratch the surface, and you see the social make-up of journalists working for the tabloid media is completely unrepresentative of its claimed target audience. In a 2009 report entitled Unleashing Aspiration, Alan Milburn said that journalism is becoming “one of the most exclusive middle class professions of the 21st Century”.
In 2015, the Reuters Institute at Oxford University found that the profession suffers from a distinct lack of representation for marginalised groups as a whole, including working class people. As a profession journalism is now almost fully ‘academised’ with 98 per cent of those entering the profession in 2013, ’14 and ’15 having at least a bachelor’s degree – something that you’re much more likely to have if you’re from a middle or upper-class background.
This has led to a situation where the range of perspectives, and social backgrounds amongst journalists is ludicrously limited, and a situation where by the sections of the press that claim to speak on behalf of the working class is staffed almost entirely by the privileged few. In 2016 the Sutton Trust found that 51 per cent of leading print journalists went to fee paying schools, compared to 7 per cent for the population as a whole. It should be pretty clear who the press represent.
88 per cent of the general population were educated in the comprehensive system. It would be strange if, given the class composition of the print media, it truly represented working class voices in anything other than the crude caricature fashion it does. No wonder it so easily stomachs the idea that all working class people are reactionary or racist – ignoring the fact that BAME people are much more likely to be working class, ignoring the millions of people in trade unions, ignoring this country’s long history of left-wing organising amongst the working class. This helpfully distracts from the endemic – and much more effective – prejudice amongst the ranks of the ruling class.
The class composition of the writers might not be as much of an issue if the positions they advanced could be said to be in the interest of those they claimed to be speaking on the behalf of. Sadly, this is not the case. The tabloid press is very rarely critical of the Conservative Party. Much of the tabloid media have been sycophantic fellow travellers to the past seven years of the government’s full frontal attacks on working class people. They eagerly demonise those who have had to rely on the social security system in the wake of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Far from representing the interests of those it had deigned to speak for, it spoke directly against them. The Sun and its ilk have been unremittingly hostile to workers rights, they frequently attempt to cast trade unions as enemies of the people – rather than representatives of workers’ interests. Attempting to cast the largest democratic organisations in the country with a combined membership of 6.5 million as beyond the pale. As well to to attack, with a frequency and intensity that is bewildering to observe, the welfare state in general, and those who have to rely on it in particular.
Given the amount of righteous fury the tabloid press manages to drum up over the most minor of issues, you would expect it to be effervescent with rage when confronted with genuine injustices. Not so. On the issues effecting the actual working class, rather than the white-van-man cartoon parody one finds in the Sun, all that is forthcoming is a deafening wall of silence.
Whilst it may be the case that austerity and neoliberalism do not represent the interests of the working class, it might be the case that neoliberalism and its expressions enjoy the same level of support amongst the class as it does amongst the so-called representatives of the class.
In polling conducted after the recent election, YouGov shows that among the minority of Sun readers who vote, 30 per cent voted Labour. Of those that regularly read the Daily Star, 49 per cent voted Labour. Whilst this tells you little about the class composition of these votes, it does demonstrate that the tabloid press cannot even convincingly claim to speak on behalf of its readership, let alone the working class.
Add to this the fact that the class group that Labour amongst whom polled highest in the recent elections is the DE bracket, semi-skilled and unskilled manual occupations, unemployed people and those in the ‘lowest grade’ occupations – or in plain English, the working class.
It should come as little surprise that media owned and run by unscrupulous billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Richard Desmond should be more concerned with protecting the party of big business than it is with the wellbeing or interests of working class people. We need to call out the tabloid media for what it is – run by and for the elites.