Jeremy Corbyn is hitting the comeback trail. The former Labour leader made the keynote speech at this week’s Media Democracy Festival organised by the Media Reform Coalition. He began by citing his own journalistic credentials. ‘I produced 500 columns for the Morning Star.’ Then he turned to India where 250 million strikers are protesting against the removal of state support for farmers. The strike involves ‘one in thirty of the entire population of the world,’ enthused Corbyn, which makes it the largest industrial dispute in history. But coverage in the UK has been minimal, 'which says a lot about the priorities and the news values of much of our media outlets in this country, that they don't think it's worth reporting'.
Part of the problem is the uneven distribution of power. ‘Media ownership — and there's no better word I can think of than this — is congealing in fewer and fewer hands,’ he said. At present 90 per cent of the UK’s print media is owned by just three firms, and just three companies control 60 per cent of local newspapers. When he visited the local paper in his own constituency he found an office with a single table and just four journalists.
Corbyn considers this dangerous. The media is at risk of becoming ‘almost like a stenographer for the richest and most powerful'. And that includes politicians. ‘This government has no respect for public media,’ he said, ‘and is actively trying to intimidate it.’ He cited an instance of strong-arm tactics during the 2019 election. Channel 4 had arranged a debate about the environment that would feature all the party leaders. But when Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage (then Brexit party leader) pulled out, the broadcaster proposed to replace them in the studio with two lumps of thawing ice. This caused a Tory party representative to get 'extremely upset’, said Corbyn. He claimed that ‘in my very hearing and presence,’ a threat was issued to executives at Channel 4 in coded terms. ‘Your licence review will be something you need to think very, very carefully about.’
Many of Corbyn’s ideas are just honeyed soundbites. He supports ‘fact-based, truth-telling, power-challenging journalists.’ Don’t we all? And he’s apt to confuse balance with personal bias. Paul Dacre, he said, would not be fit to lead the media regulator Ofcom because of his ‘lifetime’s work of attacking trade unions, the left in general, socialism and socialist ideas.’ Corbyn forgets that ‘socialist ideas’ were rejected by a majority of voters at the last election.
Turning to the BBC, he said it needed to be ‘democratised’ and ‘liberated from government control’, and that it should look for ‘independent funding’. He added no details to these vague musings. But he made two proposals that are worth considering. He suggested that newspapers dedicated to ‘public interest journalism’ should be given charitable status. And he argued that Britain has a rich heritage of plays, films, operas and other narrative art forms which should be placed online and managed by a ‘British Digital Corporation that could rival Netflix and Amazon'.
Corbyn being Corbyn, he couldn’t resist a final flurry of big state regulation. Media outlets that exceed a certain unspecified threshold of audience share should be subject to ‘NUJ [National Union of Journalists} representation on the board’, he said, ‘and enforced shareholder diluting with equity’. And he proposed ‘seats on the board awarded to workers and the readers, viewers and listeners.’ It’s not clear what benefit this reform would deliver since a successful media outlet, by definition, is already reflecting the interests of viewers and readers. These ‘seats’ are likely to be handed to shouty, sharp-elbowed types who enjoy making a nuisance of themselves. People like Corbyn.
He still hasn’t forgiven the press for giving him a rough time during his years as Labour leader. The chair of the event claimed that ‘75 per cent of all press coverage factually misrepresented' Corbyn. And the former Labour leader seemed particularly irked by reports that he rode a ‘Maoist bicycle’. He decided to set the record straight. ‘I ride a bicycle.’