How can media work for a functioning democracy?

ACTIVISTS - including NUJ members - need problem awareness before solution finding. That was the message of the Media North all-day meeting at Leeds Art Gallery on Saturday 8 February. "It's The Media. Stupid!" was financially supported by London Freelance Branch, to discuss how newspapers and supposedly-neutral broadcast media reinforced each other in emitting pro-Conservative messages and marginalising others during the 2019 election.

A conference panel - see caption

Louisa Bull of Unite's Graphical, Paper, Media and IT Sector addresses the conference as Tony Lennon of BECTU and Granville Williams look on

Professor Dominic Wring, co-director of Loughborough University's 2019 Election Survey, told the 100-plus audience it was no surprise that most national newspapers were hostile to Labour. This was reflected in story choice. Education, environment, and housing were largely ignored, despite huge public interest.

Dr Justin Schlosberg of the Media Reform Coalition spoke of "a fundamental democratic deficit in the media, more so than any other time, with a systematic balance towards the establishment.

"This distorts considering controversy," he continued "as Corbyn challenged this consensus. Deference to certain sources resulted in egregious disinformation and an unparalleled litany of falsehoods."

Former BBC industrial reporter Nicholas Jones said falling circulations had no effect on agenda-setting: "The 24-hour news cycle needs constant feeding, while BBC online news repeats national newspaper headlines, many breaking rules on impartiality.

There was a master-class in vilification with a constant hammering of anti-semitism and security risk." According to Louisa

Bull, Unite's national officer for media sectors, a dwindling number of journalists posed hard questions.

Many were only too ready to tell any pro-Tory story, regardless of truth: "The BBC must recognise errors - especially its Farage love affair. Journalism is now in deep trouble," Louisa warned.

Dr Tom Mills of Media Reform Coalition suggested that we consider "getting under BBC's DNA - it's a quasi-state broadcaster, driven since the 1990s by neo-liberal thinking. Now it's often gossip rather than real journalism."

Sian Jones, NUJ President said "the BBC suffered from structural problems but you can't escape equal pay. We need to tackle systemic racism with well organised union action. And as for user-generated content, we think professional journalists should do this."

So: where next for media change? Justin Schlosberg said: "With the election, we are back in the wilderness. But this transcends the Left, with many recognising our media are not fit for purpose. We need justice, not reform. We have to counter misinformation - the Kremlin is just a small part but attracts most interest. Don't focus on social media.

"We need to get away from BBC false binaries," Justin concluded - "and show how the media can work in a functioning democracy."

Summing up, Granville Williams, editor of MediaNorth, said we need localism with broad-based media changes in communities - "we should make the media an election issue; challenge distortions; demonstrate outside the BBC and Daily Mail; and insist on political rights to reply. But we must expect a torrent of abuse."