A tweet claiming that Prime Minister David Cameron controls “75% of the UK press” is being shared hundreds of times on social networks. The problem is it’s a completely meaningless statistic.
Here’s the tweet:
And, in a follow-up tweet, he presents this table taken from a Wikipedia article as evidence:
Contra Dr Clarke, I believe there are words needed here.
The tweets have been attached to the #CameronMustGo hashtag that has been trending on Twitter in the UK for over a week, no doubt much to the chagrin of many right-wing commentators. Last week it caused outrage after left-wing food blogger and Guardian columnist Jack Monroe sent a tweet accusing Cameron of using his grief over the death of his son “to legitimise selling our NHS to his friends”.
However, the latest meme is more bizarre than offensive. Support is in no way evidence of control. Moreover, if you believe the claims the press make of themselves that they help decide elections (though there is plenty of reason to doubt these), then you could argue causality flows the other way — that is, the press control politicians.
The claim is perhaps unsurprising coming as it does after the hacking scandal, which revealed as much about the close personal ties between members of the press corps and senior politicians as it did about journalistic ethics.
For example the Leveson Inquiry detailed the close friendship Cameron appeared to have with Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of News of the World and The Sun.
But are these revelations sufficient to claim that he “controlled 75% of the UK Press”? Clearly not. In no sense is the UK press controlled, even if there are plenty of examples of journalists being over-credulous.
The whole meme and the commentary around it is reminiscent of the frequent criticism thrown at the BBC. In a widely reported (though seriously flawed) study last year the Centre for Policy Studies claimed to have proven that the Beeb had a clear left-wing bias. Yet here’s the Guardian’s Owen Jones from March this year complaining that the broadcaster is a “threat to democracy” due to its right-wing bias.
Those on Twitter gleefully retweeting claims of right-wing bias in the press might do well to read Alex Massie’s analysis of the BBC controversy in the Spectator. As he wrote:
“This is not as simple as left versus right. It is rather different. The BBC’s political coverage operates on a default presumption of scepticism. Governments propose policy; the BBC subjects those proposals to intense scrutiny. It is reflexively opposed to change. Almost any change. The status quo — being known and therefore endurable — is preferable to the unknown risks of an alternative vision. In this respect it is actually a profoundly conservative institution.”
There is no doubt that a lot of political coverage in the British press also fits into this definition — it is generally reactive to circumstance and resistant to radicalism. But that is quite distinct from government control.
As we are likely to see today with coverage of the Autumn Statement, the biggest flaw of the UK press (and one that no honest political journalist can claim to be wholly immune from) is not bias but all-too-often falling victim to the narcissism of small differences.
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