Is Sky News biased against Labour?

No, is the short answer. Balls and Prescott are wrong.

During my period as a producer at Sky News, between 2005 and 2007, I used to answer the question, "Where do you work?" from members of my wife's family in the United States with the line: "A channel called Sky News. It's the British equivalent of Fox News."

What I meant, of course, was that Sky News is, like Fox News, a 24-hour rolling news channel, available on satellite and via cable, and part of Rupert Murdoch's global media empire. But in style and in substance, of course, it is nothing like the pro-war, pro-Republican, pro-Palin Fox News Channel (FNC).

For a start, we have Ofcom (which the Tories want to abolish!) and Ofcom would never allow such blatant, on-air bias in this country (God bless Ofcom!). Indeed, I defy you to find me a single anchor or reporter on Sky News who bears even a passing ideological resemblance to Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity.

But the Labour Party and some of its more credulous supporters seem to be insinuating -- or, in the case of Ed Balls and John Prescott, explicitly claiming -- that Sky News has a pro-Tory, anti-Labour bias.

Here's what the Children's Secretary said to me in his constituency on Saturday:

I travel to Yorkshire on the day the Guardian has endorsed the Liberal Democrats and the Times the Conservatives. Are the media united against a Labour victory? "The BBC has fought valiantly to be fair and balanced, but Sky News and most of the newspapers are deeply partisan." He criticises the Murdoch-owned broadcaster and the right-wing press again later in the interview. "This election is much more open than the newspapers and Sky News suggest. The polls are very tight."

And here is John Prescott, on the Guardian's Comment is Free, in the immediate wake of "Bigotgate":

Yet again, the dying Murdoch empire is doing all it can to influence a British election . . . But today, the Murdoch family reached a new low in their desperate attempt to turn the election for the Tories. News International's Sky News broadcast a private conversation between Gordon and his staff . . . What Murdoch's Sky News did today was just as bad as his paper's phone-hacking. It was a breach of privacy. It was underhand. And it was done in the pursuit of ratings and political influence.

This is absurd. Yes, Sky News broadcast the conversation in "pursuit of ratings". That's a given. And, I should add, you could argue that there was also a genuine public interest defence. Also, does anyone honestly believe ITV News wouldn't have done the same?

But to accuse Sky News of pursuing "political influence" is a desperate claim. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest there is a co-ordinated anti-Labour, pro-Conservative campaign on the part of Sky News. John Ryley, the Sky News boss, Chris Birkett, his executive editor, and Jonathan Levy, the head of the broadcaster's political unit in Millbank -- all of whom I consider friends of mine -- are not Tories, and, if they are, they've done a damn fine job of hiding it from me and countless others.

Adam Boulton, meanwhile, is the semi-sympathetic biographer of Tony Blair -- and married to Blair's former "gatekeeper", Anji Hunter. Oh, and to those of you who have never worked in a TV newsroom, let me be very clear: Rupert Murdoch doesn't ring up each evening to discuss and decide the running orders with Messrs Ryley and Birkett. In fact, in my two years at Sky News HQ in Isleworth, Middlesex, Murdoch Sr physically turned up just once -- and, that too, to open a new building, not to pontificate on day-to-day editorial matters.

Labour critics of Sky News might point to last night's events at Methodist Central Hall, where Gordon Brown gave perhaps the best speech of the campaign so far, while Sky News chose to cover the lone anti-nuclear protester, rather than the speech itself and the impressive performance from the PM. It was a bad decision -- but again, in my view, this reflects Sky's sensationalist and perhaps understandable desire for ratings, upsets, gaffes and "incidents", rather than an explicit, pre-planned, anti-Brown agenda.

Left-wing conspiracy theorists can sleep in peace. The Sun is fighting a partisan, pro-Cameron, ant-Brown campaign. So, too, is the Times, with its propagandistic picture of Sam Cam lying in Dave's arms on its front page today. But Sky News remains, as far as I can see, free of party political bias.

All you could accuse it of -- maybe! -- is being part of a wider British press pack that has gullibly, lazily and perhaps subconsciously bought David Cameron's guff about change, momentum and inevitablility. If that's the case, the the BBC is equally guilty. But I repeat: Sky News is not the Sun. To compare the two is just silly.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Show Hide image

Labour should be able to find a better alternative to Corbyn than Smith

The week in the media, including Cambridge entrance exams, the Brexit tourism boom, and why Owen Smith is a no-hoper.

A woman canvassing for Jeremy Corbyn called me the other day. I explained to her that I would be voting for Owen Smith as Labour leader – as long as he seemed to have no chance of winning. She sounded bemused but, after I explained my reasoning, I think she agreed, although she may simply have decided to humour a feeble-minded eccentric.

I told her that my objection to Corbyn is not so much about his political position as about his competence as leader. If he cannot command the confidence of Labour MPs, he is unlikely to command the confidence of voters that he can run the country. However, Labour needs a more convincing alternative than Owen Smith, a soft-left figure in the mould of Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband, who lost three general elections between them. As his proposal that we should sit down and talk to Islamic State suggests, his ear for politics, like that of the incumbent leader, appears to be manufactured from tin. Moreover, his past as a lobbyist for a drugs company represents precisely the bundle of connections between politics, media and international capital against which so many voters are in revolt.

Smith deserves a large vote, mainly to give heart to future challengers. But – given that no party has ever overthrown two leaders in a single parliament without either having fought a general election – his victory would leave the party with the prospect of nearly four wasted years followed by defeat in 2020. Labour should be able to find a better alternative to Corbyn. There is still time for him (or preferably her) to emerge.

Agent Choudary

It is widely believed in the Muslim community that the Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary is an MI5 agent, whose high-profile flamboyance was used to attract and flush out the most dangerous radicals. Those who subscribe to this theory are not fazed by his conviction at the Old Bailey on terrorism-related charges. Although the prosecution detailed numerous instances in which people allegedly linked to him were convicted of planning violent attacks, nearly all such attacks failed, according to the theory, because Choudary did his job, allowing plotters to be apprehended before they could strike. Now MI5 has decided that he should continue his work in prisons, which are said to be increasingly potent sources of radicalisation.
I hesitate to scoff too much. Who would have thought that the Soviet security services could recruit several former public school boys in the 1930s and plant them in positions at the top of MI6 and the Foreign Office? We should not assume that our spymasters are incapable of being equally clever. Besides, the MI5 agent theory probably does Choudary far more damage among young Muslims than the media’s standard portrayal of him as an evil genius.

Apt pupils

A new hurdle, in the form of a university-wide exam to test “aptitude”, will confront applicants to Cambridge from this autumn. It illustrates why state schools can never hope to catch up, still less overtake, fee-charging schools in the race for elite university places (another manifestation of what the NS calls “the 7 per cent problem”).
Unlike its predecessor, which was abolished three decades ago because it was thought to favour those from privileged backgrounds, the new entrance exam, Cambridge argues, does not require coaching. The publication of sample questions shows that this is not true. Several are, in essence, exercises in logic, which comes naturally to a tiny minority but not to the majority who will need, if nothing else, a great deal of practice to achieve competence even at an elementary level. The better fee-charging schools will organise the necessary preparation for the dozen or so candidates each year who try to get into Cambridge. Comprehensives, with far more modest resources, will not do so for the one or two candidates they are likely to have even in a good year. Their teachers’ inferior knowledge of how the exam will be marked and what tutors will be looking for – matters on which Cambridge is unhelpfully vague – will further disadvantage state school candidates.

Stashing cash

I cannot think of a better example of what crazy times we live in than this. Keeping cash under the mattress used to be something that criminals and mentally impaired old folk did. Now, the Financial Times reports, banks and other financial institutions are thinking of doing it, although they will use vaults rather than mattresses. This is because interest rates are moving into negative territory, so private-sector banks are, in effect, charged for keeping cash in their central bank accounts. The FT estimates that banks have lost €2.64bn since European Central Bank rates became negative in 2014. Some pension funds have already asked their banks for wads of cash in €500 notes.
Could any satirist or futuristic novelist have envisaged this?

Foreign throngs

The Brexit vote and the subsequent fall in sterling’s value has led, it is reported, to a sharp increase in tourism. I thought of this as we struggled through people crammed into the excellent Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, the other day. Haworth is a tiny village (population 6,379) that was so poor two centuries ago that raw sewage ran down the main street. Now, it has created a flourishing industry from being the place where the Brontës’ novels were written. 

The prospects for British manufacturing and financial services may be uncertain but there’s always tourism, for which we seem to have an absolute gift. Even the damp, cold climate is an advantage, because it forces more people into the shops. But I wonder what the Brexiteers think of this growth in the number of foreigners, possibly including terrorist sympathisers, now walking our streets and thronging our museums, royal palaces and country houses. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser