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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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