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

What the Vote Leave chief honestly thinks about Brexit

Dom Cummings has let rip for the first time since the referendum. 

Johnson and Gove were the prophets of Brexit, but it was Dom Cummings who wrote the scripture. The  Vote Leave campaign director took Eurosceptic MPs who had for decades opined the same obscure views on sovereignty - the concept still means little to most in SW1, never mind outside of it - and co-opted them into a disciplined and data-driven campaign.

He encouraged them to focus on three things: immigration, the NHS and the emotional vocabulary of control. And it worked.

Consequently, the Vote Leave club still adore him. One staffer describes him as “a great man, a genius, truly the most important person in the EU referendum”. And although Cummings regards almost all Conservative MPs as “clowns”, they regard his achievements with a begrudging respect: an unhinged and aggressive figure, but also a remarkably intelligent and incisive campaigner. 

Yet despite winning the biggest mandate in British political history, Cummings’ views on post-referendum Britain are little known. This is mostly his own doing. Unlike Matthew Elliott, the Vote Leave CEO, who has spent his time since the referendum touring TV studios and generally bigging up his own significance, Cummings has been coy. 

But now, as the Tory government begins to consider Brexit in earnest, he has returned to Twitter for the first time since the referendum. And under the username @odysseanproject, he has offered his thoughts in typically unapologetic fashion. Here is what he thinks:

1. It’s a “delusion” to say Britain voted for sovereignty 

Cummings knew well before the referendum that freedom of movement would be voters’ number one concern.  He spent years researching public attitudes towards the EU and was writing about "regaining control of migration" and introducing an "Australian point system" as early as June 2014.  These ideas, tested then on voters in Essex, London and Warwickshire, worked themselves almost without interruption onto the Vote Leave playbook. 

Now he rebukes Brexiteers who say the result had nothing to do with migration and Remoaners who say it was the only factor. "It wasn’t ‘all about immigration’ AND immigration wasn’t a minor / subsidiary issue. Both wrong, truth subtler."

Immigration was the core issue, but it couldn’t have won the referendum alone. He argues it had to be “balanced” with #TakeBackControl, £350m and the NHS. This suggests the eventual result was neither an anti-immigrant populist uprising, nor an attempt to liberate Britain as a sovereign nation from the EU’s clutches. According to Cummings, it was probably somewhere in between. 

2. Nigel Farage almost lost the EU referendum 

Cummings describes Farage as a “vain shallow egomaniac” who consistently undermined the campaign.  

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Farage helped hoover up working class votes, especially in Labour’s heartlands, Cummings says he and “his embarrassing cabal” were simply a turnoff on the doorstep. “In focus group after focus group,” he continues, “ppl said ‘I want to leave but I don’t want to vote for that tit Farage’”. 

He recounts how Farage insisted upon featuring in the main debates - “me me me me me” - but says if he had been allowed to officially represent the Leave campaign, Remain would have won by 70 per cent.  

3.  Theresa May should ditch the net migration target

The biggest and most complex question facing politicians post-Brexit is how Britain reduces net migration to so-called “sustainable levels” (shorthand for 100,000 or less). 

But according to Cummings, migration policy should be easy: “ditch” net migration.  He says it’s a "crap metric" which reflects Osborne and Cameron’s poor understanding of public psychology. 

Cummings instead proposes restrictions on unskilled labour, “tough rules” on criminals and increased access for highly-skilled migrants. The British public would overwhelmingly back such proposals, he says, and leave Labour “high and dry” politically. If it’s not there already...

4. We should shut down the Department for International Development

Cummings is not the only person to have called for Dfid to be closed - he is joined by its current secretary, Priti Patel - but his reasons haven’t anything to do with "pulling up the drawbridge" in post-Brexit Britain. 

He is an advocate of effective altruism, a philosophy defined by the desire to improve the world in the most efficient way possible, and says Dfid’s aid money would be spent better elsewhere.

His argument is: mothball the department and give most of the money to already effective organisations and charities. Keep behind a portion for high risk, high impact projects, following the model of DARPA (the US military research organisation).  

5. None of his aims for post-Brexit Britain are going to be realised 

Cummings’ expounds his political philosophy in Some thoughts on education and political priorities, a dense and ironically-named 250 page essay.  

Its thrust is as follows: the world is becoming increasingly complex and difficult to predict; our present array of political institutions is unfit to respond to the problems thrown up by that complexity; in order to survive and thrive in the 21st century, we need to be trained in risk analysis, and scientific and mathematical modelling, invest in science and technology, and also restructure our entire political and educational landscape in the process - including withdrawing from the EU. 

This last tweet is fascinating because Cummings acknowledges the changes he envisages aren’t going to take place post-Brexit. After two decades of Eurosceptic activism - starting as chair of the No Campaign, which fought against Britain’s membership of the euro, and ending with this - he is stolidly self-aware.

The Britain he wants isn’t the statist, bureaucratic, anti-immigration Britain being mapped out by Theresa May. But history may conclude that he helped deliver it.