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.

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Michael Heseltine calls for “second referendum or general election” on the Brexit deal

The Tory peer and former deputy prime minister accuses Theresa May of having “flip-flopped” on the “intellectual conviction of the last 70 years of Conservative leadership”.

The Conservative party is deeply divided on the subject of Europe, and I don't see a short-term resolution to that position. I just reread the speech that the Prime Minister made to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers before the referendum. It was thoughtful, careful, balanced, and highly persuasive – arguing that we should remain in Europe.

A few weeks later, Brexit is Brexit. She has apparently changed her mind, and people like me have not. The idea that the intellectual conviction of the last 70 years of Conservative leadership on this subject can be flip-flopped is asking too much of those of us who believe that our self-interest as a nation is inextricably interwoven with our European allies.

I believe that this is the worst peacetime decision that Parliament has been asked to make. It is very possible, as the negotiations unfold, that members of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons who believe as strongly as I do in the Remain argument will feel that their commitment to our national self-interest is being stretched unacceptably.

I know all the lonelinesses of their position. I'm well aware of the herd instinct of party politics. Only on two significant occasions have I worked to change the official policies of the Conservative party. I have no regrets, it didn't actually do me any harm. They have to evaluate the nature of the decision they're being asked to take.

I don't believe any of the arguments that there's a two-year time scale, the guillotine comes down. If there's a will to change within the community of European leaders, change will happen regardless of the letter of the law.

I believe that there needs to be a second referendum or a mandate of a general election. I believe the sovereignty of this country is enshrined in the House of Commons, and that they must be involved in the final decision with absolute power to determine the outcome. It took Nicola Sturgeon a matter of months to be back on the trail of a second referendum and Nigel Farage would have been doing exactly the same if he had lost. So what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I cast myself in the unlikely role of gander.

[May’s opposition to a Scottish referendum] completely undermines the whole basis for supporting the referendum judgement in the first place, because they weren't in possession of the facts, and so when we are in possession of the facts, it follows there must be a second choice.

Michael Heseltine is a Conservative peer and a former deputy prime minister.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition