One of the most interesting sideshows to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has been the success of pro-Corbyn, avowedly left-wing websites. These sites, often reliant on reader donations, offer pro-Corbyn (maybe more accurately, anti-Tory) news, with a hefty dash of opinion.
The building blocks of the sites’ editorial stance are clear: Corbyn represents the true soul of the Labour Party, the Tories and centrist Labour members are some combination of inept, heartless, and rabidly anti-equality and fairness, and the mainstream media (including the BBC) are biased against the current Labour leadership.
But the obvious danger of having such a definite agenda is that the agenda takes over. In September, the best-known of these sites, The Canary, published an article with the headline: “We need to talk about Laura Kuenssberg. She’s listed as a speaker at the Tory Party conference.” You could be forgiven for thinking that this meant that the BBC’s political editor was going to speak at the Tory Party conference – and maybe even that she was going to do so for the party itself. As she’s a high-profile journalist for an impartial news organisation, that would have been a decent story for a site preoccupied with claims of mainstream media bias, whether or not you thought it was an acceptable thing for her do.
A moment’s research, however, showed something quite different: Kuenssberg was listed as “invited” at a fringe event held by the Centre for Social Justice think tank. And “invited” in this context means exactly that – it’s very common for party conference event organisers to speculatively list people as “invited” with no idea of whether they’ll accept the invitation (Kuenssberg did not).
Sharp advertising practice from the CSJ aside, this gave a misleading impression that there was a case for Ms Kuenssberg to answer. The Canary – and other left-wing commentators – have frequently raised concerns about Kuenssberg’s impartiality and what they see as her anti-Corbyn reporting. They have every right to do so, and even if their criticisms seem over the top or unfair, they’re no worse than the rhetoric of “Enemies of the People” or “Saboteurs” that some traditional media outlets have used about Brexit. But this drumbeat of criticism also means that these sites are well aware how their audience will interpret any new story about Kuenssberg – it will be seen as another line on the charge sheet.
I wasn’t the only person to think something was wrong with the article. It garnered plenty of criticism on social media (but then, what doesn’t?), and another 51 people complained; but I was the only one to take it further to Impress, the regulator that The Canary joined in August this year.
Earlier this week Impress published its adjudication, and upheld my complaint: the headline was misleading, and The Canary’s original update to the story was insufficient. The decision is welcome, but so too is the remedy, which means The Canary had to link to the correction on its homepage for 48 hours. That’s a lot better than the infamous tucked-away corrections for print media, and shows that the regulator is taking its role seriously in ensuring corrections get due prominence and as many readers as possible see when something they previously read might not have been right.
It matters that news outlets, however partisan and whoever they support, get their facts straight. And in The Canary’s case, the article was published against a backdrop of criticism from the left of Laura Kuenssberg’s coverage – criticism that was so vitriolic that the BBC felt the need to provide her with bodyguards for Labour conference. But my complaint wasn’t about the article’s tone. It was about the facts and the impression The Canary gave of the story.
Although I think its original reporting was irresponsible, The Canary also deserves some credit in all this – it voluntarily joined Impress, and accepted its judgement and remedy. It would have been easy for it to reject the ruling and storm out, no doubt to the noisy approval of many of its readers. It says it has improved its verification procedures, which I hope is true; Impress found that The Canary had failed to take “reasonable steps that were open to it” such as attempting to contact the event organisers directly. In the rush to publish, such standard journalistic fact-checking went out of the window and its readers were misled.
There’s plenty of space for a left-wing media, and the internet gives them a fighting chance of finding an audience – as those sites’ supporters point out, right-wing newspapers have long dominated the print landscape. But that can’t come at the expense of giving their readers a fair account. Encouragingly, other new media publishers, including Skwawkbox and Evolve Politics, have signed up to Impress in recent months, meaning that as the shifts in the media landscape continue, their readers should get news that may not be balanced, but is at least accurate.
Jamie Thunder used to be a journalist, but now works as a consultant at WPI Economics. He’s on Twitter @jdthndr.