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21 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

If Jeremy Corbyn’s really worried about dodgy news he shouldn’t just be aiming at the tabloids

In the modern world, the worst excesses of the press are just a small part of a much bigger problem. 

By Jasper jackson

Appearing to threaten the UK’s right-wing newspapers is a tactic most people hoping to become Prime Minister would consider electoral suicide. But as with so many of the generally-accepted rules of politics, Jeremy Corbyn pays little heed.

On Tuesday night, after days of highly-questionable stories implying Corbyn had passed information to a Czechoslovakian spy, the Labour leader released a video calling out the country’s most powerful newspapers and promising “change is coming”. Aides later clarified that the Labour leader was referring to an examination of “ownership of media to ensure plurality”.

One of the refreshing things about Corbyn is that he long ago decided it wasn’t worth trying to win over the bulk of the British press, not least becasue there was no way they were going to give him much of a hearing. Despite a pretty sustained campaign against him by most right-leaning papers, it doesn’t seem to have done him a great deal of harm. Given how negatively much of the left-leaning public feels about the likes of the Daily Mail and The Sun, attacking them may well boost his support. Plus, he has his own Facebook page with more than 1.3 million followers. So in terms of electoral strategy, threatening to clamp down on dodgy reporting by the British press doesn’t seem like a terrible idea.

There are, of course, other problems with trying to curtail the worst excesses of the press. Who decides whether a story is accurate or not? How do you punish outlets that print inaccuracies? What do you do to avoid creating a chilling affect that stops papers from pursuing important stories in good faith? Press freedom, it should hopefully go without saying, is a cornerstone of democracy and undermining it because you don’t like what some newspapers say about you is not a good look, even if the stories are dubious.

But if Labour did come up with a framework that managed to deal with bad and inaccurate reporting while leaving newspapers free to hold the powerful to account, Corbyn is targeting just one part of the problem with the complex modern media environment..  

We do not know whether we are yet at the point where what the public reads on Twitter or Facebook, or watches on YouTube, has more impact than what goes in the pages and websites of newspapers. Despite all the furore over Russian troll farms, the spread of “fake news” and opaque political advertising online, assessing its impact is incredibly hard.

And yet if you look at the rapid pace of change over just the last few years, you’d be mad to argue that power isn’t shifting away from traditional media towards the web.  

As far back as 2016, UK regulator Ofcom found that the internet was overtaking printed newspapers as a source of news, and for those who got news from the web, 20 per cent said they used social media, while only 15 per cent said the websites of apps of newspapers.

The newspapers name checked by Corbyn, The Sun, Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Express, between them dominate printed news. Online, it’s a different story. Left-leaning newspapers such as The Guardian and The Mirror have much more comparable audiences online than they do in print. Avowedly non-political digital sites such as BuzzFeed are also huge. Perhaps more significantly, there are a huge number of small outlets, campaign groups, and other organisations using the web to reach many millions of people.

In his video, Corbyn admitted as much, saying that “the general election showed the media barons are losing their influence and social media means their bad old habits are becoming less and less relevant”.

Of course Corbyn is targeting those newspapers because he believes that their reporting is both unfair and inaccurate, and that their “bad old habits” are a problem for democracy and society. But if he really cares about “lies and smears” then he should be discussing how to tackle them online as well.

It’s arguable that some of the language used by the UK’s newspapers – “traitors” “saboteurs” etc – helps drive people towards violent far-right ideology.  But if you’re looking for racially-charged hatred reaching millions, you can just as easily find it on the Facebook page of Britain First, which has almost 2m likes on Facebook and reaches many more. When the murderer of MP Jo Cox literally shouted “Britain First” as he attacked her, it would not be unreasonable to consider addressing what’s being said on social media as well.

There is, of course, one problem with widening out this debate for Labour. On the more level digital playing field, where start-up costs are relatively low, the left has also proved just as capable of playing dirty. Small hyper-partisan left-wing outlets such as The Canary or Sqwawkbox have managed to reach millions of readers using social media, with the sort of spun, and often dodgy stories any tabloid would be proud of. 

Meanwhile outright fake stories and memes spread across the web from both sides, reinforcing prejudices and world views while leaving their readers at best ill-informed and at worst convinced of dark conspiracies arrayed against them.

If Corbyn really cares about the quality of our media, or our conversations about politics, about fair and balanced reporting, then he should be talking about a lot more than just the papers you buy at the shop.