Is the mainstream media biased?
At first, the question can feel both uselessly broad and overwhelmingly subjective – how would we even measure it? Answering it also isn’t helped by the arbitrary nature of the shifting ‘centre’. But a glimpse at research on public opinion, as well as clear examples of platforms giving airtime for views that target marginalised groups, sheds some light on who gets to shape the content we consume, and what gets put on the agenda in the first place.
What the evidence says
According to research by YouGov, the British media definitely has a skew to the right – and the greatest out of the seven European nations polled.
But why? Well, papers like the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun have colossal circulation figures that tower over smaller, more left-leaning ones like the Guardian. Looking at 19 papers, including big hitters like the Daily Star, the i, and the Financial Times, the Guardian has the lowest daily circulation at just 138,000. That’s in comparison to the Sun, which has the greatest circulation at just over one million. In terms of reach, left-wing publications pale in comparison to the big business of both right-wing broadsheets and tabloids.
There’s also no way to discuss a right-lean in the mainstream media without looking at the “non-partisan” outlets at the centre. Of course, the BBC is a gigantic, multi-platform organisation branching off in multiple directions, but a 2013 analysis of BBC output found that contrary to popular belief, Tory voices got the most airtime. You’ve also got those with heavy Conservative Party involvement – like Andrew Neil – presenting, which doesn’t help the case for impartiality. To add insult to injury, a 2013 study found that the Beeb was more likely to interview business executives than trade union representatives, with a ratio of 19 to one in 2012.
In print, it’s important to recognise that the Times – Britain’s supposed “newspaper of record” – which is historically the most varied paper in terms of party-allegiance, has formally crept over to occupying a centre-right position (it backed the Conservatives in the last two elections, and is owned by right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdoch).
What the media says
Beyond strict party politics, certain views also seem to get given a disproportionate signal blast in our media – particularly, in recent years, Islamophobic and transphobic ones. A number of standout examples come to mind, but what seems most marked is the subtle normalisation of violent views dispensed in “prestige” forums under the guise of free speech.
In a broadsheet, we saw Boris Johnson afforded column inches to compare muslim women to “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”. The Eton-educated former foreign secretary’s comments tangibly contributed to the widespread dehumanisation of visibly Muslim women, who make up 75 per cent of the victims of Islamophobic hate crime. And Johnson’s not the only one – the Guardian saw non-muslim Polly Toynbee condemn the burqa in an opinion piece, while Question Time held a debate on the topic where the panel of six was comprised of one white woman, one person of colour (Sadiq Khan), and four white men (including one Nigel Farage). White people setting the agenda on race in the media sits within a wider climate of increasing racism in the UK, from the post-Brexit spike in race-motivated hate crime, to the alleged racist attacks that took place during two Championship football matches last weekend.
Closer to the centre, we see transphobia – which certainly exists on the left, but also serves to bolster the right – dispensed in regular instalments by the Times. Namely, Janice Turner has argued against the rights of trans women and non-binary people on numerous occasions, and received awards and accolades off the back of it. The ex-Guardian columnist has also weaponised children as a rhetorical ideological device – framing moves towards trans rights as being at the “sacrifice” of children, as well as appealing to the age-old narrative of waves of falsely diagnosed or identified trans children. Turner’s column sits dead-centre in a British moral panic surrounding trans rights, the results of which were also seen over in the Guardian. On this topic, the US (which of course has its own unique issues with racism, homophobia and transphobia), were left largely baffled. The US Guardian disavowed the UK’s editorial; and in February, feminist theorist Sophie Lewis wrote a detailed explainer in the New York Times to break down to American readers how Britain got this way – saying: “British newspapers seemingly never tire of broadsides against the menace of ‘gender ideology.’”
The danger of ‘neutrality’
While they thread through opinions sections of Britain’s biggest papers, racism, transphobia and homophobia also operate insidiously under the guise of “free speech”, “open platforms” and “rational debate”. We saw this when Newsnight asked whether alt-right figurehead Tommy Robinson was dangerous or just “a man raising concerns that others ignore”; and it reared its head again last week when Question Time mused on whether it was “morally right” that “five-year-old children” learn about the existence of queer people. These debates are often set up in a way that is unrepresentative or makes an equal footing impossible – like a panel that is skewed towards racists or transphobic people, with only one black person or one trans woman to represent.
But what’s the danger of a question? Well, the framing and positioning of an argument can make or break how the discussion ensues. It sets the tone and also gives us an inherent sense of which views are acceptable in the first place. Finally (and uniquely irritatingly), it means that certain discussions never actually progress and make it past a certain point – we repeatedly fall at the first, basic, hurdles. Taking the example of LGBTQ+ education in schools: how will we ever get to discussing what a good curriculum might look like, how we make queer education intersectional, the breadth of experience under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, or how we make structural changes that welcome same-gender parent families in schools, when we still keep essentially harking back to the question of “is it okay to be gay?”
The current state of things
The impact of who gets to set the agenda should not go unnoticed. It’s easy to question whether, in terms of media, the playing field is equal – but the dominance of right-wing papers, and right-wing stances, can’t be ignored. And when cross-party, cross-spectrum issues like trans rights arise in the mainstream, it’s also important to acknowledge that the framing will likely work against marginalised people.
We should call on our media to do better – and the more we craft our own spaces, like gal-dem (the magazine for women and non-binary people of colour that I work for), the more we have the ability to throw our own voices into the mix without relying on the ‘mainstream’. The existence of other spaces also more easily allows us to boycott and call out institutions that fail to serve us.
There’s increasing radical potential for change as more outlets spring up outside of mainstream traditional media. There’s also some wiggle room within it. Even if you don’t think you have great leverage to change things, you need to talk about bias where you see it, and @ the media organisations you see as failing us.
Also, don’t buy the Daily Mail.