23 August 2018

Welcome to JezSpace, Corbyn’s new media nightmare


Imagine looking at Facebook and Google and Twitter and the rest of the new media world and thinking, “You know, what we need here is a state-owned digital rival to these companies, a kind of British Digital Corporation.” It tells you all you need to know about Jeremy Corbyn that this is what he called for today.

It is not immediately obvious what purpose this new state-run digital corporation would serve. Nor is it clear why anyone would wish to sign up to what, for want of a better name, we might call JezSpace. What would it deliver that you could not receive already and elsewhere?

But that’s Corbyn for you. Even his new ideas for new media involve a return to the 1970s. You might as well nationalise Thomas Cook. And the haulage business. And, indeed, everything else.

Still, Corbyn’s media proposals are a useful reminder of his default position: capitalism is inherently suspect and, more often, a conspiracy against the public. The private sector must always be corralled by the public sector because the market is exploitative and contrary to the public interest.

The actual production of things the public wants is not the point. Symbolism is more important than reality; theory a greater principle than practicality.

Equally, Corbyn’s criticisms of the media rest upon a fundamental category error. Because the press often disagrees with Corbynism, the press must be mistaken. All the soothing words about democracy and accountability and all the rest of it should not be allowed to mask this fundamental truth: Corbynism takes a Trumpian view of the media. It is, most of it and most of the time, the enemy of the people even if the people do not actually appreciate this.

I declare an interest, of course, as someone who writes for The Times and The Sunday Times. Even so, the notion, much enjoyed on the left, that the British media is controlled by a handful of foreign resident billionaires does not stand up to scrutiny. Or, rather, it requires you to omit the BBC from any survey of the British media.

The BBC is a remarkable, often wonderful, organisation but any analysis of media plurality that ignores the BBC is worth less than, in the imperishable words of John Nance Garner, a bucket of warm piss. Naturally that includes most — and almost all left-wing — analyses of the British media landscape.

To put it bluntly, you can promote local news organisations or you can promote the BBC but you cannot do both. The BBC is the best-resourced, most popular, news organisation in the country. There is nothing disreputable about that, though it is worth observing that this is chiefly made possible by the “unique” way the corporation is funded. The imposition of what is, effectively, a poll tax hands the BBC certain advantages.

In those circumstances, it is not obvious that taxing Facebook or Amazon or Google and giving that cash to the BBC is a sensible, or just, use of anybody’s time or money.

By way of context, an Ofcom survey published last year reported that 56 per cent of Britons use the BBC’s website for news. The combined reach of newspaper websites and apps amounted to 31 per cent. The BBC is the largest, most influential, most important news organisation in the UK and it is not even close. Twice as many people use its website as get their news from Facebook. Indeed, the BBC’s reach is roughly equivalent to that of Facebook and every newspaper in Britain combined.

Meanwhile, the great leader has decided that the BBC should compile and publish data on its employees, the better to measure the extent to which this mirrors the class profile of the general population. What a fine idea! If only, for instance, you could consult page 270 of the BBC’s most recent annual report where you will discover that, according to figures compiled by the BBC, 50 per cent of its employees’ parents did not attend university and 16 per cent — somewhat higher than the national average — of its employees were educated at private schools.

This seems typically Corbyn: when he’s not wrong he’s just banal and when he’s not busy being banal he’s demanding that something should be done which, in point of fact, is already being done. Perhaps that explains why, according to YouGov, just 49 per cent of the people who voted Labour as recently as last year are confident Corbyn is the best person to be prime minister.

Meanwhile, the suggestion members of the BBC board should be elected guarantees more, not less, political influence on the corporation. Such a move would not inoculate the BBC against political interference, it would in fact inject that virus into its bloodstream. But as far as Corbynism is concerned that, of course, is the idea, not the problem.

Whatever the benefits of exploring not-for-profit status for local news collectives, some of Corbyn’s other ideas are so idiotic the suspicion must be they were included only because he would otherwise have nothing else to say.

The notion newspapers should, once they achieve a sufficient size, be required to select their editors by a ballot of the workforce is one such typically useless — and trifling — idea. There is nothing preventing papers from doing this now if they wish to. What is significant, however, is the idea they should be compelled to.

This is not so much about newspapers but, instead, about the far-left’s instinct to interfere and insert itself into matters that, properly speaking, are none of its business. A Corbyn government would respect no boundaries, observe no proprieties, recognise no red (sic) lines to its ability to intervene, interfere, and interrupt.

There is logic to this: as far as the far-left is concerned, nothing is truly private. And when everything is political the state must allow itself the right — indeed the duty — to patrol and watch over and interfere wherever, and whenever, it wants.

In that respect, Corbyn’s media proposals — mostly unworkable and mostly unnecessary and mostly foolish — are typical of his style, his worldview, and the way he would wish to govern. A warning then, not a promise.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.