One of the points Owen Jones makes in The Establishment is that our country’s media is scandalously bent in favour of the free-market ideologues that monopolise newspaper ownership:
Whereas just 36 per cent of voters opted for the Tories at the 2010 general election, 71 per cent of newspapers by circulation backed David Cameron’s party.
Jones’s argument is that this lack of democratic accountability allows Rupert Murdoch and co. to wreak havoc on public opinion, leading astray the gullible and politically illiterate general populace.
The Sun’s recent attempt to convince us that 20% of British Muslims possess jihadist sympathies has forced fresh life into this debate, with questions raised as to the extent to which such flagrantly spurious material is any longer ‘acceptable’.
And yet, Jones’s argument is self-defeating – his statistic demonstrates that newspapers are not a primary determinant of the political climate in Britain. Those who call for regulation in response to this recent debacle fall prey to the same assumption: that people blindly believe what they read in the tabloids.
Jones’s position falls further apart when you look into extent of media bias in the first place – interestingly, 20th Century Fox movies appear to receive no special treatment in reviews from News Corporation outlets.
On the other hand, however, there is evidence to suggest that newspapers have some purchase at least. This 2007 study reports that those who received a free subscription to the Washington Post were 8 points more likely to vote Democrat. This does indeed seem a sizeable increase, and thus to demonstrate the important role of newspapers in determining how we think. But this figure surely shrinks to insignificance when you consider, firstly, that it’s a lot easier to decide whether Muslims are all evil ISIS-apologists than it is to decide between the two fairly similar political parties in the US, and secondly, that the Washington Post is a lot more respected than The Sun is.
Even if we were to concede that newspapers pose an almighty threat to the freedom and diversity of thought, it seems unlikely that in this particular case many people believed the half-truth they were being fed – the backlash from the rest of the media was a lot noisier than the original article.
The outrage in response to The Sun’s laughable figure-manipulation is misplaced and patronising. Just as we should afford a platform to the expression of racist or sexist ideas, we should allow newspapers freedom to present their own angle on things: the truth will out.