Media organizations’ direct and partial involvement in the country’s recent political contests has sparked controversy around media ethics in the U.K.
"They (newspapers) are, as you've noted, explicitly partisan in their editorial policies," says Roger Dickinson, a professor at the University of Leicester.
"These policies — espoused in the editorial and opinion pages of newspapers — often reflect the political views of their owners," Dickinson commented.
In the contest for the Labour party leadership after the resignation of incumbent leader Ed Miliband who had led the party to a humiliating election defeat last May, various media outlets, such as the left-leaning daily The Guardian openly targeted one of the candidates, Jeremy Corbyn.
“Corbyn has shaped the campaign, but Cooper can shape the future,” the daily said in its editorial on August 13 and declared its support for another candidate:
"The right leader is the person who can bring both Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall together in one big, progressive tent, offering enough moral common ground to transcend deep disagreements on policy. It is a formidably difficult task, but there are very many in Britain who desperately need someone to pull it off. The person best placed to do that is Yvette Cooper.”
“Newspapers, by contrast and as I'm sure you are well aware, need only be concerned about the views of their readers and, in the Anglo-American tradition, are only expected (if not legally obliged) to be neutral in their coverage of news…There are many reasons why this is not seen as being ethically questionable. One is that a reader is free to stop buying the newspaper he or she reads if he or she disagrees with their editorial stance and to buy another instead,” Roger Dickinson told Anadolu Agency.
British dailies and tabloids were politically active during last year’s much debated ‘Scottish independence referendum, and The Guardian advised voters to reject nationalism and say “no” in September 2014.
Before the general elections held in May 2015, the right-wing tabloid The Sun openly and traditionally supported the Conservative party, while The Financial Times and The Economist were defending the idea that the Tory-Liberal coalition should continue.
In its editorial on May 2, The Economist said: “Despite the risk on Europe, the coalition led by David Cameron should have a second term.”
Dr Roger Dickinson argues how ethical the whole media approach to political choices:
“What is, perhaps, ethically questionable is the tendency for editorial policy to affect the news stories that are published in newspapers. This is where academic research on news is often focused. It is common for political partisanship to play a part in the selection of news stories or to determine the story angles that are given prominence in newspaper reports. Academic media researchers have for many years been interested in how this takes place, how frequently, and on which news topics, and the effects this has on public opinion.”
According to a report by OFCOM — the media watchdog in the U.K. — state broadcaster BBC has breached the pre-determined sponsorship rules 20 times since 2011 and suggested that the Aga Khan Foundation, the International Diabetes Federation or UNESCO might have been in the driving seat in the content-deciding process for some programs broadcast by the BBC during this period.
The British media regulator found in BBC broadcasts a series of contraventions of its impartiality guidelines and said the practice carried “inherent risk to independence and editorial integrity”.
“Broadcasting organizations are obliged to follow rules of impartiality and balance in their editorial policies,” Dr Dickinson added.
“This has become the tradition and it is partly because broadcasting frequencies are a relatively scarce resource, it is impossible for a plurality of political views to be broadcast from a plurality of broadcasters taking a particular political position on any given topic," he said.
“The amount of spectrum is too small to allow for this. There are numerous other historical reasons for this state of affairs, not least being the decision to make the BBC a 'national broadcaster' in a system, which imposed obligations to political neutrality.
“Of course the Internet has changed, or is changing, these assumptions, but the principles remain and are widely believed to be worth protecting.”
Last week, another former Labour prime minister — Tony Blair — explicitly slammed Corbyn’s campaign in an article for the Guardian. He argued that Labour was “in danger more mortal today than any point in the past 100 years of its existence”, as the leadership race between four candidates enters its final phase.
“If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader…it will mean rout, possibly annihilation,” Blair wrote.
More than 600,000 supporters will vote for the center-left party’s new leader to succeed Ed Miliband, who resigned after leading Labour to its worst electoral performance in decades during the U.K.’s May general election.
Labour now has its lowest number of MPs since 1987.
Party supporters started casting their votes on Friday, August 14. The final result will be revealed on September 12.
Four candidates are competing for leadership: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn, and Liz Kendall.