Opinion: “Politics will affect your life; the question is, do you want to affect politics?”

Guest columnist and Senior Lecturer of English Dr Owen Clayton gives his spin on young people voting and media bias in the run up to the 2017 general election. 

The 2017 election campaign is upon us. The press confidently predicts a massive majority for the Tories and a trouncing for Labour. You might wonder why we need to go to the polls at all on 8th June, given that the result is such a foregone conclusion. Why should people, particularly young people and students, bother voting at all?

“Why should people, particularly young people and students, bother voting at all?” Photo: Dr Owen Clayton.

The answer is simple: if you don’t vote, politicians won’t care about what you think. For the 2015 election, turnout among 18-24 year-old’s was low (43%), while the over-65s voted in much greater numbers (78%). Voter turnout makes a tangible difference as to how governments treat different age groups. Parties court those parts of the electorate who vote, and neglect those that don’t. So in 2010, at a time of ‘austerity’ and cuts to welfare, the then-Coalition government introduced a ‘triple lock’ which guaranteed that pensions would rise every year. Why do pensioners get such a sweet deal? Because they vote. If the under-30s voted in the same numbers as the over-60s, we would never have had tuition fees.

Whether or not you vote, politics will affect your life; the question is, do you want to affect politics? I urge all students not just to register to vote by 22nd May, but to urge everyone you know to do the same. A cultural change in voting patterns among the young is made easier by technology: you can use social media to reach hundreds, even thousands, of your peers, who in turn can influence others to turn out on election day.

I don’t claim to know what will happen on 8th June, but I would urge scepticism towards polls and the media that reports them. Three different studies, by the Media Reform Coalition, the London School of Economics, and the MRC in collaboration with Birkbeck, University of London have each demonstrated that UK media has a clear and persistent bias against Jeremy Corbyn. This bias takes various forms, including the amount of airtime or column inches given to his political opponents, and an attempt to delegitimize the Labour leader through ridicule and by associating him with terrorism. This isn’t terribly surprising, given that newspapers are owned by a tiny group of multi-national corporations (just 3 companies control 71% of national newspaper circulation) who fear that socialist policies could threaten their enormous wealth.

Unlike newspapers, the BBC has ‘impartiality’ as part of its governing principles, so in theory ought to be more neutral. In fact, as a study from Cardiff University has shown, the BBC tends to favour whomever is in power, whether they be Labour or Conservative. This makes sense, since the government of the day holds the BBC’s purse strings: politicians regularly use threats about the (non)renewal of the licence fee to keep the Beeb in line.

This seems pretty bleak, but I do have two recommendations for getting out of this situation. First, I would urge you to vary your media intake: compare the coverage on the BBC with, say, Al-Jazeera English, and think about how the stations curate the news differently. Why have they chosen to lead with certain stories; what kinds of stories do they think are significant? Second and most important, look to independent media. In the internet age we don’t have to rely on traditional outlets. Independent investigative journalists are able to publish their work online without going through a newspaper. The best independent TV news in America is Democracy Now, which has been running since 2001. Watching an episode of DN makes you realise what the news could be like: the show invites experts to discuss important issues and, instead of interrupting after 5 seconds as happens in mainstream news, actually lets them talk – sometimes for 5 minutes without interruption. Sadly, in the UK we don’t yet have a Democracy Now equivalent (journalism students, get on it!), but the independent news platform Open Democracy is an excellent source of articles by scholars and investigative journalists who are largely shut out of traditional media. Perhaps one day we will have a media that isn’t dominated by money: until then, we still have a choice about the kind of news we consume.

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