When reporting the televised debates that have made such a welcome re-appearance in the 2019 general election, Conservative-supporting newspapers have – to quote Boris Johnson – an “oven ready” recipe for delivering yet another demolition job on Jeremy Corbyn.
Whatever the reality of the confrontation that has taken place, the tricks of the trade of tabloid reporting can be manipulated to achieve the desired outcome: Corbyn trashed and humiliated, out punched and outclassed by Johnson.
Even before a debate has taken place, an anti-Corbyn agenda is trailed in advance: readers have been forewarned of the lies and evasions they can expect as Johnson puts the Labour leader on the spot.
Snap opinion polls of viewers are another device for strengthening the pre-determined narrative and headlines. Unfavourable results can be over-looked, or the surveys twisted to suit the story line.
Hostile questioning, jeering or hollow laughter can either be ignored or blamed on the broadcasters for having selected an audience weighted against the Conservatives.
“Corbyn TV Brexit showdown” was the headline on the Daily Mail’s preview of the first debate (19.11.2019) declaring that Johnson would be urging the Labour leader to “come clean with voters” and end his “Brexit dithering”.
The Sun followed suit, predicting a “Corbynquisition” as the Prime Minister pursued his pre-briefed demand for answers to Labour’s “dither, delay and uncertainty” on Brexit.
Headlines next morning followed the pre-prepared script: “Dither v Delay” trumpeted the Sun (20.11.2019) which claimed Corbyn had refused “nine times to say if he’d back Brexit”.
A YouGov snap opinion poll of viewers, which suggested the Prime Minister had just edged it with 51 per cent saying he did better than Corbyn, was used to back up the Sun’s report that Johnson had “humiliated” the Labour leader.
In a show of unity, the front pages of the Brexit press hammered home the same message that Labour had no answer to Johnson’s “oven ready” deal to exit the European Union.
“Laughable, Mr Corbyn” was the Daily Mail’s banner headline (20.11.2019) over its report that Corbyn had refused “nine times to say if he’d back a Brexit deal – to mocking derision of studio audience”.
When the BBC Question Time debate (22.11.2019) provoked jeers and hollow laughter for both Johnson and Corbyn the tabloids could call on another “oven ready” routine for lambasting Labour while lauding the Conservatives.
The main news line was that Corbyn revealed that if he became Prime Minister, he would personally remain neutral in a second referendum while the country voted on a future EU trade deal to be negotiated by an incoming Labour government.
“Jeers as Corbyn vows to dodge Brexit question” (Daily Express, 23.11.2019) was the top line for the Brexit press ridiculing him for an “abject failure of leadership”. (Daily Telegraph)
“Tragic Grandpa” was the Sun’s verdict on a “shell shocked” Corbyn “ripped apart by an angry tv audience”.
By contrast “Firm PM weathers BBC bias” was the Sun’s headline over its report alongside about how Johnson kept his cool and fended off a “lefty crowd...an audience packed full of students and public sector workers”.
Readers might have been puzzled by the fact that this same audience jeered both Corbyn and Johnson, but the paper said the blame lay with the BBC as host Fiona Bruce and the Prime Minister were “heckled by watching Labour supporters”.
On this occasion, the Sun ignored snap surveys of viewers and relied instead on a poll of Sun readers which indicated 52 per cent support for Johnson.
Determined as ever to pursue its campaign to try to erode the BBC’s credibility, the Sun on Sunday (24.11.2019) claimed to have identified an audience member who spoke up in support of Corbyn. He was a “red Jez activist” – further proof of BBC bias in audience selection.
Turning any set-back in a tv appearance by a Tory party leader into an attack on the BBC is a tried and tested formula and has again been brought into sharp focus given the extensive coverage for the election debates.
Illustrations: Daily Express, 20.11.2019; Daily Mail, 20.11.2019; The Times, 20.11.2019.