Sun, 23 Feb 2020

After the 1992 UK general election, the Sun's headline famously read: "It's The Sun Wot Won it". The claim referred to the paper's partisan support for the Conservatives during the campaign - including, more crucially, its highly critical coverage of Labour and leader Neil Kinnock - and the perceived impact it had on public opinion, which resulted in a surprise Tory victory.

Despite evidence that they help set the broadcast news agenda, nearly 20 years on the UK national press are often viewed as being less influential in the digital age, particularly when it comes to deciding who the next Labour party leader will be.

Today, the rise of alt-left media sites, such as The Canary and Evolve Politics, have become increasingly important news sources that offer a counter-balance to the largely right-wing UK national press. During the 2017 general election campaign, they often produced articles more widely shared than many established legacy news outlets.

Read more: UK election 2019: how the growing reach of alt-media is shaping the campaign

With the Labour leadership contest now in full swing, our analysis - as part of an ongoing ESRC funded project at Cardiff and Swansea Universities - suggests that alt-left media sites are playing an important role in informing the relatively small proportion of voters in the UK (estimated to include about 500,000 members) who will decide the next leader of the opposition.

After all, these sites attract largely Labour and left-leaning audiences meaning they are likely to be read by people who can influence the outcome of the leadership election. While it might be expected that most alt-left media sites would favour Rebecca Long-Bailey - following her endorsement from Momentum and close connection to the Corbyn project - coverage of the Labour leadership race has been more nuanced.

As yet, no site has positively endorsed a particular candidate or made an explicit preference for one contender in any article. In fact, consistent with how alt-left sites covered the general election campaign, coverage of candidates has largely been more negative than positive.

For example, The Canary has been largely critical of Keir Starmer - who, it said, had "already given people more than enough reasons to mistrust him". According to Canary reporter, Afroze Fatima Zaidi, supporting the shadow Brexit secretary would be "a betrayal". Another piece criticised Starmer's alleged involvement in covering up policing scandals as director of public prosecutions, asking: "Do you trust him to lead the Labour Party"?

In the immediate aftermath of the general election campaign, Novara Media's Aaron Bastani wrote a measured account of Starmer's leadership, but it cast doubt over his campaign staff. The article also drew attention to his lack of support for Corbyn and backing of Owen Smith's leadership campaign which, it said, "raises serious questions about Starmer as a candidate running from the left". The Skwawkbox has also criticised Starmer for his role in the "Chicken Coup".

Much like Starmer, Lisa Nandy has been criticised by The Canary for lacking "presentation skills" and for turning her back on Corbyn's success. Similarly, The Skwawkbox has questioned Nandy's ministerial record and her involvement in the "Chicken Coup". This remains a bone of contention on the left.

But, Nandy has drawn some applause from alternative media commentators for her performances.

Darling of the alt-left?

As the "heir apparent" to Corbyn, Long-Bailey has so far been subject to a more positive review in The Canary, where she has been described as "the most prominent left-wing candidate" and a potential leader who is "apparently seeking to heal the divide that's engulfed the parliamentary party in recent years".

In line with the site's apparent view that Corbyn won the 2019 election's battle of ideas, Long-Bailey's proximity to the Corbyn project appears likely to gain the most favourable coverage among alt-left sites. But she was criticised in Red Roar - a centre-left alt-media site launched in 2018 - for her apparent position on abortion, with the story from the website discussed in UK national broadcast programming, such as the BBC's Politics Live.

A balanced debate?

Given there has been no explicit endorsement for one candidate, alt-left media sites appear to be adopting a more balanced approach to the leadership contest compared to their more routine pro-Labour and anti-Conservative coverage. The Canary, for instance, produced an infographic designed to give "Labour members and supporters a good idea of what the candidates are all about" - although it appeared to favour Long-Bailey.

Similarly, Evolve Politics has begun a series of profiles on each candidate in order to "give Labour members and the general public the full picture". The first profile of Starmer characterised him as respectable but ultimately untrustworthy.

As the election draws closer and the field narrows, it could be that Long-Bailey becomes the candidate of choice among alt-left media sites. She remains the candidate that best represents Corbyn's brand of left-wing politics - which The Canary, Evolve Politics and Skwawkbox have all championed. But alt-left media sites are currently scrutinising a range of candidates, reflecting on their political history, public statements and media performances.

In this respect, after Labour chooses a new leader, it seems unlikely that The Canary - or other alt-left media sites - will claim to have "won it" for a particular candidate. But given that many voters in the Labour leadership contest will be exposed to alt-left media, these sites may well still play a crucial role in deciding who will challenge Boris Johnson at the next general election.

Authors: Declan McDowell-Naylor - Research Associate, School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Cardiff University | Stephen Cushion - Reader, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University The Conversation

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