The demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn by much of the media over the past year has been something to behold.
The Vince Cable jibe against Gordon Brown that he had gone from Stalin to Mr Bean needs recalibration in the case of Jeremy Corbyn — he’s been variously depicted in the media as both characters at the same time.
The hostility that has greeted his arrival as Labour leader must surely be unprecedented. Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock all endured heavy personal attack from the media. But the assault on Corbyn has reached new levels.
Journalistic Representation of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press, a study focusing on the period from September to November 2015 by the media and communications department at the London School of Economics (LSE), found half of all news articles critical or antagonistic in tone, compared to two-thirds of all editorial and opinion pieces.
There have been dismissive attempts to undermine Corbyn, with the usual personal jibes and claims he will never lead the Labour Party to victory and the LSE study found a delegitimisation process unrolling that involved failing to carry Corbyn’s voice or a distortion of it, ridicule, scorn or personal attacks and seeking to link him with terrorism.
But if he really is no threat to the status quo, and unelectable, why the huge amount of effort made to discredit him?
Remember, nothing put forward by the Corbyn-led Labour Party thus far is to the left of the programmes of the Labour governments of the 1960s and ’70s. The way in which his platform has been attacked shows just how far right the whole agenda has moved over the past four decades.
Corbyn disconcerts many in the media because what you see is what you get. He is not spun but an honest man who voices the socialist principles that he has believed in all his life. He wants to treat the public like grown-ups and debate on the real issues that affect their lives.
Corbyn represents the antithesis of the celebrity style X-factor approach that so often passes for political analysis in the media today. He is rightly not that interested in the childish antics of some inquisitors who seem to think that suitability to lead the country equates to a knowledge of the celeb world of Ant and Dec.
The aggressive antagonistic media approach to Corbyn and his growing support in Labour is difficult to fathom. Regularly, the cry is heard about the lack of people’s interest, especially the young, in politics. But when someone comes along who inspires that very constituency to get involved he and his supporters are vilified.
Even so, the Corbyn team’s approach to the media really does need to change and become more professional and proactive. A number of what could be called public gaffes — like the failure to sing the national anthem and mishandling of the Trident nuclear issue at conference — could easily have been avoided with a good media operation.
And when the leadership comes under attack is not the time to go silent — a more robust approach is needed.
A good example of such an approach came recently with Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, who when quizzed by Sky’s Dermott Murnaghan turned the tables on her inquisitor, accusing him of adopting a pub quiz-type approach.
There could be more of this proactive approach — questioning the inquisitors own background, for instance — when it comes to questions like education and poverty.
On immigration, why not turn the tables and challenge the frame of reference that immigration is a bad thing and success can only be judged in terms of how much numbers can be reduced.
There is a problem within the Labour Party communications team which stretches into other elements of the operation. This amounts to the existence of a siege mentality, an attitude that can result in the employment of people based on their loyalty to the leader, rather than ability to do the job.
The mass media does offer an important channel to the voting public. It’s not the only avenue but it’s an important one and if Labour are serious about winning power, they cannot focus only on social media and ignore the mainstream. Not everyone in the mainstream is opposed to the Corbyn agenda. There are the usual supportive suspects like left commentators Paul Mason and Owen Jones but there is potential in areas like the business pages of many outlets where there is a growing disillusion with the neoliberal way of doing things, not forgetting, of course, the excellent coverage in the Morning Star.
There is also a genuine belief in much of the media in the need for an effective opposition to the government of the day, representing a real alternative. This, after all, is supposed to be a democracy.
The problem for the Corbyn team is to shift that media belief into giving air to a radically alternative ways of doing government. To date, the mainstream has shown itself prepared to support democracy. But this only means, in Labour Party terms, tolerating a neoliberal-lite version of the type represented by Tony Blair. There is still some shifting of the agenda required before a Corbyn style agenda is seen as a real alternative.
The hostility will continue. But that is no reason for the Labour media team to stop trying to get their message over. They need to become more proactive and reach out.
A strongly led media team would also insist on stronger discipline in the parliamentary party, even playing an active role in asserting that discipline.
Quite deliberately, over the past 12 months dissident Labour MPs have created story after story for the media to report of internal bickering and discontent. Quelling this discontent and asserting party discipline will enable Corbyn’s core message to be more seriously considered.
So, yes, it is an uphill task for Labour to communicate its message to the public via the media. But it is not impossible. A more professional and proactive media operation is a vital part of getting that message across.
The re-election of Corbyn as leader strengthens the possibility of communicating that message, though some changes of approach are desperately needed.
* published Morning Star - 14/10/2016