Monday, 12 December 2016

Jeremy Corbyn needs a proper media operation

There has certainly been a concerted media onslaught against Jeremy Corbyn since he first became leader of the Labour Party last year.

The objective observer looking in from outside could be forgiven for confusion; with the Labour leader seemingly at times portrayed as both Stalin and Mr Bean to paraphrase Vince Cable’s famous jibe at Gordon Brown.

Some lobby journalists undoubtedly make common cause with those members of the Parliamentary Labour Party membership who organised the coup against Corbyn just after the Brexit vote.

Corbyn critics certainly seem to have been given unlimited access to the press and broadcast media. However, all of that said, Corbyn’s media team really does need a shake-up.

The approach needs to become more professional and pro-active. A number of what could be called public relations gaffes like the failure to sing the national anthem, call for Article 50 to be enacted immediately and mishandling of the Trident nuclear issue at the Labour Party conference could easily have been avoided with a decent media operation.

Also, when the leadership comes under attack is no the time to go silent, as so often seems to happen. 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 pro-activity, questioning the inquisitors own background for instance when it comes to question 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.

Corbyn has the troops available to adopt such an approach, with Thornberry, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and shadow chancellor John McDonnell all well able to take a more assertive approach to setting the agenda

A major problem with the Labour Party communications team is the existence of a siege mentality.

This attitude results in the employment of people based on their loyalty to the leader, rather than an ability to do the job.

It is an attitude quite prevalent in the trade unions.  So it has been interesting to note some of the same communication strategies employed by unions being used by the Corbyn media team.  Maybe not surprising given some of the personnel in the team come direct from the unions.

There is a fixation with social media - something that is becoming increasingly prevalent among union communication operations.

This often amounts to a navel gazing exercise of talking to the converted, resulting in a failure to reach out beyond the core support.

Corbyn supporting writer and columnist Owen Jones urged that social media should only be seen as a complement to targeting the mainstream.

He made the point that most people do not spend their time discussing politics on social media. “Millions of people do get their information about what’s going on in politics from watching a bit of the 10 oclock news, or listening to news on radio,” said Jones, whose claims were backed up by an Ofcom report, News consumption in the UK, which found 78% of adults used television for news, whilst 10% chose Twitter.

Notably when Jones made these points during the last leadership campaign, he was immediately decried by many Corbyn supporters as being a Blairite and not a true believer.

A real sign of the siege mentality attitude of you are with us or against us on show for all to see.

The attitude born of the siege mentality is that the capitalist media are all hostile. This may not be far from the truth but it is no reason to stop trying to communicate.

Previous Labour leaders have all had similar problems with the media but notably in the case of Tony Blair, he recognised the nature of the challenge and brought in Alastair Campbell to build a team to counter the attacks and set the agenda.

Campbell is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially among the Corbynistas, but the point is the need for media professionals, who are equipped to deal with the onslaught.

Notably, the most proficient press operators for party leaders have rarely been outstanding journalists in their own right. They may, as in Campbell’s case, have jumped over the fence from journalism to PR but few have previously been great columnists or investigative reporters.

The mass media does offer an important channel to the voting public – not the only avenue but an important one.

If Labour is serious about winning power, they cannot just ignore the mass media. Not everyone in the mainstream is opposed to the Corbyn agenda.

There are the usual supportive suspects like left commentators Paul Mason and Jones but there is potential in areas like the business pages of many outlets where there is a growing disillusion with the neo-liberal way of doing things.

There is also a genuine belief in much of the media of 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 neo-liberal 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. There are though plenty of subjects, where Labour can start to really make waves such as over the Brexit negotiation and Theresa May’s grammar school policy.

The hostility will continue but that is no reason to stop trying to get the message over. A strongly led media team would also insist on stronger discipline in the Parliamentary Party, even playing an active role in asserting that discipline. 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 pro-active media operation, properly led, is a vital part of getting that message over.

*published in British Journalism Review - Only Themselves to Blame - December 2016

1 comment:

  1. Jeremy Corbyn’s operation could bury good news. It does it regularly. In contrast, Downing Street cynically copies an episode of TV’s The West Wing called “Take Out the Trash Day”
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