There is no reason why any attentive socialist should be surprised at the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn by the British media. Angry yes, surprised no.
The great majority of the print media is after all Tory. The very rare exceptions to that rule purvey a peculiarly tepid form of liberalism which holds that growing income inequality and poverty are very bad things, but that the collective working class action which would reverse it is, on balance, the greater evil. Across the entire national press only the Daily Mirror has shown consistent support for Labour.
Much of the reaction to Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, is therefore, just the latest chapter in a very long story. Michael Foot was a scruffy, doddering old dreamer whose donkey jacket insulted our war dead. For Keir Hardie the offending article of clothing was a deerstalker hat. Neil Kinnock was a “Welsh windbag”. Ed Miliband a nerd defeated by a bacon sandwich.
The British press don’t like Labour and trade union leaders and the less compliant and deferential they are the more vehemently they must be vilified. The media’s essential role in these situations is, and always has been, to teach working class representatives to know their place.
There are, however, some unique features to the treatment of Corbyn. For one thing it’s nastier — he is an anti-semite, a friend of terrorists and “a threat to the security of your family”.
For another the attack on Corbyn is fed and sustained openly by leading figures in his own party on a scale that is unprecedented. Labour has a history of internal debate and difference which can be healthy and even invigorating but can also easily be portrayed as disunity and lack of direction. It was Gerald Kaufman (now lauded for his willingness to call out Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians) who famously described the Labour manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history” during the 1983 election campaign.
What is unprecedented is that the assault on Corbyn has been co-ordinated and led by the entire New Labour establishment and started within hours of his overwhelming election victory.
A victory, we should remember, which he won comfortably among full party members as well as registered supporters and during which he secured the largest number of CLP nominations.
Blair, Straw, Blunkett, Charles Clarke and Mandelson, to name only a few, have been happy to feed the anti-Labour press hostile Corbyn stories on a daily basis and to appear on TV and radio to declare his (and that means Labour’s) unelectability. Most of the “unelectable” stories so far have been based not on polls but on evidence-free assertions by embittered Blairites. Talk of coups to remove elected leaders is common enough but it usually emerges after some years in office and in response to disastrous election results. In Corbyn’s case the plotting began before he was even elected and was openly fed to the right-wing press.
Jeremy Corbyn’s secret weapon in this battle is, however, also unprecedented. So far he has refused to play the game. In part his counter-measures are symbolic; (dressing casually, refusing demands for interviews and comment, innovating with PMQs) but there is something much more substantial and interesting going on too.
The simple tactic of arguing for policies and ideas which are outside the Westminster consensus seems to have caught journalists unawares. The standard media interrogation of any Labour politician brave enough to tack to the left in the last 25 years has gone something like this:
Interviewer: you appear to be calling for x but x is a really left-wing old-fashioned idea which even leading people in your own party think is unrealistic and is unpopular with voters. Are you serious?
Labour politician: well I think people have taken my comments out of context, I simply said that we need to think about moving towards a modern version of x.
One of the most refreshing aspects of the last two weeks has been watching a Labour leader say, in effect, “yes I am calling for x and lots of people actually do support it, let me explain why it makes perfect sense. And I intend to use the wider movement outside Parliament to try and persuade my Labour colleagues and voters that it is the right thing to do.”
Over two decades of retreat has trained interviewers to expect defensiveness from any politician of the left. When the response is assertive and principled they don’t know where to go. The big new factor here is a loss of fear of the press — a fear which has for so long paralysed the left. This new courage arises in part from the fact that Corbyn, when he is wrong as well as when he is right, is a politician of principle and belief rather than an opportunist chancer.
It is informed also, though, by the knowledge that the printed press is in decline as the most popular source of news and shaper of opinion, especially amongst the young. In an interview with the Huffington Post Corbyn summed up his attitude to the media as follows:
“MPs are a bit cut off. But if I may say so, some of the editorial rooms in some of our broadsheet newspapers are even more cut off. They simply do not understand what’s going on out there. They just don’t get it. The majority of people don’t buy a newspaper, they read bits online and self-inform online and so we have to reach out in a different way. And our campaign has been very much social media orientated. My personal Twitter account now has 104,000 followers, our Facebook is 124,000 likes. So those kind of numbers are enormous and of course the re-tweeting and re-sending makes it massive.”
The New Labour project brought with it a strategy of neutralising the right-wing press by seeking to win the worst of them over. This entailed the courting of Murdoch, and the public denunciation of all things socialist. The new leadership seems to understand a basic truth — no left party that is any use will win the support of the current British press however cravenly its leader bows before the Queen or loudly he sings the national anthem. Like the rest of the Corbyn phenomena this way of dealing with a hostile media can only succeed long term if it is underpinned by a mass movement. The press will adapt and will not be wrong-footed forever. The left press will be more important than ever in the coming months and years as will the proposal to take the policy debate out to the kind of mass meetings seen during his election campaign.
Blairism demanded and created a quiescent Labour Party, the new situation requires an active, assertive labour movement which draws millions into activity.