Corbyn may be right not to respect a media establishment that has shown little signs of respecting him but he urgently needs a strategy with which to confront it writes Des Freedman
The attacks on the Corbyn camp from parts of the British establishment have come in thick and fast – entirely as expected given that his overwhelming success was partly predicated on a desire to challenge establishment rule. His resounding victory in the leadership election was greeted by headlines arguing that he was a ‘danger to Britain’ (Daily Express), that his union friends were plotting ‘strike chaos’ (Daily Mail and Telegraph), that he was planning to scrap the army (Sun) and that his victory was responsible for dividing the Labour Party (Times).
In the last few days, the Telegraph has called Corbyn’s shadow chancellor a ‘nutjob’ (the journalist has since apologised), the Sun has attempted to smear him for seeking public funds for Labour (a claim that has been comprehensively refuted) while many front pages condemned his refusal to sing the national anthem (a rather bizarre claim given that Corbyn himself is a known republican). Immediately after his victory, the Conservatives, having initially dismissed Corbyn as a joke, produced a video describing Labour as a ‘threat to our national security’ with Cameron himself tweeting that Labour ‘is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security’. This is class war – even more vicious than the class war with which Corbyn himself has been associated.
Frustratingly for these hacks, Corbyn is playing hard-to-get. Having turned down the opportunity to appear on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday in favour of attending a mental health fundraiser (all the more significant given the Telegraph’s headline), he then had the temerity to announce key shadow cabinet appointments on Sunday night – keeping journalists up past their bedtime and not playing ball with their deadlines.
This refusal to adopt a business-as-usual attitude towards the media is deliberate. It is not just New Labour policies but also New Labour’s relationship with the media that have been buried by Corbyn’s victory. Unlike Tony Blair, Corbyn has decided that he has little to gain from cooperating with a media culture that, by and large, will marginalise, misrepresent or simply mock what he says. Indeed, he highlighted the abuse of media power in his very first speech as Labour leader where he warned journalists not to ‘attack people who didn’t ask to be put in the limelight’. Instead, he is determined to shape his own message and to use those channels – notably social media – that allow him to communicate directly with supporters and voters.
For some commentators, this is a high-risk approach. The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade interprets Corbyn’s silence as evidence that he has ‘no media strategy’ while Owen Jones, one of his most sympathetic allies, has urged him to ‘go on a media offensive’ in order to define himself and not simply be defined by his foes. These are important points but the problem, as both of them know all too well, is that news is not a neutral and transparent space but one framed by the agendas and priorities of those at the top – whether they are billionaire proprietors or humble editors internalising the views of those around them. As Peter Oborne put it back when he was the political editor of the Telegraph, a highly unequal society means that ‘British journalists will almost always favour the rich, powerful and glamorous over the poor, weak and unfashionable.’
Of course, Corbyn has actually been far from silent. He has taken his anti-austerity message up and down the country, hoping that his presence in front of tens of thousands of people at public meetings will generate the kind of buzz – online and offline – that is worth more than an interview with John Humphreys or Andrew Marr in which he is painted as the ‘extremist’ while they ask ‘probing’ questions about the ‘divisiveness’ of his ‘radical’ programme.
This is the precisely the advice offered to Corbyn by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in his recent visit to London where heinsisted that ‘the media can be bypassed if the message is right and if sincerity defeats hypocrisy’. That is the lesson of Syriza (at least in its success in getting elected in the face of media opposition) and in the Scottish Referendum where a huge vote for independence was secured despite the indifference or outright hostility of the vast majority of what is called the ‘mainstream media’.
Corbyn shouldn’t pander to the routines of Lobby journalists nor should he organise policy development simply around what will ‘play well’ with leader writers and broadcast journalists standing outside Number 10. Instead, he needs to focus on the anti-austerity politics that secured his victory and that energised so many new supporters. His priority now is to communicate with the public more broadly using all the channels that are available to him – from the biggest talk shows to the most local bloggers – and not to privilege those titles desperate to undermine him.
If he does this, he may find that, despite a continuing reluctance to understand both his politics and his success – perhaps best exemplified by Panorama’s tabloid assault in the final week of the campaign – at least some of the mainstream media may then feel the need to take him more seriously and to report on a vibrant anti-austerity narrative. Could it be that, in those circumstances, we might expect a greater number of thoughtful pieces in some surprising places, such as those by Mary Riddell in the Telegraph and Damian McBride in the Mail that followed his leadership victory?
However, even if Corbyn was to ‘sidestep’ the mainstream media and focus on more direct ways of communicating with the public, there remains a huge problem. Just as Corbyn would not want to ‘sidestep’ the power of the banks or of the private sector in health or education, why would he want to ‘sidestep’ the serious issue of unaccountable and concentrated media power? Forthcoming research from the Media Reform Coalition is set to show that, despite claims about the internet delivering more plurality, every sector of the UK media landscape is dominated by a handful of for-profit corporations – whether it is Google for search, BSkyB for pay TV, the six companies who account for 81% of local newspaper revenue or the four companies who make up a similar share of national newspaper circulation. The BBC, designed to be a counterweight to commercial media, is itself facing massive cuts and appears to have little appetite for standing up to the government or providing an alternative to the consensus on austerity at such a challenging time.
Given the continuing ability of a tiny number of powerful traditional media organisations to set agendas that reach the vast majority of the population – whether via Facebook, Twitter or News at Ten – we need to highlight more than ever the ‘anti democratic virulence of Britain’s tax-dodging media monopolists’ (as Seamus Milne so elegantly calls them). Hundreds of thousands of people voted for Corbyn in the hope that he would lead an uncompromising opposition to inequality, poverty and war and they would welcome a challenge to a media which, by and large, has been intimately associated with neoliberal policies. Corbyn may be right not to respect a media establishment that has shown little signs of respecting him but he urgently needs a strategy with which to confront it.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
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