Labour’s travails with the media are more deadly than it thinks
‘People don’t vote for a divided party; we’ve got to learn some lessons about how we handle the media.’
So said John McDonnell during a recent LSE lecture, and frankly amen to that. Five months in, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has formed a relationship of sorts with the press, but it remains an uneasy one.
Talk to lobby journalists and the complaint is not, as Corbyn’s loyal fans imagine, that the wrong guy won. It is that the leader’s inner circle do not understand what reporters want.
The rehiring last month of formerly disgraced spin doctor Damian McBride to advise Emily Thornberry will be welcomed by many hacks – if not by the colleagues McBride sometimes briefed against – on the grounds that at least he knows a story when he sees one.
Forget the comforting fiction that Corbyn would be polling over 40 per cent if only the wicked Murdoch press/BBC/mainstream media were not out to get him. Nothing good comes of blaming everyone but yourself for being unpopular, and, while a fierce sense of being oppressed by the establishment is hardwired into large parts of the left, there is something faintly surreal about claiming victimisation by the rightwing press even as it moves on to ripping the Tories apart over Europe.
The truth is that newspapers thrive commercially by reflecting, not driving, readers’ opinions of individual politicians, and often fall flat on their faces when attempting the latter. Neither Rupert Murdoch nor Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre ever rated David Cameron much – the Daily Mail twice backed Ken Clarke for leader, which did not end well – but so long as their readers liked him, he got a relatively easy ride. Watch them turn the minute that that is no longer the case.
That said, Corbynistas are right in their complaint that the rightwing press outguns the leftwing press in terms of newspaper market share. And, with the closure of both Independent print titles, the number of sympathetic outlets for Labour has further reduced.
Social media is an increasingly important news source for the JezWeCan generation but Twitter, the liberal left’s favourite meeting place, is shedding users. The BBC is watched and trusted by millions, and since it is statutorily obliged to be impartial, is crucial to levelling an otherwise uneven playing field. But it too faces a potentially existential threat from the licence fee review, a bigger picture seemingly lost on Corbynistas haranguing any BBC reporter deemed insufficiently respectful of their hero.
And all this fits into a worrying bigger picture for the groups and institutions Labour has traditionally worked alongside to amplify its voice. Charities’ political activity is being limited by legislation, trade unions undermined, public interest litigation constrained by legal aid cutbacks. The liberal left is basically learning how it felt to be a Conservative in the 1990s: marginalised, defensive, feeling the argument slip away from you. It is a dangerous time for the Labour party to retreat into self-pity.
New shadow culture secretary Maria Eagle is right to start by pledging to defend the BBC, and she has her reasons for making the full implementation of the Leveson inquiry a priority. But Corbyn should be extremely wary of expending goodwill he does not have on starting a war over media plurality. It was a huge issue in the 1990s, when Tony Blair rather ingloriously sidestepped it, but times have changed; the coming threat to the liberal media’s survival is not Murdoch but the internet, currently threatening to put everyone out of business.
Which leaves the awkward question of how to tackle the Sun. Team Corbyn must be sorely tempted just to wash their hands of it, given the paper’s aggressively personal attacks on him. But one in four Sun readers and one in six Daily Mail readers vote Labour; they cannot just be ignored, like embarrassing relatives.
Retreating to your safe space, whining that no other politician ever had it so tough – as if the Sun had not also flayed Neil Kinnock and portrayed William Hague as a dead parrot, as if Gordon Brown was not asked live on television if he was taking pills for depression – changes nothing.
Objecting to specific stories that overstep the mark can work; many Daily Mail readers quietly agreed with Ed Miliband that their paper’s attacks on his late father were spiteful. But objecting to the very existence of these papers is pointless when millions of Britons enjoy reading them. Better to try and understand why than recoil from the people you supposedly seek to represent.
For purists, the mere idea of running an effective press operation sounds like everything the new politics was trying to escape. But conveying your message effectively to the public is not a betrayal of Labour principles; it is just a means of expressing them. Ken Livingstone was as canny a manipulator of public opinion in his day as Peter Mandelson and it did not make him any less radical, just more successful than his ideological fellow travellers.
The coming challenge for Labour, meanwhile, is not getting a fair hearing so much as being heard at all. Already infighting in the parliamentary party is becoming accepted as the norm, barely worth reporting unless it is big. I remember a similar feeling in the Tory wilderness years, when lobby hacks simply got used to tripping over Tory rebels every time we moved. But if the rows soon faded from the front page, so did Tory policy ideas. It was obvious they were never going to win the election, so why waste space analysing things that realistically were not going to happen?
As the novelty of Corbyn fades Labour will face the same battle against irrelevance, the same uphill job to get in the papers. And the same creeping realisation (ask a Liberal Democrat, if you do not believe me) that the only thing worse than a daily mauling from the papers is the slow living death of just being ignored.
Gaby Hinsliff is a columnist at the Guardian
This article originally appeared in the International Women’s Day special edition guest-edited by broadcaster and former adviser to Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman, Ayesha Hazarika.
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