The novel A Very British Coup, written by left-wing MP Chris Mullin in 1982, details a plot between MI5, the civil service and a willing British press to discredit and ultimately remove from office a left-wing Labour Prime Minister. The media’s vilification of Jeremy Corbyn did not, to anyone’s knowledge, go quite that far – after all, he never actually became Prime Minister. I do not mean to advance some grand conspiracy about the ‘deep state’ and the ‘establishment’, (both nebulous terms used by those who cannot bear responsibility for their own political failures) but it is pertinent to draw attention to the quite spectacular campaign mounted by the press against Corbyn and his comrades.
I am no particular fan of Corbyn; I did not vote for him once and could not imagine myself doing so. However, this does not stop me from being deeply concerned about his treatment at the hands of the print media in particular. The press’ willingness to print whatever negative stories about him they could find while helpfully parroting the strap-lines of the Conservatives across editorials and columns was blatant and increased in ferocity after the 2017 election. Until then, the press assumed their warnings of a ‘hard-left’ Labour party would be enough to discourage the electorate from voting for Corbyn and it was only his near-miss in that election, driven as much by the ineptitude of the Conservatives as any particular fondness for his policy programme, which seemed to alert the media to the potential of him becoming Prime Minister. The owners of the national print press are unsurprisingly as hostile to Corbyn as he is to them. Their status as billionaires with an extensive platform from which to express their opinions and self-interest made them a natural target for the anti-establishment Corbyn.
The inbuilt hostility to Corbyn manifested itself in a number of ways, and I must take this opportunity to note that I do not refer to allegations of anti-Semitism within the Labour party, nor investigative work around Corbyn’s friendships and poor judgement on this issue, where Labour clearly have some kind of blind spot. The example which springs most immediately to my mind is the accusation, which was later convincingly portrayed as untrue, that Corbyn was a Czech intelligence agent during the Cold War. These allegations, made by a former Czech spy, were carried in The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Times. When Conservative MP Ben Bradley, presumably inspired by the reports, tweeted that Corbyn had ‘sold British secrets’ during the Cold War he was forced to apologise in the face of legal action from Corbyn, and yet the papers continued to rake through any and all accusations against Corbyn.
This is not to say that Corbyn was without fault – his handling of the media has always been hostile – and it is certainly not to say that the British people would have elected him in a media vacuum, given the general view, including among his own colleagues, that his manifesto was unachievable. However, the press’ quest to present an ultra-pacifist, eccentric MP as a security threat would be laughable were it not sinister. Of the four papers I mentioned earlier as carrying the Czech allegations, two are owned by Rupert Murdoch, one by non-dom billionaire Viscount Rothermere and one by the Barclay brothers, whose businesses have also been accused of tax avoidance. The link is clear – these men thought it was in their interests to thwart Jeremy Corbyn and were happy to publish whatever negative stories about him they could.
The question for the left is not whether the press environment is explicitly hostile towards them – it is. While broadcast media is generally less hostile and provocative, regular interactions between the left and the print media - through paper reviews and interviews with columnists - only serves to spread the work of the papers further. The left instead needs to consider how it operates, both within and beyond, this environment. I don’t see the left’s ‘alternative media’ as the solution – the alternate roles of its ‘journalists’ as high-profile activists is too blatant and it makes it easy for them to be laughed off, while sites like The Canary are frequently guilty of publishing mistruths and exaggerations with impunity. Attacking the media is tempting, but it can backfire easily against such implacable opposition.
The answer, in my view, can be found by looking afresh at New Labour. Blair in particular was careful to cultivate positive relationships with the media, and as a result was able to deliver far more ‘for the many’ in a day than the Corbyn project has achieved thus far, as powerfully noted by Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland in the immediate aftermath of the election. The policies do not have to be Blair’s, but the attitude and exasperation of Corbyn cannot provide the answer. Labour can only win by convincing the media to give them a fair hearing, by at least appearing to operate from the centre-ground.
Image: Tim Mossholder// Unsplash