Corbyn in the Media

Paul Myerscough

‘Corb snubs the queen,’ ran the headline on the front page of the Sun on 16 September, in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s tight-lipped participation in the singing of the national anthem at a commemoration of the Battle of Britain. The Times led with ‘Veterans open fire after Corbyn snubs anthem,’ the Telegraph with ‘Corbyn snubs queen and country.’ Three days into the job as leader of the Labour Party and already he wasn’t doing it right. What colour poppy, white or red, would he wear to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day? Would he kneel to the queen when he was admitted to the Privy Council (see Martin Loughlin’s piece on p. 29)? On the day after he was elected, he spoke at a mental health trust fun day in his constituency instead of going on the Andrew Marr Show. Later that day he was filmed as he hurried along the pavement outside Westminster in silence, refusing to answer reporters’ questions: it ‘looked like a perp walk’, Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian.

‘He isn’t playing the game,’ the Times journalist Jenni Russell complained on Newsnight. It was a metaphor, and it wasn’t. Corbyn was being tested: not on his policies, which have hardly been at issue so far, but on his willingness and capacity to play the role of modern political leader. Would he – could he? – perform the countless vital tasks that come naturally to David Cameron or Tony Blair: everything from how to comport yourself at the despatch box to the best way to climb out of a chauffeur-driven car, from how to use an autocue to knowing which pop band to choose on Desert Island Discs. If you don’t know which tie to wear with which suit, let alone what to say when you are asked whether you would be willing to press the Button if it ever came to it, how can you expect to be taken seriously in the Oval Office, or by the chief of the defence staff, or by swing voters in Nuneaton?

This, the ceaseless work of appearing plausible, is one part of what is meant by electability. The other part is actual policy. Yet this, too, is a matter of seeming, especially for an opposition leader, especially for this opposition leader. The media coverage of Corbyn’s first few days oscillated giddily between stories demonstrating his personal insufficiencies for the role of leader and wailing about what might happen were he ever to become prime minister: ‘Unions threaten chaos after Corbyn win’ (Telegraph); ‘Abolish the Army: New leader’s potty plan for world peace’ (Sun); ‘Comrade Corbyn’s access to security secrets’ (Daily Mail). There will, of course, be more, much more, of this from the right-wing press. In the Sun, ‘Court Jezter’; in the Telegraph, ‘Jeremy Corbyn must be stopped: The Labour Party and the country need rescuing from his dangerous campaign.’ The better Corbyn does, the worse it will get; the worse he does, the worse it will get. Fear and loathing on the one hand, derision on the other.

The more puzzling case is the Guardian. Anyone rooting for Corbyn at the start of the summer had reason to think that Kath Viner’s appointment a few months earlier as the paper’s editor-in-chief was propitiously timed. She had the backing of the leftists on the staff; she would surely be more open to the ‘new politics’ than the paper would have been under Alan Rusbridger. It hasn’t worked out that way. What started with denial, as the unions and constituency Labour Parties came out for Corbyn and people registered as supporters in their tens of thousands, soon turned to horror, and finally to stunned resignation. A scattering of dissident voices on the payroll – Seumas Milne, Owen Jones, Zoe Williams, George Monbiot – were drowned out by a host of detractors, from within the paper and without: Tim Bale, Nick Cohen, Anne Perkins, Michael White, Martin Kettle, Peter Hain, Alan Johnson, Tony Blair (twice), Jonathan Jones, Frank Field, David Miliband (whose razor-sharp instinct for leadership contests led him to back Liz Kendall), Steve Coogan, Matthew D’Ancona, Betty Boothroyd.

Papers aren’t just papers any longer. A lot of these commentaries appeared online, some of them only online, where they are now archived among the thousands of articles the Guardian has published on Corbyn or the leadership campaign in the last four months. There it can be seen from the headlines just how much of the day to day news coverage sought to hold back the Corbyn tide. On 20 August alone, with his victory all but certain: ‘Corbyn has until May to prove himself, Labour MPs say’; ‘Dyab Abou Jahjah: the Arab “extremist” causing problems for Jeremy Corbyn’; ‘Corbyn has the vision, but his numbers don’t yet add up’; ‘Corbyn is no Trotskyist, Watson insists’; ‘Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitic claims’; ‘Corbyn’s Iraq War apology will do him good – if not Labour’; and ‘Rupert Murdoch predicts Corbyn win.’

Above all this, throwing it into the shade and into context, were the contributions of the Guardian’s big beasts, Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Freedland. Toynbee began by comprehensively misreading the moment, refusing to believe that party activists who had ‘heard what people said on the doorsteps’ about Miliband and the deficit would vote for Corbyn. ‘My hunch,’ she wrote on 23 July, ‘is Cooper is the one to beat.’ As reality set in, her hunch became a plea, in which she was joined by the paper itself: in its editorial of 13 August, the Guardian came out for the ‘steadfast’ Cooper. These editorials, the commissioning and presumably sometimes the writing of them, are part of Freedland’s empire as ‘executive editor, Comment’. Whoever wrote this one, evidently with Viner’s sanction, echoed Freedland’s sentiments in the only intervention he made under his own name during the campaign, to warn against the ‘purity of impotence’: ‘The Corbyn tribe cares about identity not power.’

By disdaining those who refused to face the necessity of choosing ‘purity or power’ – Martin Kettle this time – the Guardian’s central cadre of electoral realists fail to recognise that the 49.6 per cent of Labour Party members (and 83.8 per cent of registered supporters) who voted for Corbyn didn’t believe that Burnham, Cooper or Kendall offered a better chance of electoral success in 2020 than Brown managed in 2010 or Ed Miliband did earlier this year. Indeed they didn’t believe that, in a changing political landscape, their man necessarily stood a worse chance in 2020 than Burnham, Cooper or Kendall would have. They were not, as Freedland suggested, along with Helen Lewis in the New Statesman and Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times, merely indulging a fit of narcissism or nostalgia. The party members who voted for Corbyn hadn’t suddenly thrown their toys out of the pram just because Miliband lost. This is not a story of the last five years, but the last twenty, and their disillusionment with New Labour is about a great deal more than the Iraq War. For them, Miliband was not ‘too left-wing’; on the contrary, he was a final attempt at compromise. And when it failed, they realised they had had enough. It was too difficult to go on knocking on doors, summoning the necessary conviction, working towards the slim possibility of victory in the hope of implementing a platform of ever-weakening amelioration of the worst effects of neoliberalism. They looked at the candidates on offer, and saw that they had nothing left to lose.

The result of all this is that the Guardian now finds itself in the uncomfortable position, journalistically as well as politically, of being outflanked on its left by the Labour Party. Unless it can find common ground with Corbyn’s supporters – not just the sixty thousand who have joined the party since he was elected, but the tens of thousands more who registered to vote for him and the others, many of them young, who will be gathered up by his network of campaigners in the next months and years – the paper will remain cut off from Labour, and from a new generation of potential readers. For the moment, it is adrift. Toynbee’s latest word on Corbyn is that with his answer on the Button – ‘No, never’ – he may already have ‘ruled himself out of ever becoming prime minister’.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The Guardian, like the Telegraph, can hardly be said to have much influence beyond its own politically well-defined readership. Perhaps, as Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, pointed out recently, it is otiose for people to complain about the influence of newspapers when none of the broadsheets is read by more than 1 per cent of the adult population and even the Mail reaches only 3 per cent. But that isn’t how influence works. The media do not merely generate the political weather. They play a large part in creating the climate in which information is received and understood. A notion such as ‘electability’, to take the example at hand, is unthinkable without the media, which, in their every representation of a political leader, ask (and supply the authorities to help us decide) not only who is and is not electable, but what should be the criteria by which electability is judged.

The hegemon in this respect, as Nelson acknowledges, is not the Guardian, or even the Daily Mail, but the BBC. And because of its place in the national life, because of its dominant role in people’s reception of news and commentary, because of its freedom from commercial influence and its editorial doctrine of independence and impartiality, accusations of political bias in its coverage of news and current affairs are always with us. Studies of bias typically go in for a lot of counting; for what it’s worth, a Cardiff University study last year showed that the BBC was more likely than ITV or Channel 4 to use sources from the right than from the left. Recently, Aditya Chakrabortty, one of the Guardian’s true live wires, highlighted another Cardiff study, of the Today programme’s coverage of the banking crisis in 2008, showing that one in three of its interviewees in a six-week period was from the banking sector, with the ‘rest of British society – politicians, regulators, campaigners – far down the pecking order’.

But the numbers will only get you so far. Bias isn’t just a matter of ‘source access’. The causes of the BBC’s institutional bias aren’t just a matter, either, of the backgrounds and educations of the people who work there, or the politics of the journalists involved: the fact that Andrew Neil, the presenter of Daily Politics and This Week, was the editor of the Sunday Times in the Thatcher period; or that Evan Davis, the presenter of Newsnight, was part of the team at the Institute of Fiscal Studies that devised the poll tax; or that the policy editor of Newsnight, Chris Cook, used to be an adviser to David Willetts; or that Nick Robinson, shortly to replace James Naughtie on Today, was once president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Doubtless most of the time these men do a bang-up job, suspending their personal beliefs in the service of professional integrity. Nor, in its manifestations, can bias best be measured by the corporation’s excesses, such as John Ware’s Panorama hit-job on Corbyn broadcast three days before voting closed in the leadership election (Ware sneering about Corbyn’s ‘friends’ over unidentified footage of Hizbullah soldiers marching in black balaclavas). It’s more a matter of the everyday, the gradual accretion of decisions taken and declined, the issues thought worthy of discussion, in what order, in what way and by whom, a line of questioning, an inflection in the voice: unquantifiable things which form the ideological weave of broadcasting as much as headlines and the arrangement of text and images on a page do of print.

Still, there is something crasser than this in the way the BBC has treated Corbyn so far. I will take just one example. David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 7 October was shown live on Andrew Neil’s Daily Politics. As the speech ended, Neil turned for a first reaction to his studio guest, Michael Heseltine, who after he went to the Lords in 2001 backed Cameron’s election as leader in 2005 and more recently carried out an audit of the UK’s strategy for economic growth for George Osborne. ‘It was,’ Heseltine said, ‘one of the most visionary speeches by a Conservative leader that I’ve listened to, but beyond any question it was the most courageous.’ A week earlier, over the sound of the applause following Corbyn’s inaugural speech as leader to the Labour Party Conference, Neil went through the same routine, asking his studio guest for his first impression, which was, therefore, the first impression conveyed by the BBC. This time the guest was Lance Price, former special adviser to Tony Blair. ‘I’m sorry,’ answered Price, ‘I wanted to be as positive as I could be about his speech. I’m not a fan of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, so what I have to say won’t come as a huge surprise. I had low expectations and this fell well, well below them. It was a truly dreadful speech.’ ‘That bad?’ Neil marvelled.

Such moments of breakdown in the BBC’s editorial principles are a consequence not of the imposition of a producer’s or presenter’s personal views, but of the dislocation that Corbyn’s election has produced between the new state of party politics and the broadcaster’s entrenched conception of what constitutes impartiality. Because its notion of political balance between left and right is defined by the Labour and Conservative Parties, its spectrum of opinion has narrowed and its fulcrum drifted to the right in concert with New Labour. Corbyn has reopened the gap, but the BBC has not adjusted. So far as it is concerned, with his election the Labour leadership has put itself beyond the pale. Its norm remains a ‘balance’ between the Tories and the Labour right. By defining himself against the establishment, Corbyn becomes an outsider, an insurgent, who can be discussed ‘fairly’ by the BBC only in the way that, say, Radio 5 Live can ‘fairly’ cover England’s opponents at the World Cup, or the way the Today programme talks ‘fairly’ about Syrian refugees. One should be respectful towards them, but they remain irrevocably other. Meanwhile, when the BBC wants to discuss Corbyn, its instinct is to call in Kenneth Clarke and John McTernan.

‘Britain and Twitter aren’t the same thing,’ Cameron said in his conference speech, by way of explaining why the pundits had got the May election so wrong. Cameron seems unruffled by #piggate (see also #hameron, #baeofpigs), but where once a Tory leader’s target would have been the Guardian, or the BBC, Cameron knows that at present he has nothing to fear from them. He also knows, though, that his own shrinking, ageing party isn’t geared to take advantage of social media, and that Corbyn’s success will continue to depend not least on how effectively he can combine the oldest and newest forms of campaigning: digital networks with town-hall meetings. The mainstream media will remain stony ground.