Those journalists who should have been behind Corbyn from the start – who could have been among his few allies as he battled the corporate media for nearly two years as Labour leader – are now starting to eat humble pie. Polls suggest that Corbyn may be gradually turning the election around, to the point where the latest poll, published in the Times, indicates that Britain could be heading for a hung parliament.
No one is surprised that the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Times have been relentless in their hatchet jobs on Corbyn. But it has been disconcerting for the left that the Guardian and BBC never gave him a chance either. He was in their gun-sights from day one.
Owen Jones, a Labour stalwart and Guardian columnist, should have been Corbyn’s number one ally in the press. And yet he used the invaluable space in his columns not to challenge the media misrepresentations, but to reinforce them. He engaged in endless and morose navel-gazing, contemplating a Labour rout.
In an Evening Standard interview in February, he imparted the following wisdom: “Things change but only if people will it to be.” But then almost immediately ignored his own advice, saying that if another Labour leadership election were held: “I’d find it hard to vote for Corbyn.”
In eary May, Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian’s most senior columnist, wrote a commentary entitled: “No more excuses: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for this meltdown.” In fact, though he did not mention it, he had been making that very same argument for the previous two years.
But as Corbyn has begun chipping away at Theresa May’s lead – and equally significantly, forced the media to widen the public debate into political territory it has avoided for nearly four decades – Freedland finally admitted this week, very reluctantly, that he and others may have misjudged the Labour leader.
Freedland’s reassessment, however painfully made, was still an evasion. He and Jones continue to avoid facing up to the central problem of British politics – and must do, because they are at its very heart.
The lesson of Corbyn’s much-improved polling, according to Freedland, is this:
If May is returned with a Commons presence far below the expectations of even a month ago, it will suggest that one more bit of conventional wisdom needs to be retired along with all the rest. It will prove that campaigns matter.
But that is not the real lesson. The turnaround in Labour’s fortunes is not chiefly about the party getting its act together, staying on-message and communicating better with the media. Rather, it is that the formal requirements of an election campaign – equal coverage, reporting the speeches of candidates, leaders’ debates – have made it much harder for the media, especially the broadcasters, to entirely obscure Corbyn’s winning qualities. His honesty, warmth and humanity eclipse May’s stiff, evasive and charmless demeanour.
It was precisely those qualities in Corbyn that proved so attractive to voters in the Labour leadership elections. He inspires a rare passion for politics when he is heard. That is why he is the only politician filling stadiums. That is why the Labour party now has hundreds of thousands of members, making it the largest party in Europe. That is why young people have been registering for the election in record numbers.
The demographic breakdown of support for Corbyn and May is largely generational. Corbyn enjoys a huge lead among young people, while May can rely on overwhelming backing from those aged over-65.
It may be comforting to imagine this is simply the natural order of things. Radicalism is the preserve of those starting out in life, while old age encourages caution and conservatism. This may be one factor in explaining the generational divide, but it clearly will not suffice. In much of the post-Thatcher era, the young have proved to be even more conservative than their parents.
The reason for the Corbyn-May split has to be found elsewhere.
The fact is that the young are least likely to trust the traditional, corporate media, and most likely to seek out information from alternative sources and social media, which have been fairer to Corbyn. Youtube clips of Corbyn’s speeches, for example, are one way to bypass the corporate media.
Conversely, elderly voters are mostly still relying on the BBC, Sky and the Daily Mail for the bulk of their information about politics. The over-65s have little sense of who Corbyn is apart from what they are told by a media deeply wedded to the current neoliberal order he is threatening to disrupt.
But neither Freedland nor Jones has been prepared to admit that all of the corporate media – not just their trusted scapegoat of the “rightwing press” – have been to blame for preventing Corbyn getting a fair hearing. It is an admission they cannot make because it would expose their own complicity in a media system designed to advance the interests of corporate power over people power, oligarchy over democracy.
A desire to avoid facing this simple truth has led to some quite preposterously contorted reasoning by Freedland. In a commentary before his recent reappraisal of Corbyn, he dismissed suggestions that the media had played any significant role in the Labour leader’s troubles. Freedland cited two focus groups he had witnessed. It is worth quoting the section at length to understand quite how ridiculous his logic is.
With no steer from the moderator, who remained studiedly neutral, they described Jeremy Corbyn as a “dope”, “living in the past”, “a joke”, as “looking as if he knows less about it than I do”. One woman admired Corbyn’s sincerity; one man thought his intentions were good. But she reckoned he lacked “the qualities to be our leader”; and he believed Corbyn was simply too “soft”. …
Corbyn’s defenders will blame the media, but what was striking about these groups was that few of the participants ever bought a paper and they seldom watched a TV bulletin. Corbynites may try to blame disloyal MPs, but, whatever its impact elsewhere, none of that Westminster stuff had impinged on either of these two groups, who couldn’t name a single politician besides May, Corbyn and Boris Johnson. They had formed their own, perhaps instinctive, view.
Blaming others won’t do.
How do people form an “instinctive view” on political matters, if they never read a paper, never watch TV and never attend a political rally? Through the ethers?
The answer should be obvious. They can do so only through conversations with, or impressions gained from, family, friends, acquaintances and work colleagues who do watch TV and read papers. Given that it is impossible for most voters to see Corbyn in the flesh, most are either getting their information and opinions directly mediated for them by the media, or receiving the mediated information second-hand, from people they know who have been influenced by the media.
Freedland’s assumption that it is possible for voters to form a view instinctively that Corbyn is a “dope” – the view of him that has been uniformly cultivated by the media – is laughable. It is evidence of a profound unwillingness to confront the power of the media, and his own irresponsible complicity in wielding that power.
Corbyn is a “dope” not because that’s the way he’s seen by voters. He is a “dope” because that is the way he has been characterised for two years by all of the media, including the Guardian. The fact that a growing number of voters are starting to question whether Corbyn is quite the dope they assumed is because he has finally had a chance to talk to voters directly, even if in the leaders’ debate Jeremy Paxman did his best to prevent Corbyn from forming a complete sentence.
If we had a fair, pluralistic media driven primarily by the desire to serve the public’s interests rather than those of corporations, who can doubt that Corbyn would be winning hands-down in the polls?