Monday, 21 September 2015

All to play for: Corbyn, the media and makings of new movement politics

He's made it handsomely over the line, alarmed the establishment, initiated a new parliamentary politics, and pleased many by refusing to sing an anachronistic dirge about saving a feudal relic.

All of which has been met with relentless waves of media denunciation, political abuse and even the threat of an army coup.

But, hard as they've tried, Jeremy Corbyn is now a political reality. So while the party plots and media smears continue, much of the attack line has shifted towards brooding 'acceptance', a play-along game of sniping and derisory comment coupled with all-knowing 'advice' on the survival chances of the Corbyn project.

And one message seems particularly prominent: that Corbyn 'needs a media strategy', to become 'communication savvy', to hire a spin doctor.

Much of this is intended to showcase the 'superior understanding' Guardian columnists and BBC correspondents have of political life: we may disapprove the Corbyn message, they intimate, but only we understand how it can really be conveyed. The smugness of that certainty is matched only by the paternalistic way in which it's being delivered.

For the Guardian, a paper that's led the assault on Corbyn, and watched in dismay as people-power prevailed, it's also a way of sneaking its way back into public approval.

Thus does Tom Clark, editor of the Guardian's editorial column, try to shroud his paper's hypocrisy by dispensing some 'helpful' advice on the 'imperative need' for a spin doctor:
In every case, too, there are reasons to question the motives of those who were rubbishing him before his landslide win was even announced. And yet, without a practitioner of the dark arts to pour such suspicions into journalists’ ears, such doubts are not being stoked.
And just in case we think the Guardian is tipping just too 'charitably' towards Corbyn, Clark offers this settling caveat:
To be clear, my purpose is not to defend Corbyn’s calls in each case, many of which I don’t agree with, only to point out that he has a right to be heard, which he is thus far failing to exercise, because of his shambolic refusal to play the media game.
Clark argues that to avoid "crashing and burning", Corbyn requires an Alastair Campbell-type spin team to smooth the issues of Europe, the 'lack of women' in his shadow cabinet (an evident untruth), the "trenchant leftist John McDonnell", and how to handle the parliamentary party. Any concern that this may be a return to Blairite spin politics is dismissed by Clark.

The Guardian's Suzanne Moore is no less sneering in talking of Corbyn's supposed lack of media nous and failure to accept the mainstream as the dominant, authentic medium:
What Corbyn needs, beyond obviously a spin doctor and a mini-break, is to surround himself with thinkers. Gosh, some of them may even be female. For he is the exact opposite of the movement he needs to build: young , flexible and networked. He is its temporary caretaker. Sorry, but hating the media, the Tories and austerity are not policies. They are feelings. Thinking, actually thinking anew, is the challenge.
So, for Moore, Corbyn is not only media passĂ©, but an unoriginal thinker. Tell that to his legions of young, inspired followers.

Guardian political editor Patrick Wintour also paints Corbyn as the stubborn idealist, cobbling together appointments with no real media understanding:
Corbyn’s media advisers had gone to his house on Sunday morning to warn him and to talk through his reshuffle. The idea was to agree the details on Sunday and then appear on the BBC Today programme on Monday morning. It was a pretty traditional media plan. But Corbyn objected. He does not like the “mainstream media”; believes its influence overrated and prefers direct personal contact or to use social media. According to one source close to the campaign, he also finds the invasion of his privacy hurtful. He could not, for instance, be persuaded by colleagues to drop three attacks on the press in his victory speech.
For Wintour, any mention of a media that had used every trick and subterfuge to prevent that victory speech seems like some kind of petty indulgence.

So, beyond such 'benign advice', how might a radical-minded Corbyn campaign best play its media hand?

Not by placating the liberal establishment and craving its 'assistance', but through independent argument and advancing its own media voice. It's not the case that any real movement politics, if that's what Corbyn aspires to, must live or die by the mainstream media, even if people like Corbyn still partake in it.

For all their 'authority', so many elite journalists are still evading the most obvious truth: that people are reacting against spin politics. That's precisely why Corbyn got elected. And it's why any such promising politics should resist the temptation to moderate its message and conform to such messengers' prescriptions on how and where to deliver it.

As Media Lens succinctly put it in their latest fine alert piece:
We like the fact that Jeremy Corbyn wears uncool shorts and sandals, that he doesn't look 'prime ministerial' or 'presidential'. We have always reviled Blair's self-assured, Clintonian head-waggle; Obama's all-knowing, fatherly smile. We never understood how anyone could be deceived by Thatcher's sonorous, strident 'sincerity'. We might disagree with Corbyn on any number of issues, but he is at least recognisably human. He seems more like the people we know, less like the people with serious suits and unserious souls who view themselves as 'The Masters of Mankind'.
Despite small pockets of support, serving a vital fig-leaf function, the liberal-left media has shown itself to be massively hostile to anything seriously progressive. In particular, the brutal treatment Corbyn has received from the Guardian and Independent has amounted to little more than a tabloid-style assault.

And now we see the awkward spectre of the Guardian trying to ingratiate itself with the new street mood. It's sister Observer has even gone into seemingly 'humble' mode, giving space to an impressive piece by its own Ed Vulliamy criticising the paper's editorial hostility towards Corbyn and its failure to be on the side of real political progress.

Yet none of this signals real self-reflection. The task is damage repair. As Jonathan Cook puts it in a brilliant analysis of the Guardian/Observer's dark complicity over the spiking of a key exclusive by Vulliamy, confirming that Iraq had no WMD, and their appalling treatment of Corbyn:
Belatedly the two papers are starting to sense their core readership feels betrayed. Vulliamy’s commentary should be seen in that light. It is not a magnanimous gesture by the Observer, or even an indication of its commitment to pluralism. It is one of the early indications of a desperate damage limitation operation. We are likely to see more such “reappraisals” in the coming weeks, as the liberal-left media tries to salvage its image with its core readers.
All of which shows the deep crisis of political and media hegemony Corbyn's election is helping to generate.

The Guardian is still, of course, being used by Corbyn and his supporters as a platform for progressive messages. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has also had a comment piece published there, proclaiming Corbyn's victory.

But that shouldn't mean approval of the Guardian. Interestingly, Iglesias's article was republished at Spain's El Pais, which he regards as the dominant establishment outlet to be challenged. The same applies to the Guardian. And that also means showing that such media are part of the same corporate structure, motivated by profit and market interests.

In this regard, the Guardian understands that it must protect its notional brand image as a 'guiding hand' of the moderate left - or, as Cook puts it, its "undeserved reputation as the left’s moral compass." Thus the latest 'come into our house' advocacy on what 'Jez can't' afford to do.

So, where does that leave the Guardian's very few Corbyn-supporters in advancing this new politics? Why can't Owen Jones, Seumas Milne and George Monbiot be, at least, as open as Vulliamy about the Guardian's line? As Media Lens ask:
What is stopping @SeumasMilne @OwenJones84 @GeorgeMonbiot @MarkSteel from also speaking out? @guardian @independent 
Such enquiries usually go ignored. Yet, these writers understand precisely what's at stake here. Thus, Owen Jones has asserted:
I’ve sometimes been criticised for having a column in a newspaper with an editorial line that is often at variance with my beliefs, or to appearing on the likes of Sky News. But without engaging with the mainstream media it is almost impossible to get a message to the as-yet unpersuaded.

Is this actual criticism from Jones? If so, it's very tame. Nor, notes Amit Singh, responding to Jones, does it fit with the reality of the Corbyn surge: 
This doesn’t seem to be reflective of the way the Corbyn campaign’s success. People looked beyond what they saw as a corrupt mainstream media, dominated by the interests of a very few and voted accordingly.
Jones has also written in My role in the media in months ahead:
 My attitude to writing is conflicted — I don’t particularly enjoy it — but as I see it as a means to reach as broad an audience as possible with these causes and beliefs. That’s why I go on TV and radio, use social media, run a YouTube channel, do talks and meetings across the country, visit sixth forms, or — more leftfield — did a TV show about politics with Joey Essex and spoke at Paloma Faith’s gigs. All I’m interested in is reaching people with political ideas that are otherwise banished.
A seemingly logical argument: more coverage, more influence, the spreading of ideas. But what if, in the process, such writers become so absorbed by the medium, failing to see how it compromises and limits the message?  Are token appearances at the Guardian or Sky really part of a radical new media strategy? What if people like Jones and Corbyn dispensed with the Guardian? What if both the medium and the message were truly independent?  

That's a real work in progress. But Corbyn's arrival, at least, offers the potential for a more dynamic media environment. Correspondents seem shocked and disorientated by his refusal to conform to their usual protocols. Suddenly gone are the easy-fed briefings, the cosy lines of communication.

This is good. Why pander to a media which, however much you reason with it, is intent on killing your character? And why place serious credibility and faith in so many renowned journalists positioned through privilege rather than talent?

Corbyn has shown what he really thinks by walking past and ignoring Sky News - a dignified act which the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland, with preposterous exaggeration, likened to a:
perp walk, the footage carrying the same visual grammar as yet another 70s celebrity helping police with their inquiries [sic]. All that was missing was a blanket over his head.
These, remind yourself, are the words of a Guardian executive editor, not a Sun hack.

Corbyn has expressed, in his victory speech, similar disdain for the brutal methods of the Mail, Express and other right-wing press. And he knows he can expect little better from the Times, Telegraph and other 'high-end' establishment outlets.

Here, for example, is Camilla Long of the Times, stretching the pretentiously absurd to its very limits:
I have always wondered what it would be like to watch something truly deranged happen on the political stage, to watch the modern equivalent of Caligula suddenly decide he would like to make his horse a consul.  As the pale white crowds roll up, I realise that Labour is now Caligula and Jeremy Corbyn is that horse. Or, at least, he is an extraordinary half-resuscitated goat who, over the past 60 days, has taken the party back at least one year each day. Today we appear to have reached 1955. 
As tweeted to Long, this is the gosh-gush world of Times 'journalism'. And it's only matched by the Telegraph's spluttering indignation over Corbyn's refusal to join in the national anthem.

But, behind its moral facade, the liberal media is no better. Corbyn's experience with Krishnan Guru Murthy of Channel 4 News shows that any progressive figure can expect the same tabloid-type interrogation.

Still, appearances on such platforms can deliver useful hits. Here's John McDonnell, giving an assured interview on Channel 4 News, with this encouraging comment on utilising independent media:
Interviewed by Paul Mason on the same C4 News edition, Yanis Varoufakis also talks admiringly of Corbyn, on the "cautionary tale" of Syriza's fall, and the need to manage those first moments of exuberance against "the onslaught which will come from an establishment that is not going to give up its privileges very easily."

And here's his supportive advice on how Corbyn should handle the media:
If the message is right, if you are sincere...if you speak to their heart, and address them directly as adults [they] are not going to be terrorised by the media. Don't fear the media. The media can be by-passed.
Mason, noting Varoufakis's previous deep criticism of Labour, asks if it can be redeemed. "Everyone can be redeemed, as long as they do the right thing", he answers, which, for Labour, he believes, means holding to sincere radical positions in its critique of capitalism. That's much smarter counsel than anything offered by Corbyn's liberal-left 'advisers'.

Without shunning the dominant media, Corbyn and other progressives shouldn't be afraid to bypass it, even BBC state media.

Corbyn's cancelling of a 'major appearance' on the Andrew Marr show the morning after his election, choosing instead to attend a charity event at his constituency, was roundly denounced as an infantile snub. But it actually showed his readiness not to become dependent on elite-serving platforms, or succumb to easy set-ups.

The now infamous Panorama hatchet job by John Ware is a prime illustration of calculated smearing and manipulated editing, showing just how deeply embedded such journalists reside within the establishment.

We've also seen the BBC's tabloid-style depictions of John McDonnell, a figure perhaps even more reviled by the establishment than Corbyn.

And, of course, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg's coverage of Corbyn and McDonnell has been particularly relentless in accentuating the negative.

However, Kuenssberg's later interview with Corbyn, in which she asks whether he will kneel before the Queen, as part of Privy Council protocol, does offer some fascinating insight on a politician speaking with unscripted frankness, perplexing and pleasing some even at the BBC.

A last, fleeting moment of the real Corbyn before the media handlers move in? Hopefully not, for this new candid conversational style is, surely, Corbyn's very strength.

The furore over Corbyn failing to sing the national anthem, and reticence over genuflecting to a monarch, tells us much about how even the most decent, principled people get pressured and coerced into conformity.

Despite appearing to retreat over the anthem issue, Corbyn and McDonnell have many radical things to say. Corbyn got elected on that very populist platform. It's profoundly sincere and, because of that, has real street appeal. Why temper or abandon it?

Contrary to what Corbyn's handlers will be telling him, the monarchy issue, and how it stifles the political culture, is important, and shouldn't, as Owen Jones urges, be prudently circumvented. Are we to hang silent on a super-elite family sitting at the apex of the class system, one which allies with despots and acts as a PR agency for the arms industry? And, as Cook says, the threat of an army mutiny now posed by a serving general "puts the ludicrous current confected debate about Corbyn refusing to sing the national anthem in an even more sinister light."

Corbyn's position should simply be: I'm a republican and I have conscientious objections to endorsing an institution built on jingoistic militarism and feudal privilege. Also, why should an atheist/secularist be compelled to sing God Save the Queen?

That kind of quiet assertion should inform his overall approach. The media will hound him for it, but they'll do that anyway. Many people will disagree, but that's expected. At least they're more likely to respect his views, and may be encouraged to think about their actual merits. The point is to openly debate and better inform.

Isn't it time to show real modernity and moral priorities in our politics? Must we always play to the dominant agenda? Whether in advocating constitutional change or economic reform, nothing can ever be achieved without confident conviction in an alternative vision of society, holding to a true radical purpose, free from being told to kowtow and accept establishment 'realities'.

Nor is the Corbyn agenda as fanciful or ephemeral as the establishment would have us believe. Here's an interesting account from Business Insider on how smartly Corbyn is playing his new media hand, and why Cameron and the wider elite should be deeply concerned:
He only talks about facts and policies, he never makes it personal. He refuses to engage with a media that simply wants to entrap him with the kind of soundbites that can be used later in Tory Party YouTube videos. And he tells it like it is, or at least how he sees it. It's enormously refreshing, even if you don't agree with him. And voters love that kind of thing.
Again, like the Yes following in Scotland, so much of that mass appreciation and politicisation has been built on the fertile ground of social media.

The greatest danger for any nascent Corbyn politics now is timidity and incorporation. Look what happened to Syriza, as Varoufakis has testified. Crucially, the success of Corbynism doesn't depend on Corbyn, and certainly not the 'electability' of the Labour Party, but on the coalescing of a true movement politics. Yet, as we've seen in Greece, the opportunities for holding to that project are so easily forfeited at the altar of moderation.

Momentous changes are taking place. People, drained by clone politics and economic subjugation, are restless and energised. The media is under scrutiny and challenge like never before. Nothing progressive was ever won easily or overnight. But we should take heart from what's being achieved against all the odds, against all the resources of a ruthless establishment.

From moderation media to ruling royals, rampant capitalism to parliamentary 'democracy', no form of power and control should be seen as avoidable or unworthy of discussion. There's so much to talk about, so much to challenge, so much to play for, so much to win.


radcliffe said...

Excellent piece. I appreciate this level of analysis.

Anonymous said...

That was a very through and enjoyable piece of writing.

Andy Coombes said...

Hear, Hear! Good in depth stuff which I almost agree with word for word. Thanks.

Alan Tattersall said...

I agree. A message of hope that change can be brought about by sticking to what we know, not we are told we should know.

Sylvia Roberts said...

Yes i agree with the above comment. It's great to see written what you have been thinking. I think the relentless media attacks of whatever form are blatent bullying and abusive. Weareencouraged to report bullying, to whom should I report this?

Anonymous said...

Well said. I'm not a Labour or Corbyn supporter (I'm an anarchist) but the points about side stepping the mainstream media are very good instructions. We must stop letting the established media (or anyone else) determine the narrative, we must make the narrative ourselves.

Stephen said...

@Sylvia Not to Ofcom, currently engaged in trying to drive out RT for the US war party....