And you thought Ed Miliband had it bad. Driven by the press and then echoed by the broadcasters, the media assault on Jeremy Corbyn this week has perhaps been the most scurrilous, smeary, and desperate I have ever seen. In rough chronological order, we’ve seen denunciations of Jeremy’s refusal to sing God Save the Queen, attacks on his dress, and the rubbishing of the “new PMQs“. If anything, it’s ramped up this weekend. We’ve had the demonstrably false IRA smear – hardly a surprise to see Harry Cole, known around Westminster as the most dishonest journalist in politics, behind that one. There are revelations about an affair decades ago, attacks for refusing a Rugby World Cup jolly, news that an ancestor operated a brutal workhouse. And just when it couldn’t get any worse:
A senior serving general said the armed forces would take “direct action” to stop a Corbyn government downgrading them and said his victory had been greeted with “wholesale dismay”, even among Labour-supporting soldiers.
There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny,” the general said. “Feelings are running very high within the armed forces. You would see a major break in convention with senior generals directly and publicly challenging Corbyn over vital important policy decisions such as Trident, pulling out of Nato and any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces. The Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security.” (Sunday Times (£) )
All this, however, demonstrates a problem with a great deal of last week’s media coverage: overreach and oversaturation. There’s only so much dirt to be dug up about Jeremy, and thanks to the summer-long leadership campaigns most of it has already had an airing. Old speeches, old interviews, old footage has already been trawled through by political opponents and journalists, and it’s most unlikely something new’s going to turn up. If all the press can do is run them and rerun them, readers could start tuning out and stop buying papers. That’s possible – the long-term decline of the press isn’t just about the ubiquity of internet news. Poor, regurgitated content is playing its part too.
There are two things Labour’s new press operation can do in this situation. The first is a strategy I’d definitely not recommend. It can attack the media for its bias and rely on a couple of wobbly media friends – The Mirror, The Graun – and hope the masses of new members and the growing influence of social media can compensate. In other words, retreat into the bunker and hope to outflank the media. The alternative is to use them. Yes, Richard is right, the media are hostile and no amount of spin or watering down policies are going to change that. The trick is then to try and lead the agenda by moving the fight to the grounds of your own choosing. There are three points here.
- First, Jeremy’s press should always try and cultivate relationships with journos. And that includes those on the dreaded Murdoch titles. Good relations can be cashed in later to occasionally blunt attacks, and perhaps the odd exclusive.
- Second, the leader’s campaign was principled, non-personal, and all about ideas. The trick then is to pick a few issues a month and keep hammering them in speeches, articles, PMQs, whatever for a limited duration before turning to something else. With the media running out of bilious attacks, this gives them fresh meat but shifts them onto the terrain of policy. Of course, the press has it own preferences. If Simon Danczuk says something silly, or rumours abound of more shadcab divisions, they’re par the course. But some of the strategy will work some of the time.
- Third, rebuttal. Nothing should go unanswered. Every lie, every smear, all have to be responded to, refuted. No more ‘no comment’.
As a general rule, the left has a sophisticated theoretical understanding of the media’s political economy and the biases growing out of them. High time we had a strategy to match it.
This article first appeared at All that is Solid