Mirror editor-in-chief on getting it 'completely wrong' about Corbyn and profiting from Labour revival

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

A year after the Daily Mirror published a front page splash calling for Jeremy Corbyn to “Go Now” as Labour leader, that same politician has given the left-leaning tabloid new relevance and the paper’s editor-in-chief now readily admits he got it wrong.

“That was based on the fact that 95% of conversations we were having with MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party were telling us that Jeremy would be really bad for Labour fortunes at the general election,” says Lloyd Embley of that 28 June 2016 edition. “That has turned out to be completely wrong, so of course I would like to turn back the clock on that front.”

The Mirror is benefiting from the Corbyn surge. During May, the final weeks of the election campaign, the paper’s website saw a significant 10% month-on-month spike – not matched by its Tory supporting rivals, the Mail and the Sun – as Labour exceeded expectations.

And when Jezza headed to the newsagent on the morning after polling day, he emerged brandishing the Mirror’s admiring “Cor Blimey!” splash, featuring the Labour leader with thumb aloft. That front page now hangs above Mr Corbyn’s office desk, having been framed and handed to him by his new friends at the Mirror.

It’s not the only lesson that the paper has learned lately.

Its publisher Trinity Mirror is in the midst of major research work with Ipsos MORI that has significant implications for the entire media as it suggests that the collapse in public trust that has so badly damaged politics and journalism has also infected advertising. Brands are now seen as part of a London-based establishment elite and their messages are being received with increasing cynicism, it found. For the news industry, with its continued dependence on advertising spend, this study (on which I report in more detail later in this article) is worrying indeed.

The turbulence of modern politics is proving to be profoundly disruptive but endlessly fascinating.

Political turmoil pays off

It seems astonishing now but, until recently, the Mirror didn’t really cover politics at all on its website, believing that online readers weren’t interested in the subject. “Before I took this job five years ago, we had an official online policy to be apolitical which seems a little strange perhaps,” Embley recalls. The “view at the time”, he says, was that “politics wasn’t where the audience was”.

That was the era of identikit party leaders, when David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg were fighting for the political middle ground. While many might think that the sidelining of politics online was a monumental misjudgment by the Mirror hierarchy, there is undeniably a different cast at Westminster now. And the 16-34 demographic, which dominates the Mirror’s online audience is hooked on the drama, as much as it is by the goings on in ITV’s hit reality show Love Island.

The new focus on politics is “paying off for us in a big way”, says Embley. “During the course of the election we had 15 million to 16 million unique browsers on politics content and if you went back a couple of years that would have been almost non-existent.” Searches for Mirror election content rose more than 150% on the previous election in 2015.

For the Mirror, Jezza is the gift that keeps on giving. No wonder the paper gave him a present.

Embley says that relations with Corbyn’s team are good. He and his political correspondents meet regularly with the Labour leader, who makes positive observations on the paper’s coverage. The “Go Now” headline has, apparently, been forgotten. “Everyone is more than happy to put that one behind us,” Embley says. “The basis on which we did that is understood and we supported him very strongly through the election and I know that he is incredibly grateful.”

For all the enthusiasm for Corbyn, Embley argues that the Mirror’s political line is determined not by what is best for the Labour party or its current leader, but by the 114-year-old paper’s long-established societal values, which it believes represent the interests of its predominantly working class readership. The Mirror has consistently covered the crisis in social housing. Amid the wider media’s new-found interest in the subject following the Grenfell Tower disaster, it is one of the few outlets that can accuse the authorities of ignoring the poor and not sound hypocritical.

One obvious problem for the Mirror is that as a legacy brand (and key founder member of the newspaper industry’s Independent Press Standards Organisation regulator), it is part of the mainstream media or “MSM”, so derided by a significant part of Corbyn's support base, which has abandoned traditional news for digitally native outlets that give him positive treatment. Even traditional left-wing titles such as the Guardian and New Statesman have been accused by Corbynistas of being disloyal to the Labour leader.

The Mirror faces competition from a host of new Facebook-driven leftist websites and bloggers (from the Canary to Another Angry Voice) and from younger global websites (such as BuzzFeed and HuffPost) that speak with a youthful and socially responsible voice that resonates with many Corbyn followers. To this point, Embley says only that he welcomes the journalistic competition, just as he missed the loss from the Sunday newspaper market of the News of the World back in 2011 when he was editing its rival People.

He interprets Corbyn’s regular trips to the paper shop and engagement with dead trees journalism as a signal of solidarity with the professional news media, or at least parts of it. But he also claims that the Daily Mirror should not be regarded as part of the MSM at all. “Most people who use it as a negative really have Rupert Murdoch and possibly Lord Rothermere in their heads when they are thinking that,” he says. “I don’t have to report to any billionaire owner and do what he says. I’m in charge of the editorial policy and the Mirror masthead and legacy is what determines our editorial stance politically, not someone in a big tower telling me what to do.”

Distrust in brands and advertising

These days it helps to not be seen as part of the establishment. That much is clear from Trinity Mirror’s research study with Ipsos MORI, which found that 42% of adults distrust brands and 69% advertising.

Favourite ad campaigns were once a staple of casual conversation. But 43% now say they trust advertising “less than they used to” and 48% “talk about adverts” less than in the past. Why? In the view of 38% of respondents, big brands are part of the “establishment”. It’s the same criticism directed at politicians and the “MSM”. The report stated: “The starting position [for British consumers] when presented with any information is now one of scepticism and cynicism.”

Today, when consumers have a heightened awareness of fake news, brands have to work hard to make sure their claims are verifiable, says Andy Atkinson, chief revenue officer at Trinity Mirror. “Gone are the days when people can just throw out an unqualified entertaining message and the public will take it as gospel,” he says. “It’s really critical that brands can back up the message that they are putting out to the market. It has a detrimental effect if they are over-claiming and putting out messages that they just can’t live up to.”

Atkinson believes there has been a distinct shift in attitudes from “the more carefree days of the seventies and eighties when it was more about entertainment and people didn’t have that cynicism or see those big brands as part of the establishment”. He relates the trend to the backlash against “globalisation” and a failure to connect with local communities, themes which emerged in the US election and EU referendum votes.

Bursting the London media bubble

The Ipsos poll detected hostility towards the ad industry for operating in a “London Bubble”, with 32% of those outside the capital saying brands were out of touch with British life, compared to 24% of Londoners. The next stage of the research will look at 56 major brands and which ones are managing to relate their messages successfully inside and outside London.

This is a key area for Trinity Mirror with its portfolio of both national and regional titles, including the Liverpool Echo, the Birmingham Mail, the Chronicle in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Western Mail/Wales Online in Cardiff. “One of the things that came through loud and clear was statements like ‘brands don’t understand how to connect with people outside of London’,” Atkinson says.

This point about the London Bubble was “not one of the major things we were looking to prove”, he says, but at the same time he claims that Trinity Mirror has “an opportunity” to use “explicit geo-targeting” to help big brands reach regional audiences with authentic messaging.

Embley too says he benefits from the close working relationship of Trinity Mirror’s national and regional titles with, for example, Daily Mirror and Manchester Evening News journalists collaborating on coverage of the recent Manchester Arena bombing.

A strong national footprint and a large number of journalists based outside London ought to give the group some advantage in the post-referendum environment where media outlets have been stung by the idea that they don’t have the country covered. But the Mirror’s position on Brexit is a difficult one given that, according to Embley, the paper’s readership is split on the issue “pretty close to 50-50”.

After careful consideration of what would be the best outcome for Mirror readers, the paper backed Remain in June 2016. After the electoral failings of Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, it was another blow. Then it called it wrong last year on Corbyn too. “We have been joking that we should rebrand ourselves as ‘The Mirror: Never Knowingly Backs a Winner’,” says the self-effacing editor.

But the Mirror seems to have won back the confidence of the Labour leader and many of his supporters around the country. It hopes to help distrusted brands in making a similar recovery.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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