Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn UK

Jeremy Corbyn vs the media: What can he expect from the press if he becomes Labour leader?

By Paul Connew | Media Expert

September 11, 2015 | 8 min read

It’s all over bar the counting.

Unless every national newspaper and broadcast political editor has misread the mood music.

Unless the opinion polls are wrong again (not impossible) and so are the pundits and the campaign strategists, then around high noon on Saturday Jeremy Corbyn will be anointed the new leader of the Labour party and something resembling the political equivalent of the Gunfight at the OK Corral could loom on the horizon.

It’ll be a shootout taking place across the entire media landscape for days, weeks, even months to come, and not just within a Labour party confronted by the prospect of civil war.

It’s a prospect, of course, that the Tory-supporting titles will heartily relish, while offering largely faux expressions of concern for the future of Labour’s contribution to democratic political life.

Labour-supporting papers, like my old Mirror Group home, will agonise over how to stay loyal to the party, while fundamentally dreading its direction under Jeremy Corbyn and how to assess their readers’ reaction if they throw their editorial weight behind those MPs who would seek to launch an early coup against their newly-elected, but hugely controversial, successor to Ed Miliband.

The media tension surrounding the campaign was thrown into even sharper relief on Friday with Andy Burnham threatening to take the Sun to press regulator IPSO over a 'sting' in which he made derogatory reamarks about Corbyn. My hunch is that it will prove rather trickier for Burnham than the Sun or Corbyn. It also throws a spanner in the works of those Labour 'fixers' who have been lobbying Corbyn to make Burnham his shadow chancellor.

On Corbyn’s part, there would be no attempt to woo the Tory newspapers in the way Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell did, with some success. Team Corbyn accept that mutual contempt rules that out. It's a stance they also feel more confident about given the evidence that, arguably for the first time in UK political history, the power and support from social media out-punched the power of the overwhelmingly hostile mainstream newspapers.

But the Corbyn media strategy will probably see efforts to reconcile the traditionally pro-Labour titles go ahead, particularly with the Mirror and the Guardian. The Mirror Group is in a fascinating position, with the Daily Mirror having backed Andy Burnham and portrayed Jeremy Corbyn as too left (albeit much less venomously than the Mail and Sun), while its sister title in Scotland came out strongly in support of a Corbyn leadership.

Labour’s moderates start their long dark night of the soul’ was the headline on the well-connected Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley’s final pre-vote analysis. And, as one of those ‘moderates’, I share his fear for Labour’s future if Jeremy Corbyn and the hard left sweep to overwhelming victory.

But there can also be little doubt that mainstream media opposition to the Corbyn candidacy has, to a large extent, backfired and boosted support for him rather than the reverse.

Significantly, support for the Corbyn campaign would seem to have escalated on social media in direct response to the scale of the heavy artillery assault on him by national newspapers and the necessarily subtler, but nonetheless perceived, hostility of TV and radio political editors and reporters.

And, if Jeremy Corbyn does indeed sweep to victory, it could prove another seismic shift in the power and influence of cyberspace and social media over the traditional mainstream organs of news.

In the event of Corbyn’s anticipated triumph, the significance of a recent YouGov poll showing that 57 per cent of his supporters cited social media as their main source of news, compared to 41 per cent of Yvette Cooper’s, 39 per cent of Andy Burnham’s and 38 per cent of Liz Kendall’s will not be lost on political and social historians and political analysts and strategists.

For, if ever there was any truth in the Sun’s famous, ‘It was the Sun wot won it’ boast when John Major overturned the odds and defeated Neil Kinoock, then ‘It was social media wot won it’ could probably more credibly be applied to Jeremy Corbyn transformation from 200-1 outsider to 6-1 ON red-hot favourite as Labour’s leadership runners hit the home straight.

It will provide serious food for thought for those in the Labour party who sought to cite ferocious mainstream media hostility toward Ed Miliband personally as a major factor in turning high hopes of victory into crushing defeat.

Well, even as someone hostile to Jeremy Corbyn’s run for leader, I have to admit his treatment by the Mail, Sun, Telegraph, Times and Express and their Sunday sisters has been as savage as anything dished out to Ed Miliband.

BUT this time the outcome of that mainstream media onslaught seems set to have the opposite effect. Another subject for political and media academics to chew over after this weekend, and more than detailed academic study further down the line.

It’s still possible – just – that a late surge towards sanity, or the impact of second preference votes, could deny Corbyn victory, or at least render it significantly less overwhelming than forecast. But, to be honest, I fear I’m hoping against hope and not exactly holding my breath.

By Saturday afternoon, the Labour party is likely to be reeling from the stunning lesson in the law of unintended consequences – the final legacy of Ed Miliband’s well-intentioned but ultimately flawed party reforms.

The heir to that shambolic, ill-thought through change in the leadership election rules will result in Labour being…

  • Led by a man who didn’t even expect to get onto the ballot paper.
  • Led by a man who only did so because of the charity of MPs who never intended to vote for him but airily fancied he might ‘broaden’ the debate.
  • Led by a man who can only truly count on the support of around 20 of his party’s 232 MPs.
  • Led by a man who hitherto has epitomised the eternal backbench rebel (he’s defied the party whip more than 500 times!).
  • Led by a man whose only previous political ‘management’ experience was running Haringey council’s planning committee (unless you count being voted ‘Worst Dressed MP’ and ‘Beard of the Year’ as leadership qualifications).
  • Led by a man who never really dreamt he’d ever become leader of his party, let alone prime minister and who, you suspect, in his heart of hearts isn’t totally convinced even now he really wants either job.
  • Led by a man who, among other things, wants to scrap Trident, would be quite happy to see Britain out of the EU, has a track record of support for some rather extreme organisations and still apparently believes Michael Foot’s ‘longest suicide note in history’ election campaign of 1983 was the right strategy.

It is almost beyond parody when a respected Labour veteran, the usually sensible former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett makes a media confession to being a ‘moron’ for nominating Jeremy Corbyn to liven up the debate while opposing nearly everything he stands for.

Or when another veteran Labour ‘thinker’ Frank Field, so popular with the Tory press, pens a Mail on Sunday article sounding dread warnings of the outcome of a Corbyn victory, conveniently omitting that he, too, nominated him. Less than frank, Frank. Moronic, too.

For now, only thing seems certain. A Jeremy Corbyn victory will unveil the fascinating, turbulent opening scene rather than the final one in Labour’s unfolding post-election drama. And that, in the short-term at least, will guarantee saturation coverage, analysis and political crystal ball-gazing worthy of Mystic Meg in her heyday.

With potential plot twists and turns that Shakespeare himself would relish. But would the Immortal Bard pen it as a tragedy or a comedy? That is the intriguing question. Or maybe it’s a tragi-comedy in the making, with – alas – David Cameron and George Osborne wielding drawn daggers and laughing loudly in the wings?

If nothing else, the political cartoonists will be well worth watching over the next few days.

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the Daily Mirror. He’s a lifelong Labour supporter who voted for Yvette Cooper in the leadership election.

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