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Media Theresa May Jeremy Corbyn

Why personal brands are fragile in a post-truth era focused on clickbait journalism


By Andrew Eborn | president

June 26, 2017 | 9 min read

Decades ago, ex-UK prime minister Harold Wilson reminded us that a week is a long time in politics.


May’s approval rating is -17, and the damage may be irremediable

And what a week it has been, the media has reversed the roles of the central characters. Villains have become heroes; and heroes, villains.

So, in the pass-the-parcel of politics who's turn is it in the naughty chair?

The Americanisation of British politics enables 'Corbynmania' to continue to build momentum. Having followed the advice about his image and public perception —including from his predecessor David Cameron — our Jezza received a rock star welcome at Glastonbury as he made the first appearance by a political leader since the festival began 47 years ago.

Watch out for those 'Make Corbyn Great Again' baseball caps.

But as Albert Einstein pointed out: "If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies."

So what of Theresa May in her leopard print heels? I pointed out previously that the Grenfell inferno again emphasised the fact that we need solutions not soundbites. I warned that the knives were out for May unless those managing her brand took urgent steps.

As one MP put it: "it has been the most depressing fortnight... if the media found out that May had been secretly feeding the poor at a soup kitchen every night, it would turn out that they all had food poisoning"

Sources now tell me that some Ministers want "spreadsheet Phil" Hammond as a caretaker prime minister together with Brexit secretary, David Davis, as his deputy prime minister as long as Hammond agrees to step down after Brexit negotiations so that someone else can lead the Tories into the next election.

May’s election campaign was hounded with rows about restricted media access including reporters complaining they were locked in a room to stop them filming.

“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind” – Jim Morrison

But the media does not like to be controlled and reacts accordingly.

Following her initial visit to Grenfell May was portrayed in the media as dead to emotion and empathy. She failed to meet the bereaved and homeless, instead confining her initial visit to a handful of fire officers. The prime minister was already in freefall having gone from hubris to humiliation in the election. As the Guardian's Polly Toynbee noted, Grenfell — that "tomb in the sky" — was destined to be her monument.

Praise where praise is due, however. The prime minister, a regular reader of this column when not making crop circles, followed my advice. She showed her human side, admitted the failures and took action to rectify them rather than hide behind glib soundbites.

May invited Grenfell victims to Downing Street and also publicly acknowledged that there was "a failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most. As prime minister, I apologise for that failure. As prime minister I have taken responsibility for doing what we can to put things right."

Rather than sheltering behind soundbites from the sultans of spin, May announced a full public inquiry and some specific immediate measures. She said: "each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a down payment from the emergency fund so they can buy food, clothes and other essentials. And all those who have lose their homes will be rehoused within three weeks."

Indeed within hours the media reported that families were being re-housed including in multi-million pound apartments in a Kensington Row scheme about 1.5 miles south of Grenfell.

As I also recommended, steps are being taken to review the cause of the fire, the reasons it spread and the procedure for helping the victims to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

It has emerged that the fire may have may have originated in a Hotpoint branded Fridge Freezer and the government has ordered testing of the appliance. The government also plans to examine cladding from up to 600 blocks, and so far cladding on 34 tower blocks in 17 council areas in England has failed fire safety tests, according to officials.

Urgent steps are also being taken where there is an immediate risk. Four of the five blocks on the Chalcots estate in Camden were evacuated on Friday because of fears over cladding, gas pipes, and fire doors.

There is, however, a balance needed. We need prudence not panic.

Communication with residents is also essential to avoid the chaos of Camden where residents were evacuated but starved of information. The trauma of being made homeless compounded by lack of information.

Pain has been politicised but the media has helped ensure that action is taken to avoid history repeating itself. It is important that action continues to be taken once the spotlight of media attention moves to a new story.

Trust is fragile and public perception difficult to change, it takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair.

So what has the effect been on public opinion?

While I am always cautious of polls, a Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times with a sample of 5,000 puts Labour support on 46% — five points ahead of the Tories. May’s approval rating is -17 compared to Corbyn's which is +17, and the damage may already be irremediable.

To take some of the spotlight off May and her woes we also saw the return of everyone's favourite figure fudger Diane Abbott.

Explaining her absence from the campaign trail during the final week of the general election the Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP told BBC Breakfast, in her first interview since returning to work, that her type 2 diabetes had been "an issue at certain points". She said she struggled after facing six or seven interviews in a row without eating enough food, which is vital to managing her blood sugar levels.

Asked if her illness was stress related, and if so, whether she would be capable of being home secretary Abbott responded: "Stress wasn't an issue, my blood sugar levels was. I am back to fighting fitness."

She was also asked if she was subjected to racism and misogyny during the election campaign: "I think politicians complaining about the media is like sailors complaining about the weather," she responded, Andrea Leadsom take note.

Resigning because of ill health was "never a consideration," according to Abbott. "Everyone who has type 2 diabetes knows it is a perfectly manageable condition."

Shortly after we did indeed witness Abbott back to her usual figure fudging form. At a conference of the Labour Progress group Abbott pointed out: "Grenfell Tower is not just an accident; Grenfell Tower is not just an unfortunate incident. Those hundreds of people that died are a direct consequence of Tory attitudes in social housing."

At the time of the speech the official death toll was 79 people not "hundreds".

Questioned about her inaccurate figures after the event, Abbott clarified: "I think we are going to find that the numbers of people that have died will be in triple figures, just because it's a 23-storey [sic] block."

Getting the story — or rather storey — straight is important. It’s not a 23- storey block, it’s 24-storey.

Abbott is back on form and 10,000% better.

If there are particular stories you feel should be subjected to a pressure test to find out whether they really stand up to serious scrutiny or you want help to avoid the predictable errors and omissions of others get in touch...

Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewEborn and OctopusTV

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