Corbyn and the media trap
Labour should stop basing its strategy on appealing to the media - it will fail, argues Paul Demarty
About the best that can be said for Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on last week’s edition of the Channel 4 comedy chat show, The last leg, is that it was not a disaster. It was not a success, either; but it could have been much, much worse.
It was, after all, on ‘friendly territory’, so far as these things go. The last leg began as part of Channel 4’s Paralympics coverage four years ago - two of its three hosts have disabilities of one sort or another - and its output is irreverent, but basically right-on. (The latest winner of the show’s annual Dick of the Year award is that other notorious political Jeremy, Hunt.)
So the objective - as far as anyone can tell - was to be a good sport and get out alive. Look vaguely human. That sort of thing. (Incidentally, it is striking how quickly the image of the robotic politico with the thousand-yard stare has been pinned onto Corbyn, given that part of his appeal in the leadership contest was that he alone looked human, surrounded by the Stepford candidates.) So he was filmed turning up at the studio in a tuxedo and floor-length pimp-coat, with louche rap music playing over the top; there was a ridiculous and not terribly funny skit about how he likes manhole covers; he was forced to debate political etiquette with Russell Crowe. On it went: and it was over. All agree he came out of it better than Nick Clegg, who suffered a real lynching on the same programme a few years ago.
Far worse was Jeremy Corbyn: the outsider - an ‘inside story’-type documentary from the Vice media group, which saw the hipster outlet’s Ben Ferguson follow Corbyn around during the eight weeks running up to the May elections. The film itself is not unsympathetic, really; but it has provided a lot of raw material for far more hostile coverage, with Ferguson repeatedly sent packing, as the inner circle faced yet another crisis. Foremost among these, naturally, was the anti-Semitism pseudo-scandal, which broke over this period. The very fact that Corbyn’s people definitely did not want to be caught on camera candidly discussing their tactical options was ammunition enough for Vice’s more old-fashioned brethren.
This is the problem for the Corbynite battle for hearts and minds, in two incidents. Thelast leg spot is basically as good as mainstream media appearances are going to get for Corbyn, ever; and the result is a television appearance two or three notches lower on the cringe-ometer than might be expected. Many of his advisors are intoxicated with the idea that new and alternative media will be a more hospitable environment for a politician with a foot outside the Overton window like Corbyn; the Vice disaster is a salutary reminder that this is not the case.
Both of these moments point to a deliberate choice on the part of Corbyn’s handlers to focus on relatively more sympathetic media platforms where possible.
We have already discussed the bona fide lefties of The last leg; and Vice, at least in its UK incarnation, has been a hotbed of support for Occupy, Focus E15 and what have you - the sort of thing we would call millennial leftism (did the very word ‘millennial’ not make us want to vomit snakes).
In taking this path, we expect that many of the Corbyn inner circle imagine themselves on the rising tide of media history. There is a seductiveness to the picture, not least because the numbers don’t lie: the print circulation of most newspapers is declining, and on the web ‘traditional’ media organisations - though still very much dominating the upper ranks of the page impression charts - are relatively less dominant than they are in dead-tree form. The proof of the pudding - what else? - is the very fact that Corbyn was elected to the leadership, against the fervently worded advice of every damn paper from the Mirror to the Mail (Bernie Sanders’ impressive campaign in the United States is a similar phenomenon), but with the support of at least some at Vice, and various other ‘new media’ outlets, Twitter cliques and what have you.
Yet somehow it does not seem to work like that. In order to understand why, we must understand what has not changed about the media, as well as what has.
The most egregious aspect of continuity is the agenda - and who sets it. This is quite obvious when it comes to the Vice debacle. In the first instance, there is the film itself. Ben Ferguson states at the outset that he is a Labour member who voted for Jeremy, but is frustrated by the lack of obvious change. What is obstructing it? We are led to conclude that Corbyn’s people are permanently on the defensive - from what? In reality, from the old media. Zoom out a little: the practical result of Ferguson’s film is that the Corbyn camp has come out looking paranoid and incompetent. It would be perfectly legitimate to draw the conclusion that they were doing some kind of job under intense and hostile bad-faith pressure from the bourgeois media. Who decides which of these two interpretations is valid? Why, the bourgeois media.
There is the more insidious problem, which is: who are these shiny new media organisations? In the case of The last leg, of course, the question does not even arise: it is Channel 4, owned by the state, albeit not so obviously as the BBC, and occasionally mooted for sale to (in truth) relatively little controversy. As for Vice, the question is a little more vexed: the UK organisation’s news coverage sits oddly with the rightwing politics of its founders (Shane Smith fled Canada for the States to escape its ‘socialism’), and notoriously the organisation is now part-owned by Rupert Murdoch, though his stake is a small (by his standards) 5%.
Vice is, in reality, in a similar position to many of its peers, although it has had enough success over the years to attract $70 million of Murdoch money. It is attempting to carve out a sustainable existence outside the charmed circle of traditional media outlets, and it is attempting to do so on a capitalist basis, in which somebody, somewhere will make some money out of the whole deal. Thus, despite its relentless lefty outpourings, Vice has become notorious for its callous treatment of freelancers and suchlike - the margins are, at the end of the day, very thin, and squeezing an ounce more blood out of the workforce can make all the difference!
Thus, the faith in alternative capitalist media - never mind ‘alternative’ pockets of the mainstream media, like The last leg - is ill-advised on two counts. First of all, the plucky upstarts are still effectively dominated by the big-money incumbents in terms of their content and impact; secondly, the same plucky upstarts are at a more fundamental level dominated by capital, which needs an honest reformist in Number 10 like it needs a hole in the head. It’s a losing bet.
A real ‘alternative media’
The time has come to think not about what material is immediately to hand, but what material we actually need in order for the healthier parts of the labour movement not to be permanently on the defensive. For it should not actually be difficult; the mainstream media are all characterised by flagrant bias and corruption, and there is no reason why any rational person should trust them without serious attention to the inherent conflicts of interest at work. (Frankly, one does not have to be an investigative journalist to spot the important ad contracts at a given newspaper these days.)
It turns out that history is full of labour movements who bothered to do it for themselves - create newspapers, radio stations, television stations (never mind websites!) that were funded and staffed by the voluntary sacrifice of those politically committed to the success of the movement (which is one way to get rid of Vice’s zero-hours troubles ... ) Thus, the media could become one of many sites in capitalist society where the political economy of the capitalist class could be contested by that of the working class, of the free association of producers.
In order for this to succeed, however, we have to press the advantage - which is to say, we have to be able to compete in terms of content, and be braver than the yellow press. That, in the end, means overthrowing the dead hand of the labour bureaucracy. There already are labour-movement media, but who actually looks forward to their union newsletters and suchlike? Where’s the spark, the danger? Remember - both the state (Channel 4) and the corporate media (Murdoch and Vice) are able to entertain pockets of dissidence. Regrettably, the labour movement and far left are worse on this score.
The Corbynistas will protest that this is all very well, but we do not presently live in a country with a thriving workers’ media, and we are faced with the task of getting Jeremy into Number 10 in 2020 - given lemons, we must make lemonade. This is backwards. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to start rebuilding a sturdy movement, a necessary though not sufficient part of which must be a compelling set of media adequate to our tasks. There will always be more elections - and they certainly won’t be won by dressing the leader up in a pimptastic fur coat.