John McDonnell recently granted an interview to Holyrood, a Scottish magazine (you can read it here). The interviewer is unembarrassedly sympathetic to McDonnell (or, as her interviewee might put it, “objective”). She calls him “a man of great integrity”, and asserts that the media has taken against him. McDonnell, happy to agree, embarks on a rambling series of grievances, which space and compassion for the reader allow me to quote from only briefly:
“I just don’t think they [the media] get us or the new politics that is emerging. But we have taken a view that we will try and work with the media as best we can and to be fair, there is some that will give you a fair crack of the whip. But the written media, in England, in particular, is so rabidly anti-left or anti anything new and so rabidly conservative with a big and small ‘c’, it is difficult to break through.”
That “we have taken a view” is amusingly pompous. It implies that the media are supplicants, to whom McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have chosen, in their infinite patience, to be gracious. Had they chosen not to be so, they could have got along very well without them. This isn’t even the funniest moment of McDonnell’s interview – that comes when he accuses the media of having “chosen not to understand my humour”.
Media-hating might be the most consistent theme of the new politics. Corbyn chose to devote a section of his first conference speech to an attack on “the commentariat” and consistently returns to the theme in interviews. This week, Owen Jones this week wrote a strange piece on the feverish reaction of some Corbyn supporters to Jess Philips’s joke about knifing the leader. He managed to blame it, not on the obvious culprits – the complaining Corbyn supporters – but on – yes you guessed it – “the media”. (Philips herself dealt with the whole thing much better herself. Oh and in case you haven’t heard of Owen Jones, he’s a journalist, but an objective one, employed by a niche journal called the Guardian).
Here’s my advice to the current Labour leadership, and its supporters (including those in the media):
Stop. Moaning. About. The. Media.
Most politicians reach the stage of paranoia about the media at the end of their time as leader – as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was obsessed by the press’s hostility to him, and he had more reason to be so than Corbyn – but for Corbyn and his followers, it is a starting point, and an article of faith. It is a big problem for them.
First of all, nobody likes a moaner. Moaning does the opposite of inspiring confidence. It makes you suspicious that the moaner has something to hide. When you watch Jose Mourinho blame yet another defeat on a refereeing conspiracy, you do not, unless you are the most ardent Chelsea supporter, think “Ah yes, the special one makes a good point, he has been victimized yet again.” You think, this shifty bastard doesn’t want to talk about why his team hate him. You feel contempt for the evasion, and then, after a while, pity. Moaners sound like losers.
Secondly, let’s assume, for a minute, that the Corbynite analysis of the media is correct: that the media is dominated by the press, which is uniformly in hoc to evil moguls, who employ only right-wing propagandists or blinkered reactionaries. Every minor error committed by a radical Labour leader will therefore be jumped on and weaponised, while ideas of substance, like “socialism with an iPad,” suffer derision.
Let’s grant that, or something like it. The next question is, what to do about it? You can’t, in opposition, nationalize newspaper groups or change ownership rules. That leaves you with two options.
The first is to work hard at shaping the media environment to your advantage. That means getting the press onside, or at least neutralizing it, by courting its most powerful and influential members. Even more importantly, it means running a highly professional media operation, with a focus on TV as well as press. But of course, this first option is the one chosen by New Labour, and by the Tories, which is why it wouldn’t work.
This leaves only the second option: drone on endlessly and tediously about how everything is the media’s fault, thereby alienating the media even further, and compounding the problem.
It isn’t just Corbynites who think like this. One of the many stupid things Andy Burnham said in his second leadership campaign was that he wouldn’t, as Labour leader, talk to the Sun. Yes, why would you want to reach its millions of readers, many of them current or potential Labour voters? Why on earth would you want to see if you can get the nation’s most popular newspaper to give you some friendly coverage?
Labour’s current leaders want to believe that the press don’t matter anymore (they are fond of remarking that social media is making newspapers irrelevant), and also that the only reason they’re behind in the polls is because of the press. The contradiction grows out of an evasion. Corbynites love to talk about “democratic process” but they don’t grasp the first principle of democracy, which is to respect the intelligence of the masses.
The left has long been prey to the suspicion that that if people aren’t clamouring for socialism, it’s because they are easily deceived. John McDonnell thinks the press has chosen to misunderstand his humour, because he cannot countenance the possibility that he isn’t funny. The left has concluded that the media is irrevocably biased against it, because it doesn’t want to admit that reality is.