It’s conventional wisdom that Corbyn’s leadership campaign was the target of brutal coverage by the media. I was interested to learn in The Candidate, by Alex Nunns, that this wasn’t quite how the campaign itself saw the situation. Understanding why can help elucidate the surprise that was #Election2017. From loc 4591-4556:
Ask some of Corbyn’s allies about the press coverage they received during the leadership contest and a surprising response comes back. “There are very few campaigns on the left that I’ve been involved in where we’ve had good press,” says Jon Lansman, “but this is one of them.” His definition of “good press” is unconventional, a variation on ‘all publicity is good publicity.’ Of course there was hostility, but the campaign managed to connect with its intended Labour audience in spite of it. “We always made the agenda. The others didn’t get a look in. We were the story throughout.” It was all about Corbyn. Because of the scale of interest, the campaign’s press officers found that along with the dross came greater opportunities to place their stories in the media than would normally be afforded to a left candidate. “The majority of things we tried to land landed, and in the ways we wanted them to land,” says James Mills, who was seconded to the press team from CWU. Whatever was being thrown at them, Team Corbyn pushed on with scheduled policy announcements, getting out a positive message that Mills believes cut through.
This dynamic within the print media played out in turn within the broadcast media. Not only were the campaign setting the agenda, with journalists responding in ever greater numbers to the issues they were raising, it led to increasing television coverage which highlighted the mismatch between the construction of Corbyn as a dangerous radical and the nice beardy chap who no one could really take much of a personal dislike to. From loc 4530:
Broadcast media followed a journalistic agenda that was still largely set by newspapers, despite the precipitous decline in their circulation. But broadcast had an inbuilt corrective missing from print—viewers and listeners could see and hear Corbyn for themselves. “They threw everything at Jeremy and it was so over the top that when he came on TV you expected him to be a combination of all sorts of villains,” says McDonnell. “When he came across as just a nice bloke answering questions honestly, that was it.”
This is something which the media themselves could be drawn into. As Phil BC insightfully pointed out some time ago, professional commentators are prone to confuse an absence of the presentational skills common amongst the political elite with a profound naïveté, as if Corbyn and McDonnell hadn’t spent their entire lives negotiating the political machine with some success from a position of marginality. As he asked in response to media astonishment at McDonnell’s apparent competence in his first speech at a Labour conference as Shadow Chancellor, “Were they really expecting him to commit Labour to a programme legislating for full communism?”
An escalating media campaign against Corbyn brought him endless ‘earned’ media, while offering an opportunity for the public to make up their own mind about the hyperbolic cliches in terms of which such media warfare was inevitably fought. If he got dragged into this, perhaps punching back against the onslaught, he likely would have been torn apart as self-defence would be cast as ‘gaffes’ and replayed endlessly. But by choosing to ignore media condemnation, in a way analogous to but different from Trump, it could be exploited for the benefit of the campaign. A similar effect was at work with denunciations from within the party. After Blair’s famous speech in which he attacked members drawn towards Corbyn as needing a heart transplant, the campaign saw an immediate influx of donations and volunteers.
I’d like to understand the mechanisms at work here: when do media attacks have their desired effect and when do they simply drive welcome coverage of a candidate? How does social media work to undermine the former and bring about he latter? One clear effect is that fighting back against this media onslaught can provide a way for followers to participate. There are legitimate issues which can be raised around ‘digital activism’ but I find it plausible that this social media activity helped the campaign consolidate, amplified its message and drew people into ‘offline’ participation. Though how, if at all, these effects worked to blunt media attacks is a more complex question. From loc 4530-4545:
Perhaps the most important factor explaining why the press onslaught backfired was the existence of social media. The old press no longer enjoyed a monopoly on having a voice. Through Facebook and Twitter ordinary people could critique and rebut journalists’ output directly. “Every time the mainstream media attacked Jeremy the social media shield would go up around him, bat it off, and get to the truth of the matter,” says Marshajane Thompson. Research carried out by YouGov in August 2015 found that 57 per cent of Corbyn supporters cited social media as “a main source of news,” compared to around 40 per cent for backers of the other candidates. 78 “Part of the reason why they were spending so much time on social media was because they didn’t trust the traditional media any more,” believes Ben Sellers. One of the main functions of the Corbyn For Leader social media operation run by Sellers and Thompson was to circumvent the press, both by publicising the explosion of activity happening all around the country, and by curating the mainstream media to pick out the half-decent reports (“sometimes that was a struggle,” Sellers quips).
There was an interesting finding before the election that there were more Labour tweeters who also tended to tweet more. There is a wide network, retweeting Labour candidates, with a larger and sustained focus on Corbyn than was the case with the Conservatives. Identifying what role this played in the general election will be central to understanding the rise of Corbyn. My suggestion is that the use of social media in the earlier leadership election would be a useful place to begin this inquiry.