Jeremy Corbyn emerged from a parliamentary office well after midnight on September 14, 2015. He had just spent a torturous few hours toiling over his shadow cabinet and was in no mood to talk to the press.
Undeterred, Sky News politics reporter Darren McCaffrey pursued the Labour leader to his car, repeatedly asking why so few female MPs were selected to sit on his front bench.
McCaffrey’s three minutes of footage became known as “the walk of silence.” Corbyn does not utter a word until, catching sight of his youngest son Tommy Corbyn, he shouts: “Tommy, there’s people bothering me.”
For McCaffrey, the walk of silence is symbolic of Corbyn’s approach to the press. “It’s fair to say that Jeremy Corbyn has had an uneasy relationship with most, if not all of the mainstream media,” the Sky reporter tells us. “He’s not necessarily that concerned about the mainstream media.”
McCaffrey is not alone in this view. Business Insider has spoken to Corbyn’s former head of media, Kevin Slocombe, a key member of the Labour leader’s communications team until July, and nearly 10 senior political journalists who cover Corbyn’s office. They almost unanimously agree that Corbyn’s lack of engagement is “unprecedented” for a leader of the opposition.
Put simply: Corbyn does not play the media game.
Instead, the Islington North MP prefers to wield his influence on social media or through grassroots campaigning. Here, Corbyn feels he can talk directly to the electorate and reach out to the disenfranchised away from the filter of journalists.
This cauldron of conflicting agendas has been bubbling away between Corbyn and the press for more than a year now. Business Insider set out to investigate why Corbyn is so hostile to the press, and whether that hostility is deserved. The highlights:
- Corbyn’s former press chief tells us why Corbyn prefers social media to mainstream media.
- Academic research shows that the BBC’s coverage of Corbyn has been biased. An analysis by the Media Reform Coalition found that the BBC gave over double the airtime to Corbyn’s critics than his supporters — and now it wants answers from the broadcaster.
- Channel 4 News political correspondent Michael Crick says: “Corbyn is incredibly reluctant to do any form of public performance where he is asked questions by journalists. This is fatal, in my view, for a leader of the opposition.”
Business Insider repeatedly requested comment from Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign team. Our phone calls and emails were often ignored, and when we did receive a reply, a formal response was not forthcoming.
Jeremy Corbyn and the press: A loveless marriage.
On the road to being elected Labour leader on 12 September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, a press-shy backbench MP of more than 30 years, was thrust into the mainstream media’s glare.
Right-wing newspapers and magazines were often brutal. He was introduced to readers of The Spectator as “the most dangerous man in British politics,” while The Mail on Sunday imagined the country with Corbyn in 10 Downing Street under the headline: “Prime minister Corbyn … and the 1,000 days that destroyed Britain.”
On television, BBC1 memorably profiled Corbyn in “Panorama” documentary, “Jeremy Corbyn: Labour’s Earthquake.” The show claimed Corbyn went to a conference in Cairo where attendees advocated attacks on British and US troops. But Corbyn’s diary shows he was at a meeting in his Islington constituency at the time. Sources close to the MP told The Independent that the film was “a complete hatchet job.”
Corbyn returned fire soon after clinching the Labour crown.
In a victory speech that set the tone for his media relations, the Labour leader criticised “appalling” invasions of his family’s privacy by the press. “It has been intrusive, it has been abusive, it has been simply wrong,” he said.
Perhaps most tellingly, however, Corbyn berated UK press coverage of the 2015 general election. “The media and maybe many of us simply didn’t understand the views of many young people within our society,” he argued.
Corbyn put young people at the heart of his media strategy. The plan was simple: embrace the social media and grassroots campaigning that got him elected — even if this was at the expense of ignoring the mainstream media.
He has more than tripled his base of Twitter followers to 632,000 in the past year, while his Facebook likes stand at 800,441. In contrast, his leadership rival Owen Smith has 43,000 Twitter followers and 18,000 Facebook likes.
“Jeremy’s outlook on the media is very different to other politicians,” says former head of media Kevin Slocombe. He worked with the leader up until the Parliamentary summer recess in July.
“He believes social media reaches young people at a time when newspapers are in decline. It means he’s not falling over himself to talk to the media.”
The social media push gave rise to #WeAreHisMedia, a hashtag pulling together posts from Corbynistas emphasising positive news about him.
But political journalists tell us that the early days of Corbyn’s leadership were “chaotic.” His inexperience with the media and reticence to engage caused frustrations as press clamoured to secure access to the new Labour leader.
McCaffrey’s walk of silence was one flashpoint. Another was when BBC cameraman James Webb was knocked to the floor, and injured, outside the Labour leader’s home. Two other cameramen then forced open Corbyn’s car door and briefly prevented him from leaving.
“In the first few weeks of his leadership, Corbyn could not handle cameras on his doorstep. There were a number of incidents that were violent,” Channel 4 News political correspondent Michael Crick says. “The driver did that within the atmosphere of the time.”
Another journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, adds: “There’s a mismatch between Corbyn’s style and what everyone is used to doing. It’s like in rugby where one side doesn’t engage and won’t ruck.”
Slocombe was brought in for a temporary period of six weeks after the first month of Corbyn’s leadership. But he became so busy he eventually ended up staying for nearly 11 months. Corbyn’s other key media relations hire was Seumas Milne, who came from The Guardian as his director of strategic communications.
Slocombe says the press strategy was set by Corbyn. “We restricted the number of interviews we did and the number of the questions [we took from journalists at press conferences]. The politicians are the boss, you shape your media strategy around them,” he reflects.
Members of the Westminster lobby press pack say his reluctance to engage is hardwired into his politics.
Sky’s Darren McCaffrey says Corbyn’s embrace of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube plays into his ambition for “radical change.” He adds: “In many ways he might see us as part of the establishment.”
Another journalist goes a step further: “There is a view on the Corbyn side that the mainstream media is part of the capitalist conspiracy and anything anyone does and says is simply more evidence of that.”
The rumour among reporters in the Westminster lobby is that Corbyn and his team refuse to deal with Rupert Murdoch’s titles, including The Sun and The Times, partly because of this conspiracy. But News UK sources don’t recognise this. They tell us that they find it no more frustrating dealing with Corbyn and his team than other journalists.
Ben Ferguson, the Vice Media producer who spent weeks embedded in Corbyn’s camp for his documentary “Jeremy Corbyn: The Outsider,” believes the Labour leader is simply protecting his brand.
“What was clear from spending time with him was he is keen to maintain his authenticity. Part of that is being unlike other MPs, who are all over the media. He doesn’t want to appear as being media obsessed, or thrust himself into the spotlight,” he explains.
“He’s not nervous about appearing on shows like the [Radio 4] ‘Today’ programme, but certainly it’s not in his nature to be front and centre. If his media team are trying to place him, then one of the things they might have come up against is a reticence on his part to do those things.”
Slocombe insists it is “not fair” to say Corbyn does not engage at all. “All politicians have to engage with the national press and Jeremy knows that,” he argues, pointing to interviews he did with the likes of BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg soon after he was elected Labour leader.
He adds that for a man reluctant to do press, Corbyn is rarely out of the headlines: “We didn’t get a shortage of media coverage. There wasn’t a time when my phone stopped ringing.”
Ferguson says it was Slocombe’s idea to do the Vice film. On paper it seemed perfect: A chance to get Corbyn’s message out to young people on a platform that is not part of the old school media elite. Ferguson, the reporter in the documentary, says he voted for Corbyn. In reality, it exposed some of the vulnerabilities and fractions in Labour, most notably when Vice’s cameras caught Milne suggesting that there was a mole in the party leaking to the government ahead of prime minister’s questions.
This has not deterred Corbyn, however, and he has continued to dabble with the new guard of British press, including taking over the Huffington Post UK Snapchat account earlier this month.“They’re pretty good with online media. They have always appreciated talking to us,” says one senior source at a big news website. “We offer more of a blank canvass.”
This optimism is not shared by senior members of the broadcasting media, who have become almost resigned to getting limited access to the Labour leader.
“To be the leader of the opposition, the Labour Party, someone who wants to be prime minister — it is pretty unprecedented in terms of the lack of engagement,” says McCaffrey.
Channel 4’s Crick points out: “It is unprecedented in that he doesn’t give regular interviews. So for instance, I did the UB40 event. But if it had been Ed Miliband or Tony Blair in opposition, they would have done an interview as well. So there is a lack of engagement there.”
Away from the camera, broadcast journalists tell us that they are sometimes left for hours without comment from Corbyn’s team — and often, the leader won’t comment at all. Off the record briefing is also kept to a minimum.
It is why the press sometimes doorstep Corbyn or pursue him at public events. Journalists argue it is often the only opportunity they have to get a comment from the Labour leader, but he does not respond well to this invasion of privacy.
There was the time he pushed away an LBC journalist’s dictaphone after being questioned on his doorstep. Corbyn also was held back by his aides when pursued by Channel 4 reporter Victoria Macdonald at an event in Highbury Fields.
Finally, there are rumbling concerns that Corbyn is hostile to scrutiny during press conferences.
The Labour leader took issue with McCaffrey at a press conference on the NHS last month, when the Sky reporter asked questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s claim he could not get a seat on a Virgin Train to Newcastle. Virgin disputed the Labour leader’s version of events and released CCTV footage of empty seats on the service.
Corbyn was visibly irritated, raising his voice and exclaiming: “Can we move on, please?” McCaffrey persisted and eventually got his answer.
“We have no entitlement to interviews with Jeremy Corbyn or to get his side of the story,” he explains. “He doesn’t have to engage with us. If they want to take a different tack of having more direct communication, that’s fine, but that does not mean we don’t have the right to ask a question, even if it goes unanswered.”
Corbyn has even failed to take advantage of his natural allies in the media. His media chief, Milne, is still close with his former colleagues at The Guardian. Guardian columnist Owen Jones is an active supporter of Corbyn’s — he even spoke at Corbyn’s leadership campaign rallies in 2015, and gave advice to the campaign. But on the day Corbyn was declared leader of the Labour party inside Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth II hall, Jones watched on TV from outside because no one from Corbyn’s team had given him a ticket.
Jones has since taken to debating Corbyn supporters on Twitter and Medium about the need to be more realistic about Corbyn’s sinking poll numbers with the voters outside the party he will need in the next election.
Does the mainstream media have an anti-Corbyn agenda?
There is a theory among Corbynistas that the press has a rabid anti-Corbyn agenda — and the public appears to have some sympathy with this notion. A YouGov poll earlier this month found that more than three-quarters of Brits believe that the media has “deliberately” smeared Corbyn since he rose to prominence in 2015.
The Media Reform Coalition (MRC) has taken issue with what it calls “insidious bias” in the BBC’s reporting. It analysed 40 prime time news bulletins from the BBC and ITV across 10 days. It found that the BBC gave over double the airtime to Corbyn’s critics than his supporters and overwhelmingly focused on negative issues for the Labour leader. ITV, by comparision, gave a slim majority of its coverage to Corbyn supporters. MRC is considering whether to take the broadcaster to court, it tells Business Insider.
Meanwhile, the London School of Economics published a report in July accusing newspapers of vilifying Corbyn in a manner that goes “well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy.” The Telegraph, for instance, once claimed Corbyn had cancelled Christmas; and The Times called his bicycle a “Chairman Mao-style bike.” Both stories were false.
Corbyn himself appears to believe that the media is out to get him. In the Vice film, he said the BBC is “obsessed with trying to damage the leadership of the Labour party,” and he branded other media commentators “shallow, facile and ill-informed.”
He singled out Guardian writer Jonathan Freedland for particular venom. Freedland had written a column arguing that Corbyn should more aggressively root out antisemitism inside Labour. Corbyn told Milne on camera: “Utterly disgusting, subliminal nastiness, the whole lot of it, you know? He’s not a good guy at all but he seems kind of obsessed with me, you know?”
Bias against Corbyn in newspapers like The Sun is perhaps not surprising. Similar accusations against the UK’s top broadcasters, and specifically the BBC, should be treated with more seriousness, given that they have a legal duty to impartiality. This is what makes the MCR’s findings interesting.
The campaign group published a report in July accusing the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. BBC bulletins of giving twice as much airtime to Corbyn’s critics (measured in seconds on air) than his supporters during the Labour leadership coup after the EU referendum in June.
The research added the there was a “strong tendency” among BBC reporters to use “pejorative language,” such as “far left,” to describe Corbyn and his supporters.
Justin Schlosberg, the director of journalism at Birkbeck, University of London, oversaw the study.
He explains: “What you have on the BBC, is a much more subtle but no less insidious form of bias because it’s presented as impartiality. You will get reporters like Laura Kuenssberg making statements that reference both sides of the argument, but one side of the debate will be more qualified.”
Schlosberg, who is transparent about the fact he is a Corbyn supporter, sent the findings to the BBC but has been shocked by its “wholly inadequate” reluctance to engage.
It is BBC policy not to respond to outside research, but the academic is writing to the broadcaster again this week to ensure that the study has been seen by director of news James Harding.
Schlosberg is considering a formal complaint to media regulator Ofcom. He is also exploring taking the broadcaster to court to uphold its legal obligation to impartiality. “We will do whatever we can to make sure this issue is properly addressed by the BBC,” he says.
Former Corbyn press chief Slocombe recognises the MRC’s findings, arguing that the BBC was “not as fair” in its coverage of the Labour leader as ITV and Sky News.
“The BBC were, on occasion on the news, happy to play up any crisis in the party more than ITV and Sky News,” he tells us. “I wouldn’t say there was an agenda, it took them longer to come to terms with the shift in the direction of the Labour party.”
BBC insiders say that the MRC study was limited in its scope, both in terms of the programmes analysed and the time frame it examined. They argue that it was natural for the news agenda to be led by the wave of MPs resigning from the shadow cabinet.
A spokeswoman adds: “We are confident our coverage of Labour’s unprecedented en masse frontbench resignation was impartial and we continue to air views from both sides of the party’s ongoing divisions.”
This has not stopped Kuenssberg being singled for criticism by Corbyn supporters. A petition calling for the BBC political editor to be sacked was signed by more than 35,000 people, while she was jeered before asking a question of the Labour leader during a speech in June.
One former UK news chief, who wished to remain anonymous, says it could be a case of no smoke without fire.
“I’m concerned there’s something in these claims of bias, but it would be a big surprise if Ofcom could pin something on the BBC,” the source explains.
“The good news about scrutiny on this issue is it could lead to a bit of self-awareness internally, which might prompt them to rethink their approach to covering Corbyn.”
Lis Howell, director of broadcasting at City University and an expert in analysing news bulletins, took a different view. “BBC management and senior editors probably thought that it [the Corbyn phenomenon] would all collapse and go away, so like a lot of the press, they were perhaps a bit tongue in cheek about him at first. But whether they have actually been deliberately biased against him as a policy I would think is highly unlikely,” she argues.
And there is evidence that supports this. The BBC’s governing body, the BBC Trust, has not upheld a single complaint about bias in the corporation’s reporting on Corbyn this year. It has investigated 21 complaints since January and dismissed every one of them.
Senior journalists argue that the Corbynistas’ fears of bias are not helped by the Labour leader’s reticence to engage with the media. If he is unwilling to comment — even through a statement from a spokesperson — when he comes under fire, it makes balancing news reports without his point of view all the more tricky.
Journalists can turn to his supporters, or archive footage of Corbyn’s speeches, to provide parity, but this can play into Schlosberg’s argument that the pro-Corbyn sources being cited in news reports are not as qualified as the anti-Corbyn voices.
Vice producer Ferguson says this leaves “a gaping hole where Jeremy Corbyn would have been if he was more interested in participating in mainstream media.” Sky reporter McCaffrey also recognises this challenge.
“It can be difficult to say ‘this is Jeremy’s side of story’ because we haven’t got it. You can always find a way to give balance, but sometimes — particularly immediately because they can be slow to react — it is not always from Jeremy himself,” he explains.
The general election could change everything.
Channel 4 Michael Crick has been part of the Westminster press lobby for 36 years, so he knows as a well as anyone the rough and tumble that comes with dealing with different political regimes.
“Relations between the media and party leaders are never easy — and nor should they be. I’m sure some would have a different view, but I don’t think the Corbyn is any worse than previous Labour leaders. One would always have rows with them, particularly a Labour leader,” he laughs.
But he does think Corbyn has to change tack if he wins the Labour leadership battle with Owen Smith on Saturday, as expected. To put it another way: The Islington North MP must broaden his appeal if he is to stand any hope of winning a general election.
“Corbyn is incredibly reluctant to do any form of public performance where he is asked questions by journalists. This is fatal, in my view, for a leader of the opposition,” Crick explains. “The prime minister has the ability to create lots of their own platforms, but a leader of the opposition has to be willing to do lots of broadcast interviews.”
McCaffrey adds: “My message to Corbyn’s press team is: If he is serious about winning a Labour majority, he is going to have to engage with elements of the press, who reach people he thus far hasn’t. I would hope that things might change, but ultimately it is his call.”
Former BBC political editor Nick Robinson made this very point to Corbyn in a recorded Radio 4 “Today” programme interview on Monday. The presenter said Corbyn had not appeared on the show, which has 7.3 million listeners, since the Labour leadership contest began in July.
“Do you accept you maybe have to do things a bit differently if you’re going to win [a general election]?” Robinson asked.
Corbyn was initially flippant in his reply: “With the deepest and greatest respect to the ‘Today’ programme, I know it is the most important radio programme on the whole planet, it is not the only radio programme on the whole planet.”
He added: “We will be reaching out to all forms of communication. It’s not the only radio programme. We’ve done lots of radio programmes, lots of TV programmes, lots of social media.”
But there are signs things are changing. BuzzFeed published a lengthy article last month claiming that “Jeremy Corbyn’s team are finally building a coherent media operation.” Its central claim was that his campaign team, who do not work for the Labour party, are more effective in handling the press than Corbyn’s parliamentary office. “Can they keep it up?” the website asked.
Slocombe, who was part of that parliamentary team, believes that Corbyn will naturally become more outward looking. “By definition, he’ll end up engaging with the national media. If you look at 2015, it still had a major role in public discourse,” he says.
Crick is slightly more cynical: “I can see them carrying on like this forever. It will be frustrating for us, and it may not do them any good, but they’re a very stubborn regime.”
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