There is a delightful moment near the beginning of Vice’s excellent documentary about Jeremy Corbyn, released earlier this week, that shows Corbyn talking about the media.
It’s clear he hates the media.
And, more interestingly, Corbyn has a strategy for dealing with the media that is wildly under-estimated by his critics.
“One thing I’ve learned over the past six months or so is how shallow, facile and ill-informed many of the supposedly well-informed major commentators are in our media. They shape a debate that is baseless and narrow,” he tells Vice’s Ben Ferguson. The line is clearly well-rehearsed.
But then, in a less guarded moment, Vice films Corbyn talking to his top PR man, Seumas Milne, about Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian. Freedland had written a column titled “Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem,” which contained this sentence:
No one accuses him of being an antisemite. But many Jews do worry that his past instinct, when faced with potential allies whom he deemed sound on Palestine, was to overlook whatever nastiness they might have uttered about Jews, even when that extended to Holocaust denial or the blood libel — the medieval calumny that Jews baked bread using the blood of gentile children.
It’s a carefully worded paragraph. It doesn’t actually say that Corbyn believes Jews make bread with the blood of children. But it might accidentally give you that impression.
Corbyn is disgusted, he tells Milne:
The big negative today is Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian … 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.
For Corbyn and his supporters, this is a typical media moment. Corbyn is fighting the good fight, trying to bring some alternative facts to a business riddled with shallow soundbites and spin. And yet even media that ought to be sympathetic to Labour, like the Guardian, is stabbing him in the back. The is how “The Media” works.
Yet Corbyn has a cure for this.
On Thursday, Corbyn supporters hissed and booed a BBC reporter, Laura Kuenssberg, when she stood to ask Corbyn a question at speech he gave about the EU referendum. Previously, a petition of Corbyn supporters calling for Kuenssberg to be fired for her anti-left bias gathered 35,000 signatures.
Corbyn crucified the BBC in the Vice doc: “There is not one story on any election anywhere in the UK that the BBC will not spin into a problem for me. It’s obsessive beyond belief. They are obsessed with trying to damage the leadership of the Labour party.”
So now Corbyn’s direct line of communication to voters doesn’t go through the BBC. It goes through Facebook and Twitter, mostly Facebook.
Just over a week ago, Corbyn told the Guardian that he no longer needs the media as a vehicle to carry his messages:
Well, there are two kinds of cut-through. One is the world of the media, with TV and print, and the other is the world of social media, and on social media we have an enormous presence and an enormous following.
For example, an abbreviated version of my contribution in parliament after last week’s Queen’s speech got 2 million views on Facebook. We are getting enormous cut-through on social media and I think sometimes the national debate is framed around the political media circle that often ignores the reality of how many people get their information.
Corbyn is on Snapchat; David Cameron is not.
Corbyn has made this point repeatedly since he became Labour leader, and it’s interesting that he’s the only major political figure in the UK who talks about the power of social media on a regular basis. As Business Insider reported earlier this year, ignoring the media and going straight to Facebook and Twitter was the way Corbyn won the leadership election, to the shock of the traditional media. Corbyn is on Snapchat; Prime Minister David Cameron is not.
There are two threads here: First, the directness of social media negates the regular media. The Telegraph can continue thinking that headlines like “Labour’s pathetic blame games can’t hide Jeremy Corbyn’s own flaws” are having an impact. Corbyn doesn’t care. His own Facebook page reaches a far wider audience.
And second, Corbyn’s hatred of the traditional media is itself a mechanism through which he galvanises support — the more the mainstream media deride him, the more they prove he is right about their bias.
Here is the endgame, in Corbyn’s own words:
When in one week, we can get one to 2 million people watching online a message … It is a way of reaching past the censorship of the rightwing media in this country that has so constrained political debate for so long.
And so we begin to reframe political debate. I’ll tell you this: some of the more traditional media in this country find it very hard to understand, when they frame all political debate around rumours that abound in the Palace of Westminster and the discussion that takes place between journalists who have very much the same ideas, same outlook, same backgrounds and same attitudes towards society. We are doing things very differently.
Now consider the Vice documentary again. Why was it Vice that got such extended, intimate access to Corbyn? Riding with him in his taxi, attending his PMQ prep meetings with Milne, standing with him on the stage, not in the media pen below? Why not the BBC? Or The Guardian? Or the Independent?
The medium is the message: Corbyn knows his audience. He knows Vice.com has 95 million visitors per month (according to Similar Web) and a much larger reach on social media. Vice’s young, all digital, social-first audience are the antidote to the media Corbyn cannot trust.
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