Jeremy Corbyn and Balance

Trading binary options

I’ve just completed my book to be published in November by Bristol University Press called ‘The Lies We Were Told’. It is the story of UK austerity, the Eurozone crisis, how mediamacro swung the 2015 election, the Corbyn phenomenon, Brexit and more besides. These things are described as they happened in selected blog posts with new introductions, postscripts etc. (It can be ordered at a 20% discount here, rising to 35% if you join the publisher’s mailing list.)

During the process of selecting the blogs I needed to tell these stories, I came across oneI had forgotten completely. It was called “Do we get the leaders our media deserves?”, and it asked why many of the successful (in terms of popularity) leaders of today are of the likes of Johnson, Farage and Berlusconi, while leaders with far more integrity and honesty like Ed Miliband appear unpopular. The post was written at the end of 2014, and a postscript for the book notes that Trump versus Clinton was in part a devastating example of this trend.

It is tempting to respond by saying this is just what voters want: politicians that make them feel good. There may be an element of that, but what has nothing to do with voters is how the Johnson type politicians get a easy ride from the media. When he deliberately stokes islamophobia, the criticism is disarmedwith a cup of tea for waiting reporters. I have yet to see an interview with Farage where he is questioned about his support for far right parties in Europe and his Russian links. This interviewwith Johnson by Eddie Mair stands out in talking about past sins because it is so unusual. Most of the time the media seems content to reflect his easy charm.

While people like Farage or Johnson are normally treated with kid gloves, others get a much harder ride. The left tried it with Cameron and Osborne: posh Eton and Bullingdonclub boys who were clearly out of touch with ordinary voters. Sometimes these attacks work, and sometimes they do not. No doubt the reasons why are complex, but it seems to me that two things matter a lot. The first is whether or not the person being attacked has the personality to deflect such criticism, and the second reflects the extent that attacks become part of the non-partisan media’s agenda.

Hereis a time series of how Corbyn’s leader ratings have been getting steadily worse over the last year, and by far more than those of his party. This could be for many reasons. It could reflect disillusionment by Remain inclined Labour voters as events have shown Labour’s pro-Brexit position is not just opportunistic triangulation. It could reflect a lack of initiatives coming from the leadership (although it does not help that when he does make speeches they are blatantly misinterpreted). It could be that Labour’s problems with antisemitism are constantly in the news: although these stories do not have high impactamong voters, for those that do notice they are seenas a negative for Corbyn.

I have argued beforethat the Labour surge before the 2017 election and the subsequent decline are part of the same phenomenon: the ability of the media rather than the politician to control the agenda outside of election periods. The MSM is clearly much more hostile to Corbyn than any other major political figure today, and the row over antisemitism shows that clearly.

Because this debate has become so partisan, I have to say the following. First, I am no Corbynite (read my posts during the Corbyn vs Smith campaign). I also thinkantisemitism within the Labour party is a real problem, and that large parts of the membership seemto be in denial about this. Not adopting all the IHRA examples (but with accompanying text to clarify meaning drafted in consultation with Jewish groups where possible) was a big political mistake. It created concerns in the Jewish community that the media was right to reflect. The idea that the non-partisan media’s reporting of this is just a smear campaign is nonsense.

All those things can be true, but it can also be true that the broadcast media has given the issue excessive prominence. How do I know this? The obvious comparison is with Islamophobia in the Conservative party. This has been given much less coverage, but I would argue that problem is at least as bad. As far as I know, Labour has never run a clearly antisemitic campaign for a major political post, but the Tory party have run an Islamophobic  campaign in which the Tory leader played a major part. Some say the difference is because Corbyn himself has been described as antisemitic, but the betting odds for next Prime Minister for Johnson and Corbyn are similar. To say that broadcasters cannot help reporting what is going on is very naive about how the media selects what is newsworthy and what is not.  

Many would argue this bias is because Corbyn has few friends in the media, and that may be a part of it [1], but I prefer more structural explanations. For the broadcast media balance seems to involve MPs in Westminster rather than their own viewers. Labour MPs are prepared to criticise the leadership in public while Tory MPs are not, and this means one story gets much more airtime than the other. [2] We can see this clearly with Brexit: because the two main parties went with the 52%, the point of view of the 48% (now more) who oppose Brexit was largely ignored by the media. Exactly the same can now be said about the Muslim community.

A good test of all this is to reverse roles. Suppose Jeremy Corbyn had written an article in which he had made fun of how orthodox Jews dress, and all the party had asked him to do is apologise but he had refused. Suppose the Labour party had no code at all covering antisemitism. Would the broadcast media have been happy to show pictures of him offering vegetables from his allotment to reporters and then forgotten about the whole thing? I’m sure natural charm has something to do with why some political leaders are treated differently than others, but I think that is only a small part of the story.

[1] It may explain, for example, the lack critical reporting. Most of the time it is presumed that Labour did not adopt all the IHRA examples because of antisemitism. Until recently the Israel/Palestine conflict was hardly mentioned, and neither was the fact that a select committee had suggestedthe IHRA examples were unsatisfactory on their own. Ludicrous statements about existential threats or rivers of blood go unchallenged. In some quarters it is deemed insensitive to question motives (Stephen Pollard, Jewish Chronicle editor, has said: “The left, in any recognisable form, is now the enemy”). In contrast a Conservative minister is happy to dismiss claims of Islamophobia by attacking a group that made the claim as unrepresentative, and no one in the media notes the Conservative Muslim Forum has made similarcomplaints.

[2] Whatever else this is, it is not good for democracy. Because Conservative MPs keep quiet about Islamophobia in their party, the issue only appears occasionally in the media. As a result, nothing is done about the problem. In contrast Labour are trying to do something about antisemitism, and their reward is constant attack.

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