Una Mullally: Corbyn revival shows the media’s failings

British Labour leader’s comeback is partially the result of unfavourable coverage

British Labour  leader Jeremy Corbyn. File photograph: John Stillwell/Getty Images

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. File photograph: John Stillwell/Getty Images

 

In mid-April, British prime minister Theresa May had a lead of 56 points over Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in approval ratings. Her lead is now 22 points. How does that happen? A week from the UK’s general election, the Conservatives’ lead over Labour, which was 19 points a month ago, has narrowed to 10.

So the British media might now have to search for different ways to discuss Corbyn. Once viewed as toxic and unelectable, a Labour kamikaze mission, a disaster who would dismantle the party for a generation, a useless leader of the opposition, a man who could never lead, never mind win, a person whom the British public could never envisage as prime minister, Corbyn is having something of a comeback, albeit from a low base.

What does this mean about how we talk about politicians deemed by mainstream, centrist society to be “unsuitable”?

May’s decreasing popularity is unusual, in that her leadership is still in a honeymoon period of sorts. The decline of Ukip and the subsuming of some of its policies into the Conservative agenda will also work in the Tories’ favour in sucking up more right-wing voters.

May has a fawning conservative media championing her every move and utterance. And with terrorism to the fore in current affairs and discourse, many people will react by gravitating towards a conservative position.

What will happen on June 8th, we’re told, is a Labour wipeout. What began as a general election on Brexit, and a tactical decision by May to put her leadership front and centre in order to trash Labour and return a stronger Tory majority, has turned into something slightly odder.

Tory PR nightmare

There is so much strange about western politics today, but one of the themes is unlikely leaders, or those who come from nowhere to unseat the status quo.

A dent in May’s campaign has been her U-turn on “social care”, when she changed a manifesto pledge relating to how much the elderly will be required to pay for their care. This became a PR nightmare that has also embroiled her in an argument about a policy with an unspinnable name: “dementia tax”.

It’s an emotionally loaded topic and an almost impossible debate for May to win. It is also a symbol for a view of the Tories as uncaring, which is a strong emotional lever for Labour to pull.

Labour’s manifesto, however, has cut through in a way that wasn’t predicted, although, as we know, campaign policies can differ greatly from actions in office.

Corbyn is still ropey and often seems to go out of his way to make the wrong decision. His refusal to engage in a leaders’ debate on television showed a bullish naivety when it might have given him an opportunity to own the conversation.

Given Corbyn’s and Labour’s complaints about the British media, you’d imagine he should take his opportunities when they are presented. And what of that media?

The narrative that surrounds Corbyn in terms of him being far from an ideal Labour leader or potential prime minister might be true, but it is one that has been amplified in a way which, ironically, is perhaps contributing to his slowly increasing popularity.

Antagonistic

A 2016 report from the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics, Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press – from “Watchdog” to “Attackdog”, found that coverage of the Labour leader was overwhelmingly critical and antagonistic in tone.

Few who read British newspapers could be surprised by this. It raises the question of why the British media is so hostile to Corbyn. It also raises the question of why, given that hostility, Corbyn and Labour are climbing in the polls.

Apart from his flaws as a leader, Corbyn’s sin is that he has never fitted into the mainstream media’s ideological framework of what a contemporary Labour leader should be.

And just as the media in the United States failed to wrap its head around the reasons why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders appealed to voters, the mainstream British media is missing something with Corbyn.

In hammering the underdog (rightly or wrongly), the media might be boosting him, because the narrative is one of the media, the status quo and the establishment versus Corbyn.

Many parts of the media – both liberal and conservative – are in thrall to consensus and status quo, where space for divergent opinions seems mostly set aside for controversialists or “hot take” journalism, as opposed to wider debate about what society could or perhaps should be.

Alternatives are viewed with suspicion, radical ideas are sidelined as nonsense, and figures such as Corbyn – whatever one’s view of him – are gleefully misinterpreted and patronised.

When there is so much criticism, hyperbole, sensationalism, and bias, how are consumers of media meant to know what is legitimate? Who are they meant to trust? And when trust in the so-called establishment disappears, particularly in politics and the media, anything can happen.

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