Jeremy Corbyn’s social media team could have recorded a video on any topic to mark the start of the Labour party conference: Brexit, the proposal to scrap Ofsted, or the plan to abolish prescription charges in England. Instead, they decided to show the Labour leader criticising The Andrew Marr Show for giving the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, an easy ride.
In a clip that attracted half a million views on Twitter, Corbyn explained his frustration that Raab had not been asked about the nature of Boris Johnson’s relationship with an American technology entrepreneur who accompanied him on trade trips.
“I was on the BBC’s flagship news programme this morning and I was asked about a range of issues,” he said. “That’s fine, it’s right, it’s justified, it’s how our democracy works. But I was followed by Boris Johnson’s deputy who was asked nothing about these allegations. This is how the establishment works. They close ranks.”
It was just one example of how Labour politicians at the party’s annual conference in Brighton were increasingly willing to directly confront traditional media outlets, and they did so in the strongest terms.
The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, told activists he was preparing for the “full weight, the whole kitchen sink of the media, the Tory press, the gutter press thrown at us”, but said social media made newspapers “irrelevant”; Diane Abbott said the media, including the Guardian, had mistakenly written off Corbyn before and “may very well end up making yourselves look silly”; while Dawn Butler criticised the mainstream media for not covering the story about Johnson, though it first appeared on the front page of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times.
Some sceptics contend that these interventions are in bad faith: that senior party figures overemphasise problematic media coverage as part a strategy that owes more to Donald Trump than anyone in Labour would like to admit. They point out that saying that the media is refusing to cover a policy announcement almost always attracts more online readers than the original coverage, even when it exists.
But despite public warnings from some journalists about the risks of going to war with the press, Labour sources and former staffers suggest they have little choice in a genuinely hostile media environment, and say this approach is only set to ramp up as a general election looms, for three key reasons. First, that it is an effective way of energising core Labour supporters; second, that it highlights a real structural bias in the traditional media environment against leftwing politicians; and third, a conviction – seemingly backed by experience – that public criticism of news outlets on social media can push journalists and news outlets to change how they cover stories.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, who served as Corbyn’s spokesperson between 2016 and 2017, said Labour’s increased public criticism of the media is partly driven by necessity. “It’s inevitable that you’re going to get attacked,” he said. “So the only choice you’ve got is to frame that attack as vested interests trying to prevent changes to the status quo.”
BBC sources say that while they considered questioning Raab on the story during Marr’s BBC One show on Sunday, they only had a brief slot and decided to focus on the collapse of Thomas Cook and potential British involvement in Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iran. The story was featured in the programme’s newspaper review, while BBC reporters travelling to the US with the prime minister were left to seek extra details.
Nonetheless, Corbyn’s clip helped Labour draw a dividing line. If an outlet was not covering this new scandal involving the prime minister, then they could also find themselves on the receiving end of a message from the opposition leader accusing them of being part of a cosy club – and a barrage of online criticism.
There was something important in one of the Sunday papers today about an alleged abuse of power by Boris Johnson.
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) September 22, 2019
Zarb-Cousin suggested the uneasy relationship the former Labour leader Ed Miliband had with rightwing newspapers – sometimes attempting to please the Sun, sometimes directly attacking the Daily Mail – was a legacy of the New Labour approach to media management where potential news coverage shaped party policy.
Instead, he claims, the Corbyn approach has been to prioritise policy and then call out media outlets which do not give the party fair coverage. “It can draw attention to something that hasn’t had much attention … If it’s a valid criticism, it’ll carry.”
News consumption habits are changing fast with younger viewers rapidly abandoning traditional outlets. There is also continued annoyance in Labour circles that TV and radio broadcasters – especially the BBC – still instinctively follow up stories pushed by print newspapers despite sales having halved in the last decade and given the Mirror and the Guardian are the only mainstream national titles offering a leftwing viewpoint.
“The BBC doesn’t tend to be overtly hostile to the centre left but its coverage tends to reflect the dominance of the newspapers,” said Tom Mills, a sociologist and vice-chair of the Corbyn-friendly Media Reform Coalition. He said that although some complaints from Labour supporters about journalists’ activities overstepped the mark, their “basic instinct that these institutions are hostile to the left is clear from the evidence”.
Individuals involved in planning Labour’s election campaign point to the surge in support the party enjoyed in 2017, when strict broadcasting impartiality rules kicked in. But there is an awareness that in other respects the party may find it harder to get its message across, especially given changes to the Facebook algorithm, which worked substantially in favour of Corbyn during the last general election by prioritising uncritical sites such as the Canary.
Instead, the party may need to allocate substantial sums to paid-for Facebook advertising in order to reach key voters.
Zarb-Cousin expects that just as social media influencers have become increasingly dominant in fashion and entertainment, the emphasis at the next election could shift towards the roles of influential pro-Corbyn figures on social media. “Obviously there’s going to be viral videos and Momentum content,” he said. “But I don’t think they’re going to be as impactful as the role of political influencers.”