A pro-Corbyn campaign by the public has sent the mainstream media into a hissy fit

Steve Topple

IN MY VIEW

If you’re an avid follower of Labour party hijinks on Twitter, it was an interesting weekend. The ‘We Are His Media’ Jeremy Corbyn-related hashtag was trending at number two in the UK, provoking fiery reactions across the political spectrum. But in the process, the point behind it became completely lost, even to left-wing journalists like Owen Jones.

SPOILER ALERT: I know the people who started the hashtag. Unfortunately for the numerous, squawking Twitter users flapping frantically over my timeline claiming it was a Momentum-instigated plot – it wasn’t. It was organised by a couple of working class mums, who aren’t members of Momentum but who have become politically engaged since Corbyn became Labour leader.

And the natural creation of this hashtag is part of the point. The idea was a simple one: trust in the mainstream media’s (MSM) ability to report fairly on Corbyn is at an all-time low and his supporters were voicing their disdain about this. In doing so, they were expressing that, somehow, control of the narrative needs to be taken back.

In short, ‘We Are His Media’ was less about gaining support for the Labour leader and more about an outpouring of frustration. But is this frustration rightly placed? And can control of the narrative be taken back from the MSM’s grasp?

No longer fit for purpose?

There is surely no longer any doubt that the MSM is working against Corbyn – a flurry of recent studies directly allude to this. As The Canary reported on 29 July, a study by the Media Reform Coalition and Birkbeck, University of London, analysed TV and online news over the “crucial 10 day period” following the first wave of resignations from Labour’s shadow cabinet, and up until the release of the Chilcot report into the Iraq war.

In summary, the researchers said they’d found:

clear and consistent bias in favour of critics of Jeremy Corbyn.

The study analysed 465 online news items from eight outlets, along with 40 broadcasted news bulletins from the BBC and ITV. While our public service broadcaster gave twice the airtime to Corbyn’s critics at prime time, ITV was significantly more balanced. This also correlates with previous research by the London School of Economics and Political Science which found that 56% of the Corbyn-related articles analysed did not give the Labour leader a voice at all.

Furthermore, an article on 30 July by Angela Phillips for Democratic Audit UK discussed the BBC’s coverage of the EU referendum and concluded that, in its attempts at impartiality, it ended up actually being biased against Labour:

In the first month, up to June 8, the Labour Party had attracted a mere 6% of the campaign coverage on TV (less even than the 9% in the press). The Conservatives, meanwhile, grabbed 32% of the coverage. For a brief period in mid-June, as former prime minister Gordon Brown entered the fray, Labour’s share of the political spotlight increased. But the interest in the Labour message was not sustained. In the final count of the frequency of appearances by media sector, Labour members figured in 10% of the TV coverage. The Conservatives provided almost 30%.

This was set against a backdrop of Corbyn actually being extremely active on the ‘Remain’ campaign trail. As Phillips says:

by the end of the campaign, Corbyn had made 6.1% of all media appearances while [Alan] Johnson figured in less than 1%. Given that accounts of the campaign suggest Johnson was far more actively engaged than Corbyn, this points to an editorial decision to ignore Labour Party campaigners in favour of highlighting what felt like the more high-profile battle between the Conservative “big beasts”.

In spite of this apparent MSM bias against Corbyn’s Labour party, critics prefer to cite poll after poll pointing to Labour and Corbyn’s dismal ratings.

Should we just accept that the MSM is a beast that cannot be tamed, then? Roll over and give in? Well some commentators definitely appear to think so.

Fight or flight?

On 31 July, freelance journalist Ellie Mae O’Hagan reissued a column she’d written for the Guardian back in June as a response to the ‘We Are His Media’ hashtag. In it, she decrees that Corbyn and his supporters must embrace the MSM, whether they like it or not:

Since he won the leadership last year I have spoken with many who insist the media is so unfairly biased against him that it is simply not worth engaging with, except to chastise certain journalists for bad reporting. The solution, these Corbyn supporters say, is to connect with the public in other ways: by utilising social media, or simply refusing to cooperate with the public school dorm culture of the lobby. I sympathise with this position, but it seems unfeasible.

O’Hagan then goes on to cite a 2013 Ofcom report on news consumption in the UK; the same report which Owen Jones used in an article he put out on 31 July after the firestorm surrounding the hashtag in question. They both linked to a Guardian article, rather than the Ofcom study itself, and furthermore cherry-picked the statistic that shows 78% of adults use television as their main source of news. Essentially, their argument is that the MSM is here to stay – and it cannot be circumvented.

The Ofcom study cited by O’Hagan and Jones is now two years out of date. The organisation’s most recent report shows marked changes.

Television is still the dominant source for news, standing at 67% – but this is an 11% drop since 2013. At the same time, both O’Hagan and Jones say this statistic shows TV as people’s ‘main source of news’, but this is not what the Ofcom study actually says. The data is in fact related to what sources people use for news, and it shows most people use TV as one of their sources rather than the ‘main source’.

The most reflective figure in the report details the share of references, giving the broadest indication of the source of people’s news consumption. The chart below highlights, in no uncertain terms, a significant trend:

OfcomShareOfReferences

Delve deeper into the report and other developments become apparent. Use of social media for news has increased by 11% since 2014, growing from 20% to 31% of those using the internet for news. This has been driven by an upsurge in Facebook – from 17% to 29%. Break this down by age and 61% of 16-to-24-year-olds use social media for internet news, compared to 26% of those aged 55 or over. But broadly, the BBC still has the lion’s share of coverage, with 77% of people saying the public broadcaster was at least one of their sources for news.

The MSM is still the dominant force behind the news for the general population. That’s not going to change overnight. But what the trends show is that its power is waning, as is the use of traditional media. The paradigm shift is noticeable – and it’s one which needs to be tapped into, not shied away from.

This is part of what ‘We Are His Media’ is about. Yes, Corbyn needs to engage with the MSM (and admittedly, he may not have been brilliant at doing that so far). But his supporters have at their disposal the growing influence of social media, especially among younger citizens. Now’s the time to be embracing that, to help dissipate the negative and biased narrative being peddled by the MSM. And everyone can play a part in this.

We’re all journalists, now. We are his media.

I’m not a journalist (an assertion my countless detractors would surely agree with). I didn’t train to do this job. In fact, the nearest thing I have to a qualification is my GCSE double A in English. I trained to be a hotel manager, starting off when I was 16 as a pot-washer-come-salad-bar-boy at Pizza Hut and ending up running top hotels by the time I was 30. I feel like an imposter in this industry sometimes. But my case is one in point.

I only started writing 18 months ago, largely because I was frustrated at not being able to convey my thoughts in 140 characters but also because being an alcoholic hotel manager working in an environment surrounded by booze isn’t exactly a long-term career option. I was on Employment and Support Allowance and wanted something positive to spend my time doing.

I may not really be a journalist. But I have lived (as I’ve previously written about). Political decisions have always directly affected me. The fact I’m able to write for a living is (in part) what ‘We Are His Media’ is about.

Because who says that Owen Jones’ voice and therefore opinion is more important than mine? Or Polly Toynbee’s? Or Ellie Mae O’Hagan’s? I live in this country, and I’m therefore affected by political decisions made in parliament. Who’s to say that just because I’m not university educated, I don’t exist in a metropolitan bubble, and I fail to have half of the Guardian‘s journalists’ mobiles on speed dial, that what I think and believe counts for any less?

By the same token, who says that my voice (and therefore opinion) is more important than my good friend Matt Black’s? He’s a superb writer – blessed with a remarkable wit yet accompanied by an enviable knowledge of political history. Who’s to say that just because he hasn’t been afforded the luxury of having the time to write continuously for a year, hasn’t happened to be in the right places at the right times, and hasn’t had the luck to be noticed by the correct people, that what he thinks and believes counts for any less?

Ultimately, who’s to say that any of our voices or opinions are more important than my friends who are support workers? Hotel housekeepers? Bar staff?

They’re not. Yet somehow, political commentators have been risen up into the world of near-celebrity. People hang on their every word. Their musings are taken as gospel. They automatically represent us, even though we haven’t been asked if we want them too. Jones, by his own admission, is no more journalistically qualified than I am. He has just been fortunate in the opportunities made available to him. Again, by his own admission, he’s middle class, and he learned much of his politics at university and Westminster.

So when he and others derided the ‘We Are His Media’ hashtag without bothering to ponder just what it was actually trying to say, it threw the disconnect between the media class and the rest of us under the microscope. And it was probably best encapsulated in this one tweet by Toynbee:

“Brave”?

Really, Toynbee? Brave is the unaccompanied child refugee crossing the Mediterranean, fleeing from war-torn Syria only to be greeted by police and teargas in Moldova.

“Fan base”?

We truly have gone down the rabbit hole, smashed the looking glass at the bottom, and taken an axe to the wardrobe leading to Narnia. Unless I missed the Owen Jones t-shirts, mouse mats and his latest fragrance, of course.

And “truths”?

Nothing in his Medium article is truth. It is his opinion, just as this is mine.

The staggering hyperbole Toynbee managed to squeeze into her 140 characters shows the utter disconnect these people have from the rest of us. Almost as if we should feel guilty for questioning Jones. Like we’ve wronged him and his ilk by not nodding inanely, dutifully thanking them for their time and offering to lick the sh*t off their Manolo Blahnik shoes as a gesture of goodwill.

This worshipping at the altar of the commentariat has to end. Some of the best writers I know are not mainstream. They have their own blogs, which maybe reach a few thousand people. But their commentary is some of the most astute around. And ‘We Are His Media’ encapsulates that.

We need to move away from having ‘leaders’ in the media and begin to make it an independent movement. No one’s voice should be any more worthy than someone else’s, because we all have valid inputs into the conversations that need to be had about how our country is run. In the same way that Corbyn wants to make Labour policymaking a member-led process, the media needs to become citizen-led. Not because of Corbyn, but in spite of him.

This isn’t about Corbyn or Twitter. This is about us.

The problems that ‘We Are His Media’ encapsulated, and the response that the hashtag garnered from all sides of the fence, seemed to miss the massive elephant that was sitting in the room at the weekend. It was screaming ‘this is not something new!’

But few wanted to listen.

Corbyn is acting as the conduit for a frustration and disillusionment that has bubbled away against the MSM for years. Ask anyone who the media repeatedly ‘others’ – the BAME community, the working and underclass, the ‘far left’ – and they will tell you this has been a long time coming. But now the despair with the mainstream has itself become mainstream. And those at the sharp end of the criticism cannot see it, or they choose not to because it makes their own positions perilous.

Accusing the ‘We Are The Media’ hashtag of being just another scream into the echo chamber missed the point. We know that social media is no replacement for boots on the ground who knock on doors, attend rallies and ultimately get out and vote. We’re not stupid, and to imply we are shows precisely the problem. The point was that the way in which news media is accessed and used needs to, and can be, changed.

In the 2015 Ofcom study cited above, “word of mouth” was at 14%, up from 11% in 2014 – and it was highlighted as a source of news for nearly 20% of 16-to-24-year-olds. If we want to break the unhealthy reliance on the MSM, we all need to change our behaviours. As commentator ‘Congolesa Rice’ (a pen name) has said:

Isn’t that exactly what aims for? Guardian won’t talk Corbyn policy? That’s fine, I’ll do it. F*ck the Guardian. My mate isn’t online & only reads newspapers? That’s fine, I’ll show him from my phone/at work/in the pub.

It’s this collective sharing of everyone’s voice that needs to be embraced. Trade unions should set up their own, independent news outlets. Constituency Labour parties should appoint social media officers, with a view to sharing news among members not from the MSM but from independent sources. Everyone who wants to write should set up their own blog. The fact that 61% of 16-to-24-year-olds use social media for news should be embraced. And people should stop posting bloody cat vines on Facebook and start writing a 300-word opinion piece.

Twitter has around 13 million users in the UK, although how many of these are real accounts remains to be seen. It’s a small portion of the electorate. But as evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes, humans have (on average) around 150 people they are close to, who “you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation”. This is, of course, an average, and many are not in that position. It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that, if every Labour member reached out to even a quarter of their 150, nearly 20 million people could become engaged with politics. I’m not saying this will happen. I’m just using it as an example of the potential of consciously drawing away from our reliance on the MSM to spread news. As Rice says, “I’ll do it. F*ck the Guardian.”

Because if we don’t, then ultimately nothing will change. Those within the “milieu” as Jones describes it (bubble, to you and I) of Westminster and the MSM may appear well-intentioned. And maybe some of them are. But as the past few months has proven, they are still in the mire of telling, rather than showing – of fundamentally saying “we know best, so please be quiet and listen”. Whether what they have to say is to the benefit of us, or not.

And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that their narrative is not in our best interests, but is merely trotted out to serve their own. Keeping the establishment MSM and its “milieu” on the path to which they have become accustomed is proving a priority. If this wasn’t the case, the negative bias against Corbyn, and ultimately ‘We Are His Media’, wouldn’t even be discussed.

So we have to take the meaning behind the hashtag and embrace it as tightly as we can – as if our lives depended on it. Because for some, it may well do. Yes, ‘We Are His Media’ – but now ‘We Need To Become The Media’. Before it’s too late.

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