Corbyn’s refusal to speak to the media is ending his leadership before it even begins
Jeremy Corbyn is under attack and his defence plan seems to involve silencing himself.
These are vital days for the new Labour leader. This is when perceptions are built. The Tories sealed Ed Miliband's reputation as the weirdo who stabbed his brother in the back in the first few weeks after he became leader and the image still haunted him five years later. The Tories' first attempt on Corbyn is more extreme and ultimately probably less effective.
The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family's security.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) September 13, 2015
David Cameron should have kept the apocalyptic stuff for later on in the campaign trail. The best response at this early stage would have been something more light-hearted and silly – more Jon Stewart than Jack Bauer.
The Tory attack actually gave Corbyn an easy win. He could appear on TV, speak reasonably and confidently, and pop this balloon of shrill hysteria which the press have been inflating. All the endless guffawing nonsense about national anthems and Communist bicycles and Trident would have looked like so much hot air.
But he can't do that, because he's disappeared.
Sure, he did an acceptance speech when he won. Then he spoke briefly at the refugee rally, attended a mental health event and spoke at the TUC conference yesterday. All these are commendable events. But he seems to treat these events and traditional broadcast interviews as mutually exclusive. He turned down Marr. He turned down the Today programme. He has not done, as far as I know, a single broadcast interview since becoming leader.
It has been left to everyone else – mostly the much-mocked John McDonnell – to speak to the media. As it happens, McDonnell was excellent on Channel 4 News. He was calm, moderate, reasonable and likeable. His manner served to falsify the attacks against him.
Corbyn can do the same. Aside from his highly regrettable flashes of anger, he is actually very good at media interviews. He comes across as confident and calm, the very opposite to the lunatic hippy Bolshevik image the tabloids have constructed.
And yet, he is nowhere to be seen. The press are churning out their narrative about him and he has not bothered to counter it. So he will hardly be able to blame the public when they eventually believe it to be true.
His supporters have three counter-arguments. To find them, by the way, you have to go on social media. There is no spin doctor in his operation and no-one seems to be handling press. So the massed ranks of angry, entitled, anonymous Twitter users shouting abuse at anyone who asks questions about Corbyn are, for now, his de facto communications team.
The first argument is that he is busy and that there is lots of time for media interviews later. The first idea is true, the second is false. He surely is busy, but there is not much time. There's five years until an election, sure, although at this rate he'll be lucky to make it to one. But impressions are not set over five years. They are formed in the first weeks, then occasionally by sudden and unpredictable cut-throughs on policy or personality, then again, if you're lucky, in the last six weeks of a campaign. The days Corbyn already lost were precious opportunities to tell his story.
The second argument is that he is going to engage with the public differently, by using social media and town hall rallies. This is an elitist error and one which suggests a failure of imagination on the part of his supporters.
Very few people are on Twitter. It is a playground for journalists and politics nerds. Facebook is better at communicating politics more widely, but we are very far off the moment when it will win someone an election. And even if this were not so – he has not been on social media, so it's a moot point.
The town hall meetings, which were electrified by his presence during the long summer campaign, are also not enough. Very few people in this country actively search out political events to take part in. You can absolutely build a grassroots political movement like that. But you cannot communicate with the general public like that.
The final argument is that the media will always be hostile to Corbyn, so he shouldn't bother with them. This point is largely true. There is no point in him being polite to the Sun, Express, Mail, Times or the Telegraph. They'll never come onside. The Mirror, Guardian, Independent and even the FT, however, are worth his time. They may not be natural supporters, but they will provide some supportive coverage on individual issues, even if they never throw their weight behind him entirely.
None of which has anything to do with broadcast journalism. Corbyn should be all over broadcast journalism. They have a regulator which ensures they are impartial. They have to give him a fair hearing. And if he can get a fair hearing the public may like his plain manner of speaking, free of all the nonsense which typifies most politicians' speech. They might even find they agree with him on nationalisation and Syria and all sorts of other matters in which he actually has considerable public support.
Even for the Tories, the press has effectively ceased to matter. Craig Oliver, Cameron's director of communications, reportedly only cares about the press to the extent to which it influences the BBC. Corbyn can afford to lose the press and win an election – but he can't afford to snub the BBC. That's madness. It's his route into millions of people's living rooms.
One gets the sense that Corbyn's camp is beset by that terrible error of perception which afflicts all political obsessives in this country, on whatever side of the fence they are. It is a disease spread apparently upon contact with British political debate: the sense that the BBC is engaged in a conspiracy against their interests. The anti-war left has it. The Ukip supporters certainly have it. The Scottish independence supporters have it. And Tory supporters are the worst of the bunch. They moan incessantly, every morning, about a non-existent perceived bias at the Beeb.
They're all wrong, and if Corbyn thinks the same, he is wrong too. The BBC has no conspiracy. It is just a bunch of people who are terrified of the Daily Mail trying to find out where the consensus is so they can plant themselves right in the middle of it. That's it. So Corbyn's presence, guaranteed as it is by his new role as leader of the opposition, allows a chance to alter that consensus, if he is willing to grasp it.
Instead, one sense a sort of irritation with the broadcasters, a kind of simmering hatred. Many of the Corbyn supporters online seem to view doing a BBC interview as a kind of gift Corbyn grants the corporation. It is not. It is a privilege, for him to be able to speak to millions of people above the heads of the press. It is a privilege he won with his extraordinary election result. But if he keeps refusing to make use of it, his chance to change the political debate will be over before it even begins.