Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Tabloid newspaper readers might be forgiven for thinking that the tag Teflon Corbyn is misplaced, given the dire predictions as to what might happen should the Labour Party win the next general election and Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister.

While not having quite the same ring as Teflon Tony -- recognition of the way trouble did not stick initially to Tony Blair -- the Corbyn nickname does reflect an unpalatable fact for the Tory press.

Their diet of scare stories just bounces off the Labour leader and he has survived -- even thrived -- on a prolonged campaign of character assassination.

The demise of Britain's right-wing tabloids has been forecast for some years, but their long-standing support for Brexit put paid to that contention.

Indeed, the narrow vote to Leave in the 2016 European Referendum -- after decades of negative reporting about EU interference and the impact of rising immigration -- was widely acknowledged as being perhaps the most powerful moment in the recent history of the popular press.

A year later, the tabloids were marginalised as never before when their unprecedented vilification of Corbyn in the lead-up to the 2017 general election proved to be largely counter-productive, becoming a recruiting sergeant for Labour's young activists.

How could two sharply contrasting outcomes occur in such a short space of time? The answer lies in the UK's changing media landscape.

The national press has a rapidly ageing and declining readership, but social media has a far younger audience, and the lessons of the European Referendum and then the general election could not have been clearer.

Older people tended to vote Leave, and then Conservative, whereas most younger voters backed Remain and then Labour.

As Theresa May's expectations of an easy Conservative victory in June 2017 were increasingly challenged, the tabloids went further and further in their vilification of Corbyn, dragging up past events and associations stretching back 30 years in a prolonged campaign of character assassination.

While such stories confirmed the fears of their elderly readers, just as their anti-EU prejudices had been reinforced during the referendum, this reportage had minimal impact on Corbyn's growing army of youthful activists who lived their lives online and who communicated largely via social media.

Equally significant was the fact that few young voters, especially in the all-important 18-24 age group, watched or listened to news bulletins so the tendency of television and radio news and current affairs programmes to extend the reach of the popular press again had less influence on a younger audience.

Broadcasters have to an extent recognised the waning power of the tabloids to dictate the news agenda and there was less of a knee-jerk reaction during the 2017 campaign to follow through the story lines they were pursuing.

Labour had stolen a march on the Conservatives offering to scrap university tuition fees and Corbyn was as surprised as the rest of his party at the extent to which he had succeeded in mobilising new and first-time voters.

The exasperation of tabloid columnists and commentators was illustrated by the extreme lengths to which they went to portray Corbyn as a Marxist, a supporter of militant trade unionism, and even an apologist for the Russian Revolution.

Their assertion that he was the terrorists' friend was backed up by photographs of a young, bearded Corbyn talking to the leaders of Sein Fein, but instead of having negative implications, reaching out in this way was also seen as having been a positive act given two decades of peace in Northern Ireland.

John Major and Tony Blair followed the same path in the long and complex negotiations that preceded the 1994 Provisional IRA ceasefire that culminated with the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

The deeper the tabloids dug into Corbyn's past and the more extreme their scares became, the more it galvanised Corbyn's keyboard warriors who were marshalling his support.

Stories that attempted to demonise the Labour leader were simply filtered out and ignored, and underlined the growing irrelevance and even impotence of once mighty tabloid tigers in influencing the outcome of general elections.

The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express continue to use every opportunity to traduce Corbyn, but as so few of their stories appear to ring true, or let alone even seem relevant, Labour activists appear all set to continue chanting "Oh. Jeremy Corbyn" as the Conservatives struggle with troublesome Brexit negotiations and the fall-out from a media frenzy surrounding politicians and allegations of sexual harassment.

Nicholas Jones lecture: Teflon Corbyn? Press demonization and the waning power of the Tory tabloids, Cardiff University, 7.30pm Tuesday 21 November.