Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Whereas many of the highly-alarming scenarios about electing Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister have tended to bounce back ineffectually, there is one narrative that could have a deadly impact on his political future.

His much-publicised appearance on the front cover of GQ, an upmarket men’s magazine, opened up a developing story line that could be seriously destabilising for a party leader who is admired by legions of young activists.

In describing the control freakery that went on behind the scenes for GQ’s photo-shoot, the editor, Dylan Jones, had no hesitation in depicting Corbyn as being out of his depth, being pushed around by his gate-keepers like a “benign grandfather for the family Christmas photograph”.

Younger members of GQ’s editorial team, who had been inspired by Corbyn’s rock-star image, said they regretted having seen him in person. They found him “underwhelming...they said they wished they had not met him”.

In contrast to the character assassination of Tory tabloids such as the Daily Mail and Sun, and their depiction of Corbyn as a terrorist sympathiser, the Jihadists’ friend, here is a narrative that is live, rather than historic.

Instead of having to reply on 30-year-old photographs of Corbyn with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, this narrative can be topped up endlessly with fresh example of Corbyn being “pushed around” by his coteries of advisers, led by Seamus Milne, his director of strategy and communications.

In a series of interviews and newspaper articles, Jones took delight in exploiting Milne’s lack of knowledge of the demands of GQ’s photo-shoot.

“Milne and his crew didn’t seem to understand that Corbyn would have to be presentable; he couldn’t just turn up in his anorak.” In the event, Jones conceded that Corbyn emerged “quite a dapper figure, kitted out by Marks and Spencer”.

Milne could be forgiven for not having mastered GQ’s sartorial etiquette, but he should have realised that once he agreed to the interview and photo-shoot, he was exposing Corbyn to a high-risk media event well outside his traditional comfort zone.

When politicians and their advisers seek to take advantage of opportunities in a potentially hostile media environment, they have to think through the dangers.

Milne’s ineptitude was in failing to grasp that GQ would have the chance to manipulate their exclusive access in whichever way the editor chose.

For a start, Corbyn could be depicted as being complicit in succumbing to the demands of a fancy-photo shoot organised by a magazine editor who had written, Cameron on Cameron, a sympathetic biography of the former Conservative Prime Minister, and who might not be averse to tweaking the occasion for political gain, if not mischief.

More to the point, whether there was or was not a serious mishap, there was every likelihood that Corbyn would let slip a remark, or perhaps give an awkward response, that could be twisted into a gaffe.

As it transpired, Dylan Jones was able to dine out on a feast of tantalising pen pictures to support his depiction of Corbyn as a benign grandfather. In an interview on Today (1.12.2017), Jones needed no prompting:

“The shoot was tortuous, as difficult as shooting any Hollywood celebrity. We have shot many politicians. We were the first magazine to have David Cameron on the front cover; Boris Johnson twice. We’ve never encountered such a ring around him (of minders).  Seamus Milne and his crew are very particular gatekeepers.

“They didn’t seem to understand the process at all, that he would have to be photographed and he would have to be presentable. He couldn’t just turn up in his anorak. When he turned up for the shoot he was being pushed around like a grandfather for a family Christmas photo. He was not very aware of what was going on.

“Initially he turned down Alastair Campbell to do the interview, who does most of the big interviews for GQ. They were offered Stuart McGurk. He went as something of a fan of Corbyn and quite quickly got disillusioned, not least because he started to subscribe to the theory that Corbyn was a Wizard of Oz character, but then found that he does appear to be the weaker part of the relationship.

“It was very intriguing. Overriding in Stuart’s conclusions is that Corbyn is not fantastic with detail. When pressed as to who his business advisers were, he could not name a single one. He had a strange lack of a hinterland. He could not name a single book he had read in the last year. He had clearly not been given any briefing notes on what might happen in this interview.

“He has an air of authenticity. The myopic view he has is very appealing to people. 

“A lot of people go on a photo-shoot like this. We sent younger members of the team, people who perhaps subscribe to the idea that Corbyn could turn water into wine. They said they wished they had not met him. They did find him underwhelming. He has this rock star persona when he fills a room, but he is underwhelming in person; one-to-one he is a little underwhelming.” 

Jones gave a text-book description of the way the build-up and aftermath of a photo-shoot and interview cannot be left to chance.

Politicians are at their most vulnerable when they engage in what appears to be innocuous small talk that is part of the chat-up routine of photographers or the make-yourself-comfortable chit-chat on a studio couch before a formal interview.

Often an unintended slip-up, or the mistaken belief that a warm-up or post-interview chat is off-the-record, can get politicians into hot water.

In his many years at The Guardian, as comment editor and then associate editor, Milne made no secret of his dislike for the working practices of mainstream media and his contempt for the tabloid press. 

If Milne’s strategy is now entering a new phase, and he thinks that Corbyn is strong enough politically to be able to exploit media opportunities, the GQ interview is a reminder of the pitfalls.

Authenticity is one of Corbyn’s greatest strengths, yet that could be eaten away if he can be presented as a bewildered grandfather, the puppet of strategists such as Milne, pulling the strings.

Milne, a former labour correspondent, was the author of The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners, giving his take on surveillance by the security services during the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

Perhaps Corbyn’s director of communications should have a word with Arthur Scargill, about whom he wrote so admiringly, and he would discover that the NUM President would never have been seduced by a GQ interview.

Scargill never got into bed with representatives of the news media because he knew they had a nasty tendency to bite back, and feared they would use any trick in the book to try to undermine and then destroy his credibility.