Further evidence has emerged about the damage inflicted to Labour’s 2019 general election campaign by the orchestration and manipulation of attack lines generated by Conservative-supporting newspapers that were then backed up on social media.
Unlike the 2017 campaign when Theresa May failed to take advantage of the ammunition being provided by her press cheerleaders, there was deadly synchronisation between Boris Johnson and the Corbyn-tormenting Tory tabloids.
At the start of the 2019 campaign a well-timed intervention by the former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove helped to pivot the Johnson campaign on to territory where the Labour leader was especially vulnerable.
“MI6 chief: Corbyn is security danger” (Mail on Sunday, 24.11.2019) gave legitimacy to fresh disclosures about the Labour leader’s past associations. “Corbyn, the bomb maker’s friend” (Daily Mail, 4.12.2019) was followed next day by “Corbyn the terrorist’s friend” (Daily Mail, 5.12.2019).
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, told the Sun (17.11.2019) the thought of Corbyn in charge of national security made her “feel sick” – an interview that also helped the Prime Minister pave the way for the Conservatives’ Facebook advertisements in the final week of the campaign.
“Corbyn is security risk” was the Sun’s front page (3.12.2019) for an interview with Johnson in which he warned of “Red Jez’s threat to the UK”. A two-page spread inside, “Enemy of the State”, resurrected a 2014 photograph of Corbyn laying a wreath in Tunis for the “1972 Munich killers”.
The Prime Minister left readers in no doubt: “Every time Corbyn has a choice, he sides with our enemies.”
A widely distributed Facebook advertisement in the final week of the campaign built on Johnson’s interview: “Labour want weaker sentences for terrorists” was the headline over a clip from a confrontation on Sky News between presenter Sophy Ridge and Corbyn. Backing up the advertisement was the interview quote: “Corbyn does not believe terrorists should ‘necessarily’ serve their full term”.
Campaign co-ordination and synchronisation with compliant newspapers had been exemplary.
Labour’s director of strategic communications, James Schneider, acknowledged that the Conservatives’ tactic of concentrating Facebook advertising in the final week had damaged Corbyn.
“To begin with the Conservatives didn’t spend a lot on Facebook. They were just testing messages. Then in the last four or five days they dumped a huge amount of well honed, well tested, negative, nasty messages about Jeremy.”
Schneider, who was interviewed for The Inside Story of Election 19 for BBC Radio 4, also acknowledged the devastating impact of the unexpected intervention of the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis three weeks before polling day.
In an article for The Times (26.11.2019) he accused Labour of not doing enough to root out anti-Jewish racism. He urged people to vote with their conscience because “a new poison, sanctioned from the very top” had taken root in the party. “The soul of our nation is at stake” (Daily Mail, 26.11.2019)
A full-frontal attack from a head of the Jewish faith delivered on the eve of Corbyn’s high profile televised confrontation with BBC presenter Andrew Neil supercharged a toxic issue that had snowballed out of the leadership’s control.
A well-orchestrated press campaign that had exacerbated fears and anxieties in Jewish communities was about to take centre stage in the election campaign.
“Corbyn refuses to apologise to Jews” was the headline over a front-page story about the Labour leader refusing four times when asked by Neil to apologise for Labour’s approach to dealing with anti-Semitism. (Daily Telegraph, 27.11.2019)
Subsequently Johnson dodged his invitation to answer Neil’s questions, which was perhaps no surprise given the tabloids’ delight at Corbyn’s drubbing: “Torn apart in TV skewering” (Daily Mail, 27.11.2019); “Has Corbyn’s horror show gifted Boris keys to No 10?” (Daily Express, 27.11.2019)
Schneider reflected ruefully on the disruptive effect of the anti-Semitism controversy. Corbyn, already chastened by the hue and cry, had been further unsettled by the Chief Rabbi’s attack at the midway point in the campaign.
“Yes, it was destabilising. So much of the time Corbyn spent on the media was in defensive mode; it limited how effective he could be.”
Illustrations: Sun, 3.12.2019; Mail on Sunday, 24.11.2019; Daily Mail, 26.11.2019.
(An extract from a chapter by Nicholas Jones on press vilification of Jeremy Corbyn for a new book, It’s the Media, Stupid! The media, the 2019 election and the aftermath, to be published in April by CPBF (North) Price £9.99 ISBN 078-1-898240-00-6)