By Des Freedman – Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London and a former chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
I want to make four points about the implications of this increasingly polarised debate about the need for a left media strategy:
First, we shouldn’t overstate the power of the media to determine political opportunities. Radical politics has long had to contend with hostile media. You think the Chartists had an easy ride from newspapers when pressing for labour rights in the 1840s? You think the Suffragettes had universal support in Fleet Street when campaigning for the vote? Battles are won not because of the sophistication of a media strategy but because of the strength of grassroots support for change, and the effectiveness of your ability to neutralise your opposition.
Second, however, all major campaigns for social change have had their own media. The Chartists had the Northern Star. The Suffragettes had their own self-titled newspaper. The Bolsheviks had Pravda. Gandhi founded Harijan to help build his anti-colonial struggle, while Solidarity in Poland had Robotnik and the Algerians had the unofficial Voice of Fighting Algeria during their anti-colonial struggle in the 1950s.
None of these were commercial enterprises, but instruments with which activists communicated with each other, publicised their activities and spread their vision. They were the organising frameworks of emergent mass movements, designed not supplant the news outlets of their enemies but to strengthen their own campaigns.
That is the model that I see in relation to the use of social media by Corbyn supporters: of course hashtags and memes alone do not topple governments and win elections, but they can help solidify and give confidence to movements whose capacity to use traditional communications system is limited.
Social media are valuable organising tools, but they do not constitute the spaces where, by and large, people get their news. Mainstream news outlets remain extremely influential – though not decisive, as I have already suggested – in shaping agendas and in legitimising specific perspectives.
Corbyn’s strength depends not on the skills of another Alastair Campbell, but on his ability to nurture a social movement that can truly articulate the concerns and hopes of millions of British people.
That would be a hard story to ignore.