It’s hard not to get a bit personal about Labour’s communication problems when looking to the small pool of professional pundits frequently representing the party’s views on TV. Think Owen Jones or Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar; an equivalent on the right is Guido Fawkes’ Tom Harwood. All have strong personal brands as journalist-activists, a term which tends to annoy those it applies to, where quasi-celebrity (or notoriety) is indistinguishable from their output. Fingers have pointed in many directions trying to make sense of what happened to the Corbyn project. I’ve been wondering whether star pundits help or hinder.
They must be understood in a journalism context where it’s more difficult than ever for young reporters to get their foot in the door with a solid job. Digital media start-ups are as much a response to declining job opportunities as desire to balance mainstream outlets with less conservative perspective. Some are serious endeavours, investing energies into credible reporting and fact-checking: a great example of this is Scotland’s The Ferret which I subscribe to. Those more personality-driven can be grating, but revenue chasing is as necessary as creating content.
Sometimes I see young writers so invested in brand-building that their skills are overshadowed by frenetic foregrouding of image. When employment looks bleak but freelance punditry is within grasp, being seen can take precedence over being taken seriously. It’s understandable, but depressing. When there’s too much pitching of oneself as a media personality, rather than pitching one’s ideas, it can look like fame is the end goal. There are other pitfalls. Young women excavating personal trauma before editors will commission them to write anything else is a long-established, troubling trend. Audience building is effectively outsourced to individuals who also face the brunt of backlash.
Commentators shaped by online reactions
This is the landscape a generation of pundits have emerged in who 20 years ago might instead be working in local news. TV talking heads are increasingly plucked from new and social media, rewarding self-promotion and strident points of view. Polarisation has damaged public debate, blunting complex ideas and putting anyone trying to overturn the status quo on the back foot. The tit-for-tat hollowness is familiar from elsewhere too. Clickbait is associated with sensationalised news snippets, but any commentor beholden to quickfire online reaction directed at them personally will be shaped by that.
Familiar faces booked very often by TV producers argue for parties they are close to. But do viewers warm to star pundits peddling policy? I’m not convinced, particularly when those who’ve made recent careers of it skew young, London-based, higher educated, and with a media gloss distant from the working communities they speak of. They are frequently skin-crawlingly irritating and appear juvenile even to those in broad agreement, and not a million miles away from the studio speed-dial luvvie-ness of New Labour. Viral clips of those who’ve made rather pleasant media careers for themselves pontificate like first-born students who’ve returned to lecture their idiot families, confirming existing prejudices against the left as smug and shouty. Is it really helpful?
Owen Jones has occasionally taken umbrage with descriptions of him as an activist, claiming right-wing pundits are not always identfied. He has a point. A quick glance at Andrew Neil’s extracurricular activities as editor of the Spectator while holding a BBC role demanding impartiality certainly raises the eyebrow. The role of columnists is to weigh in; when described as such, Jones is free to have all the opinions he wants. But in his frequent TV appearances he is often described as a journalist, a description anticipating certain objectivity.
Was Jones wearing his activist or journalist hat on stage at Labour Live festival, known as Jezfest, when hyping manifesto pledges to audience applause? Or when he tweeted on polling day, “Whatever happens, I’m so proud of what we’ve done together in this election campaign. Never, ever give up. #VoteLabourToday”? None of this is hidden, but there is a single personality here, not two. Sifting ‘activist’ and ‘journalist’ into seperate boxes can’t be done; the dividing line does not exist for viewers who already lack trust and suspect partiality.
Many southern Labour-adjacent commentators struggle to speak convincingly on Scotland. This seems not only down to proximity, but the stumbling block of Scottish Labour’s plummeting vote share as the competing pro-independence SNP soars. Projections prior to elections have been spectacularly wrong from pundits such as Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani, prone to wildly overestimating the fortunes of Scottish Labour. Campaigning bravado pitched as electoral analysis reveals itself when results roll in, and is demonstrably useless as strategy insight. Rather than breaking through mainstream noise and disinfo, this sort of new media loud-and-proud partisanship lacks credibility, sitting on the other end of the see-saw to right-wing bias.
Activist journalism can have a credible role, but typically in countries with crushing controls on freedom of speech and human rights violations, where writing requires personal risk and rebellion. But despite our own political media’s myriad drawbacks and the left’s uphill struggle to change the narrative, the UK is not in that place, and the conflation of party activism and journalism strikes an uneasy and wrong note, inherently compromised by its loyalties and personality-driven prominence.
For campaigns, traditional media can’t be avoided. Favoured pundits are to some extent just playing a necessary game. While Johnson’s opting out of public scrutiny was an abdication of democracy, many viewers will have seen Corbyn frequently coming across as sulky and reticent, a huge contrast with the more practical approach by Nicola Sturgeon, who also gets short shift with stupid questions, and sometimes says so, but who speaks to those watching.
For all the direct contact made by hard-working canvassers, many newly minted, passionate and embedded within their communities, many more voters will have seen Labour’s views represented on TV by shouty talking heads. No matter how significant what they say is, or the dangerous reality of a Johnson premiership, cosy pundits poised to front up party lines might be sending the wrong message about Labour, compounding communication mistakes from the party itself.