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The Media's Caricaturing of Jeremy Corbyn Should Concern Us All

02/09/2015 09:29 BST | Updated 31/08/2016 10:59 BST

Heard the latest crazy idea that Jeremy Corbyn has said he'd enforce upon day one of his ascension to premiership? That's right: he wants to force all women to wear burqas and chastity belts, to protect them from the ravages of the modern train commuting misogynists. He's also unveiled plans to make bankers dance naked through Trafalgar Square, make Karl Marx's birthday a public holiday, to put the Royal Family in a council house (or was that the Greens?) and then swiftly usher in the Antichrist so we can get on with the apocalypse.

As you may have noticed, the press have gotten a little carried away of late. It is enough now to suggest that you would talk to various members of the group in question (in the most recent case, female commuters) to see what they think would work (imagine a politician doing that!) for him to be branded as a medieval segregationist (and, bizarrely, a 'mansplainer' too!). Our media is now so keen for an attention-grabbing headline that all thought of balance, detail or nuance fly out of the window.

It's not just Corbyn being done an injustice either: it's his supporters too. Take the reporting of one of the latest Yougov poll that compared all the leadership contender's supporters with the general public on various policy issues as well as demographic and personal descriptions. Apparently doing away with such outdated notions as actually reading the whole report, commentators have instead leaped to the most sensationalist conclusions they can, with Corbynites being smeared as essentially lunatics dressed up as socialists (or is it the other way around?) They are, apparently, the 'most out of touch' of all the leadership bidders' supporters, as well as possibly the most unhinged too.

To start with, a considerably larger portion of Corbyn backers supporting things like more wealth distribution and nationalised rail than the general public is not the same thing as those supporters 'disagreeing with the public on almost everything'. It ignores four things; one group wanting something more than another group is not the same as them disagreeing, we have no idea how many 'don't knows' there were, the cherry picked questions were probably chosen to show the largest discrepancy and the other three's supporters were considerably out of sync with the general public too. It also ignores the considerable tradition of polling that shows that support for these policies and stances is much higher than that reported in the YouGov poll.

The headline from this very website screamed that: "Jeremy Corbyn's Backers Are Way More Likely To Think The World Is Run By A Secretive Elite", followed by a series of smaller headlines that generally reinforced the notion that everyone voting for him is some sort of tin-foil hat Trotskyist. Apart from the fact that in and of itself this is a fairly uninformative and vague statement (as is the 'I'm a dreamer' statement: what the hell does that mean really?), the article in question chose to ignore the fact that it was barely a quarter of his supporters that had actually agreed with it (28%), and that it was only twice as many as the general public (13%). Kendal's supporters weighed in at a mere 7%, so should they also take the view that the general public is as crazy as the general public is supposed to think Corbynites are? Not the best way to approach potential voters.

The reporting has also largely ignored other interesting nuggets to be found in the polling, probably because it mars the otherwise simple message of 'Corbynites are bonkers'. The polling also found that more people identified as either 'left wing/ left of centre' than 'right wing/right of centre' or indeed 'centre'. It also found that when it came to status (socioeconomic grouping, income bracket etc) Corbyn supporters were incredibly similar (almost identical) to the general public, whilst the other 3's supporters were somewhat different. Does all this outweigh the policy evidence? No, but it betrays a more complicated set of results than the headlines would have you believe.

Media sloppiness goes far beyond misinterpreted policy statements and abusing polling statistics. You'd also think Corbyn was some sort of Islington based reincarnation of Karl Marx, serving up Cold War Communism. Little is made of the fact that his economic views are not, despite what the hashtags would have us believe, from the 'hard left' at all, but are rather mainstream economics. Proposals that are derided as 'nonsense' and 'unworkable' have been being called for by leading academics for years, as well as being practised by major economies for decades.

Another caricature is the claim that he is reviving political issues from the past, as if this is somehow unusual in politics. Mark Twain once said that history may not repeat itself, but that it does sometimes rhyme. This is why those that speak of discarding the old notion of the Left of the Right are mistaken: these labels still exist in the political world because they are opposing sides of a debate that has not yet been settled.

What we are seeing here is history rhyming, not repeating. Yes, Corbyn is talking about issues and offering policies that Labour did in the 70's and the 80's, but in a newly imagined way that takes into account the time that has passed. Although they would love us to think they are offering modern and pragmatic approaches to the economy, the Conservatives are harking back to our Thatcherite past in a far more radical way than Corbyn is. Both are rhyming with past history, although only one is doing so in a way that seeks to progress us onto the next stanza. To criticise Corbyn for talking about things that were once talked about in another decade is to criticise him for doing politics.

I love a good conspiracy as much as the next leftie, but in this I actually think the truth is kind of scarier. The reason we're getting all these misleading headlines and dodgy reporting is because there is no room for nuance in mainstream journalism anymore (if indeed there ever was). Sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies once theorised that one cause of dislocation and unhappiness with modern life was because of the sheer weight of information that is available to us: no one of us can ever hope to shift through it all, let alone understand it. Nowhere is this more evident than the sensationalist (and misleading) headlines that now populate the twitterfeed or Facebook timeline. Every post is vying for attention and so one that presents a nuanced, thoughtful outlook will be ignored by the Twittersphere in favour of the bold proclamations, with accuracy and truth being relegated to mere secondary considerations. Throw in the fact that we seem to have the attention spans of a goldfish and you've got a potent brew of democratic disaster.

It is sometimes said that we get the government we deserve (not sure about this, we'd have to have done something pretty bad to be lumped with these guys) but it might be truer to say we get the media we deserve. As difficult as it can be in a digital age bombarding us with information at every turn, we simply have to start seeking truth if we want to find it. We need to start demanding more of our journalists and political news sites, punishing the sensationalists and reward the thoughtful, considered pieces. We need to demand more of ourselves too: we must take the time to appreciate multiple viewpoints and really consider the evidence before us if we are to be proper democratic citizens. Truth has at the best of times been an elusive creature in politics, but if we don't demand more of our media soon, it may be lost entirely.