Corbyn hails the end of tabloid might and promises an enquiry into the local press
UNTIL 22 MONTHS AGO, Jeremy Corbyn was a regular attender of NUJ national executive council meetings. There are Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Scottish Nationalists among the officers of the NUJ's cross-party Parliamentary group, but in recent times it was always the member for Islington North who was most generous with his time.
Unsurprisingly, since September 2015 his attentions have been directed elsewhere. Last week, however, he returned to the NEC, tried out the NUJ's new café bar and gave me a few moments of his time.
His apparel is slightly more conventionally smart than it was. He arrives in the chauffeured car of the opposition leader rather than on his bicycle and perhaps there is a hint of guarded wariness that I don't remember in earlier encounters. Fundamentally, however, he remains as he been during his 34 years in Parliament.
Quite what that quality is defies easy generalisation. Resolute everyman decency that, among the debased currency of professional politicians, carries a surprising air of authenticity, perhaps? Whatever it is, he attracted more new votes to the Labour party than any leader since 1945, as he is keen to explain.
"I'm obviously profoundly upset that we did not win", he says. "I always felt, though, that we had strong support from people who were fundamentally alienated from politics and amongst young people."
For most pundits, it wasn't until the BBC's exit poll that they suspected anything but calamity for Labour. Corbyn says that he anticipated a different outcome much earlier. "I realised the day after the election was called there was something strong in the air. At a couple of hours' notice we had a street rally in Croydon and 500 people came."
Voter registration was a key focus of the Labour campaign - nearly two million voters were added to the roll in a matter of weeks. "The manifesto was the fundamental game-changer, though", says Corbyn, describing it as "a historic and readable document". It has gone to three reprints and Corbyn is still handing out copies whenever the chance arises. His campaign schedule included over 100 events. "The standout one was the rally on the beach at West Kirby, we had 10,000 people there - including a horse draped in a Vote Labour banner", he enthuses.
Some of Corbyn's early milestones en route to Parliament are well known - Haringey Councillor, trades union official and Bennite campaigner. That he once worked as a journalist is less celebrated.
For a short while he was employed to file copy for the Newport and Market Drayton Advertiser in Shropshire. "I recently went to see the Shropshire Star [which now owns the title] - and they had dug out copies. They missed one with a picture of me from 1967 at the Young Socialists' first and only annual dinner, that they had with Anthony Greenwood, then a cabinet minister, speaking. It has me standing there looking ever so serious at the age of 18 with two young women - one of whom I am still in touch with, and who came to our Telford rally."
He came from a Guardian-reading household, but says that he acquired his taste for current affairs doing a paper round on his bicycle. "I delivered Sunday newspapers, so I read them all. I would cycle nine or ten miles every Sunday delivering probably 100 papers, or something. It was very sparsely populated."
Perhaps it is this early immersion in print media that has made him a keen defender of journalism - at times against the odds. He completely rejects calls for various BBC journalists to be sacked and says that his supporters should do the same. He does, however, detect in the print media's approach to politics something that helps to explain Labour's success.
"Support [for Labour] is highest among those who access their news from social media, and lowest among those who access [news] only from newspapers. It's more balanced among those who primarily access news from television and radio news - which is mainly the middle-aged."
"The print media have not been particularly fair to me or to Labour. Broadcast media coverage has varied greatly. We have had issues with various parts of BBC broadcasting, although I am a strong supporter of the BBC Charter and a licence fee. In the election campaign, what fundamentally changed was we had a very intensive use of social media and a very good social-media team. Broadcasting rules mean that instead of talking about political process we got more of a hearing and were able to shift the focus of the debate."
He purposefully rises above personal criticism and abuse - "I don't reply. I don't respond. I don't engage. I am not getting in the gutter with anyone", he says. There is something in his tone, however, that suggests he is not immune to tabloid wounding, even if he thinks that such antipathy might deliver a perverse advantage.
"A woman came to a rally in the north east. She was clearly not a strong Labour supporter, if a Labour supporter at all. I said 'it's nice to see you, but why are you here?' And she said 'well I read in the papers that you are completely evil'. She had come to see if I had horns! So some of the media stuff was so ridiculous it is just laughable."
"What the Sun did on polling day was just outrageous, though", he says with an angry chill in his voice. The cover encouraged readers not to 'chuck Britain in the Cor-bin' followed by 12 splenetic pages ridiculing Labour and promoting the Tories.
Corbyn appears to be pained more than anything by the abuse that is heaped on his colleague Diane Abbot - a subject to which he turns twice. "We had a debate the other day on this in Parliament and Diane Abbot spoke about her experience. She quoted some of the material she had had sent to her. I have known Diane since the 70s and even I was shocked at some of the stuff she read out. She told me, 'If I had known what was coming when I started in politics, I am not sure I would have done it'."
Some of the blame for that, Corbyn lays at the door of the media.
I suggest that the result of the election might indicate that the political might of the right-wing tabloids is a busted flush?
"Totally. I saw an opinion poll saying - and I don't know how accurate it is - that 30 per cent of Sun readers voted Labour. I think that it probably always has been the case. So I think we should be careful of attacking journalists. I am a member of the NUJ and I support journalists being able to be employed to work independently and report what they see. At its best, journalism uncovers some of the worst excesses of the state and of private enterprise."
In its section on the media, Labour's manifesto committed the party to an inquiry into the ownership of the media - a long-time NUJ demand. I wondered if the party leader had given any thought to where such an investigation might lead.
He restated his fondness for local newspapers, of which he is an enthusiastic purchaser, but had no policy details to add. Nor was he able to say much by way of encouragement to those journalists who despaired when the Labour Party voted for the Investigatory Powers Act. The Labour leader concedes that allowing journalists' phone records to be accessed without their knowledge is an issue of concern, but has no more by way of answers than a commitment to discuss the issue.
With that, my nineteen minutes were over and I led the chutney-making, manhole-cover-fancying Gooner to speak to members of the NUJ's National Executive Council before their meeting - where he was enthusiastically received.
If he does become Prime Minister, we can be assured that NUJ concerns will receive a favourable ear at the nation's highest table. The road from here to there, however, promises to be every bit as bumpy and uncertain as the one Corbyn has travelled to the opposition leader's office.