Officially, Doctor Who returns to BBC1 this coming Saturday. But for this fan, the new season began, in spirit at least, a week ahead of schedule. From its inception last Saturday, the age of Jeremy Corbyn has had the unmistakable flavour of one of those episodes in which the Tardis slips through a tear in the space-time vortex, and into a parallel universe where everything looks the same but is entirely different. An alternate reality in which a political leader is recognisably an intelligent human being, for instance, yet treats his enemies a bounteous gift by standing ostentatiously mute amid a crowd singing the national anthem in honour of Battle of Britain pilots.
Born two days after William Hartnell’s debut as the Time Lord in November, 1963, I have spent 40 of my almost 52 years minutely following British politics. Yet here I am, as perhaps you are too, stumbling forlornly about trying to make sense of what has happened, and where we are now. For all the confusion, I believe I know where we’re heading. Unless Jeremy Corbyn radically rethinks his approach to the media now – and by now, I mean this instant (or better still, via the miracle of time travel, last Saturday) – he is finished. He will never have a hearing.
As an admirer, it pains me to state the obvious. But in so far as he has anything that might be dignified as a media strategy, it is suicide by naivety. He is cycling into the valley of death. And, as someone said of the Light Brigade, c’est magnifique mais c’est ne pas la guerre.
In fact, it isn’t all that bleeding magnifique. His avoidance of Andrew Marr’s Sunday sofa and the Today programme on Monday spoke not of a heroically insouciant disregard of mortal danger, but of an aloof brittleness which – however understandable in one unschooled in the torment – will prove fatal.
Attacking reactionary papers is fine. In fact, as I will argue, it is essential. But whining about them, as he did on Saturday as if they could be shamed into jettisoning their spiteful intrusiveness, is a rookie howler. Trusting homeopathy to cure minor ailments is one thing. Imagining that the antidote to tabloid blood lust is cutting a vein while they lie in wait downwind takes the principle too far.
As for the fiasco of his people discussing the chaotic niceties of shadow cabinet appointments while a Sky News reporter merrily earwigged from the other side of the door, you couldn’t flatter that as “amateur hour”. These are not words that come easily, but he desperately needs a younger, less pyschotic Alastair Campbell.
Cliché holds that new leaders have 100 days to define themselves. In this singular case, it is less than that. Corbyn has a fortnight, a month at most, to avoid being indelibly branded on the public consciousness as a shambolic buffoon who surrounds himself with incompetents and crazies. Long before his victory was announced, the Mail on Sunday ran an unintentionally hilarious “imagining” in which a writer travelled through time to discover that three years of a Corbyn premiership had ushered in the End of Days. That was an aperitif. Since Saturday, a range of front pages have featured The Sun, which has also pictured him in a jester’s cap, revealing that Corbyn means to scrap the army; the Daily Telegraph implying he will collude with trade unions to paralyse Britain with strikes; and a strong hint from the Daily Mail that he is too inherently treacherous to be entrusted, as a Privy Councillor, with state secrets.
While the media savvy appreciate that these titles are too partisan to concern themselves overly with the strict truth, and are even given to occasional bursts of silliness, you cannot overstate the osmotic force of a full frontal assault on this scale to shape perception.
The Corbyn policy of ignoring all the nonsense, and eschewing broadcast shows with audiences of millions in favour of communicating directly with the electorate through meetings and social media, speaks of a catastrophic misunderstanding about how this works. Contenting himself with preaching to the converted and easily convertible is a certain route to oblivion if the disengaged who decide general elections paradoxically regard him as both laughably clueless and lethally menacing.Since a Blair-style insertion himself in Rupert Murdoch’s colono-rectal region is thankfully not an option, only one defensive manoeuvre is available to him. He must attack.
He needs to speak about why these newspapers are so frantically keen to strangle his leadership at birth. In the brief period while much of the public barely knows who he is, he must try to explain that true power in this country resides in the government-newspaper nexus, and that now, as ever, the paramount ambition of proprietors is to cajole and bully voters into voting in accord with their commercial and taxation interests.
He cannot sound wounded and rancourous, as on Saturday, because this cannot be a personal crusade. Calmly, wryly, he needs to radiate the conviction that the things he wants to change in pursuit of a fairer, more equal society cannot change so long as a few billionaires in an almost perpetually symbiotic relationship with the Conservatives effectively deploy their newspapers as weapons of mass misinformation.
The history of Labour leaders demonised by the right wing press is not a pretty one, and the notion that Jeremy Corbyn could frame the rules of this war before he is annihilated may be a bigger fantasy than that of a Timelord defeating alien species with no more than the odd twist of his sonic screwdriver. But he owes it to himself, his party and the phalanx of the idealistic young he inspired to understand and act on this one simple fact. If you are facing Daleks and you turn your back on them … You. Will. Be. Ex. Terrrrrrrm. In. Aaaaated.