'Fake news': it's the new Godwin's law

Perhaps proclaiming 'fake news', rather than the Nazis, is a sign of the argument being lost. The latest Corbyn imbroglio seems to suggest so.

I have been meaning to write about powerful people shouting "fake news" at journalists for the past couple of weeks. Whether you’re a senior executive having a tantrum after losing a prestigious bit of business, the leader of a country at a press conference or a media company comms director worried about a story that actually has some substance in truth, progress turns back on its axis a degree each time the words are used incorrectly. 

One particularly irritating instance was when Emily Thornberry last month said the idea of Jeremy Corbyn not being in favour of nuclear power was "fake news". Yes, he had (conveniently) softened his tone in January ahead of the Copeland by-election, but that doesn’t mean discussing his previously long-held opposition to the technology is disingenuous. It’s not fake news to provide context and background. 

Take also Labour’s response to journalists’ questions about Corbyn’s tax return. Tax has been a major focus of the party in recent weeks. It was the subject of the latest film from Krow and major policy announcements. You would have expected whoever decided to publish the leader’s return would have had it double (triple?) checked for potential pitfalls and approved some lines to obvious questions.

But when journalists asked Corbyn’s aides which part of the tax return referred to his salary as leader of the opposition, no answer was forthcoming. Yes, it was a Sunday, but the Labour Party made the decision to share the document then. The journalists were going to press and, failing to find the figure (it later emerged it was languishing in the pensions and benefits section, for some unexplained reason), they included this apparent discrepancy in their reports.

Corbyn’s spokesman subsequently blamed the mix-up on tax-dodging media barons. No matter that Labour failing to answer their questions was the cause of the confusion. The idea that media barons spent their Sunday afternoons calling journalists – on their blood-diamond-encrusted Vertu phones bought with the profits of hacking, no doubt – telling them to chase down Corybn is ridiculous.

But the problem is, all this incompetence completely overshadows the professional communications the party is trying to develop. In January, I wrote that the last film Krow created, on the NHS crisis, was a bit worthy, long and unconnected to the rest of its messaging. This most recent film was accompanied by wide-ranging social activity, a Guardian front-page story and media interviews by John McDonnell, which was a definite improvement.

But even if the campaign was more joined-up and focused on the right subject, the spot was too complicated. The film should have made a simple link between tax avoidance and the NHS. M&C Saatchi would never have made this mistake. And that’s before we get on to the whistling soundtrack and the actual fat cats’ place in the 21st-century economy. But maybe this is all part of the plan. As someone said to me this week, nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.

Maisie McCabe is acting UK editor of Campaign. 

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