“Once the press officer becomes the story, it is the end of the press officer.” This was the verdict of one of David Cameron’s inner circle on Andy Coulson. For Seamus Milne the knives were out from day one. Jeremy Corbyn’s new PR chief- branded “fascist” and “odious” on Twitter and treated as “a man with questionable views” on Newsnight- started his job by spinning his own appointment. Milne’s problem, however, isn’t what he is. In the real world he’s hardly a household name and, being an Oxford PPE man with spells at the Economist and Guardian, his CV is more Walter Bagehot than Lavrentiy Beria.
Rather, his problem is what he isn’t; namely, Andy Coulson. Leaving aside what we know now, Cameron’s decision to recruit Coulson was one of his deftest moves. The former tabloid editor hails from an estate that is council rather than country. Coulson was able to access the psyche of a striving middle England in a way that his old Etonian boss couldn’t.
Milne, the ideological soulmate of his leader, makes no such inroads. He has spent the last thirty years speaking to the same cohort of academic lefties who nourish themselves on a diet of London Review of Books and New Left Review. Milne has not built the kind of network of relationships across the media landscape that an effective press handler needs to call on. An impassioned defence of Corbyn in the Le Monde Diplomatique will not win Nuneaton.
While being a fine writer and pursuer of causes, Milne remains cossetted by a socialist bubble. The FT’s Gillian Tett writes that “silos” such as these blind us to what lies beyond the established boundaries of the thinkable. Instead of reaching out–as Cameron did with Coulson- Corbyn appears to be groping the unplumbed depths of his own silo. These are the 30ish percent of the electorate that are put off by politics as usual -from neoliberal to new labour- but can be inspired by the sage of Islington North, or so goes the logic.
It will be a challenge to grow the church while concentrating on the converted. Beyond politics Corbyn &Co could cite the continuing success of a certain video game vlogger Felix Kjellberg. Let’s call it the PewDiePie model. The 25-year old Swede proved that niche appeal can still become a multi-million dollar global phenomenon. On his Youtube channel Kjellberg posts videos of himself playing games to a background commentary of signature screeches and jokes that make Jackass look like commedia dell’arte. But with 40 million fans who am I –or anyone else- to judge? Kjellberg has been courted by broadcasters but, as is pointed out in an interview, television would be “just another promotional channel for his online work.” His success shows that to be famous internet stars do not need to graduate to traditional media. He remains focused on his core channel and lets the traditional platforms chase him.
The vulnerability of this model is that it depends on the continued accumulation of new fans in an increasingly crowded Youtube space. At this stage Kjellberg hasn’t established himself outside of the vlogger silo and thus has no other profile to fall back on. A book deal and project with the producer of The Walking Dead may suggest tentative efforts to reach out. Whether Corbyn will follow suit remains to be seen.