Looking back on Bob Crow, 3: Media, and a final thought

This is the third post in a series. The others are here and here.

A really important lesson to take away from the book is about Crow’s relationship with the media. There are several points to remember here. The first one is the importance of realistic expectations. Crow never imagined that the commentariat or the headline writers would like him and therefore wasn’t distracted by trying to please them. He could ignore them because of the second point: the importance of identifying your audience.

The most important audience for Crow was potential RMT members. In trying to convince them that he would offer the most uncompromising possible defence of their interests, he couldn’t look savage enough. Media misrepresentation was actually useful to this end. If he wanted to communicate a more conciliatory message to existing RMT members, he could do so directly through the RMT’s newspaper, through its social media presence, or by speaking at branch meetings, all media he controlled personally.

The third point is that putting up with confected outrage might be worthwhile if it got your own message into the paper. However much he professed to scorn the press and courted its outrage, he made a point of being permanently available for interviews and giving good copy, and although he would meet journalists without a press officer, the RMT press office would go to great lengths to facilitate them.

The result was what the Russians apparently call reflexive control. The more the press thundered against him, the more it tended to amplify everything he wanted to say. Its very outrage transformed it into his megaphone. Journalists repeatedly remembered he was a Millwall fan and quoted the line “nobody likes us, we don’t care”, without apparently remembering that Millwall fans are so ashamed of this they sing it in public at the top of their voices. And this was precisely the image he wanted to present – someone who would defend members’ interests whoever it offended.

In the end, the impression I get is that Bob Crow understood the post-Thatcher order and especially London better than a lot of people who defended it for a living. Rather than being baffled by the catastrophe of the 80s, he identified ways to work around the changed legal order. Rather than trying to wish away constraints, he found strength in them. Rather than either trying to make nice with newspaper editors or whining that it wasn’t fair, he developed a technique to use them. And he picked up the consumerist and performative possibilities of the times and ran with them.

He is a lesson for us all, but it’s probably a mercy he didn’t make it to the referendum campaign as I think he might have embarrassed himself quite comprehensively. At least his take on populist Euroscepticism was about trains rather than immigration.

5 Comments on "Looking back on Bob Crow, 3: Media, and a final thought"


  1. It’s a two-part lesson, really:

    1. If you can reach supporters and potential supporters, who cares what anyone else thinks?
    2. Hold your nerve and stick to 1.

    Bob Crow could be accused of many things, but not holding his nerve wasn’t one of them.

    Reply

  2. Another lesson is to choose which battles to fight and the battleground. That’s easier for a trade union in the rail industry than a mass political party.

    An issue is that there are only so many potential supporter. For a trade union once you have converted them all, you will be in your strongest position. For a political party, you might still not have enough votes. Corbyn still lost in 2017 even if he did much better than anyone, including his own party, expected until 22:00 BST on polling day.

    But how well could Corbyn be doing if he were media-friendly. He, of course, projects, the vegan sandal-wearing geography teacher school that follows from Morris. I still think unlikely Corbyn will lead Labour into a 2022 GE. Is there any coming Labour MP who could combine media-savvy with a less hairshirt approach to the finer things in life?

    Reply

    1. Corbyn can be quite smart with the media in a Crow-y way although he isn’t consistent. A major theme in the 2017 elections was organising campaign events to get him speaking on the regional news (which has surprisingly great reach and is regulated) while trolling the nationals, accepting the hostile editorialising in exchange for getting attention onto the manifesto message.

      Reply

  3. Crow certainly seems to have hit on a winning strategy.
    A really important lesson to take away from the book is about Trump’s relationship with the media. There are several points to remember here. The first one is the importance of realistic expectations. Trump never imagined that the commentariat or the headline writers would like him and therefore wasn’t distracted by trying to please them. He could ignore them because of the second point: the importance of identifying your audience.
    The most important audience for Trump was potential Republican voters. In trying to convince them that he would offer the most uncompromising possible defence of their interests, he couldn’t look savage enough. Media misrepresentation was actually useful to this end. If he wanted to communicate a more conciliatory message to existing voters, he could do so directly through Fox News, through his own social media presence, or by speaking at rallies, all media he controlled personally.
    The third point is that putting up with confected outrage might be worthwhile if it got your own message into the paper. However much he professed to scorn the press and courted its outrage, he made a point of being permanently available for interviews and giving good copy, and although he would meet journalists without a press officer, the campaign press office would go to great lengths to facilitate them.
    The result was what the Russians apparently call reflexive control. The more the press thundered against him, the more it tended to amplify everything he wanted to say. Its very outrage transformed it into his megaphone.

    Reply

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