Following Labour’s better than expected election result in 2017, right-wing press hostility to Corbyn briefly died down – only to suddenly flare up again in the last week with an almost nostalgic theme. This was summed up in The Sun’s front page: “Corbyn and the Commie Spy.” The Sun’s story was enthusiastically taken up by Britain’s right-wing press and, despite overwhelming evidence refuting the claim, it is still at – or near – the top of their news agenda.
The smearing of Labour and its leaders as Communist agents has a long and dishonourable history going back to the Daily Mail’s notorious Zinoviev letter in 1924. This was a forgery that painted Labour as secret agents of Moscow. In the 1990s, former Labour leader Michael Foot won a large libel settlement from the Sunday Times when it wrongly suggested that he was a KGB “agent of influence”. More recently, the Daily Mail made a sustained and unsuccessful attempt to paint Ed Miliband as a far leftist with a communist father “who hated Britain”.
Now it’s Jeremy Corbyn’s turn – and he’s a far easier target in many ways because of his long and public record campaigning for left-wing causes.
The attack on Corbyn was apparently based on detailed evidence from a former Czech spy backed up by files found in the archives of the Czech secret police. Following The Sun’s revelations, the rest of the right-wing press weighed in. The Mail’s favourite historian, Dominic Sandbrook (who had played a major role in smearing the Milibands), was wheeled out to denounce Corbyn under a headline:
The useful idiot: Jeremy Corbyn’s assignations with a secret agent were part of the gullible British Left’s love affair with a totalitarian Russian regime that murdered millions.
But the use of the word “gullible” might more aptly applied to Sandbrook and his ilk. Corbyn has had no love for the Soviet Union nor its Eastern bloc allies. As anyone with only a passing knowledge of contemporary British history – and that should include Sandbrook – would know, Corbyn’s politics grew out of the “new left”, which was determinedly opposed to the Soviet brand of communism.
As Robert Colvile, the director of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies noted in the Daily Telegraph: “He was a socialist not a Communist; Team Trotsky not Team Stalin.” And The Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein reminded us, in an odd piece apparently about Corbyn’s “attachment to the Soviet Union”, that in 1988, Corbyn was publicly calling on Moscow to rehabilitate Trotsky. That’s not exactly the action of a potential, or active, spy.
But all this hue and cry has soon turned out to be a complete red herring. First, because authoritative secret service sources in both Prague and London denounced the Czech informant, Jan Sarkocy, as a liar and fantasist – who falsely claimed to journalists to have organised either, or both, the Live Aid and the Free Mandela concerts in the UK. But even more definitive refutations came from officials working in the Czech and German archives, both categorically denying that there was any evidence in their files that Corbyn was either a spy or even an “asset”. It has also been reported recently that Corbyn was elsewhere when Sarkocy claims to have been meeting him in London.
Corbyn fights back
This might have been the end of the matter but the squashing of the original story has only succeeded in diverting the press to pursue other aspects – in particular the threat to freedom of the press they claim Corbyn might represent when in power. In so doing they have revealed where Corbyn’s true offence lies – for not only has the Labour leader flatly denied the stories, he and his deputy Tom Watson MP have retaliated by turning the spotlight on the right-wing press itself.
In an online video, Corbyn talked about how:
A free press is essential for democracy and we don’t want to close it down, we want to open it up … The general election showed the media barons are losing their influence and social media means their bad old habits are becoming less and less relevant. But instead of learning these lessons they’re continuing to resort to lies and smears. Their readers – you, all of us – deserve so much better. Well, we’ve got news for them: change is coming.
This last line was interpreted by the right-wing press to mean that a Corbyn-led Labour government will introduce new restrictions on freedom of the press. This provoked an immediate response. An editorial in The Sun went for the jugular: “Controlling the press is a first step towards the one-party state Corbyn’s hard-left extremist’s dream of.” Meanwhile the Daily Mail sent the BBC a warning that: “The Corporation’s staff should watch out. If this Marxist comes to power he’ll be gagging them too.”
Do these papers truly believe that behind the mask of Corbyn sits a devious would-be dictator just waiting to turn the UK into an authoritarian dictatorship? Not likely. What is really fuelling their ire – and also accounts for much of their hostility to Miliband – is the fact that both Labour leaders were enthusiastic supporters of the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics of the press.
They both backed its finding that there should be a truly independent press regulator (backed by a Royal Charter) And they both supported the idea of holding a second inquiry: Leveson II – which was supposed to be investigating links between the media and the police, but has yet to happen. Most heinously of all, in the eyes of Fleet Street, Corbyn supported the much-delayed implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which changes libel law to favour those newspapers recognised by the statutory press regulator recommended by Leveson.
The newspapers’ hysteria has got to such a stage that, a day after it was revealed that the Stasi archives hold no files on Corbyn, some papers were still calling on the Labour leader to “release his Stasi files” even though they didn’t exist. So what does he do then? He either ignores the calls or doesn’t ask for his non-existent files to be released, either way the papers can cry “Gotcha!”
The right-wing press is playing a dangerous game. Dangerous, not because of any threat of press regulation, but because through their antics they undermine trust in both politics and the media. As we know from history, this is a far greater threat to democracy than anything that Corbyn might, or might not, have done in the past. Trust is crucial, we undermine it at our peril.