The recent hostilities between Jeremy Corbyn and sections of the British press show no sign of abating and it’s useful to see the attacks on him (by the Sun, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail in particular) as just the latest in a long line of attempts to ram home to their readership, and by extension the electorate, Corbyn’s complete unsuitability for high office.
As I’ve written elsewhere , on the eve of polling day in last year’s General Election, the first 13 pages of the Daily Mail were intended to provoke fear and loathing. On page one, Corbyn was pictured alongside Diane Abbot and John McDonnell as an ‘apologist for terror’ whilst inside the paper the attempts to link with him with terrorism both past and present were meant to communicate his contempt for Britain and British values.
The Sun’s editorial was equally as damning encapsulating two years of anti Corbyn sentiment with this warning aimed at potential Labour voters:
A generation after the end of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of almost every ruinous and oppressive hard-Left regime worldwide, you would be helping to establish a new one, right here in Britain.
It would be the gravest mistake this country has ever made.
It was the Sun that “broke” the most recent Corbyn as communist story on the 15th of February, leading on its front page with the splash CORBYN AND THE COMMIE SPY, alleging that the Labour leader had met a Czech spy during the Cold War. Corbyn, said the Sun referring to “secret files” it had access to, briefed “the evil regime of a clampdown by British intelligence” and displayed negativity toward the US while supporting Soviet peace initiatives.
Two days later, the Mail’s front page screamed CORBYN ‘THE COLLABORATOR whilst the accompanying narrative claimed that according to former Czech spy Jan Sarkocy, Corbyn was a paid informant of the Czech secret police.
The Labour Party’s reaction to all this was pretty standard. This was a “ridiculous smear” spokespeople said, and though Corbyn had met a Czechoslovakian diplomat in the 1980s, he “neither had nor offered any privileged information”.
But the question must be asked: are there any grains of truth in the accusations that Corbyn was a Communist spy? Well, as Dan Lomas, expert in Intelligence and Security Studies at Bath University states, the short answer is no. According to Lomas, all the so called secret papers do is reveal very little other than the fact he met someone from Czech State Security. This in itself is would not have been unusual at the height of the Cold War. As Lomas writes:
“how many other politicians, civil servants, businessmen and women and ordinary travellers unknowingly met Eastern Bloc intelligence officials during the Cold War? The number is certainly high. “
But by the middle of last week, as the story refused to die, Corbyn took the highly unusual step of recording a personal video message in which he explicitly referred to the Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph and the Express whilst refuting all claims against him. All these allegations did, said Corbyn, was to illustrate how worried these newspapers were about the prospect of a Labour government. They had reason to be, he said: “we’ve got news for them – change is coming.”
These intentions – some would say direct threats – once again illustrate Corbyn’s his long standing commitment to media reform. During the Labour leadership contest in 2015 he said: ‘A society in which 70% of UK newspaper circulation is controlled by 3 wealthy families is clearly unfair and undemocratic”. Just after the video was released, Labour “insiders” told the Huffington Post that when in government they would consider media regulation and the plurality of media ownership.
And whether or not you see Corbyn’ retaliation as an attack on the free press or completely justified, the content of his address does get to the heart of why the Tory papers go after him with such frequency and vehemence. Of course, much has been written about the historic vilification of Labour leaders at the hands of the Sun et al with Roy Greenslade in his excellent Guardian media blog making the point that every leader with the notable exception of Tony Blair has suffered at the hands of the Tory press. He singles out Gordon Brown, Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot as being particularly harshly treated.
Let’s not forget Michael Foot. In 1995 the late MP for Ebbw Vale successfully sued the Sunday Times (the broadsheet sister paper of the Sun) for its allegation that he was Soviet agent. In 1994, the newspaper ran a three-page article under the leader “KGB: Michael Foot was our agent”. Foot was alleged to have received cash payments from the Russians and also, Like Corbyn, had a codename (Boot). In the event, the Sunday Times had to pay damages, costs and provide assurance that it had never intended to imply he’d ever been a spy.
Despite similarities, Corbyn is different animal to Foot and he clearly believes that the perceived power of the mainstream press is on the wane. The fact that he chose to record a video message rather than be interviewed indicates that he is confident and unwilling to ‘play the media game’ in the way that his contemporaries do. His approach is so unorthodox that media bemusement in so many cases is manifest in hostility.
In this way, though the comparison is perhaps odious, Corbyn has more in common with Donald Trump than he does with any other politician. Both view the conventional media with distrust and choose instead to communicate via social media as far as is possible.