JEREMY Corbyn doesn’t like many of our newspapers, and they don’t much like him. The papers have it in for Corbyn; and he has it in for them. It is a mutually hostile relationship that in a sense plays well for both parties.
The communist spy allegations against Corbyn may be as ridiculous as they are ancient, but they do conveniently allow him to turn up the heat on the newspapers. And airing them allows the newspapers to turn the gas up under Corbyn until his lid rattles.
There has been a slew of silly stories in our more right-wing newspapers in recent days suggesting that the Labour leader gave information to a communist spy during the cold war.
Labour yesterday released a video to address all the headlines piling up about meetings Corbyn had in the 1980s with a Czechoslovakian diplomat later expelled as a spy.
Before looking at that, and at Corbyn’s barely veiled threats to the press, it is worth remembering that this sort of Labour-press barney is hardly new – something suggested by this being a cold war row, of all the frosty old things.
In 1995, The Sunday Times alleged that former Labour leader Michael Foot had been an agent of influence for the KGB, working under the code-name of agent Boot – a name with a touch of Graham Greene comedy about it, don’t you think? – and that the Soviet intelligence service made cash-only payments to Tribute, the left-wing magazine, while he was editor.
Foot was hurt by the allegations, issued a libel writ and won damages reported to have been around £100,000. It was said that part of his ‘winnings’ went on buying a new kitchen.
Another Labour leader, another era – some old nonsense.
But as a journalist, Foot did not take this action lightly, as suggested by his response after winning his case: “I think the libel laws are very severe on newspapers… But what the Sunday Times said was so serious – that I was a spy who had served one of the most wicked organisations that has existed this century – I thought it had to be wiped clear.”
Another era, another Labour leader. Corbyn issues not a writ but a video. In this he dismisses the allegations against him as “ridiculous smears”, adding that the only reason some newspapers are publishing such claims is because they are worried about a Labour government.
So far, so expected.
What has brought people up short – especially commentators on the right-side of the national slanging chamber – is that in levelling various (perfectly reasonable) charges against some newspapers, Corbyn used the words: “Change is coming.”
His tone through the video is calm and reasonable, his pledge to “stand up to the powerful and corrupt” rings fair to these ears. And yet this still worries me. Here’s the full ‘change is coming’ paragraph: “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.”
There is a suggestion here that Labour swallows its own myths a little too easily. Did the election show that the media barons are losing their influence? Perhaps to a degree, but praising social media in this way is to damn the old devil you know all too well, while shaking hands with the more powerful and wildly unpredictable new devil.
Meet the new devil; same as the old devil, just a whole lot more powerful.
Then there is the threat. Governments of all colours end up regarding newspapers and journalists in general as a nuisance; governments of all colours end up thinking that controlling the newspapers sounds like a good idea.
But how will this happen? Newspaper readers do deserve better, but how is that going to be arranged by a possible future Labour government? It never ends well when the state attempts to control the media.
But those slurs? Oh, ridiculous for sure – although perhaps Jeremy Corbyn could hire John Le Carré to brush up his past and give him a sheen of glamour.