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WE KNEW the way the world was going from last year’s election campaign. There were two murderous terror atrocities, in Manchester and London, and a heightened state of public apprehension.
The day before the vote, the Daily Mail and the Sun both filled their front pages — and in the Mail’s case 12 pages inside — with attacks on Jeremy Corbyn over his supposed support for terrorism.
The Mail’s headline over photos of Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, was: “APOLOGISTS FOR TERROR.” The Sun had “JEZZA’S JIHADI COMRADES.”
These were based on Corbyn’s well-known activities over the years, as an independent Labour backbencher giving a platform to anti-imperialist and solidarity movements that had trouble otherwise getting much of a hearing in Britain.
These movements included Sinn Fein and the IRA, which he helped bring into the Northern Ireland peace process. That is any decent left-wing Labour MP’s job.
But it’s hard to think of a more damaging slur, at a time when people were being blown up and run down in the street, than “terrorist sympathiser.”
And what happened the next day, June 8? Labour’s vote went up.
You’d think they might learn, but they don’t, and last week they made fools of themselves again with a rehash of the same old story.
The Sun kicked off with “CORBYN AND THE COMMIE SPY,” brandishing the fantasies of a minor Czech intelligence functionary of the 1980s, as if they had unearthed a top-secret plot.
Out came the brigade of old Soviet-bashing commentators like Dominic Sandbrook in the Mail: “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.” The Times had Edward Lucas with “Corbyn’s sickening support of Soviet empire.”
In the late 20th century many people on the left had come across these characters. In the Soviet bloc system Czech intelligence was assigned the task of spying on Britain.
Its agents would cultivate the British left and send reports back to Prague that inevitably exaggerated the significance of the material they managed to gather. They enjoyed life in the West and needed to justify their presence here.
At the time the British left was infiltrated and spied on rather more seriously by MI5, but MI5 was surreptitious, while the eastern Europeans — there were Russians around as well — were open, often comradely and convivial people. Everyone hated the cold war and welcomed contact with activists from the east.
In 1990 we were officially told that the cold war was over and for 20 years people believed it. Now everyone can see that US and Russian warmongers still see benefits for themselves in cranking up militaristic confrontations.
And the right-wing press, facing an uncertain future in the digital world, can relapse into the familiar comforts of brainless red-bashing.
For people who remember the tabloid press in their Thatcherite pomp of the 1980s the recent stories about Momentum “thugs” supposedly terrorising the Blairite Claire Kober and Haringey Council have an almost nostalgic twang.
Just as with the “baa, baa green sheep” fictions of those times — when the papers made up ridiculous stories about Labour councils — the Sun, the Mail and the rest know perfectly well that allegations that Corbyn was a communist spy are not true.
For one thing, Corbyn was among those on the left that supported the rising opposition to the dictatorship of the communist regimes.
In 1989, when the Tory press would have him selling state secrets to the USSR, he signed a parliamentary motion saying: “This house welcomes the magnificent movements in eastern Europe for full democratic control … and recognises that this outburst of discontent and opposition reflects deep anger against the corruption and mismanagement of the Stalinist bureaucracy…”
Now the press’s rationale, if you asked, would be that press freedom entitles them to print what they like and anyone who challenges them is an enemy of freedom, which is what the West said throughout the cold war.
It has been widely pointed out that their real intention in attacking Corbyn and his supporters is to defend themselves from the popular cause to call them to account.
There are calls for the long-promised resumption of the Leveson inquiry into their criminal conduct, for a tougher regime of self-regulation, and for laws to curtail the extent of ownership by big media corporations.
Corbyn articulated these aspirations, which have long been advocated by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, in his campaign video in response to the stories.
He began by making fun of them: “In the last few days, the Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph and the Express have all gone a little bit James Bond … They’ve found a former Czechoslovakian spy whose claims are increasingly wild and entirely false…”
He ended: “Well, we’ve got news for them: change is coming.” Despite intoning this with a rather uncharacteristic air of menace, he did not mean that Labour is going to trample on the free press.
He meant what he said: change is happening anyway. People are turning away from the Tory press.
Their sales have halved this century. It’s not just technology that threatens them but changing popular opinion.
So guess what happened in last weekend’s opinion polls, after the week of smears: yes, Labour’s ratings went up, again, by 1 to 2 per cent in the various polls.
Tim Gopsill is editor of Free Press, magazine of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom
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