Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, the left has been concerned that if he formed a government he'd be opposed by a maelstrom of establishment interests. Big business, the press, the army, the security services and even the deep state would connive in order to stop him knocking them off the top-table of British society. So, it tells you something when former British spies are calling bullshit on the Sun’s nonsense story – picked up by the Mail, the Telegraph and the Express – about Corbyn being an asset for Eastern bloc spies.
Mark Urban, BBC Newsnight’s Diplomatic Editor, reported that some former British spooks he had spoken to thought the story was "nonsense". "He had no secrets to give away," said one. For former members of the British state security apparatus – the kind of people who in a few years time ought to be vying for contracts for a Day of the Jackal-style assassination of Prime Minster Corbyn – the smears of the British press have become far too outlandish. They were supposed to be hatching a coup. Instead, they're debunking rubbish.
The Corbyn-Commie-Spy hysteria has seen the Labour leader make other strange allies. On Tuesday, Jeremy Corbyn was speaking at the conference of EEF manufacturers organisation – the corporate body for manufacturing employers. A reporter from the Mail reportedly got booed for asking the Labour leader about the Czech spy story. When a reporter from Channel 4 News tried to ask something, Corbyn rolled his eyes and said, "I thought this was a meeting [in] which media employers got to ask questions, rather that the media, who get lots of chances," before she even got her question in. The room erupted in applause.
A room full of bosses clapping Labour's socialist leader for boying off a right-wing journalist might be a sign of how badly the story has gone down. Obviously pretenders to the premiership deserve a higher degree of scrutiny than anyone else, but anyone who isn’t already badly disposed towards Corbyn can see – if not at first, then surely by now – that this story doesn’t stand up. It took no time at all for social media to call bullshit. On Monday, VICE published a debunker, spelling out that the story was weaker than an anaemic kitten and noting the unreliability of the source, former Czechoslovakian spy Jan Sarkocy. By Tuesday the Guardian had spoken to a load of intelligence experts and academics who found no evidence that Corbyn was a spy, one of whom called Sarkocy a "liar". They also found out that the Stasi had no documents on Corbyn.
The response of the right-wing press and politicians to being sussed as bullshitters has been a strange mixture of doubling-down and watering-down. Just two days after the Sun ran with claims that Corbyn was "a paid collaborator", political editor Newton Dunn poured cold water over his own paper's story, tweeting, "There is little hard evidence Corbyn was a paid up spy," but insisted that meeting someone claiming to be a diplomat "questions his judgement". Even after the story was debunked, his newspaper continued to talk about a "Czech spy scandal".
Similarly, On Monday, Stephen Glover's Daily Mail column had started: "What could be more serious than the allegation that the possible future Prime Minister of Great Britain worked for Soviet-backed Czechoslovakia during the 1980s at the height of the Cold War?" On Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday, he said, "Nobody has said Jeremy was a spy or that he worked for Czechoslovakia at that time," while insisting there were still questions to be answered.
On Tuesday, the Labour leader released a video, going on the offensive against the media and mocking the weirder claims of Sarkocy. He said the story "shows just how worried the media bosses are by the prospect of a Labour government", which has the clear ring of truth.
"We've got news for them. Change is coming." It has since been suggested that this change could mean a review into media plurality, action on tax dodging, higher taxes on the rich and implementing the second phase of the Leveson Inquiry on media regulation.
The papers reacted with hysterics about how this is a threat to the "free press". The Mail called it a "threat to gag the press". The Sun released a statement saying it would continue to ask questions "no matter how inconvenient they might be", and demanding that Corbyn open up the Stasi file that doesn’t exist. The Torygraph, meanwhile, took the unusual step of sending Buzzfeed its Wednesday editorial in advance. It said of Corbyn’s video, "quite frankly, it is rather creepy", and said that it would continue to ask "perfectly legitimate questions […] without fear or favour". They compared him to an "old-school Soviet Stooge". If they couldn’t push their crap Commie-spy story any further, why not paint Corbyn as a Stalinist bent on turning every newspaper into his own personal Pravda.
All of this only goes to show how far Westminster hacks have disappeared up their own arseholes. They're playing a dangerous game here, acting the innocent, passive observer by glibly asserting that their obviously partisan questions are "legitimate". These "legitimate questions" perform the same function as the "legitimate concerns" politicians love to say people have about migration. They’re less an actual inquiry for information – which we already know doesn’t exist – and more a passive aggressive attack with an agenda so naked it would be arrested for public indecency if it got on the tube.
That much was underscored by Stephen Baker MP using the same lines as a shonky defence on the Daily Politics show. "We believe in a free press in this country, the questions have been asked, questions need to be answered," he said, precisely to avoid answering Andrew Neil's questions about smears from his Tory colleagues. "Surely the real scandal… is the outright lies and disinformation that your fellow Tories are spreading. That’s the real scandal isn’t it?" charged Neil.
By now, the press has completely lost it. On Thursday, the Mail published an analysis of Sarkocy's file on Corbyn, headlined, "Line by line, the Czech secret service dossier that PROVES Labour can't just dismiss 80s spy as a fantasist". They claim, "In black and white, it gives the lie to Labour’s attempt to dismiss him as a Walter Mitty fantasist."
It does no such thing. If anything, it provides even more proof that Corbyn thought he was meeting a diplomat: "Let’s keep the expenses low so Corbyn will not be able to realise he is meeting a spy," says one comment in the file. Meanwhile, the Guido Fawkes website has published the entire Stasi file on the Labour Party and the British Peace movement, in German, providing damning proof that massive state security apparatuses keep files about stuff.
Journalists should obviously be allowed to lay into politicians, but nobody will see a review on media plurality as a threat to what is commonly understood by a "free press". What such a review could actually threaten is an oligopolistic media, in which the custodians of national discourse are people like the Barclay brothers – the reclusive billionaires who own the Telegraph and have been described as tax exiles. Nothing Corbyn has said suggests his attitude to the media is a pressing concern. In his video, he added, "A free press is essential for democracy and we don’t want to close it down, we want to open it up." Screwing over ultra-rich media barons would be great, and a more plural media would be a good thing.
But with a bit of a mental leap, the fear is not completely fanciful. He’s got no particular love for journalists, and Corbynism as a movement is inured to the idea of journalists as a group of people who turn up to work every day, rubbing their hands at the prospect of cranking out the next total lie that benefits their Tory proprietor at the cost of the general public. If there’s anything in being the change you want to see, then it’s concerning that so much of the alt-left media out there is uncritical Corbyn hero-worship (although, the current episode tells you everything you need to know about how sites like the Canary came to exist).
So, for the sake of argument, let’s say a future Labour government did have it in for the free press. Let’s say the second stage of Leveson came up with some really censorious proposals and a vengeful Corbyn wanted to enact them. If right wing journalists really are worried about the future of the fourth estate, then they’re doing the worst possible job at defending it with all their unending stream of hackneyed Orwell references on Twitter. What people care about is not being fed a daily diet of bullshit. Such obviously baseless smears endear nobody to the media, and if anyone digs up some seriously concerning dirt on the Absolute Boy, or even just some honest criticism, fewer people will listen. If having a "free press" becomes synonymous with hacks unaccountably spouting complete bollocks, people will stop caring about having one.
With journalists like this, who could blame them?