Jeremy Corbyn "Spied for Russia in the 80s" and was paid by Czechoslovakian Intelligence to be a "communist Intelligence Asset". That's the remarkable story that was splurged across the Sun, Mail, Telegraph and Express this weekend.
A story of Jeremy Corbyn as a Communist Jason Bourne – a sleeper agent lurking in Westminster – sounds odd. It sounds a lot odder when you realise this charge is based on the claims of a retired spy who also says Czechoslovakian spies helped fund and organise Live Aid, the 1985 charity concert headlined by Freddy Mercury and David Bowie, in order to encourage people to "fight the system".
The Corbyn-spy stories started last week with the Sun reporting meetings between Jeremy Corbyn – then a Labour backbencher – and a Czechoslovakian agent in the House of Commons in 1986. At that time, Russia was still a communist country with a satellite "Eastern Bloc" of nations, including Czechoslovakia.
The Sun’s first story has details of documents from the archive of the Czechoslovakian Secret Service (StB) in Prague. Since the fall of Communism, these documents have been made available to researchers. They show that a Czechoslovakian spy, Jan Sarkocy, pretended to be a Czechoslovakian diplomat to meet Corbyn.
The Sun reports that Jan Sarkocy’s reports for the StB spy files said he and Corbyn discussed national liberation movements – meaning groups like Nelson Mandela’s ANC in South Africa – and the Middle East. Sarkocy notes that Corbyn's "knowledge could not be utilised for the purpose of information as they were limited to a general nature". The Czech spy also noted that, in 1986, Corbyn was "negative towards USA, as well as the current politics of the Conservative government" and that he – scoop alert – "owns dogs and fish".
The Sun’s Political Editor, Tom Newton Dunn, tweeted that, "There is little hard evidence Corbyn was a paid up spy. But he admits meeting a Czech intelligence officer (who he says he thought was only a diplomat) to talk, and this happened four times over 18 months in 1986-7. This questions his judgement."
But it doesn’t, really. Meetings between Eastern Bloc diplomats and Labour MPs were not unusual. The head of the archive told Czech media that the documents showed Corbyn was not "registered as a collaborator" with Czech intelligence, and that he did not know the man he knew as a diplomat was filing secret reports.
However, when Sarkocy himself surfaced from retirement to talk to the press, the story really took off. The 65-year-old former spy told British newspapers that, in contradiction to the documentary evidence, "Corbyn was recruited. He also received money." From asserting Corbyn was a paid agent of the Czech secret service, Sarkocy has now told other newspapers that he ran a cell of "ten or 15 Labour" MPs, who were paid £10,000 for secret meetings with Russian spies.
Did MI5 somehow manage to completely miss a massive spy ring operating among Her Majesty's Opposition? Or is it, as Labour insist, all made up?
Sarkocy’s credibility is key to the story – especially since what he's saying goes against what's laid out in the actual documents. This perhaps explains why some of his more bizarre comments are being kept out of the story by the newspapers – the Sun, Telegraph, Mail and Express – that are pushing the tale.
Slovakia’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, Nový Čas (New Times) caught up with Sarkocy at his retirement home over the weekend, where he spilled his beans on the Corbyn spy scandal. And what a mad bunch of beans they were.
The newspaper asked Sarkocy: "What information did Corbyn give you?" The retired spy answered, "I'll put it this way. I knew what Mrs Thatcher would have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and what clothes she would wear the next day."
If the idea that left-wing Labour backbencher Corbyn had inside knowledge of the Tory Prime Minister’s diet and wardrobe is weird, Sarkocy had weirder.
The newspaper asked a key question: "Did you also talk about security issues" with Corbyn? Our spy answered, "Yes, this was coming out of the peace movements, and they were receiving reports from the Defence Ministry." According to Sarkocy, the "peace movements" – meaning the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) – were getting Ministry of Defence reports and passing them on to Corbyn, who in turn passed them on to Eastern Bloc spies.
Consider this: why would the Ministry of Defence give privileged information to a group of peace protesters who campaign against nuclear weapons?
To top it all off, the spy appeared to claim credit for Live Aid. The newspaper asked Sarkocy if there was any one part of his work with Corbyn that stood out. He replied: "In the end we put on a concert in Wembley. That was financed by Czechoslovakia." The reporter asks "Do you mean Live Aid?" and gets the answer, "I did that."
Sarkocy also says the Wembley concert was about "Nelson Mandela" and was put on with the help of "the unions and peace movements". It seems likely that Sarkocy is confusing the 1985 Live Aid concert with the 1988 "Free Nelson Mandela" concert in Wembley. Mandela was still in an apartheid jail, and the massive solidarity concert for his birthday included performers ranging from Jerry Dammers performing "Free Nelson Mandela" to a set by George Michael. The idea that Czechoslovakian secret services were involved in this concert is no less ridiculous than the idea they were involved in Live Aid.
Most newspapers would normally be very reluctant to run stories using a single source making weird claims. They would want documentary evidence – which in this case contradicts Sarkocy – or other reliable sources. However, the temptation of linking Labour’s leader with Russian spies is sometimes too strong for the Tory press.
This story comes from a tradition of right-wing papers accusing the leader of the Labour Party of being under Russian control.
During the 1992 election, the Sunday Times put up billboards declaring "Kinnock’s Kremlin Connection". The relatively moderate Kinnock was accused of "red connections", based on Russian documents describing his meeting with a Soviet ambassador in the 1980s. Afterwards, the newspaper accepted the story was over-hyped. In February of 1995, the Sunday Times printed a story on former Labour leader Michael Foot, again based on Soviet Bloc files, with the headline "KGB : Micheal Foot was our agent". By July, the newspaper had apologised and paid Foot substantial damages.
It’s hard to tell if the increasingly wild spy stories are hurting Labour. But they are certainly damaging the press. The traditional "reds under the beds" attack was shelved during the Blair-Brown era, but conservative media is responding to Corbyn with a deep nostalgia, hoping to re-run red-baiting rituals.
These stories also say something very bad about media standards. Relying on a single source with questionable claims doesn’t often end well: during the run-up to the Iraq war, newspapers like the Telegraph relied on dubious "defectors" as the single source for stories, claiming, without qualification, that Saddam had nuclear weapons or other WMD. These stories turned out to be wholly false, although the war they helped start was very real.
As the Kinnock and Foot cases show, there is nothing odd about Labour MPs meeting Eastern European diplomats in the 1980s. Despite the assertions of some pundits, the 1980s were not "the height of the Cold War", like in the US of the 1950s, where any meeting with "Reds" were banned. Both the government and opposition spoke to Eastern European diplomats at that time, because they wanted to negotiate both sides out of the nuclear arms race.
The real question of judgment is why the papers are willing to jeopardise their own already tarnished reputation in such a daft, and possibly futile, attack on Jeremy Corbyn.