Jeremy Corbyn has a gargantuan bee in his bonnet. Last week, the Sun newspaper revealed the Labour leader met with a Czechoslovakian spy during the Cold War. The story was published with leaked documents that proved the encounter took place. The spy in question, Jan Sarkocy, went a step further and claimed Corbyn was an informer for the communist regime.
Sarkocy’s claims have since been refuted by Czech officials; Corbyn was not a spy, merely a ‘person of interest’. However, no one can seriously dispute the importance and legitimacy of the allegations.
Except the man in question, of course. On Tuesday, Corbyn published a video response to the splash. Visibly rattled, he dismissed the Sun’s article and subsequent pieces in the right-wing media as “lies and smears”. He went on to claim the free press is not actually free, before threatening its owners with “change” – or regulation, to you and me.
In the last few days The Sun, The Mail, The Telegraph and The Express have gone a little bit James Bond.
We've got news for the billionaire, tax exile press barons: Change is coming. pic.twitter.com/3ehSKfaAgZ
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) February 20, 2018
The problem with Corbyn’s response is manifold. Firstly, the press has not told a single lie. The Sun simply relayed the word of a seemingly credible source who said Corbyn was an informer. This is not the same as saying it was true. Stories develop like this all the time. The accused can then refute the accusations with evidence – as Corbyn and his sympathisers have done.
Granted, the Sun is hardly a bastion of integrity – and with debacles like its Hillsborough coverage, confidence in the paper has understandably eroded. But this is important investigative journalism. Given that Corbyn wants to lead Her Majesty’s Government, it is overwhelmingly in the national interest to explore any potential transgressions with enemies of the Crown. Did Corbyn seriously expect the Sun to just bury the findings and not report them?
In a liberal democracy, the job of the media is to hold politicians and other powerful people to account. Extracting hard evidence on such people is, by its very nature, extremely difficult. Thus, the media will often rely on hearsay and flimsy leads to kick-start the investigation. Yes, it may be a bit grubby, but it is an essential component to a free society; the truth will not come out if the press is deprived of this power.
In addition, the British press is already heavily regulated. The Sun and its competitors are subordinate to a complicated web of laws surrounding claims of libel, harassment and privacy breaches. The Labour Party also support Leveson 2, which would force newspapers to pay legal costs of both sides in such court cases even if they win. The idea, therefore, that Corbyn – a senior lawmaker – is some sort of powerless victim is laughable in the extreme.
This is what makes Corbyn’s calls to regulate the press on the back of this story so repugnant. This was a serious and convincing proposition that he should have responded to with humility and dignity. Yes, the Sun is an influential and unscrupulous organisation, but when compared to Corbyn, there is only one winner.
Jeremy Corbyn is not a communist spy. But his opposition to the free press should trouble us all the same.