Jeremy Corbyn has carefully cultivated his persona as a cuddly Left-wing pensioner who has unexpectedly been called upon by the people to lead the revolution, when he would much rather be pottering in his allotment. Well, yesterday, that mask slipped.
Reacting to ongoing stories about meetings with a Czech spy, Corbyn warned the press that “change is coming”. The Labour leader says that the spy story, which he denies, “shows just how worried the media bosses are by the prospect of a Labour government”. Looking straight down the camera, with a glint in his eye, he says: “They’re right to be.”
Elsewhere in the clip, Corbyn says: “It’s easy to laugh [about the stories], but something more serious is happening.” He’s right. The Leader of the Opposition is now openly threatening the British press with punitive regulation in direct retaliation for stories he does not like.
That is very serious indeed. A free press is essential to a functioning liberal democracy. By free I mean one that is held to account by the law but that is not subject to political intimidation. However, the Left’s argument, articulated by Corbyn yesterday, is that what many of us would regard as a free press is not one at all. Instead it is run by an elite of tax-dodging press barons looking to undermine the country for their own ends. The crude caricature is of a fat cat sunning himself in the Bahamas and ordering his hacks to deliver hit jobs on whomever he pleases.
As Isabel Hardman notes in the Spectator: “What the Labour leader is doing isn’t so much threatening the press with Leveson 2, which naturally the press doesn’t want, but undermining the press as a vital part of democracy.”
She is absolutely right. It is a tactic taken directly from the post-truth playbook – politicians upset with a story in the press attack it as untrue whilst simultaneously saying that traditional media is not important anyway. Look at the way Trump has dealt with allegations concerning his campaign’s links to Russia.
During the clip, which has be shared widely on social media, Corbyn boasted that “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”.
This is indicative of how Corbyn and his supporters conduct their politics. Technology has allowed them to operate in a bubble where nobody disagrees with them. Anyone who bursts this bubble is swiftly, often brutally, dealt with.
It is clear that they aim to do the same with Fleet Street outlets that publish stories uncomfortable for their leader. Whether it is hounding Laura Kuenssberg to the point that the BBC Political Editor had to be assigned security for Labour’s party conference, or booing the Political Editor of the Mirror when he asked Corbyn an uncomfortable question, there is a pattern of attacking the press as it tries to hold the leader of the opposition to account.
This approach is not about holding individual journalists, or the media more generally, to high standards though. It is about deliberately undermining the media as an institution as a whole, declaring that it is not to be trusted. While people should naturally be sceptical of the media, and question what is published, the public should also trust that journalists strive to publish what is true and what they can back up. Editorial standards in Britain are high. For politicians to claim otherwise for political advantage is deeply disingenuous.
And if Corbyn has a problem with a story, there are plenty of legal tools already at his disposal. Instead of doing that though, he continued the Trumpian attacks on the media that he and his supporters have been conducting since he first ran for the party leadership.
The most worrying part of all of this? I am sure there are plenty of people who will be cheering Corbyn on as he tries to intimidate and curtail the free press.