Corbyn's thinly veiled threat to the press should worry us all

Yesterday the Labour leader posted a video to his social media accounts. Dogged for days by accusations he was complicit in passing information in multiple meetings to the Cold War Czechoslovak agent Jan Sarkocy, and having dodged questions on the topic by the press, Corbyn (or Agent Cob as the Statni Bezoecnost called him) decided he would not answer the questions but attack the press that were asking them.  

It makes for a chilling watch. Singling out The Sun, The Mail, The Telegraph, and The Express, the Labour leader accused them of having gone ‘a bit James Bond’ over the issue. Let’s leave aside the fact that James Bond was the good guy (it was the Reds that were the enemy Jeremy), the video was full of inconsistencies. 

As Daniel Finkelstein said in his excellent piece this morning on Corbyn’s on-the-record about the Cold War and the West, either the accurate reporting of Corbyn’s positions are fine or they are smears. If they are smears then why does he hold these views? 

Corbyn’s claim that “a free press is essential for democracy” was accompanied by a thinly veiled threat to the owners of Britain’s media companies: “we’ve got news for them – change is coming”. This attack is one that deserves careful examination. He doesn’t just mean that social media is on the rise, but that he wants to change the balance between political actors and the press as it is. 

His accusation that our press at present isn’t “very free at all” because organisations are owned by private individuals is concerning. There is little to no barrier to entry for a media organisation in this country. Ask any freelancer and they’ll tell you that the saturated market, disruptive new technologies and the vocation of the job is what keeps wages low and the market tight. But new media organisations come into being all the time and they live and die by their profitability. The Spectator, Economist and Private Eye all saw increases in their print runs and profits up with a mix of old and new media (as well as varied editorial positions), while in 2017 Buzzfeed made a £3.4m loss and the Guardian lost £44.7m

The Labour leader is right that disruption is changing the media industry, but this isn’t really new. The printing press challenged the power of the Church, newspapers took on vested interests in politics and business, radio brought voices directly into homes and TV brought live images. Now we live with social media that demands quick responses as well as democratised questioning and accountability. But to pretend the old media doesn’t exist or have a role—to avoid the professional questioning because it makes you uncomfortable—is to act as though you’re untouchable. That route is well-trodden and it never ends well. 

Corbyn’s position is also worryingly ignorant of the freedoms that all Britons have when it comes to dealing with accusations in press that you find to be libellous or defamatory. Both are criminal if the broadcast or printed words are found false. Our separate judiciary allows private citizens to sue and force them to prove their allegations, or to claim damages if they can’t. In many ways our libel laws are already overly burdensome. As my colleague Sam Dumitriu argued, investigative journalism is restricted by the high costs of lawsuits that mean settling is cheaper than fighting for truth. Not only is the actual cost a deterrent but potential cost means a more wary attitude of reporting. Along with super-injunctions, these laws are used by the rich and the powerful to mask activities they don’t want the public to know about. Corbyn’s response smacks of this, rather than the good work of the Index on Censorship that suggested reforms of a cap on damages that would still see the ordinary public protected against libellous of defamatory stories. 

It should worry us all that Labour’s leadership is so emotionally triggered as to publicly attack the newspapers we read, the media organisations we watch, when they confront them with allegations Corbyn dislikes. We should heavily scrutinise the suggestions they put forward in the coming days as they back up the claim that ‘change is coming’. 

The first of these has already appeared and it’s pretty bad news. Andrew Gwynne told the Daily Politics today that Labour were thinking of implementing a ban on foreign ownership of the press if they got to power. Labour need to decide their thinking on migration and economic nationalism. Is it just the press they don’t trust foreigners with? Is it just the rich ones they don’t like? 

It’s going to be even more important that the press stands up for itself and that we continue to defend its scrutinising role after the Lords voted to press the government to set up Leveson 2 (the further public inquiry into the press that I’ve argued against before as uncompetitive and vindictive). 

The press should stick to their watchword when dealing with these moves to restrict their freedom: print with neither fear nor favour.