Corbyn’s dangerous friends: debunking the myths
I’ve written this article because I sense that a lot of people are overwhelmed by the number of claims that have been made regarding Corbyn’s alleged links to terrorist organisations, antisemitic individuals and despotic regimes. There seems to be a need for the most serious of these to be gathered into one place and answered.
I’ve also written it in order to expose some of the shockingly poor coverage of these issues, and to hint at the lengths journalists have been prepared to go to in order to smear Corbyn.
I’m not the first to notice how sloppy and biased the coverage has been. An LSE survey recently published found that 74% of broadsheet and tabloid newspaper articles ‘offered either no or a highly distorted account of Corbyn’s views and ideas’, that only 9% were ‘positive’ in tone, and that throughout this coverage he has been ‘systematically ridiculed, scorned and the object of personal attacks’.
Some of the strategies used by reputable journalists to imply that Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser, that he has tolerated antisemitism, or that he is an apologist for dictators are reminiscent of McCarthy-era scare tactics.
The disturbing thing is that it appears to be having an impact on the left. I first became aware of most of the accusations itemised below either in the pub or on social media, being voiced by left-wing friends who were in many cases genuinely disturbed by what they were hearing.
Whatever you might think of Corbyn’s politics or his leadership qualities — this article urges serious caution when accepting allegations regarding his links to hateful and violent organisations or individuals.
What is at stake here is not just Corbyn’s reputation, but our tolerance of ideologically motivated slander.
In the remainder of this article I’ll deal with each of the following accusations in turn. Obviously feel free to read them selectively, depending on which issues bother you most.
1. as a leader he has ‘among the most extensive links in Parliament to terrorists’. This includes the IRA.
2. it also includes Hamas.
3. he has been a cheerleader for vicious antisemites.
4. relatedly, he’s tolerated the presence of antisemitism in the Labour Party.
5. he’s sympathetic towards countries with dodgy human rights records, most notably Venezuela.
6. he’s been on the payroll of a state-funded Iranian TV channel banned in the UK.
Links to the IRA
Corbyn has repeatedly stated his position on Ireland (outlined in this transcript).
Whilst he condemns ‘all bombing’ carried out by the IRA, he has also been insistent on acknowledging the joint responsibility of ‘the British Army’ for the Troubles, not only because of such atrocities as Bloody Sunday but also because he believes that ‘the treatment of IRA prisoners’ was a key factor in their radicalisation.
Corbyn has never claimed to be neutral on this issue — and there are many who would hotly contest his point of view — but it does not follow from what I have just outlined that he has ever had any sympathy for IRA terrorist tactics.
As he has explained repeatedly — for instance here in an interview on Sunday Politics — his campaigning on this issue in the past was shaped both by a belief ‘that Ireland should be reunited’ and by a desire for ‘a peace process’. He claims to have always been insistent that there would never be ‘a military victory for either side in Northern Ireland’.
Evidently some have decided to question this.
The incident most commonly referred to by those insinuating IRA links is an interview in which Corbyn failed to answer a question repeatedly put to him: ‘Are you refusing to condemn what the IRA did?’
So why did Corbyn refuse to answer?
Was it because he felt he’d answered the question already, having explicitly criticised the IRA’s use of terrorism in the same interview? Or because as someone who had campaigned for a peace process from the early 80s he felt the answer to the question was beyond obvious? Or was it that he is a secret IRA sympathiser?
Evidence of the latter has been put forward with claims that Corbyn stood for a minute’s silence in Conway Hall (in London) to commemorate IRA terrorists who had been shot dead in an SAS ambush in 1987. Another claim is that he invited individuals associated with the IRA into parliament for a meeting to discuss prison conditions and the rehabilitation of prisoners that took place only a matter of weeks after the Brighton bombings.
Rev. Ian Paisley said of this action that it was one that ‘every right-thinking person in Northern Ireland utterly abhorred’.
Some will argue that communicating with terrorists under any circumstances is unforgivable.
And yet it seems clear that though both of these actions are provocative — they were entirely consistent with Corbyn’s repeatedly expressed position on the Ireland question: that violent means of countering terrorism help to propagate it.
To be clear: the 1987 Loughgall ambush incurred civilian casualties and a civilian fatality. Poor prison conditions and an absence of rehabilitation programmes clearly helped to foment existing tensions.
Taking Corbyn’s actions out of these contexts, ignoring his repeated condemnation of the IRA’s violent tactics and insisting that he met with these individuals (in parliament) as an expression of loyalty to their cause requires a series of staggering imaginative leaps.
The final and supposedly conclusive piece of evidence used to suggest Corbyn’s IRA connections is a claim that because Corbyn was on the editorial board of the left wing newsletter London Labour Briefing (along with Tony Benn), he is responsible for an editorial that includes the sentence ‘the British only sit up and take notice when they are bombed into it’.
Assuming that this is Corbyn’s work — for which, of course, there is no actual evidence — the obvious point to make (as Nathan Akehurst has elsewhere) is that this sentence can only possibly be read as ‘an endorsement of bombing’ when taken completely out of context, as the author of the Telegraph article exposing this story for some reason felt inclined to do.
The editorial in question begins by facing up to the impossibility of ignoring the IRA’s statement (as was the official policy of Thatcher’s government) that they were ‘determined never to lay down arms until the Irish people as a nation are allowed to determine their own future’, before insisting in light of this that ‘Sinn Fein’s voice, and that of all Irish Republicans, must be heard here and now’. The quote picked out in the Telegraph article is immediately followed in the original text by a clear endorsement of ‘Sinn Fein’s ballot box strategy’ as a necessary alternative to IRA violence.
The sentence ‘the British only sit up and take notice when they are bombed into it’ when read in context is quite clearly intended as a bitterly ironic reflection on Thatcher’s government’s refusal to engage in a meaningful dialogue and how this was contributing to a situation in which a handful of wrong-headed individuals were resorting to extreme violence as a perverse means of bringing about the conditions necessary for peace.
The statement is not a defence of violence but a condemnation of the causes of it. As such it is again consistent with Corbyn’s expressed views on the Ireland situation: the stance is a pacifist one — the focus is on the need for communication above all other considerations.
The argument can be made that this 1984 editorial could have been more sensitively worded — but seeing as we have no idea what role Corbyn played in its publication (if any) this seems like a moot point.
But the main issue here is that though commentators should feel free to criticise Corbyn’s republicanism, they should know better than to suggest that being a republican is the same thing as being an IRA-sympathiser.
And if they’re going to argue that Corbyn did in fact have ‘close IRA links’ — they should come up with better evidence than examples of him taking a stand against state violence and prison conditions that many would argue were responsible for worsening tensions, together with newsletter editorials suggesting (if anything) that he was an advocate of dialogue and non-violent negotiations.
To repeat: there is zero-evidence of Corbyn condoning violent tactics.
On the contrary, examining the cases cited reveals him trying to give exposure to the complaints of those involved and attempting to facilitate some degree of communication in a manner that anticipated the tone of Mo Mowlam’s much lauded policy of ‘talking to terrorists’.
Links with Hezbollah and Hamas
The major incident from which this controversy arises is Corbyn’s decision to host a parliamentary meeting attended by members of Hezbollah, to which Israeli representatives were also invited.
It was David Cameron who first drew widespread attention to this issue at the dispatch box earlier in May.
The day before the event in question Corbyn was recorded saying: ‘Tomorrow it will be my pleasure and my honour to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking.’
To Cameron, this seemed a problematic way of describing Hezbollah (and by association Hamas). And indeed, the latter have been identified by Amnesty international as guilty of war crimes and as deliberately having targeting Israeli civilians in breach of humanitarian law.
Undoubtedly the use of the word ‘friends’ was inadvisable, and Corbyn has apologised since (as he did during PMQs).
During a select committee meeting following the incident Corbyn explained that, as in the case of insisting on continuing conversations with members of Sinn Fein and the IRA in the late 80s and early 90s, the objective of the meeting in question had been to facilitate dialogue: ‘The language I used at that meeting was actually here in parliament and it was about encouraging the meeting to go ahead, encouraging there to be a discussion about the peace process.’
This was not an excuse invented after the fact to justify his actions. The recording of Corbyn that Cameron referred to during PMQs includes him implicitly criticising the British government’s refusal to attempt to negotiate peace talks, expressing his belief that they should be ‘talking directly to Hamas and Hezbollah’.
He justifies the meetings on the grounds that he considers it ‘absolutely the right function of using parliamentary facilities to invite people from other parts of the world so that we can promote that peace, that understanding and that dialogue’.
He has since been forced to make the obvious point that talking with Hezbollah and Hamas does not make him sympathetic towards their views. As he himself put it: ‘I absolutely do not approve of those organisations’ — adding, ‘obviously, anyone who commits racist acts or is antisemitic is not a friend of mine’.
Of course Corbyn remains an outspoken critic of Israel’s illegal settlements in Palestinian territory and its blockade of Gaza. But the idea that trying to facilitate peace talks with a group who represent the extreme end of the same side of the debate that you are on, but who you are attempting to win over to a pacifist agenda, means that you should be judged as somehow being in agreement with them is deeply questionable.
And, again — for anyone wishing to make these accusations some proof will need to be provided of Corbyn expressing or condoning any of the views that make Hezbollah or Hamas so controversial.
But what if Corbyn can be seen to have in effect done this by speaking out in defence of antisemitic ‘Muslim hate preachers’?
Support for antisemites and Holocaust deniers
Several accusations have been made in this respect, but I want to single out what are probably the two most controversial: one made in an open letter on the blog Left Foot Forward concerning Corbyn’s support of the supposed hate preacher Raed Salah; another made in the Jewish Chronicle concerning his alleged funding of the Holocaust denier Paul Eisen.
The Left Foot Forward open letter written by Alan Johnson (not the Labour MP, but a member of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) centres around an objection to Corbyn’s defence of Raed Salah, a Palestinian activist and head of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Theresa May attempted to deport Salah in 2011 after Mike Freer MP, of Conservative Friends of Israel, appealed to her to take action on the basis of his ‘history of virulent antisemitism’.
In his letter, Johnson points to numerous occasions when Corbyn defended Salah on the grounds that he ‘represents his people extremely well’ and that ‘his is a voice that must be heard’. Johnson then quotes Salah’s implicit referencing of the blood libel against Jews, alongside other examples of his antisemitism.
As Ollie Hill has pointed out in a blog post of Left Futures: ‘Johnson cites multiple pieces of evidence that were included in an immigration tribunal ruling supporting May’s decision to ban Salah from the UK. What Johnson conveniently omits to mention is that Salah successfully appealed that decision after the appeal court found that key pieces of evidence had been mistranslated and/or selectively presented’.
Sarah Colborne, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said in response to Salah’s successful appeal: ‘I trust that there will be a serious attempt by the British government to rely in the future on accurate evidence rather than inaccurate anti-Palestinian propaganda against someone who has a history of opposing Israel’s crimes and violations of international law’.
Johnson’s article appears to ignore the UK Upper Immigration Tribunal’s judgment on the issue. As Hill puts it, Johnson’s ‘presentation of the tribunal’s initial decision as definitive is deliberately misleading’.
In a Channel 4 interview Corbyn makes it clear that he has never suspected Salah of antisemtism. He explains that during Salah’s appeal they ‘had quite a long conversation about multi-faith objectives, about the rise of islamophobia and antisemitism and I made my views very clear. He did not at any stage utter any antisemitic remarks to me whatsoever during that conversation’.
To be clear: a UK tribunal has cleared Salah ‘on all grounds’. Corbyn’s initial comments — which weren’t a defence of Salah, but were directed against those who felt there were sufficient grounds to deport him — are in accordance with the official judgment of the relevant authority.
The claims supported by Theresa May, Alan Johnson and others seem here to be comprehensively discredited. Until any other evidence is brought to light that Salah is an antisemite or a hate preacher, such inferences should be considered libellous.
Now for the accusation that Corbyn has links with the Holocaust denier Paul Eisen.
The claims that Corbyn made donations to Deir Yassin Remembered (a charity set up by Eisen) have been made by Eisen himself in a blogpost that has since been made private.
Corbyn explains: ‘Deir Yassin was a village that was destroyed on the establishment of the state of Israel and the villagers remember that very much. I think it is reasonable that we should remember all those people, whatever side, who suffered in the Middle East — if we’re to bring about a peace process in the long term.’
On the question of whether he attended the event fifteen years ago, Corbyn doesn’t deny it. He also says he may have put money into a collection bucket. But as he puts it: ‘fifteen years ago, [Paul Eisen] was certainly not a Holocaust denier. Had he been a Holocaust denier or stated he was I would have had absolutely nothing to do with him. I was however moved by the plight of the people who had lost their village in Deir Yassin’.
In an open letter written by prominent members of the Jewish community to the Jewish Chronicle, this version of events is lent credence:
‘You report Paul Eisen as saying that Jeremy Corbyn donated to Deir Yassin Remembered. So did many people before discovering the existence of antisemites and Holocaust-deniers in the organisation. Many people attended the occasional fundraising concert that DYR organised, without either knowing of or sympathising with Mr Eisen’s views.’
Its authors go on to reflect:
‘As supporters of Israel, perhaps you agree with the racist statements of Israeli government ministers such as Eli Dahan that Jews have higher souls than non-Jews? Or Miri Regev’s belief that asylum seekers are a ‘cancer’? Or, would this be guilt by association, as in your character assassination of Jeremy Corbyn?’
Antisemitism in the Labour Party
Following on from accusations that Corbyn is sympathetic towards antisemitic groups and individuals, it is of course necessary to address the charge that he has turned a blind eye to the antisemitism within his own party — a claim that really gathered momentum after events in late April, and an article by Guardian columnist Nick Cohen on the subject.
The controversy centered around Ken Livingstone’s remarks that Hitler was a Zionist, for which he was suspended from the party (Livingstone, incidentally, has defended the remarks, however disingenuously). Cohen also referred to MP Naz Shah’s antisemitic tweet, for which she was also suspended.
Incidents like this make it pretty clear that antisemitism is alive and well on the left.
But is it fair to associate this development with Corbyn? And can it reasonably be said that he was slow to react?
As Shami Chakrabarti wrote in an inquiry report published in June: ‘On 29 April 2016, and after considerable concern and controversy leading to high-profile and senior suspensions from the Labour Party, the Leader Jeremy Corbyn MP asked me to conduct this Inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism.’
Naz Shah’s tweet became a news story on 27th April; Ken Livingstone’s Hitler comment was made on the same day; Nick Cohen’s article was then published on the 30th April, a day after the report had been commissioned by Corbyn.
There can be little doubt that Corbyn reacted swiftly and decisively by commissioning the country’s leading human rights lawyer to conduct an independent inquiry.
But what does the report itself actually say? And does it cast a light in any way on the controversies surrounding Corbyn?
The take-home point of the report is that whilst the Labour Party ‘is not overrun by antisemitism’ there remains evidence of ‘minority hateful or ignorant attitudes’. In the second paragraph of her foreword, Chakrabarti also criticises ‘an occasionally toxic atmosphere’ that is ‘in danger of shutting down free speech within the party rather than facilitating it’.
What exactly is this second point intended to refer to?
In the report Chakrabarti singles out for attention those who ‘build cases of criticism against people on the basis of those with whom they have “shared a platform”’. She objects: ‘I think it dangerous to argue guilt by association and in so doing to undermine the kind of dialogue and debate that is the basis of peace, progress, and greater understanding in the world’.
In an article in the Guardian on the Chakrabarti report written by Keith Kahn-Harris this claim is mentioned last in a list of recommendations made by the report. This in spite of the fact that this argument features prominently (it is one of the first things to be mentioned, and a good deal of space is subsequently dedicated to the subject).
This might be considered odd in light of the media fanfare concerning accusations made against the leader of the Labour Party.
And yet Kahn-Harris’s article stands out among media coverage of the report for even mentioning this key feature.
Far from condemning Corbyn for tolerating or associating with antisemites, or for dismissing antisemitism within his own party, the Chakrabarti report appears to endorse his approach of engaging in dialogue and to strongly criticise those who have attacked him on this basis.
I’d be grateful if anyone can point to a single piece of media coverage of the report that makes this obvious point.
Defence of Venezuela
The objection here arises from the fact that Corbyn commemorated Hugo Chavez following his death for bringing about a ‘redistribution of wealth’ and for ‘spending oil resources on people rather than returning it to distant multinational companies’.
Ostensibly, this is a reasonable enough claim: according to the World Bank the poverty rate in Venezuela dropped from 50 to 30 per cent under Chavez. Closer analysis of GDP indicates that growth rate over the past few decades hasn’t been fantastic (when adjusted to take inflation into account) but there’s been a serious redistribution of wealth that has benefitted millions.
And yet Corbyn’s praise of Chavez has been the subject of stern criticism (for instance, in articles on Conservative Home and CapX) that have pointed out various human rights abuses — primarily Chavez’s assault on press freedoms, his dismissal of US human rights agencies, and his attempts to befriend and defend corrupt regimes in Libya, Iran, North Korea, Syria and elsewhere. Critics of Chavez have also drawn attention to the impact of inflation in Venezuela, which has reached dangerous levels in recent years (due largely to the drop in oil prices).
Commentators have pointed to a real need for the left to speak up on these issues.
So what’s going on here? Is Corbyn, as some have argued, carrying on the tradition of those left-wing apologists for Stalin in the 1930s who were so keen to see socialist values succeed that they ignored the evidence of tyranny staring them in the face?
It’s worth looking at what Corbyn has actually said.
During an interview on Al Jazeera in 2013 he challenged the viewer to ‘think what Venezuela was like before Chavez, and the abuse of human rights, the marginalisation and the poverty of people’.
As a stand-alone argument, the idea that things used to be worse is a pretty weak defence.
But Corbyn then challenges two specific claims: the first, that Chavez’s democratic mandate can legitimately be challenged — with Corbyn claiming that no-one could object to his 2012 re-election ‘on the basis that it was anything but a fair summary of the views of the people of Venezuela’; the second, that Chavez controlled the media — with Corbyn claiming that ‘the media in Venezuela, if he was a dictator, seemed to survive very well and produce the most virulent criticisms of him, that would be libellous in any western society’.
Let’s consider Corbyn’s efforts to extol Chavez’s democratic credentials first.
As Owen Jones has pointed out, there has been a peculiar failure in western media to acknowledge Chavez’s achievements in bringing about open and fair elections in Venezuela — opening up 6,000 new polling stations, doubling the registered electorate and incorporating state-of-the-art technology into electoral proceedings. Jimmy Carter — who now runs the world’s leading election monitoring organisation, the Carter Center, for which he was awarded the Nobel peace prize — has described elections in Venezuela as no less than ‘the best in the world’.
Corbyn’s claims about the 2012 election seem in light of this not only fair, but possibly even understated.
So what of this business of Chavez’s alleged control of the media?
Again, Corbyn’s defence of Chavez appears to have some credibility here.
An independent report published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that ‘statements about the Venezuelan government “controlling” or “dominating” the media are not only exaggerated, but simply false’. In 2010 the state had a 5.4% audience share of state TV in Venezuela, whilst ‘much of the private media is stridently anti-government, in ways that go beyond the boundaries of what is permitted in the United States’.
This analysis again seems to vindicate Corbyn’s analysis.
And yet questions still remain.
Fine, Chavez may not have been a dictator in the conventional sense: he seems to have been pretty committed to introducing democracy to Venezuela, and he doesn’t seem to have had a media monopoly. But what about his human rights abuses? How could Corbyn defend someone condemned by multiple human rights NGOs?
In truth, I don’t think that this question can be answered in an entirely satisfactory way — and of the various criticisms considered in this article, those concerning Corbyn’s failure to criticise Chavez are probably the most valid.
And yet, understanding the context within which Chavez’s human rights abuses emerged does go some way towards diminishing the hysteria surrounding these remarks— as well as explaining (though not justifying) how a leader ostensibly committed to social justice and democracy could at the same time be guilty of all this.
The key issue to recognise in attempting to understand these contradictions is the nature of Chavez’s opposition: those who supported the right-wing forces that led a military coup against him in 2002 in an attempt to implement what Owen Jones describes as a ‘Pinochet-style’ of politics.
The coup leaders (allegedly supported and guided by the Bush administration) were not exactly committed to democracy. When the businessman Pedro Carmona installed himself in Chavez’s place he ‘wasted no time dissolving all of the country’s democratic institutions’.
The human rights abuses that Chavez is accused of centre around opposition forces loyal to these coup leaders who, during the decade that followed, ran the hostile media campaigns described above, as well as leading the call to protest.
If you look through the selected cases of human rights abuses documented in this report by Human Rights Watch a good many concern people connected with pro-opposition media organisations — for example Guillermo Zuloaga, president of Globovisión, and Nelson Mezerhane, its principal shareholder.
Chavez accused Globovisión of untruthful reporting, of encouraging civil disobedience and of calling for his assassination. He responded with a campaign of ‘sanctioning and censorship’ that is at the centre of human rights allegations: trying to buy out Globovisión and subjecting it to heavy fines for alleged journalistic bias. At the extreme end, he incarcerated some of its senior executives on trumped up charges and turned a blind eye to civilian-led direct action against the channel.
This is all pretty heavy-handed stuff— challenging Corbyn’s suggestion that the media ‘seemed to survive pretty well’ under Chavez (even if he was referring to Globovisión’s continued domination of the media throughout Chavez’s presidency).
Nonetheless — this picture that this conveys is very different to that given when Chavez is described (in articles attacking Corbyn) as one of a band of ‘sadistic torturers’ with his ‘police on motorbikes, with shotguns and Nazi style helmets’.
So what of the claims that Chavez went beyond trying to censor opposition media? That he was a fascist who incited violence — and that Corbyn is in turn an apologist for a ruthless dictator?
Currently the media is full of reports of ‘over-zealous riot police’ in Venezuela, with the ‘police and national-guard members “routinely” using unlawful force against armed protesters’.
But there are a couple of key caveats for those trying to implicate Corbyn in any of this.
The first thing to note is that police violence claims are not present in human rights reports from the time of Chavez. This is something that has really escalated under Chavez’s successor President Maduro.
The second thing to register is that Chavez himself actually made efforts to prevent such a situation from arising.
As the often cited Human Rights Watch report into police violence in Venezuela makes clear: ‘In 2008, the government of Venezuela […] enacted measures to promote non-abusive policing proposed by a commission comprised of government and NGO representatives.’
Some have even argued that Chavez’s actions actually had the result of recasting ‘officers as weak and impotent, as objects of violence rather than holding a monopoly over it’.
Corbyn may have defended someone guilty of trying to censor a right-wing press — but to imply that he also turned a blind eye to state violence perpetrated by officers in ‘Nazi style helmets’ would appear to be a little anachronistic.
And yet — defending Chazev against the worst charges doesn’t exonerate him of the rest of his crimes.
To be clear: Chavez’s clampdowns on press freedoms were completely indefensible. And this is just one of a series of serious criticisms that can be made of him.
We might also include: detaining individuals such as the judge Maria Afiuni for lengthy periods without trial (whether guilty of corruption or not); wresting control away from the opposition in the Supreme Court (no matter how right wing); blocking funding for opposition parties (no matter how anti-democratic); refusing to cooperate with US-based human rights organisations (however bitterly Chavez resented US support for the coup).
These defences may explain, but they do not excuse.
And there remain serious questions to be answered about Chavez’s friendships with Gaddafi and al-Assad.
So where does all of this leave Corbyn?
It seems clear that the specific points on which he has defended Chavez have a legitimate enough basis.
What is troubling, however, is his failure to state clearly that many of Chavez’s actions remain inexcusable. I have to say that I think critics are right when they criticise Corbyn on this point.
Still, they go too far when they suggest that Corbyn was defending a tyrannical despot. Chavez had some serious shortcomings, but it is not irrelevant that his greatest crimes came out of his attempts to respond to a very real threat to democratic principles that he had struggled to implement. And he is not responsible for crimes committed after his death that would appear to violate laws that he had implemented.
It also seems reasonable to argue that Corbyn and others were right to point to Chavez’s achievements in terms of poverty reduction and securing greater levels of democratic participation. And that they were right to try and correct media coverage that fails to mention these things.
If I was to try and justify Corbyn’s failure to take a stronger stance against Chavez’s human rights abuses and his dodgy international connections, I’d say that he was reacting to the media whitewashing of Chavez’s legacy.
And yet of course it would have been far more satisfactory had he challenged how Chavez was being represented whilst also clearly acknowledging the seriousness of charges against him.
The controversy here concerns an occasion when Corbyn appeared on the Iranian channel Press TV — accepting a fee of £4,000 per episode to host a five-part current affairs call-in, in which topics such as Israel’s attack on international waters of a flotilla of aid traveling into Gaza were discussed.
The story has been widely reported, with many objecting to the fact that Corbyn received a fee for appearing on a channel that had previously trumpeted holocaust-denial and defended the execution of people for the ‘crime’ of being gay.
Corbyn appeared on the channel (in 2010) six months after Ofcom banned Press TV from being aired in the UK. The explanation Press TV offered was that it refused to be regulated by what it saw as ‘the media tool’ of the same government ‘that sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan to participate in the killing of innocent civilians’.
This claim is complicated by the fact that Press TV had recently been given a heavy fine by Ofcom for airing a forced confession by the journalist Maziar Bahari.
So, what was Corbyn doing associating himself with such a channel?
This question carries even more weight when it is taken into account that many UK journalists had, months before Corbyn’s appearance on the channel, walked away from Press TV in a show of protest against its alleged bias during its coverage of the 2009 Iranian elections.
Among these were LBC’s Nick Ferrari, the Sunday Express’s Yvonne Ridley and the Tory blogger Iain Dale.
Corbyn himself allegedly withdrew ‘from a forthcoming Press TV programme about Western media coverage of the election’.
Why did Corbyn return when so many had walked away?
One explanation is the nature of the debate that followed the walk-outs of right wing pundits from the channel in July 2009.
For instance, Mehdi Hasan, a senior editor at the New Statesman, challenged those who had walked out and argued that ‘engaging with Iran, no matter who is in charge in Tehran, is a prerequisite for peace and progress in the region. The very fact that Press TV is Iranian-owned makes it the ideal English-language platform on which to do so.’
It is of interest that one of Corbyn’s earliest appearances on Press TV is alongside Mehdi. Of further interest is the fact that they are discussing democratic procedures in elections (which might be seen as something of a corrective against the TV channel’s previous failings on this issue).
Things get even more interesting when it is noted that in this clip, the person leading the debate is Andrew Gilligan — currently a leading journalist in the media campaign against Corbyn (more of which in my conclusion below).
Just what is Gilligan doing on Press TV in May 2010, given that he has recently been quoted in a 2016 interview with Business Insider explaining why he left the channel: the ‘tipping point was its terrible coverage of the 2009 Iranian elections’?
Very mysterious. Yet whilst I don’t want to exonerate Gilligan for blatantly lying in an attempt to smear Corbyn, I am prepared to defend his decision in 2010 to continue his work as (according to Hasan) ‘among the highest-paid, if not the highest-paid, employee’ at Press TV.
As the self-identifying Zionist Geoffrey Alderman later argued in a Guardian comment piece: Press TV, for all its shortcomings, helped to expose a large body of viewers in the Middle East ‘to opinions and arguments — especially in relation to Israel — that they might otherwise never hear’.
When it was banned by Ofcom in 2012 (on the grounds of a failure to comply with licensing laws, not because of any ethical objection to its content), Alderman noted that the action would ‘only serve to increase anti-western sentiment in Iran’.
Of course we can argue that appearing on Press TV is tantamount to being a holocaust denying, homophobic, Iranian state-apologist. But such an argument is to pursue the logic of ‘guilt by association’ that Shami Chakrabarti condemned in her report on racism and antisemitism in the Labour Party — actively denying us ‘the kind of dialogue and debate that is the basis of peace, progress, and greater understanding in the world’.
In context, Corbyn’s decision to appear on Press TV looks like solidarity with the likes of Mehdi and Alderman for pursuing precisely this kind of objective.
It also seems to be in keeping with the general pattern that this article has observed: suggesting a desire on Corbyn’s part to open up dialogue in places where ordinarily it is prohibited, and where the effects of that may be considered damaging.
It’s not ludicrous to think of the efforts of British and Iranian politicians and journalists to develop an international conversation as comparable to John Kerry’s diplomatic agreement securing a nuclear disarmament deal with Iran.
Of course of the two Kerry’s achievement is by far the greater, but still it might be seen that diplomatic negotiation and journalistic cooperation perform a similar function in calming existing tensions between nations.
The idea that journalists and politicians shouldn’t appear on or accept payment from media platforms embroiled in controversy would, writ large, lead to a communication shutdown across of the world.
What about Al Jazeera, who have been accused of providing a platform for Osama Bin Laden? Or Russia Today, accused of being a Kremlin propaganda mouthpiece?
How many prominent MPs and journalists have appeared on these platforms? And what would be the long-term consequences if this kind of activity were to stop?
My reference above to Gilligan provides a convenient segway into something resembling a conclusion on Corbyn’s supposed links with terrorists and despotic regimes.
Google Andrew Gilligan’s name alongside Jeremy Corbyn’s and you will uncover a plethora of articles (really, a frightening number) supposedly digging the dirt on Corbyn, his team and his campaigners.
The majority allege links to some form of extremism. For instance, Gilligan has been instrumental in circulating claims that Corbyn had links to the IRA, Iran and Hamas.
Other accusations range from alleged rumours (amounting to nothing) about a Corbyn plot to deselect MPs, to obscure and ethically dubious exposés, including revelations about the alleged fraud of the father of a Momentum campaigner.
Gilligan’s unusual trajectory after being sacked by the BBC for (as it turns out accurately) reporting Blair’s sexing-up of the famous WMD dossier has not passed unnoticed. But his role in generating many of the above rumours needs greater public reckoning with.
To be fair to Gilligan, the attacks are not limited to the left. He has even accused the Conservative peer Baroness Warsi of having links to Islamist groups.
But that doesn’t excuse it.
What is alarming about this kind of journalism is the combination of vitriol and an evident lack of concern about actually joining up the dots.
As we have seen in unpacking accusations concerning Corbyn’s links to the IRA, Hamas, Chavez and Iran — he has repeatedly been connected with the worst abuses of groups and individuals he has had a passing connection with, even when this has been in the interest of generating dialogue to help bring about peace, trying to counteract imbalanced media coverage, or attempting to facilitate a cross-cultural conversation.
Of course you can disagree with the fact that he has tried to do these things, just like you can challenge his various stances on Ireland, Israel, Venezuela and elsewhere. But most of those who criticise Corbyn on these issues do not seem to be doing this, to judge by the various news articles linked to above (many of which have been widely shared).
The only accusation that has arisen out of the alleged controversies that I consider to be of any real consequence concerns Corbyn’s failure to condemn Hugo Chavez’s human rights abuses— though even here, my analysis reveals a tendency to seriously misrepresent the issue.
Otherwise, this article has revealed a steady flow of inaccurate and sometimes hysterical claims.
The fact that the ringleader of this media offensive is capable of casually lying about his own appearances on Press TV in order to smear Corbyn says it all really.
We should not be taken in by the unproven allegations of Gilligan and others.
And yet apparently we are.
Shami Chakrabarti’s discovery of a culture of ‘guilt by association’ within the Labour Party is strong evidence of a growing willingness to accuse people, without having very much real evidence, of sympathising with extremists or apologising for dictators.
Apparently, we’re quite happy to make these claims against people even when it’s clear that the actions of the individuals in question are in the interest of encouraging peace processes, challenging media biases or facilitating cross-cultural conversation.
I find it deeply troubling that, of all things, Corbyn should be attacked for supporting violent and hateful organisations and individuals when he has spent so much of his political career fighting for free speech and trying to bring about the conditions necessary for peace in many different parts of the world.
It’s hard not to conclude — given how aware most journalists and politicians are of this fact — that those responsible for circulating these accusations are guilty of political point-scoring of the lowest order.