The media meltdown at Johnson’s attack on Labour leader Keir Starmer isn’t about truth or principle. It’s just more cynical politics

The media is incensed. The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has “smeared” the Labour leader, Keir Starmer.

Fact-checkers are agreed it was groundless for Johnson to claim that Starmer failed to prosecute the disgraced late TV personality and serial sex offender Jimmy Savile when he headed the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) more than a decade ago. Savile died in 2011, having never faced justice.

Commentators fume over the prime minister dealing in misinformation about the head of the opposition and accuse him of cynically whipping up the public mood for his personal advantage, indifferent as to whether his claims might trigger violence.

An urgent retraction and apology are demanded. Some are even calling for Johnson’s resignation. 

But hang on a moment. Haven’t we been here before with the defaming of a Labour leader – and only a short time ago? And tellingly, wasn’t the media’s response to those smears starkly different from the current furore? 

One doesn’t need much of a memory to recall that Jeremy Corbyn was also demonised – and not once, but repeatedly, day after day, for years? And those smears weren’t just peddled by the governing party. They were echoed and amplified by the same media now decrying Johnson’s treatment of Starmer. 

The smears of Corbyn were more inflammatory than anything Starmer has faced from Johnson – and more baseless. 

Selective revulsion

The point here is not to revisit Starmer’s time as head of the Crown Prosecution Service.

It is to underscore how entirely selective is the media’s sudden revulsion at “smears” and its overnight conversion to the politics of civility, and how hollow is its concern about the dangers of inflammatory and unfounded claims unleashing public anger at politicians.

In other words, there is nothing good faith about the current wailing over what one Guardian columnist has called Johnson’s “scorched-earth tactics” against Starmer. The uproar is entirely manufactured, an about-turn by the media to suit a change in its prevailing political priorities. 

And the proof is that, however unpalatable and self-serving Johnson’s statement against Starmer, it pales in comparison to what was said about Corbyn.

A media now indignant on Starmer’s behalf are the same media that used “scorched-earth tactics” against Corbyn.

Threadbare story

For those who doubt the comparison, let us recall what happened during the tenure of Starmer’s predecessor – in addition to the constant gratuitous slurs inflicted on Corbyn, such as the Daily Mail’s image of him as a vampire, ready to suck the life from the British body politic.

Take, for example, the incendiary – and completely evidence-free – claim in 2018 that Corbyn served as a paid agent of the KGB, the former Soviet Union’s notorious secret police, supposedlyrelaying intelligence to a Czech spy back in the 1980s. 

There can hardly be a more poisonous claim against a political leader than that they spied for the enemy during the Cold War. That is treason. It would instantly disqualify Corbyn from ever being allowed near power and Britain’s state secrets.

For that reason alone, the Soviet spy story was eagerly picked up by Conservative government ministers, including the then defence secretary Gavin Williamson, as a way to fatally undermine Corbyn. 

Did the media rally to Corbyn’s defence, suggesting this was a vile calumny against the Labour leader that should be denounced unless proof could be produced to support the wild assertions made by a former Czech spy speaking to the Sun newspaper. 

Of course not. The media ravenously fed on this threadbare story, and not just the red tops. The supposedly responsible broadsheets – those leading the current condemnation of Starmer’s treatment by Johnson – also gorged on it.

In the Guardian, columnist Matthew D’Ancona suggested that, on the best possible interpretation, Corbyn was “playing with fire” and his meetings with the Czech diplomat-spy were “freighted with significance and peril”. 

Revealing of the double standards at play, D’Ancona observed: “Part of the problem is that any criticism of the Labour leader [Corbyn] – of whatever character – is axiomatically dismissed by his followers as ‘a smear’.” D’Ancona concluded: “Don’t pretend that they [the spy claims against Corbyn] are an irrelevance.”

Even the BBC flagship Newsnight programme mocked up a photo of Corbyn with a Soviet red-tinted background, a Kremlin skyline and his peak cap darkened to look like a Brezhnev-style fur hat. The imagery conveyed – and was clearly meant to – the impression of Corbyn as a Soviet spy.

In contrast, the media is only too ready to dismiss the accusations against Starmer not only as an “irrelevance” but as urgent proof of Johnson’s unsuitability to remain in power. 

Toxic allegations

Another toxic claim widely amplified by the media in 2018, despite its having no basis in reality, was the allegation that in 2014, before he became Labour leader, Corbyn laid a wreath on the graves of two men who were alleged to have been behind the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. 

Again, what could be more defamatory than accusing the opposition leader of celebrating a flagrant act of terror? Extraordinary claims, as the saying goes, need extraordinary evidence. But the media were quite happy to serve as a bullhorn for this smear, even though there was no evidence for it.

Predictably, Conservative government ministers seized on the moment to vilify Corbyn, including the then home secretary, Sajid Javid. In fact, Corbyn had attended a commemoration in Tunis for the victims of an Israeli air strike on the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1985. The attack was strongly condemned at the time by the United Nations as an “act of armed aggression” in violation of international law. 

The media pile-on against Corbyn involved the most noxious kind of misdirection. During his visit, Corbyn had also been present at a separate ceremony in which PLO delegates laid a wreath in a cemetery dedicated to victims of Israeli attacks, including the 60 victims of the 1985 bombing of the PLO headquarters. 

Inside the cemetery, though distant from the ceremony, were the graves of two PLO leaders who, Israel has alleged, were involved in the 1972 massacre. Not only was the wreath not laid on the graves of the two PLO leaders. Also, both of the senior Palestinian officials in question, one of them Yasser Arafat’s deputy, had been effectively rehabilitated in western capitals through their efforts to forge the diplomatic ties that led to the Olso peace process. 

There was an outrageous double standard at play too, given that western leaders regularly attend the funerals of Israeli prime ministers, such as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, each of whom once headed terror groups, or Ariel Sharon, whose military career was littered with war crimes.

Holocaust survivor abused

The wreath smear was part of a much bigger, years-long effort – carried out jointly by the Conservative government, the billionaire-owned media, pro-Israel groups, and parts of his own Labour Party – to paint Corbyn as either an antisemite or at least highly indulgent of antisemitism. 

Once again, there could hardly be a more damaging claim than that a politician campaigning to lead the country secretly harboured ill-will towards a minority population. There are too many antisemitism smears to detail them all here, but let’s pick one as illustrative. 

Again in 2018, Corbyn was forced on to the defensive on antisemitism, this time in the wake of claims that in 2010, long before he became Labour leader, he had hosted an event at which Israeli policies were compared to Nazi policies. 

The timing of the accusation was significant. In summer 2018 the Labour Party was in the midst of a furious campaign from the pro-Israel lobby and the media to adopt “in full” a controversial new “working definition” of antisemitism that switched the focus from anti-Jewish bigotry, as antisemitism was traditionally understood, to hostility towards Israel. 

“In full”, in this case, required Labour accepting all of the 11 illustrative examples of antisemitism attached to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition. Most referred to Israel. One potential example of antisemitism was: “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” 

Corbyn was cornered into apologising retroactively, stating that he “completely” rejected the comparison, even though the incident occurred eight years before the definition was adopted by his party, and the IHRA explicitly notes that the examples are only potentially antisemitic, depending on the context

Even a cursory examination of the incident showed how preposterous this smear by association was. Mostly buried in the coverage was the fact that the person who made the comparison between Israel and Nazism was Hajo Meyer, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. If anyone had a right to draw such a comparison – as even the IHRA definition implicitly conceded – it was a Holocaust survivor like Meyer. That context was crucially important.

Meyer died in 2014 so was unable to defend himself. The prescient title of Meyer’s 2010 talk was, “The Misuse of the Holocaust for Political Purposes.” Indeed, his talk was misused, just as he warned – in this case to vilify Corbyn.

Angry protests

Given the media’s prolonged campaign of smears against Corbyn when he was Labour leader – each claim demonstrably misleading or downright false – the question is why is the same media now whipping up a storm of indignation over Johnson’s allegations against Starmer, Corbyn’s successor? 

However serious the accusation of failing to prosecute a paedophile, Starmer might still prefer it over being labelled a traitor, or a champion of terrorists, or an antisemite, as Corbyn consistently was. The media has been quick to highlight the danger that Johnson’s comment could whip up dangerous populist sentiment towards Starmer, as it is alleged to have done last week when he was barracked on the streets by angry protesters. 

But what about the far graver dangers provoked by the relentless smearing of Corbyn? In 2015 The Times uncritically reported comments from an anonymous general that the army would mutiny to prevent Corbyn getting near No 10. And a video that surfaced of British soldiers using an image of Corbyn for target practice was treated more as an oddity – one of those “And finally…” stories – rather than as a national scandal and a terrifying peek behind the curtain of Britain’s frail democracy. 

The difference in treatment of Corbyn and Starmer by the media has nothing to do with what each did or didn’t do before they became leader of the Labour Party. Instead, it relates exclusively to the partisan concerns of the political and media establishments. Corbyn, a socialist, was feared because he was seen to pose a genuine threat to elite interests. He had to be defamed and abused at every step to prevent him ever reaching government. 

The endlessly vague, policy-light Starmer, by contrast, is seen as a safe pair of hands by the establishment. Nothing he has said suggests he plans to make British society significantly fairer or more equal, or alter a UK foreign policy that has proven a bonanza for the arms industries. 

The treatment of Starmer and Corbyn has been poles apart. And that tells us everything we need to know about which one has the establishment’s, rather than the public’s, interests at heart.

Jonathan Cook

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