Smear we go again.
Since Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader just over a year ago, either the right-wing media or, worse, the right-wing ‘left’ have desperately flung mud at him in the hope that something might stick.
The nature of these smears tells you everything you need to know about the motives of those behind them. Jeremy Corbyn’s impeccable record of standing up against racism, for human rights generally and of being on the right side of history on issues like the invasion of Iraq mean that a frontal assault on his policies and ethics is doomed to failure.
He’s still, as far as I know, the only serving MP ever to be arrested for an act of protest, for demonstrating outside the South African embassy in 1984, long before anti-apartheid views were mainstream:
The smear tactic
So the tactic of his opponents is one of ‘smear by association’. Whether it’s the spurious allegations of misogyny and ‘abuse’ against his supporters, allegations of antisemitism shored up by a Jewish MP flouncing out of a press conference because of anti-Jewish ‘slurs’ that were nothing of the sort, or the ‘he stands on platforms with terrorists’ idiocy of Establishment figures from Cameron down, there has been an incessant drip of ‘guilt by association’ poison in the public ear.
You wouldn’t expect any better from the right-wing media – which these days includes the BBC – owned and/or controlled by billionaires and Tories. But tragically and damnably, the supposedly ‘left’ media such as the Guardian have been just as unprincipled.
Which leads us to the latest and in some ways most risible fiasco – the claim that, by attending an event last night organised by the Stand up to Racism (SUTR) campaign, Corbyn is a ‘rape apologist’, or at least a friend of rape apologists.
Has Corbyn in any way acted wrongly, or, to mix metaphors, have the ‘soft left’ media missed a colossal ‘open goal’ and let the real enemy off the hook?
Those making the accusation draw on the fact that, some years ago, a female member of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) made rape allegations against a male member and allegations of an attempted (and eventually unsuccessful) attempt to cover up the accusations by pressuring the woman to withdraw them.
Rape allegations must always be taken seriously and those responsible punished to the full extent of the law. However, we will not look at the allegations of a cover-up in detail here (if you want to find out more, click through to this article as a starting point) – because, as we’ll see, they have no bearing on Jeremy Corbyn’s participation in last night’s SUTR event.
Those alleging – journalist Owen Jones appears to be the principal, or at least best-known, cheerleader although Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani was, surprisingly, also prominent, but later appeared to row back somewhat on his initial stance – that Corbyn should not have attended last night’s event say that they are doing so because SUTR is a ‘front’ for the SWP, so that by participating Corbyn was validating them:
Media outlets such as the Guardian picked up the theme and the comments were the harbinger of a ‘Twitter storm’ of outrage at the idea that Corbyn’s presence at the event validated rape-apologists and amounted to abuse of rape victims. I won’t reproduce the messages here, as they’re easy enough to find by searching via Twitter or Google.
But without in any way minimising what the SWP member in question and other victims of rape have suffered and do suffer, their plight is only relevant to last night’s SUTR event if it was indeed an ‘SWP event’, that is, if SUTR is a ‘front’ for the SWP.
And there appears to be no truth whatever to that allegation.
The composition of the board of SUTR, first and foremost, suggests that any idea that it’s a ‘front’ for anything, rather than a genuine anti-racism campaign, is untenable. For example, the President and Vice-Chair are two well-known Labour BAME (black & minority ethnic) MPs who are also members of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet:
Other board members include a well-known female rabbi, a former head of the NUT (National Union of Teachers), a member of the Muslim Council of Great Britain and the head of the CWU (Communication Workers’ Union):
Beyond question, the SWP does not run SUTR and the latter cannot credibly be called a front for the former.
But what if the event itself, rather than the organisation, was dominated by the SWP? Again, the facts do not bear that out as a glance at the speakers at the event shows:
Alf Dubs, well-known and highly-respected former Chair of human rights group Liberty is a notable participant. However, what stands out are both the sheer number of speakers and their wide variety, from Muslim campaigners to Jewish equality activists, from trade unionists to MPs and many more. Owen Jones himself was scheduled to attend but eventually did not.
It is also noteworthy how many women took part, which would be odd for an event organised by a group alleged to promote patriarchy and rape culture.
This list also poses the question of why only Corbyn is the target of outrage when so many others took part. But clearly, the event itself can in no way be said to have been controlled or dominated by the SWP.
So, did anything happen at the event to suggest those involved supported ‘rape culture’? Not to judge by comments from women who were there:
Indeed, once a number of interested female Twitter users started to press for evidence that it was an ‘SWP event’, the claims from even some of the most vociferous complainants began to unravel:
This claim may or may not be correct, but ‘running a stall outside’ does not equate to ‘running the event’.
The final possible complaint I’ve seen made is that Corbyn was asked, and promised, not to attend the event because of its control by the SWP. There is no evidence for or against either part of this, but if he was asked not to participate and then found that the allegations were groundless, we should be glad to have someone leading Labour with the integrity to act on the facts rather than the claims.
So, what was the upshot of all this? Well, first of all it suggests a significant degree of hypocrisy on the part of at least one of those attacking Corbyn for attending:
The allegations against the SWP are not new – they date back years. Nor, if the SWP did run SUTR, would they only have done so for a few weeks. Mr Jones is a well-connected journalist and would have been aware of it long ago. Yet he has been happy enough not just to attend an SUTR event but to promote the organisation.
No, look over there instead!
It’s also not insignificant that this Twitter-storm-in-a-teacup happened just days after a Tory conference in which various Tory frontbenchers did a very good job of channelling Hitler and the right-wing press praised Theresa May for her resemblance to famous British racist Enoch Powell:
The Tories had served themselves up on a plate, ready to slice and dice for their obvious racism and xenophobia – and what should happen but the media shouting ‘No, look at Corbyn! It looks like an anti-racist event but its actually abuse of rape survivors!’
Just as, after the referendum the Tories got off scot-free because of a convenient and completely unnecessary coup by right-wingers in the Labour party, so now – if you’ll excuse the mixing of metaphors – the Tories appear to have escaped much of the spotlight that should be shone on their deeply-troubling swing toward overt xenophobia because of a manufactured brouhaha that is not only unnecessary but also fact-free, about an event that seems entirely ‘Ronseal’: an anti-racism meeting that was about.. fighting racism.
The furore also diverted attention away from a huge positive: Corbyn’s appointment of the most balanced Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet in history, with 6 BAME members and more than half-composed of women.
Why do it?
Is it deliberately orchestrated, just unfortunately-timed incompetence or something else? It’s not possible to say definitively, although it’s worthy of note that right-wing Labour MP Jess ‘knife him in the front’ Phillips (who also seems to have missed Tom Watson’s ‘unity memo’) has been prominent among those cheerleading the distraction:
Is there also an element of attention-seeking from journalists that some have dubbed ‘the ego-left’? Certainly, the rise of Corbyn and his new politics has threatened to reduce the relevance of some who’ve long been the ‘go-to lefties’ for the media.
Most likely, it’s a mix of all of them – with the ‘blue touch-paper’ lit by people with a vested interest in diverting attention from Tory hideousness, undermining Corbyn, or both.
However it transpired, it’s yet another exemplar that we need to note and learn from, to understand how inaccurate, biased and misleading media coverage can be – especially when it comes to Jeremy Corbyn and his genuinely new political project – and how big a pinch of salt we should keep handy for claims by either right-wing media or certain left-wing commentators.
Edit: for more information, see this short additional piece written later the same evening.