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Jeremy Corbyn: British media waged campaign to destroy me

Former Labour leader says hostile headlines were a distraction which diverted attention from his political agenda
Jeremy Corbyn accuses sections of the British media of being 'obsessed' with him (MEE)

Jeremy Corbyn has told Middle East Eye that media coverage of his leadership of the Labour party was so hostile that even he would “not want to live on the same street” as the man he read about in some British newspapers.

Corbyn, a veteran leftwing backbencher who was elected leader in 2015 on the back of a surge in support among party members, accused sections of the media of being “obsessed” with him and of waging a campaign to destroy him.

Reflecting on how he had read an election-day copy of the rightwing Daily Mail in the days after Labour's defeat in the December 2019 general election, Corbyn said: “I read it from cover to cover on a Sunday afternoon, a wet Sunday afternoon, when I was tidying up my study." 

The Daily Mail's front page had urged its readers to vote for Boris Johnson's Conservative party and quoted actress Maureen Lipman suggesting that Corbyn's election would be a “stain on Britain”.

The paper also published an article about Corbyn titled “Fifty infamous moments that shame him", which alleged that he had "backed Britain's enemies" throughout his political career.

It was accompanied by a cartoon showing militants from Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA queueing to shake hands with him. The list was also published on the same day on the website of another newspaper, the Sun.

Daily Mail cartoon
An election day cartoon published by the Daily Mail on 12 December 2019 (Daily Mail)

“At the end of it I put the paper down. Wow. This Corbyn guy, God he’s evil. I wouldn't want to live in the same street as him. It was just crazy."

Labour's heavy defeat, losing 60 seats, in the 2019 general election marked the end of Corbyn's turbulent leadership, and a sharp retreat from the high water mark of another national election in 2017, in which the party made substantial gains that almost broke the Conservatives' grip on power.

In April he stepped down following the election of Keir Starmer as his successor.

Corbyn told MEE that there had been “a process of personal abuse against me, against my wife, against my sons, family and so on. And the obsessive nature of the British media, it was quite extraordinary”.

'At the end of it I put the paper down. Wow. This Corbyn guy, God he’s evil. I wouldn't want to live in the same street as him'

- Jeremy Corbyn

He admitted that he had been taken aback by the vitriol he encountered as leader of the party.

“No, you know, you can't be prepared for it. I mean, obviously, in a whole lifetime of political activity, I've had lots of issues where, I think, the media have been very unfair to me,” he said.

On one occasion, Corbyn said he had called on the Cabinet Office to investigate leaks to the media in which civil servants had suggested that he was too frail to be prime minister.

“I was told that ‘no stone would be left unturned’ in sorting out who had actually made these foul allegations against me. Apparently, there are still a lot of stones that need to be turned. Nobody has been identified as making these remarks.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson told MEE: "Impartiality is one of the fundamental values of the Civil Service and underpins its ability to effectively serve the Government of the day. As we confirmed at the time, the concerns raised were looked into. We do not comment publicly on the outcome of such work."

Hiding behind a tree

In another case, a paper dug up the story of a distant ancestor who had run a workhouse in 1830. Workhouses were institutions which offered accommodation and employment to the poor but whose owners were often accused of profiteering and exploitation.

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“Oh, I’d never heard of this guy, nobody in my family ever heard of this guy, where did that come from?”

Another paper sent a team of reporters to Mexico in search of his third wife Laura Alvarez's family.

“I mean, some of these people had never heard of me. And it was this sort of obsessive stuff, which was kind of at one level laughable, but all designed to be undermining.

“It meant every day when I would want us to be pursuing a political agenda on homelessness, on poverty in Britain, on housing, on international issues, what was our media team doing? Rebutting these crazy stories, abusive stories, about me the whole time.”

MEE asked Corbyn about some of the lurid headlines he got: “Jezza’s Jihadi Comrades”; “Blood on his hands”; “Corbyn and the Commie Spy”; “Corbyn's Isis Past Revealed”.

Corbyn headlines
Jeremy Corbyn often attracted negative headlines from right-leaning UK tabloids during his time as Labour leader (montage)

“Was is it unpleasant? Yes, it is unpleasant, yes. Do you feel that you're under a constant microscope? Yes, you do,” he said.

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Corbyn described an incident in which he had been exercising at an open-air gym in a London park near his home where a photographer was hiding behind a tree.

“These young men going by said ‘Oh yeah, Jezza, there’s some guy over there I think he's really dangerous. Do you want us to sort him out?’”

“So, I said, ‘No, no. Leave him alone. Just tell him to go away.’ Well, this is bad. This isn't politics. This is an obsession with destroying an individual.”

Corbyn admitted he had sometimes felt tempted to go to court, but said he had thought better of it after recalling advice he had once been given by another stalwart of the Labour left, Tony Benn.

“You think, wow, that is just so wrong, so nasty, so dishonest. I'll sue them for libel. Tony Benn once said to me, he said, ‘Jeremy, libel is a rich man's game, and you're not a rich man’. He said ‘you can't afford it. Go to a libel case - even if you win the case. You'll be destroyed financially in doing so.”