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The spy who never was

The news today that Ben Bradley MP, a Tory party vice-chair who made the claim in a Twitter message to his 4,000 plus followers – which he subsequently deleted – that Jeremy Corbyn sold British secrets to “communist spies”, has made an apology and a donation to charity. This should come as no surprise.

The claim had no substance and the apology was welcomed by Labour who said the donation would be split between a homeless centre and a food bank in Bradley’s constituency of Mansfield.

According to a report on today’s Guardian web site, Labour said Bradley will tweet an apology that will say: “On 19 February 2018 I made a seriously defamatory statement on my Twitter account, ‘Ben Bradley MP (bbradleymp)’, about Jeremy Corbyn, alleging he sold British secrets to communist spies. I have since deleted the defamatory tweet. I have agreed to pay an undisclosed substantial sum of money to a charity of his choice, and I will also pay his legal costs.

“I fully accept that my statement was wholly untrue and false. I accept that I caused distress and upset to Jeremy Corbyn by my untrue and false allegations, suggesting he had betrayed his country by collaborating with foreign spies.

“I am very sorry for publishing this untrue and false statement and I have no hesitation in offering my unreserved and unconditional apology to Jeremy Corbyn for the distress I have caused him.”

The tweet was so outrageous that earlier this week Andrew Neill slammed the claims of Conservative MPs that Jeremy Corbyn “sold British secrets” and “betrayed his country” on the BBC’s Daily Politics TV programme.

The smearing of Labour leaders in this way is of course nothing new going back all the way to 1924 with the Daily Mail’s appalling Zinoviev letter, a forgery which portrayed Labour as secret agents of the Russian Bolsheviks. However, the damage was done and Labour lost the election.

In his response to the current attempted smear, Jeremy Corbyn was spot on when he said that much of our press was not very free at all being controlled by billionaire tax exiles, and that: “We’ve got news for them. Change is coming.”

This latest attempt to discredit a leader of the Labour Party reminds me of a similar smear made by the Murdoch press against Michael Foot in 1995 which ended up in the High Court and the payment of substantial damages.

In July of that year, The Sunday Times was forced into a humiliating climb-down over its allegations that Michael Foot MP and former leader of the Labour Party was considered an “agent of influence” by the KGB. The story alleged Mr Foot had operated under the codename “Boot” and that the Soviet intelligence service made cash payments to the left-wing journal Tribune while he was editor.

Under a settlement the paper offered Mr Foot “substantial” damages – which with legal costs were believed to run to at least £100,000 – and an assurance that it had never intended to suggest that he had been a spy. Earlier the News of the World, which also printed the story, settled out of court. The sum was reported to be £35,000.

Some of the damages went to Tribune and he and his legal team celebrated their victory at the Gay Hussar, the Soho restaurant in which alleged “Agent Boot”met his KGB contacts. Mr Foot also said that: “If he [Mr Murdoch] owns newspapers which can make accusations of this nature, he should appear in court when they are raised.”

So if Jeremy Corbyn does decides to follow the example of his predecessor, can we expect an appearance by Rupert Murdoch in the court room along with some of the other media mogul tax exiles who are siren voices of the reactionary right wing press?

Meanwhile it will be interesting to read how the right wing press including the Sun and the Mail who did so much to promote the smear, report Bradley’s apology. Or will we see them in court?