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It has been bothering me for days that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t sniff.

Nor, for that matter, did he smile. What he did do was to slant his head to his right, look fairly sombre, and inhale. Even this wasn’t particularly notable as far as inhalations go. By then, however, I’d already spent too much time examining the raw footage not to make a point about it.

The reason for my mild obsession with Jeremy Corbyn’s nostrils and the angle of his lips is to be found in the following much cited and admired paragraph from Dominic Lawson’s recent takedown of the Labour Leader published in The Sunday Times.

I had not fully understood just how callous, or catastrophically ignorant, Corbyn is about the victims of state communism until I watched the Labour leader’s interview on the Andrew Marr show three weeks ago. When Marr taxed this opponent of the market economy with the fact that the Chinese economy and people had prospered so much more since the People’s Republic allowed individuals to get rich through private business, Corbyn countered that its economy had “grown massively . . . since 1949 and . . . the Great Leap Forward”. He then gave that little sniff and satisfied smile that we have grown accustomed to seeing from Corbyn in interviews when he thinks he’s made a good point.

Except that he didn’t. Examine the moment frame by frame and there’s neither a sniff nor evidence of a smile. (He also didn’t brush off “the Great Leap Forward” but, rather, in the face of Marr championing China, made a more complicated point involving human rights.) The screen grab above captures the moment. You might not like the man but can you honestly say that this looks like a “satisfied smile”?

Now, of course, the rejoinder to this is to ask if it really matters. Are the details important so long as the general premise holds? There is, after all, something undeniably grubby about Corbyn’s history of half-denials and equivocations. It’s possible to be a harsh critic of British domestic and foreign policy without standing beside the worst kind of paramilitary thug. He might regret describing Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” but it also can’t simply be brushed off as a means towards dialogue. Lawson’s piece is forceful, damning, and generally correct, despite the dramatic liberty of that “sniff”.

Except, this excuse isn’t quite good enough. This goes to the heart of civil discourse in our society and the tenor of our political debate. The details surely do matter if we wish to uphold the premise that reality is knowable and that facts are important. It’s wrong when The Darkest Hour alters the facts of Churchill’s life; when Netflix make characters in The Crown culpable of things that the real people had no hand in affecting. Shouldn’t we always strive to make the best decisions based on the evidence rather than the convenient simplifications or dramatisations? Shouldn’t it matter if Corbyn did or did not look smug after making a point involving the murder of forty-five million people?

Take as the other example from this week: Corbyn’s alleged involvement with the Czech Secret Service. To the names Burgess, McLean, Philby, we can now apparently add the name “Cob” since it was Agent Cob who was supposedly working inside the British establishment, leaking information to the Czech Secret Service, and by association, to their masters in the KGB.

Thus far there has been no documentary evidence to say that the allegations against Jeremy Corbyn are true but that hardly seems to matter. They feel true. They feel right about a firebrand militant who has made no secret about his admiration for Marxism. The source of the allegation also seems credible. The name Jan Sarkocy appeared in The Times (26 May 1989) confirming his employment history. Under the headline “Four Czechs expelled after defector talks”, the story explains how Sarkocy and three others were asked to leave the country after being accused of “activities incompatible with their status”. In other words: spying.

Yet, as we are so often reminded in these days of fake news: feelings are not facts. The public is already attuned to spin and the problem with the Agent Cob story isn’t that it might be fake news but, rather, even if true, it resembles fake news. So large was the claim that those making it were immediately scorned as the hashtag #MakeYourOwnCorbynSmear began to trend.

This has always been the problem with political smears, which have been produced at different times by parties of both the left and right. They often provide a fairly good indicator of a party in crisis. The more outlandish the smear, the weaker the party it is seen to advantage. This is why this past week feels like it has been so self-defeating for Tories. Gavin Williamson claiming that the Cob story proved that Corbyn “can’t be trusted” simply extended a narrative about his own political machinations and the crisis at the top of the party.

Simply, the more the press demonise Corbyn, the more powerful they make him appear. The more cruelly they savage him, the more his advocates can paint him as a victim. The more they bully him, the more he appeals to a public already wary of a government with all the emotional warmth of an ice shelf. There is, after all, a reason why Corbyn’s leadership has not collapsed despite his own party’s divisions. Corbyn is exploiting the country’s dissatisfaction with austerity, a government that seems cruel and out of touch with the low paid, the homeless, the disabled, and the poor. It’s in this context that Mrs. May’s movement in the area of student fees is to be welcomed, as has Michael Gove’s transformation into a champion for the environment.

That surely is the way forward for the Tories. There is nothing sophisticated about Corbyn’s approach; nothing new or novel about soft, reassuring sympathy or the hug he gave to the mother of a child lost in the Grenfell Tower blaze. It is only impressive and magical in a political climate where another politician can boast of owning a tarantula and a party tweets messages such as the one posted by Bath Conservatives this past week: “The reality may be indolent or dysfunctional parents or more likely parents who simply don’t know how to feed their children well. If absolutely-not-a-Tory Jack Monroe @BootstrapCook could feed herself & her child for £10 a week — not easily, but adequately — most people can”.

The business of lies, smears, and dirty tricks might be pragmatics of politics but they are certainly not principles. This isn’t to dismiss the seriousness of the Agent Cob allegation but it would be hoped that, if true, evidence will arise which will put the character of the Labour leader back in the spotlight. If, however, the story remains as unverified as the non-existent sniff, it would perhaps be wiser for the Tories to leave it alone. They should really be asking themselves if they want to enter into the next election with a manifesto of the best ideas or do they intend to fight it on the premise that they are the least worst option. The latter is a strategy unworthy of the name and plays straight into Corbyn’s hands.




8 Comments on "The Problem with Jeremy’s “Sniff”"

  1. Couldn’t agree more

  2. Tempted not to comment David, as I’ve not got anything pleasant to say about the state of political journalism and commentary in this country at the moment, here goes though.

    Why would anyone really value the opinion of the son of a former Tory chancellor on the most left wing labour leader since Michael Foot?. If he had an insight into why his father was able to abandon his moral compass and serve in a government which supported a tyrant like General Pinochet then that perhaps would be worth a read. Practically no one in the British news media (bar maybe those working for the Morning Star) want to see Corbyn in power, their idea of a great leftist PM is Tony Blair. No surprise there, most of them live in London and are higher rate taxpayers, the last thing they want to see is a new property tax and rise in the higher rate of income tax, let alone a housebuilding program that might see their house values drop. The recent tour of TV studios by Alistair Campbell while hawking his new piece of tripe,and the effusive welcome he received speaks volumes to be honest.

    The problem for the British media is that no one likely to vote for Corbyn gives a monkeys about his friends in the IRA or Hezbollah or any other dubious group for that matter. That particular line of attack was tried to destruction during the last election and from what I could observe succeeded in boring people at best and annoying them at worst. Why then they would pause for thought at half hearted accusations of connivance with Czech intelligence would be a mystery to me. Indeed Ben Bradley’s apology in the face of the threat of libel action has given Corbyn a nice little victory. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

    If Corbyn has been cavorting with unsavoury characters who would think nothing of killing and terrorising then it will stand him in good stead should he ever become PM. After all, like Tony Blair he may be called upon to be all smiles with the next Colonel Gaddafi, or to hawk British weaponry on overseas visits to repressive regimes as May and Cameron have done. People in glass houses.

    The only satisfying thing about political journalism at the moment for me is how utterly impotent the people at the heart of it are at influencing people nowadays. Perhaps that is why that pillock Peston has turned his show into some kind of light entertainment piece rather than a politics show.

    • Not much I can disagree with there, Rob. True that nobody really cares about what Corbyn believes. I read too many pundits warning that he’ll turn us into Venezuela, when I’m pretty certain most voters wouldn’t be able to find Venezuela on a map. That said, I’m not quite as cynical as you when it comes to the power of the media. I still think they shape opinion in a very broad-brush way and the Cob smear was meant to be an example of that. It worked when Cameron won an election he was losing when Lynton Crosby came up with the brilliant strategy of scaring England with the prospect of being ruled from Scotland. Ironic given the DUP propping up May and ensuring that we are, in a sense, ruled from Belfast…

  3. Well I see the Guardian today had an “exclusive” reporting that every time the press attack Corbyn there is a spike in his support, most notably shown in increased numbers of people joining Momentum. Quoting from the article

    “Ash Sarkar from Novara Media said each time the papers sensationally attacked Corbyn it reinforced “the sense that he must be getting something right”.”

    So it appears you scooped them by two whole days and it tallies with what we both already thought.

    With regards to the 2015 election, what you say is true but my own feeling is that even in the past three years things have moved on. It is noticeable how few articles the Guardian now allows comment on for example. When it does allow comment, the level of negativity towards whoever happened to write the piece is often off the scale. I don’t quite remember it being like that though perhaps it’s selective memory on my part.

    • LOL. Two whole days? I’d say five days. I wrote this back on Tuesday but, due to various factors, could only get around to publishing it on Friday. 🙂

      To be honest, I’m happy that various places are clamping down on comments. Twitter is even shutting out some of the bots. The Guardian was notoriously a place where the Russian bot army trolled. It might even have been the first place I heard about their propaganda campaign. Unmoderated comments are pretty impractical on news websites and I can’t say that I’d miss them. I’ve seen too many good websites ruined by their comment sections.

      • I would generally agree, comments sections do little to improve your view of your fellow citizens and I won’t see it as any great loss myself if they disappear. Across the piece though I think it shows that the newspapers are less comfortable about allowing a platform for people to naysay their opinions as it shows the increasing divergence between themselves and their readership.

        I see parallels between the way the Russian bot situation is developing and the way the the idea of a Fifth Column played out in WW2. Initially the idea of a fifth column was used by the Axis to sow fear, distrust and division in allied countries, in itself it wasn’t particularly effective in influencing the course of any battles or the war. The Allies then skilfully turned the concept to their own advantage. It was a great scapegoat to lay the blame on for a series of defeats up to 1942 and provided the cover to turn the UK into a police state for the duration of the war.

        As the defeat in France was blamed on fifth columnists, Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right in Europe is now being blamed on Russian fake news and trolls. As fifth columnists were used as an excuse to crush all dissenting opinion in wartime Britain, so I fear that this idea of an army of Russian trolls influencing events and spreading fake news will simply be used to shut down any story, site or account which is unpalatable to the government or a mainstream centrist line. It’s incredible to already see some people on twitter labelling anyone who disagrees with them as a “bot” or a “Russian troll” in order to shut them down. Well off the original topic I know but once a thought spills out…..

  4. “Labour have a leader who is a proper Marxist how is this true? Corbyn”s not a violent revolutionary. Corbyn does not desire absolute equality of outcome. I feel as you, and journalists similar to yourself, do no good by simply spreading fear in this way and lying about Corbyn as you have done there. I may not be his greatest fan, but he is not a “proper Marxist. Anyway, you”re not a bad guy. Just misled, that”s all.

  5. tecambiental | 6th March 2018 at 4:42 pm | Reply

    “Labour have a leader who is a proper Marxist how is this true? Corbyn”s not a violent revolutionary. Corbyn does not desire absolute equality of outcome. I feel as you, and journalists similar to yourself, do no good by simply spreading fear in this way and lying about Corbyn as you have done there. I may not be his greatest fan, but he is not a “proper Marxist. Anyway, you”re not a bad guy. Just misled, that”s all.

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