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.