Do Jeremy Corbyn’s old remarks on WWI deserve press coverage?

Years-old speeches 'emerge' with strategic timing


When newspapers tell you something has ’emerged’ or ‘surfaced’ without saying how or from where, it’s best to be on your guard.

A story in yesterday’s Sunday Times is a case in point. Under the headline ‘Corbyn: Tribute to WWI is pointless’, it begins:

“Jeremy Corbyn has said he can’t see the point of commemorating the First World War.

The Labour leader used a speech to the Morning Star, the newspaper founded by the Communist party of Great Britain, to denounce the government’s decision to spend ‘shed loads of money’ on events last year to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict.

The comments emerged just a week before Remembrance Sunday, where Corbyn is due to lay a wreath at the cenotaph in his role as leader of the opposition.”

From this you would get the impression the Labour party leader has made these remarks recently in relation to the coming Remembrance Day ceremony.

What we learn in paragraph five though is that Corbyn’s quotes are taken from a speech made in April 2013 – that’s to say, over two years ago.

Other papers have taken up the story in similar fashion. The Telegraph‘s headline announces ‘Jeremy Corbyn questions why Britain commemorates the First World War’. Note the present tense word ‘questions’. The Daily Express yelps: ‘Jeremy Corbyn says spending ‘shedloads’ on remembering WWI soldiers is POINTLESS’. Again, the words are ‘says’ and ‘is’.

And the Daily Mail‘s story begins:

“Jeremy Corbyn has sparked criticism for saying he cannot see the point of commemorating the First World War, while also denouncing the ‘shedloads of money’ spent on last year’s centenary events.

The Labour leader’s comments have emerged on the eve of next week’s Remembrance Sunday… [etc.]”

While they make clear when the remarks were made, these stories are potentially misleading, as they could give the impression of this being a new intervention by the leader of the Labour party, rather than old remarks made when the prospect of his achieving that post was remote, to say the least.

As with the Sun‘s front page story on the Monday after Corbyn was elected leader, reporting three-year-old comments by Corbyn about ‘abolishing the army’, these WWI stories have the whiff of premeditation.

Sun Corbyn abolish the army

As it happens, Corbyn was perfectly right to question David Cameron’s pledge to spend £50million marking the war’s centenary in a time of public spending cuts. He was also right to speak against the prevailing wind on the war, with hazy words about ‘sacrifice’ and ‘freedom’ thrown around without going very much deeper.

(Interestingly, the first person to put these reservations in print was Guardian columnist and newly appointed Corbyn spin doctor Seumas Milne. With tedious ideological consistency, Milne lamented how the war ‘laid the ground for the rise of Nazism’ without mentioning the equally disastrous rise of Bolshevism in Russia.)

However, Corbyn’s past remarks and positions are fair game for scrutiny, especially since he presumably still holds these views. (Whether they are Labour party policy or not is another matter.) These stories are really a symptom of Corbyn’s sudden move from backbench freedom to the intense public glare of national politics.

That said, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the press has gone through his old speeches and is saving them up as part of a slow-drip campaign to damage his reputation. This is as much a political act as Corbyn’s decision to make those speeches in the first place.


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Adam Barnett is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow MediaWatch on Twitter

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