The story about Jeremy Corbyn’s contacts with a member of Czech intelligence in the 1980s has not been treated with great seriousness by our national broadcaster. At first the BBC deigned not to run the story. Then they treated it like some kind of joke. For instance, given a chance to question Corbyn over his past record the BBC journalist Steph McGovern last week bowled Corbyn the humorous soft-ball ‘A final question: are you a Czech spy?’ A question which gave much opportunity for laughter and a firm ‘No’ from Corbyn, who now insists (as he does whenever he is caught in similar situations) that he was in fact discussing ‘peace’ with his agent of Czech intelligence.
The BBC’s minimal attempts to cover the story, or treat it seriously, are one matter – and one which I would not normally bother to note. But then over recent days they suddenly went huge on the story – running it on rolling news bulletins as well as the website. The aspect of the story that the BBC suddenly went huge on was the apology from Conservative MP Ben Bradley.
Now Bradley was one of a number of Conservative MPs who foolishly got ahead of the story about Corbyn. Specifically, Bradley claimed in a tweet that Corbyn had not only had meetings with a Czech agent but that he had passed secrets to a foreign spy and been paid to do so. Being a paid agent of a foreign state would be an even more serious charge than those being made by the Sun and others. To date there is no evidence that Corbyn was a paid agent of Czech intelligence. Although there is of course plenty of evidence that he was more recently paid by the propaganda wing of the Iranian government.
In any case the BBC’s coverage of the Bradley apology is fascinating. Because here and on its rolling news stories over the weekend the BBC repeatedly misrepresented the nature of both the apology and the whole story. According to the BBC, Ben Bradley has been forced to apologise for alleging that Corbyn had contact with Czech intelligence during the Cold War. But the allegations made in the Sun (and repeated by many others) are clearly not the allegation that made Corbyn resort to the laws of libel. What made Bradley’s charge different is that he claimed that Corbyn had been ‘paid’. No such evidence has come to light and Bradley was right to apologise for making such an excitable claim.
As I say, the BBC has not bothered to make this clear. It has been claiming that Bradley had to make the apology for making the link between Corbyn and a Czech spy. Perhaps the BBC are being ultra-cautious. Or perhaps they are trying to vindicate their decision not to join in the story in its early days. Or perhaps something else is happening. But for a public service broadcaster to fail to communicate the news accurately on such a delicate but important matter is serious - whether the BBC’s own journalists think it so or not.