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26 February 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 9:35am

No, forcing Ben Bradley to apologise is not chilling our political debate

Oh, for heaven’s sake.

By Jonn Elledge

They’re trying, you’ve got to give them credit for that. To see a minor Tory MP humiliate himself on this scale and still find a way to turn it into a story about what a nasty old Stalinist Jeremy Corbyn is? That takes talent.

Just in case you’re the sort of person who thinks Twitter is the name of a grime artist, here’s the story so far. Last week the Sun reported that, back in the 80s, Jeremy Corbyn met with a Czech spy on at least three occasions. The spy in question, Jan Sarkocy, even claimed that Corbyn had been a paid informant.

This was a little bizarre since, back in the 80s, Jeremy Corbyn was about as close to the levers of power in this country as Noel Edmonds, only with slightly less actual influence. The Czech’s credentials were not enhanced by a trio of damning revelations: that his own country’s archive contradicted his claims that Corbyn had ever been on the payroll; that the Labour leader had no Stasi file; and that Sarkocy believed himself to have founded Live Aid. (Disappointingly, best I can tell, nobody has yet thought to go looking for Bob Geldof’s Stasi File.)

So whatever fuzzy feelings Corbyn may or may not have had towards the Eastern bloc during the Thatcher years, there’s no solid evidence he did anything more treasonous than have coffee with the wrong bloke. The top secret material he handed over, the FT’s Henry Mance notes, “included a copy of an article from The Sunday People and the information that he owned dogs and fish”. In 1986, perhaps meetings with spies were what we had instead of Facebook.

English libel law places the burden of proof on the person accused of defamation. What’s more, it doesn’t matter how many people or publications repeat a claim: the plaintiff is entitled to go after any one of them and entirely ignore the rest, so “They said it first!” is no defence. (This is the sort of thing they teach you on your first day in journalism, and if you’ve got any sense it’ll scare the living shit out of you.)

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Any person with a passing familiarity with English law, then, might want to think twice before uncritically repeating some of the more outlandish claims surrounding the story. Sadly for the Tories, one person who seems to lack that passing familiarity is Ben Bradley, the 28-year-old MP for Mansfield. He tweeted that Corbyn had sold British secrets to Soviet spies, which is a pretty bold claim to make about the leader of the opposition, not least when he had flatly denied it, and didn’t delete it for a surprisingly long time. Given that a libel trial would require him to prove this assertion in court, and given that a 28 year old from Nottinghamshire is unlikely to have access to information about 1980s espionage which is not available to the Czech government, this seemed like a fairly stupid thing to do.

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Several days and a touch of legal action later, Bradley tweeted out a statement:

“…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.”

At time of writing, that tweet has racked up 48,000 retweets. This, a number of commentators have noted, makes it the Tories’ most viral tweet of all time, so perhaps Bradley was a good choice for the Tories vice chair of youth after all.

All this has been tremendous fun for anyone on the left. The irritating bit is what came afterwards, when assorted right-wing commentators journalists spent the weekend wringing their hands about the fact Jeremy Corbyn was stifling free speech. Sure, Ben Bradley had been a very silly boy – but wasn’t there a risk that one MP accusing another of libel might chill political debate? Wasn’t this a bit worrying? Wasn’t it even a bit, well, Stalinist?

Well – no, it wasn’t. Sure, you can definitely make a case against the chilling effect of English libel law as a whole – but I’ve not noticed many of those right-wing commentators worrying too much when it was corporations or media proprietors or basically anyone except Jeremy Corbyn using it to clamp down on their enemies with cases which are, frankly, much weaker and much more malicious than his. (Few libel settlements, to my knowledge, require the loser to make a donation to a food bank.)

What’s more, even if Bradley honestly felt that his attack on Jeremy Corbyn was somehow a vital contribution to the national interest, he, unlike you or I, had genuine recourse to make it: so long as he uttered those words in the Commons, he would be protected by parliamentary privilege. The fact he stuck it on Twitter instead suggested he was more interested in cheap retweets than public good which, fair enough, is a position I have some sympathies with.

At any rate: this is not some new wicked attack on free speech which Corbyn has indulged in. Preventing someone from telling reputation-damaging lies about you is literally what defamation law is for.

All of which makes me suspect that all those terribly concerned right-wing commentators don’t object to English libel law at all: they just object to a Labour leader making use of it. The right is used to being able to say what it likes about the Labour leaders without fear of consequence, and now, suddenly, they’re worried they can’t. It’s the same mix of panic and shock you see on bullies the world over when someone they’ve grown used to beating up on unexpectedly hits them back.

All Corbyn has done here is shown that, if someone prints defamatory lies about him, he is ready to push back. I hate to say it, but if those right-wing commentators are worried they might meet the same fate, there’s a very simple solution.