Labour has stepped up its war of words with rightwing newspapers over claims that Jeremy Corbyn met a Czechoslovakian spy in the 1980s, calling the allegations “completely surreal” and “utterly ridiculous”.
As lawyers for Corbyn threatened the Conservative MP Ben Bradley with legal action over a tweet repeating the claims, Corbyn’s spokesman blamed “significant parts of the national press which are owned by billionaire tax exiles” for “a succession of false and absurd stories”.
He suggested the owners of the papers publishing the story – which include the Sun and the Mail – were scared at the prospect of a Labour government, which would seek to “open up” media ownership and crack down on tax avoidance.
Corbyn’s head-on confrontation with newspapers whose support was once courted by his predecessors underlines Labour’s belief that it can use social media to bypass the mainstream press – and that a populist attack on the establishment media will win voters over.
The spokesman conceded that the Labour leader had a record of a meeting with a Czechoslovakian diplomat in 1986, but denied reports of a second meeting on 24 October 1987.
“On that day Jeremy was in fact in Derbyshire at the Chesterfield socialist conference; it was the day after his mother died. There is absolutely no possibility that he was at a meeting with a Czech diplomat in the House of Commons at the time.”
The spokesman went on to insist that Corbyn had met with activists and diplomats from many countries, and the hour-long chat, which lasted “just enough time for a cup of tea,” was “not in any way unusual”.
The latest attack on the rightwing media came as Corbyn’s lawyers threatened to take legal action against Bradley, the MP for Mansfield, who deleted the Twitter post that followed claims in a series of newspaper articles.
“The natural and ordinary meaning of your words is our client made financial gain for such criminal acts and espionage,” the lawyers’ letter said.
It called for Bradley, whose seat was a rare Tory gain in the general election last year, to make a contribution to a charity of Corbyn’s choice, tweet a public apology and undertake not to repeat the claims.
Bradley’s tweet said: “Corbyn sold British secrets to communist spies…get some perspective mate!! Your priorities are a bit awry! # AreYouSerious.”
The legal letter said “we note that you have removed the tweet, but nevertheless, serious harm has been caused by your libellous statement”, pointing out that his allegation had been cited in several publications.
Corbyn and his colleagues have taken a combative approach to reports that he met a Czechoslovakian spy in London.
Earlier, Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, accused the media of trying to smear the Labour leader with “fantasist” spying claims because it fears the party’s plans for press regulation.
He denied that Labour was threatening sections of the press over its focus on Corbyn’s contact with Ján Sarkocy, a former Czechoslovakian intelligence officer.
He pointed out that the party’s previous two manifestos had pledged to implement press regulation set out in the Leveson report and press ahead with part two of the inquiry into allegations of criminality in the media.
“That’s exactly why the newspapers are trying to get their revenge in first. They are trying to discredit Jeremy,” Gardiner told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday.
His comments came after Corbyn appeared in a Labour video to dismiss as “ridiculous smears” suggestions that he gave information to a communist spy during the cold war.
Labour would “stand up to the powerful and corrupt”, he said in the video, without detailing what action would be taken.
Sarkocy has claimed he recruited Corbyn as an intelligence asset and he and other Labour MPs were paid £10,000 by the Czechoslovakian secret service (StB) for their work.
Gardiner said: “This is an incredibly stupid story … from a fantasist who is recorded as telling his handlers in Prague that he was also responsible for the Live Aid concert, for the Nelson Mandela birthday concert.