Marcus Papadopoulos and the smearing of Jeremy Corbyn

Marcus Papadopoulos may not exactly be a household name, but last week he had his 15 minutes of fame when he found himself at the centre of yet another media smear campaign against Jeremy Corbyn.

This particular attack on Corbyn was triggered by a couple of tweets from Papadopoulos last Monday evening in which he reported that “I’m having a wonderful dinner and discussion with hopefully the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom…@jeremycorbyn”, followed by “I spent the evening with @jeremycorbyn , who the United Kingdom desperately needs as its next Prime Minister”. The tweets were accompanied by photos of Papadopoulos and Corbyn sitting next to each other at Pizzeria Pappagone in Stroud Green Road.

Papadopoulos’s tweets seemed to suggest that he was enjoying a quiet tête-à-tête with Corbyn, discussing political issues of mutual concern over dinner, and that he was a man of influence who had the ear of the Leader of the Opposition. Taking their cue from a post on the muckraking gossip site Guido Fawkes, the rightwing press seized on this in order to claim that there was a close personal/political association between the two men. Specifically, it was claimed that Corbyn somehow endorsed Papadopoulos’s appalling views on the wars in Syria and former Yugoslavia, as outlined in this tweet:

Contacted by the Telegraph, a Labour Party spokesperson stated that Corbyn had been having a meal with Cypriot Labour supporters, and that they were briefly joined by Papadopoulos who had asked for a photograph with Corbyn. Not unreasonably, the spokesperson pointed out that when Corbyn acceded to such requests it didn’t mean he was expressing agreement with the politics of whoever he was photographed with.

This didn’t prevent the Telegraph from reporting the incident under the headline “Jeremy Corbyn pictured enjoying pizza with controversial pro-Assad campaigner who denied genocide in Srebrenica”. The story was then taken up by the Times (“Srebrenica genocide denier Marcus Papadopoulos dines with Jeremy Corbyn”) and repeated by the Sun (“Jeremy Corbyn under fire after enjoying pizza with supporter of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad”). It even crossed the Atlantic to feature in the Washington Examiner (“Jeremy Corbyn just met with a Russian agent”).

Before this sudden media interest in Papadopoulos, his main claim to something rather less than fame was that he’s the publisher and editor of a bi-monthly magazine called Politics First. This is a rather odd publication that serves no obvious purpose other than to raise Papadopoulos’s profile as the proprietor of a respectable journal who has contacts in top political circles. Politics First appeals to the vanity of parliamentarians of all parties by publishing their anodyne articles and treating them to the occasional softball interview. For example, the April 2016 edition of Politics First featured a typically ingratiating chat with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, described by Papadopoulos in the following fawning terms:

“Tom, a stalwart Labour person, and someone who is known and respected at parliament for his exceptionally strong work ethic, is determined to ensure that his party is united and ready to hold the Conservative Government of David Cameron to account and to scrutinise every move it makes.

“Candid, well-read and full of energy and dynamism, Tom is ready for the task ahead of him in reconnecting his party not only to traditional Labour voters who have since ditched the party, but also to sections of the electorate which are key to any party wanting to form the government, especially middle England. That is a daunting task for a politician and one that could intimidate many at Westminster, but not Tom.”

In fact, any number of prominent politicians have been happy to associate themselves with Papadopoulos. Other past interviewees at Politics First include Alex Salmond, Tom Brake, Karren Brady, Jim Murphy, Caroline Lucas, Norman Tebbit, Liam Fox, Luciana Berger, Martin McGuinness, Angela Eagle … Oh, and Radovan Karadžić. Yes, that’s the same Radovan Karadžić who last year was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The interview with Karadžić appeared in the first issue of Politics First back in 2011 and attracted adverse comment at the time. Noting that the magazine’s launch had received messages of support from Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Sayeeda Warsi, the Independent on Sunday drew attention to the fact that, in his interview with Papadopoulos, the butcher of Srebrenica had accused ITV News reporter Penny Marshall of being “willing to manipulate the truth for self-promotion and demonisation of the Serbs”. The IoS pointed out that Marshall had been awarded £75,000 damages in the High Court, having successfully sued Living Marxism after it made similar claims.

So the numerous politicians who subsequently granted interviews to Papadopoulos, and were happy to have their articles published in Politics First, can’t claim they weren’t warned about his controversial politics. Nor has Papadopoulos made any secret of those politics during the intervening years. On the contrary, he has appeared regularly on Putinist news outlets such as RT and Sputnik, as well as Iran’s Press TV, where his enthusiastic defence of the Assad regime, dismissal of its well-documented atrocities against the Syrian people, and denunciation of opposition forces as consisting of nothing but Islamist terrorists, are predictably well received. Last November, when the horrific bombardment of opposition-held eastern Aleppo was at its height, with whole neighbourhoods reduced to rubble and the bodies of dead children strewn across the streets, Papadopoulos and a tiny group of fellow Assadists organised a demonstration outside the Russian embassy to express solidarity with Putin’s crushing of the “terrorists”.

Marcus Papadopoulos (holding centre of banner) demonstrates in support of the slaughter in eastern Aleppo

Yet, as I say, this hasn’t prevented mainstream politicians from co-operating with Papadopoulos. Indeed, as Evolve Politics has pointed out, until recently the Tory MP and former minister of state for employment Esther McVey was a member of the Politics First editorial board. Another board member is Terry Ashton, presumably the man who for many years was general secretary of the Greater London Labour Party. Ashton is a supporter of Labour First, the rightwing Labour pressure group which is fervently committed to resisting the Corbynisation of the party. When Labour First issued a financial appeal last year for a full-time organiser to pursue their objective of “fighting against Momentum and other Hard Left groups”, Ashton generously donated £500. For some reason, the rightwing newspapers who express such outrage at Corbyn’s supposed connection to Papadopoulos have shown not the slightest interest in McVey’s or Ashton’s much closer links.

It’s also worth taking a look at Labour Friends of Cyprus, which I assume must have been the organisation that held last week’s dinner at Pizzeria Pappagone, where Papadopoulos took the opportunity to have his now notorious photos taken with Corbyn (the Labour spokesperson quoted by the Telegraph mistakenly referred to it as Cypriots for Labour).

Papadopoulos is centrally involved in Labour Friends of Cyprus. He participated in the preparatory meeting last January that took the decision to set up the organisation, and he chaired the Labour Friends of Cyprus launch meeting at the Cypriot Community Centre in Wood Green in May. Corbyn was unable to make it to the launch and sent a video message instead. But attendees included local MPs Kate Osamor, Joan Ryan and Catherine West, plus London Assembly member Andrew Dismore, Jewish Labour Movement vice-chair Mike Katz, and the then MP for Mansfield, Alan Meale.

Joan Ryan, it should be noted, is also chair of Labour Friends of Israel, who together with the Jewish Labour Movement have played a leading role in whipping up hysteria over antisemitism in the Labour Party, with the aim of delegitimising and undermining Corbyn’s leadership. In the general election Ryan appealed for votes on an explicitly anti-Corbyn basis. Needless to say, the rightwing press has failed to show any interest in her appearance alongside Papadopoulos at the Labour Friends of Cyprus launch.

Marcus Papadopoulos (seventh from right) with assorted Labour luminaries at the Labour Friends of Cyprus launch

It’s also relevant to examine the original source of the bogus story about Corbyn being best mates with a genocide denier. Guido Fawkes apparently got it from a Corbyn-hating Liberal Democrat (and former SWP member) named Oz Katerji, who tweeted a screenshot of Corbyn with Papadopoulos at Pizzeria Pappagone, accusing the Labour leader of “associating with fascists”. (So far Katerji has shown no equivalent indignation at Papadopoulos’s cosy relations with Lib Dem politicians like Tom Brake and Angela Harris.) It should be added that Katerji has form here. Last October, together with a small group of supporters of the Syrian opposition, he disrupted a Stop the War Coalition conference by shouting abuse at Corbyn, to the approval of the Daily Mail.

For what it’s worth I broadly agree with Katerji’s position on Syria and share his sympathies with the anti-Assad opposition. I think much of the Left, including Corbyn, has taken a wrong line on this. But these sort of methods — disrupting meetings, lining up with the Right to smear Corbyn — are only going to discredit those who engage in them, and guarantee that their views on Syria will fail to get a hearing, particularly among the hundreds of thousands of young people who support Corbyn.

Finally, let me say that I’m not at all opposed to a discussion over whether it’s acceptable for mainstream politicians, and Labour politicians in particular, to publicly associate with someone who openly and loudly proclaims the abhorrent views that Marcus Papadopoulos does. I certainly don’t think he’s an appropriate person to chair meetings held by organisations like Labour Friends of Cyprus. But using Papadopoulos as a stick with which to beat Jeremy Corbyn, while showing not the slightest concern about other politicians who in some cases have far closer links to Papadopoulos than Corbyn does, is neither a legitimate nor an effective means of opening that discussion.

First published on Medium in July 2017