Virgin Trains took almost seven months to release new CCTV footage at the centre of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Traingate’ journey, emails from the firm have revealed, fuelling questions over the cause of the delay.
The Richard Branson-owned firm today refused to answer HuffPost UK’s queries about a new viral video, above, which shows surveillance footage from inside the train during the Labour leader’s journey from London to Newcastle last August.
The footage was obtained under a so-called ‘Subject Access Request’ - a process the Information Commissioner says should take no more than 40 days.
Yet emails seen by HuffPost between filmmaker Yannis Mendez, who requested the footage, and Virgin Trains East Coast, reveal a near 255 day battle to obtain video from coach H, despite clips from all other carriages being released.
Mendez was working for Corbyn’s then leadership campaign and later sold a film to the Guardian which started the ‘Traingate’ furore.
That film showed Corbyn sitting in a vestibule on a “ram-packed” Virgin service to Newcastle. The Islington MP, who later sat down on the train after seats were made available, used it to promote his pledge to nationalise Britain’s railways.
Virgin hit back a week later by releasing CCTV footage it said proved Corbyn had walked past “empty unreserved seats”. It sent clips to the BBC and others and issued hi-res images to newspapers.
But it was that same footage which Mendez found difficult to obtain under freedom of information laws, despite it having been hurriedly sent to broadcasters at the time.
Messages between Mendez and Virgin reveal the excuses and delays during his quest for the footage.
When asked in March why Virgin had not yet provided a clip of Mendez and Corbyn walking through coach H, the specific carriage containing the reportedly “empty unreserved” seats, the firm blamed “troublesome” technology.
“I thought we’d captured everything, but obviously not,” the firm’s governance manager wrote when challenged by Mendez about the specific clip. “These images are located on [a] ‘troublesome’ drive... So far, attempts to load this drive have been unsuccessful.”
Virgin eventually supplied the clip almost seven months since Mendez initial request in August 2016. In fact, Mendez received the first tranche of footage before Christmas 2016, another section in February 2017, and then the final Coach H clip in March.
The filmmaker, and his alternative news service Double Down News, has said the clip reveals the “truth” about ‘Traingate’.
In Double Down’s viral video, a narrator explains how the clip shows passengers, including children, sitting in what had previously been suggested by media, including HuffPost, were “empty unreserved” seats.
And the clip backs up Corbyn’s version of events that day, which had been met with ridicule by Westminster - and even Prime Minister Theresa May.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, Corbyn’s former spokesperson, accused Richard Branson of “selectively lifting a frame from the CCTV where many of the passengers were not in shot.”
Mendez said the footage should have been “presented in full to the public”.
“It took Virgin Trains 7 days to deliver selective footage and misleading photos to the media and just under 7 months to deliver it to me in 3 separate instalments. I can’t speak for Virgin Trains as to why that was the case,” Mendez told HuffPost.
“If the media had access to this footage in any way, the question should be why it wasn’t fully analysed and presented in full to the public for them to make up their own minds.
“This story is not about me, I made the report and released it in the public interest. The public deserve to be privy to footage previously withheld or ignored for whatever reason.”
Virgin declined to comment when asked about Mendez’s near seven-month wait for the full CCTV footage. The company has not commented on Double Down’s viral video.
A spokesperson for Corbyn did not respond to a request for comment.
The three-hour journey which raged for weeks
‘Traingate’ began when filmmaker Yannis Mendez, who was travelling with Corbyn during his 2016 leadership campaign, captured the MP sitting in a vestibule.
Corbyn used the scene to support his policy of nationalising Britain’s railways, and claimed he had been forced to sit on the floor.
But Virgin Trains hit back later when it released selected still images from on-board CCTV which showed Corbyn walking past apparently “empty unreserved” seats a few minutes into his journey.
Virgin, and Branson its billionaire founder, used the images to rubbish the then leadership candidate’s claims. The firm also released clips to broadcasters.
Corbyn later told reporters that he had failed to find two empty seats for him and his wife and that a Virgin conductor later found the pair seats on the train.
But his story continually changed in the days after the scandal.
The contradiction was too good for his opponents to pass up.
Theresa May later said Corbyn was a “laughing stock” over the furore.
“The train has left the station, the leader is on the floor... Even on rolling on stock they are laughing stock,” she said last September.