Fact-checking Newsnight on Labour’s ‘antisemitism problem’

Last night’s Newsnight gave top billing to the suspension of Labour MP Naz Shah for allegedly antisemitic comments.

Presenter Evan Davis opened proceedings as follows:

‘Labour is struggling to deal with the charge that it has an “antisemitic streak”.  Does it?

This is a good question.  As I showed in a recent openDemocracy piece on Labour’s alleged ‘antisemitism problem’, it is one that virtually no mainstream journalist who has reported on the issue has considered worthy of investigation.

In order to find out the answer to this question, Newsnight ran a short introductory film quoting five individuals all of whom agreed that Labour has an antisemitism problem, and that the Corbyn leadership has failed to adequately deal with it.  This was followed by a ‘debate’ between two individuals who also agreed that Labour has an antisemitism problem, and that the Corbyn leadership has failed to adequately deal with it.

Both film and ‘debate’ were largely comprised of sweeping and/or vague assertions unaccompanied by any supporting evidence:

  • ‘there is a sadly a problem, and too many instances, through to former parliamentary candidates, chairs of parties, all the way through now, where people think it is acceptable to say these things’ (Richard Angell, director of Blairite grouping Progress)
  • ‘the response hasn’t been what we should have expected’ (Angell)
  • ‘a large proportion of both OULC [Oxford University Labour Club] and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews’ (Alex Chalmers, former co-chair of the OULC)
  • ‘Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the party has not adequately dealt with these problems’ (Danny Cohen, former BBC Director of Television)
  • ‘At this moment in time’ antisemitism ‘seems more prominent within the Labour Party’ (Lord Michael Levy)
  • Labour antisemitism is ‘an issue with the hard left’, which has a ‘particular criticism of Israel’ (Rabbi and Baroness Julia Neuberger)
  • ‘Quite a lot of criticism of Israel . . . is also antisemitic’ (Neuberger)

or else statements about the participants’ feelings:

  • ‘The Labour Party is increasingly feeling like somewhere that isn’t a natural home for Jewish people in the UK (Danny Cohen)
  • ‘One backbench Labour MP has told this programme they’re worried that a tsunami of antisemites has joined up, emboldened by Mr Corbyn’s past associations with critics of Israel who are antisemitic’ (Anonymous backbench MP)
  • ‘I think Labour does have a problem with antisemitism . . . Labour has a very particular problem, and a particular problem at the moment’ (Neuberger)
  • ‘I was brought up in the Labour Party. My parents would be turning in their graves’ (Neuberger)
  • ‘I do think’ Labour has ‘a serious problem’ with antisemitism. (Levy)

Enthralling as these confessionals may—or may not—be, they brought the viewer no closer to answering the question Davis set up at the start of the programme: are the allegations true?  Does Labour, in fact, have an antisemitism problem?

Several specific allegations were made on the programme; all were either false or misleading.

Let’s go through them.

  • ‘[M]ore than anything else’, what illustrates Labour’s ‘antisemitism problem’ are the allegations against the ‘Oxford University Labour Club’ (OULC) (Neuberger)

Most of the allegations against the OULC were levelled anonymously; none were presented with supporting evidence.  There are additional grounds for scepticism about them: in particular, there appear to be ulterior (pro-Israel; Labour factional) motives involved, while the only verifiable allegation—that an OULC member had been ‘formally disciplined by their college for organising a group of students to harass a Jewish student and shout “filthy Zionist” whenever they saw her’—is a sheer fabrication. (Full details here.)

Alex Chalmers, the former OULC co-chair whose allegation of antisemitism against the OULC was quoted without challenge by Newsnight, is a former intern at Israel lobby group BICOM.  Newsnight properly introduced Richard Angell as director of a ‘Blairite’ Labour grouping; isn’t Chalmers’s connection with an Israel lobby group that has urged a redefinition of antisemitism to encompass criticism of Israel also relevant in assessing his credibility?

  • ‘I suspect that people whose views would not have been acceptable in the Labour Party have rejoined or joined’ (Neuberger)

Virtually all of the allegations of antisemitism levelled against individual Labour members in recent weeks implicate people who joined the party prior to Corbyn’s leadership.

  • ‘This awful use of . . . “Zio, Zio” as a kind of term of abuse to Jewish students, particularly at Oxford, but that’s been true elsewhere’ (Neuberger)

The pejorative ‘Zio’ is used by some anti-Zionists, including Jewish anti-Zionists, to refer to Zionists.  This is not antisemitic.  It was alleged—anonymously, without evidence—to have been deployed by ‘[s]everal individuals’ in reference to Jewish students.  But it was not alleged, still less proven, that ‘Zio’ was used as a term of abuse against Jews qua Jews.

  • ‘I think I ought to lay on the line, that this is the first time that I have gone seriously public saying that there is a real problem of antisemitism. I’ve quite often said, when people in the Jewish community have cried antisemitism, “you know what? I’m not sure”.  But this time, I’m absolutely sure, because it’s a concerted thing: it’s happening in lots of different places at the same time’ (Neuberger)

First, several of the antisemitic incidents raised in recent weeks date back to before Corbyn became leader.  For instance, Naz Shah’s allegedly antisemitic Facebook posts were made in 2014.

Second, the frequency with which new cases of antisemitism have been uncovered in recent weeks more plausibly reflects, not rising antisemitism within the Labour Party, but a—to use Rabbi Neuberger’s word—‘concerted’ effort to uncover and publicise such evidence.  As Lord Levy observed on the same programme, Labour is ‘coming very much under the microscope at the moment’; a high-powered microscope at that, able to detect isolated tweets by low-level party members published as far back as 2011.  Is it really cause for wonder that, when examined through a microscope, one discovers cases of antisemitism that were previously overlooked?

The reality is, the political and media storm around Labour antisemitism no more proves a spike in Labour party antisemitism, than the recent political and media frenzy over the prime minister’s tax affairs proved an April spike in tax avoidance.

  • The Labour leadership ‘dithered at the beginning’ of the Shah scandal; ‘there has been talk of a statement being changed…’ (Levy)

Reports that the party leadership altered Shah’s apology have been denied by Shah, and retracted by the journalist who broke the story.

None of these falsehoods and misrepresentations were challenged on the show.*

*

Evan Davis introduced the discussion of alleged Labour Party antisemitism by observing that, ‘there is a debate among those in the Jewish community as to how serious the problem is’.

You wouldn’t know it from watching Newsnight.  Davis’s two guests, Lord Levy and Rabbi Neuberger, differed on precisely one point: Neuberger argued that Labour has an antisemitism problem, while Levy argued that Labour has an antisemitism problem, and other parties do too.  The common premise—that Labour has antisemitism problem—passed as uncontested fact: of the seven individuals quoted in the segment, not one dissented from it.

But this premise has been seriously contested, including within the Jewish community.  When Labour member Tony Greenstein was suspended for alleged antisemitism, more than 50 Jewish Labour members reportedly signed a letter in his defence.  The Jewish Socialists’ Group, meanwhile, ‘sees the current fearmongering about antisemitism in the Labour Party’ as an unjustified extrapolation from a ‘very small number of cases’, and part of ‘a conscious and concerted effort by right-wing political forces to undermine the growing support among Jews and non-Jews alike for the Labour Party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn’, who has a ‘longstanding record of actively opposing fascism and all forms of racism’.

These perspectives were completely excluded from the Newsnight ‘debate’.

The deeper problem with the Newsnight segment was not its exclusion of useful perspectives, however, but its abject indifference to Truth.

In the endless media coverage of this phony scandal to date, it is remarkable that virtually no one has bothered to investigate whether any of these allegations, still less the broad conclusions that have been drawn from them, are actually true.  Instead, reporters string together a series of quotes from an array of rent-a-gobs and consider their job done.

And so misrepresentations mount, inventions harden into common sense, lies gain purchase, and the moral legacy of Jewish suffering is trivialised and debased to the point where its invocation arouses only dismissal and contempt.

 

* I have ignored inconsequential errors, e.g., presenter Hannah Barnes claimed that the ‘chair’ of the Oxford University Labour Club had resigned alleging pervasive antisemitism; in fact, it was the co-chair.

14 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Guy Debord's Cat and commented:
    This scandal was produced at CCHQ with the connivance of the Blairites. The BBC’s role in this affair is a disgrace to journalism. Newsnight allowed Julia Neuberger to freely slander Militant (now the Socialist Party of England and Wales), an organisation whose founder member, Ted Grant, was a Jew.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Forensic. Excellent work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Julia Neuberger also slurred Militant on the same edition of Newsnight.

    Baroness Neuberger slanders Militant on anti-Semitism
    Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe sent the following letter to the BBC following a suggestion on BBC2’s Newsnight (27.4.16) by Baroness Julia Neuberger that Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party) was involved in anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in the past.

    Re: Baroness Neuberger’s comments on Newsnight on 27.4.16
    And subsequent clip of her comments posted on the BBC website early on 28.4.16

    We are writing to demand the right of reply to a completely unfounded slur of anti-semitism made against us by Baroness Julia Neuberger on the above Newsnight programme, and to request the removal of the clip on your website that highlights her remarks.

    The Socialist Party (formerly Militant) has had longstanding opposition to those who deny reality – the existence of Israel. We support the right of two states – Israel and Palestine – to exist side by side, and argue that this needs to be on a socialist basis. We have always fought against anti-semitism, as well as against fascism and all forms of racism.

    The absurdity of Neuberger’s claim is shown by the fact that we have a sister organisation in Israel-Palestine (Socialist Struggle Movement – like us, part of the Committee for a Workers’ International) that also calls for a two-state solution and has a long history of opposing anti-semitism as well as fighting the oppression of the Palestinians. Our association with that organisation wouldn’t be possible if we were adopting an anti-Jewish position in any way, as suggested by Neuberger.

    There is no foundation at all for Neuberger to implicate Militant in her attempt to blame the ‘hard left’ and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in Labour for the recent comments of Naz Shah, MP for Bradford West, who has now been suspended from the Labour Party.

    Neuberger, as a previous leading SDP member, Liberal Democrat Health spokesperson and now a cross-bencher, has jumped on the anti-Corbyn bandwagon of parliamentary right-wing politicians across the spectrum and is slandering us in the process.

    Criticising the actions of the right-wing Israeli government – which we also do – is another matter and is certainly not anti-semitic, as Lord Levy does point out in your clip.

    We ask that you respond urgently to this letter, as we are not prepared to allow our party and the record of Militant to be defamed in this way.

    Link to Socialist Party page http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/22705/28-04-2016/baroness-neuberger-slanders-militant-on-anti-semitism

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a storm in a teacup, the rank and file don’t care, just want Corbyn for PM

    Like

  5. Dave Hansell · · Reply

    The observations and argument made here are certainly reasonable and in line with the scientific method of evidence based enquiry. The question arises as to what is going on here, what it means and what are the implications?

    It seems reasonable to surmise that the question of what is going on here is best summer zed as a concerted attempt to redefine a particular type of racism, anti-Semitism, as any criticism of zionism in general and the policy of Israel in particular, as practised towards Palastinian Arabs.

    What does this mean in practice ? Well, in terms of the current furore over the Labour Party there is certainly a case to be made that certain sections within it, as argued by the Jewish Socialist Group, are deliberately setting out to undermine the current leadership using smear tactics and a witch hunt in the run up to the local elections. That in itself is a serious situation as it is in effect undermining not just the leadership but the party as a whole in order to wrest back the hegemony of economic neo liberalism, political neo conservatism and social neo feudalism which this self appointed clique represent on behalf of the corporate establishment within the Labour Party.

    On its own this should be sufficient in itself to raise serious questions within the party NEC. However, the implications go even further. Expelling members of the party on the basis of such a twisted definition of racism, which in this case is defined as any critique of a racist ideology and doctrine as currently practiced (zionism) sends out a very clear message – that a precondition of party membership is dependent upon acceptance of a racist doctrine as currently practised.

    Adherence to the tenets of zionism will effectively be a compulsory requirement of party membership. Bad as this logical conclusion is the implications go deeper and further. Implicit in such an outcome is that anyone voting for and supporting the party under these conditions is that the voting non member is in effect casting there vote to support a racist doctrine as currently practised.

    The argument therefore cannot be confined to the Labour Party itself as some sort of internal argument because the logical implications impact beyond the party membership and internal workings to affect the electorate as a whole regardless of any or no party political leanings. It sets in stone,nofficially, that support for the party is conditional on support for zionism and the policy of Israel. Otherwise those within the party pushing this line would consider any differing position as inherently anti semetic and therefore racist by definition according to this warped and inverted definition of racism they are attempting to set into stone tablets as though it represented an eleventh commandment.

    No decent human being could in good conscience support a party which required a condition of membership and support based on this definition. At this point the question then becomes how to avoid reaching this situation? The debate therefore needs to be taken away from the exclusive confines of the party itself by forcing the party to confront those within it who are driving this disastrous position into being.

    The Labour Party NEC must therefore be put into a position by the wider electorate to undertake an inquiry into those conducting this witch hunt and the smears associated with it. To this end a petition has been put up on change.org which anyone who shares similar concerns on this issue is free to support

    change.org/p/labour-party-national-executive-for-an-immediate-labour-party-inquiry-into-the-smear-campaign-of-anti-s-itism

    Thank you for your attention and consideration.

    Like

  6. To summarise, Netanyahu and his Zionist supporters have a more aggressive and more articulate publicity machine than the less well organised Palestinians

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] example, Newsnight addressed the issue by staging  a ‘debate’ between two positions: ‘Labour has a serious […]

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  8. The BBC has really become a ‘mouthpiece’ for the governments stance and spreading of its ‘propaganda’ – The EU debate is very much one-sided, the cover-ups of sex abuse cases…etc…etc… I have lost faith in BBC news now as it seems not to be the news , but more like a case of ‘Heres the what-we-want you-to-know at 6/10’
    Most debates, reports and editorials are very one-sided and I really do feel that this has something to do with ‘establishment’ figures at the top. (Government allies, peers, freemasons?)
    I think the whole debacle is nothing more than a fabricated distraction, to allow the government to change direction of the media (BBC in particular) away from Cameron, Osbourne, Hunt and their cronies and the offshore issue, the state of the NHS, DWP, Philip Greene/BHS, The countries piss-poor infrastructure, the North-South divide…I could go on and on….

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  9. […] them. Of course, the BBC have form in attempting to discredit Corbyn and have no doubt been more than happy to oblige again over the past three […]

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  10. Phil Green · · Reply

    Strange that the stories of ‘antisemitism in Labour’ and the Labour party list of ‘friends and nonfriends’ read out by Cameron in the House of Commons should both have surfaced at a time when the Conservative party were going through a bad patch. Do the Tory’s have a list of stories
    about the Labour party ready to be leaked to the press every time the their own party is in trouble.

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  11. […] went mad’ (you can read what Livingstone said ad verbatim here; Wood provides analysis here and here is what was said on BBC’s Newnight the day the storm […]

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  12. […] to make from the outset is that although accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour party have been wildly exaggerated for political purposes, this does not mean they should be rejected out of hand.  Indeed, when […]

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