. The UK media got the Labour Antisemitism story wrong: Will they admit it? | Ceasefire Magazine

The UK media got the Labour Antisemitism story wrong: Will they admit it? Comment

The leaked Labour anti-semitism report provides an unrivalled test of integrity for the British media, writes Justin Schlosberg.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Friday, April 24, 2020 17:57 - 0 Comments


The greatest threat to democracy is not lying politicians, fake news or propaganda. Such things have always been endemic to the messy reality of politics in formally democratic systems, just as they are under authoritarian regimes. Indeed, one of the essential features of a functioning democracy is that even the most trusted and respected news institutions must be allowed, on occasion at least, to get the story wrong.

What really distinguishes a democratic media system is that, if and when the truth does emerge, it is duly told. This requires professional journalists to have an unflinching instinct for self-reflection. It requires an individual, collective and relentless willingness to ask, in the light of new evidence, whether they got the story wrong and, if so, to correct the public record and acknowledge mistakes.

Two weeks ago, Labour’s internal report into the handling of antisemitism complaints was leaked to the press. From the outset, the few headlines that surfaced in the mainstream news were framed in such a way as to question the report’s legitimacy. This, in spite of the fact that the veracity of the evidence contained in the report — which pointed to a culture of rampant racism, misogyny and corruption going back years — was not contested.

Of course, in the midst of a pandemic, no one could reasonably expect the report to be a headline news story. But given that Labour’s internal factionalism had been a recurring talking point for leading political commentators since 2015, we might have expected at least a mention. Even at the moment the pandemic was blowing up and just prior to the report’s leak, the BBC’s chief political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, tweeted a disparaging comment of the ‘Corbyn experiment’ by Labour’s former general secretary Iain McNichol. But when McNichol was then heavily implicated in the report and forced to step down from his present role in the House of Lords, it elicited no reaction. This, it seems, was less newsworthy than his mere utterance of any criticism directed at Corbyn.

Not only did the report meet with abject silence by such reporters, its marginal coverage in the mainstream press gave equal prominence to allegations that the investigation and leaking of the report did not follow due process. One of just two BBC reports on the story did not even make a single reference to the leaked evidence, offering only the briefest mention towards the end of concerns about “allegations” of factionalism.

This was an astonishing departure from even the most basic journalistic norms of truth-telling. Here was a document laden with hard evidence showing that staff opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership had, over a period of months and years, abused their power in order to fuel a demonstrably false narrative: that Corbyn was failing to tackle antisemitism within the party. Outside of Brexit, this narrative underscored one of the biggest and longest-running political controversies over the last three years, and was one of the most salient issues of the 2019 general election.

At the height of that election, the BBC was all over what was repeatedly described as an “unprecedented” political intervention by the Chief Rabbi (in spite of the fact that he had made similar public comments just four months prior). Importantly, the Chief Rabbi’s statement laid the blame for failures in the handling of complaints squarely with Corbyn, in what he called “a new poison – sanctioned from the very top”. This was followed by Andrew Neil’s prime time and hugely promoted grilling of Corbyn on BBC One — expressly agreed on condition that Boris Johnson would face the same (though he never did) — and focusing on allegations that Corbyn himself was responsible for failures in complaints handling.

And all of this came on the back of a BBC Panorama investigation last summer which concluded that the Labour leadership had intervened in the complaints process in order to delay, obstruct or otherwise rig investigations into antisemitism. This, in spite of wholesale evidence to the contrary, already in the public domain, showing repeated attempts by the leadership office to expedite and escalate sanctions.

The programme had relied heavily on the testimony of Sam Matthews, former head of complaints, who claimed his efforts to deal with antisemitism were being hampered by the leadership. We now know that claim was not only false, but a direct inversion of the truth. The double tragic irony revealed in the leaked report was that the behaviour of factionally-motivated anti-Corbyn staff was, in fact, the overriding cause of delays and obstruction in the party’s complaints handling process. Labour’s antisemitism problem had been made demonstrably worse by the very people who were trying to pin it on Corbyn.    

Antisemitism was and remains a real problem within the Labour Party. Denial of that essential truth was always wrong, even if it was never itself an obvious proxy for antisemitism.  

But this was not the crux of the controversy that dogged Corbyn’s leadership of the party. The controversy hinged on whether antisemitism had disproportionately increased under his leadership, whether it had ‘engulfed’ the party, and crucially whether he himself was complicit in it. Such claims were not sufficiently questioned or probed by journalists even when they were dominating the headlines. They were at best symptomatic of a groupthink ignorance on the part of those opposed to Corbyn’s leadership and, at worst, to use the Chief Rabbi’s words, a “mendacious fiction”.

One of the most notorious examples of journalistic self-reflection was the May 2004 front page apology published by the New York Times following their disastrous coverage of the Iraq War. Though it is debatable whether any lessons were in fact learned from the Times’ slavish repetition of state-sponsored falsehood, the wording of its infamous apology is instructive:

We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged

It is a sad indictment of our fourth estate that such gestures of media accountability are so rare. But it’s clear that if professional journalists really want to address plummeting standards and trust in the news, they have to start by looking inward. The leaked Labour report provides an unrivalled test of integrity for those who, above all else, bear responsibility for truth telling.

Justin Schlosberg

Justin Schlosberg is a media activist, lecturer and researcher. He is Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Media at Birkbeck College, and a member of the Media Reform Coalition. He tweets at @jrschlosberg

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