New report highlights the inaccurate news coverage of antisemitism controversy
by Ian Sinclair
13 October 2018
Though it is the first in-depth, academic-level research focussing on the media coverage of the controversy surrounding antisemitism in the Labour Party, the Media Reform Coalition’s (MRC) new report has been ignored by the mainstream media.
This media blackout is perhaps unsurprising when you consider the report’s broad findings: “we identified myriad inaccuracies and distortions in online and television news including marked skews in sourcing, omission of essential context or right of reply, misquotation, and false assertions made either by journalists themselves or sources whose contentious claims were neither challenged nor countered.”
An “independent coalition of groups and individuals committed to maximising the public interest in communications”, the MRC’s current chair is Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.
The report is co-authored by Dr Justin Schlosberg, Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Media at Birkbeck, University of London, and Laura Laker, a freelance journalist with eight years’ experience, including appearing on Sky News, BBC Breakfast and LBC radio. Schlosberg is an active member of the Labour Party and Jewish Voice for Labour, while Laker is not a member of the Labour Party, and has not voted consistently for Labour in local or national elections. For the research geeks out there, the researchers analysed their sample of 258 news items separately, “yielding a 93% agreement across the coding decisions”, which they argue “is considered near perfect agreement and indicates highly reliable findings.”
The report looks at the media coverage of the core document at the heart of the controversy – the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which the Labour Party has been under intense pressure to adopt.
The authors’ provide crucial context missing from most media reporting, noting that although the IHRA itself adopted the definition in 2016, only six of its member state countries have adopted it to date, and only eight countries in total. In contrast, the media has repeatedly inflated how widely the IHRA definition had been adopted. Speaking on the BBC Today Programme in September 2018, presenter John Humphrys said the definition had “been accepted by almost every country in the world”. Similarly, writing in the Guardian Jonathan Freedland referred to the “near universally accepted” IHRA definition.
The Board of Deputies (BoD), Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) and many commentators have also repeatedly referred to over 120 UK local authorities having adopted in full the IHRA definition. However, the report explains “to date, less than a third [of local authorities in the UK] have heeded the call” and that “several of those local authorities that have adopted the definition do not appear to have included any of the accompanying examples” (which are defined as being part of the full IHRA definition by its supporters). Suspicious of the “over 120 local authorities” claim, I personally contacted the BoD, JLC and LFI and asked for a list of all the local authorities that have adopted the IHRA definition. All three organisations refused to provide me with the list.
Discussing sourcing, the report notes “A number of news reports focused on the code controversy also featured no defensive sources at all. The Guardian was a particular outlier in this respect, with critical sources given an entirely unchallenged platform in nearly half of the articles within this sub-sample”.
“In sum, both quantitative and qualitative analysis of sourcing revealed marked skews which effectively gave those attacking Labour’s revised [antisemitism] code and championing the IHRA definition a virtually exclusive and unchallenged platform to air their views”, the report concludes about sourcing. “By comparison, their detractors – including a number of Jewish organisations and representatives of other affected minorities – were systematically marginalized from the coverage.”
The report ends by looking at media coverage of the alleged antisemitic remark Labour activist Marc Wadsworth made to Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth at the launch of Shami Chakrabarti’s report into antisemitism in June 2016. In actual fact the video footage shows Wadsworth simply accused Smeeth of “working hand in hand” with the Daily Telegraph newspaper. There was, the report notes, no evidence of antisemitism in Wadsworth’s remarks (Wadsworth has always maintained he didn’t know Smeeth was Jewish). However, taking its framing from Smeeth and her supporters, the media coverage repeatedly reported that Wadsworth had accused Smeeth of conspiring with the press in general (which chimes with a longstanding antisemitic trope), and even of being part of a “Jewish media conspiracy” (The Sun).
“Nearly half of the reports in the sample (15 out of 33) either quoted Smeeth directly or referred to her allegations without mentioning Wadsworth’s denial”, Schlosberg and Laker note. “This was a clear subversion of the journalistic principle of offering a right of reply to those who face reputational damage from an allegation of harm.”
With the so-called left-wing Guardian and trusted BBC coming in for lots of criticism, the report concludes “overall, our findings were consistent with a disinformation paradigm” – defined by the authors as “systematic reporting failures that broadly privileged a particular agenda and narrative.”
“This does not mean that these failures were intentional or that journalists and news institutions are inherently biased”, they caveat.
Whether the skewed, anti-Corbyn coverage was intentional or not, this vital research provides some important lessons for those wishing to see a Corbyn-led Labour Party in government powerful enough to carry out its manifesto promises. First, it is clear the media, including those organisations which are perceived to be sympathetic to the Corbyn Project, cannot be trusted to report accurately on Labour Party politics. They must be consumed carefully and actively monitored. Second, to overcome future attacks on the Corbyn Project, Labour Party members, Corbyn supporters and concerned citizens must become better organised and more powerful – and, most importantly, build up their own independent media to combat the lies and distortions.
Read the Labour, Antisemitism and the News: A Disinformation Paradigm report http://www.mediareform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Labour-antisemitism-and-the-news-FINAL-PROOFED.pdf