Owen Jones, ‘No Platform’ and Normalising Warmongers
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
25 November 2013
‘No Platform’ – the decision not to give a platform to those whose views are deemed to be abhorrent – is a popular policy of the Left in the UK. Organisations can ‘No platform’ by refusing to invite certain speakers to events they organise or protesting their appearance at other events; individuals can use the tactic in a different way refusing to appear on a platform with a given individual. This tactic isolates the targeted individual, putting down a public marker showing that they are not part of normal political debate. I would argue that to be an effective and respected tactic that will be supported and understood by the general public ‘No Platform’ needs to be applied in a broadly consistent manner.
With all this in mind, it is worth giving some attention to the recent decisions of Owen Jones about who to appear with on a platform. As one of the most influential figures on the contemporary British Left, his actions inevitably serve to represent the left to some extent and are likely to shape the choices that other Leftists make about who to appear on a platform with, and who not to. Unfortunately, his decisions seem confused and hypocritical. He appears to ‘No Platform’ relatively powerless people, while being happy to speak alongside far more objectionable members of the ruling elite.
Before I continue, however, I want to make it clear I think Owen Jones is a brilliant voice for the Left in the UK. He has successfully taken apart establishment figures such as historian David Starkey, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Guido Fawkes, has strongly criticised Israel’s attack on Gaza on BBC Question Time and destroyed the pro-war argument at the Huffington Post debate on the 2003 Iraq War. I often Tweet in support when Jones appears on television. Like many on the Left I see Jones as representing ‘my team’ against the Establishment.
Jones is set to speak at the 30 November 2013 Stop the War Coalition conference. On finding out Mother Agnes Mariam wad also scheduled to speak at the conference, Jones told the conference organisers he would not appear alongside her. With US journalist Jeremy Scahill also refusing to speaking alongside Mother Agnes, she has pulled out of the conference.
Mother Agnes is a Catholic nun who lived in Syria until recently. She has received a lot of media attention for arguing the 21 August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria was a provocation by Syrian rebels. Critics say she is an apologist for the Assad Government.
Jones, of course, has every right to not share a platform with someone whose views he finds objectionable. However, the problem is in February 2012 Jones appeared on BBC Question Time alongside none other than John Prescott – the Labour Deputy Prime Minister during the invasion of Iraq. The Iraq War has led to approximately 500,000 Iraqi deaths according to a study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Medicine.
Prescott confirms his own responsibility for being a leading participant in initiating the invasion in his autobiography:
‘The massive [15 February 2003] anti-war march in London had been very worrying, but I felt we were all in this so the cabinet should stick together.’ (John Prescott with Hunter Davies, Prezza. My Story, 2008, Headline Review, London, p. 284).
So, to put it simply, Jones is happy to appear alongside Prescott, a British politician intimately involved in initiating the illegal, aggressive invasion of another country that led to the deaths of over 500,000 people, but he refuses to speak on a platform alongside Mother Agnes who is, at worst, a propagandist for a Ba’athist dictatorship. Bashar Assad’s Government have been a leading participant in the Syrian Civil War that had killed over 100,000 people by July 2013, according to the United Nations.
Jones addressed this criticism of him in his defence of his decision not to appear at the conference alongside Mother Agnes:
‘The… argument is that I am “happy” to share platforms with those who prosecuted the war against Iraq – including former members of the Blair government – on TV platforms before, but not a Syrian nun. The response here is pretty straightforward. If a pro-war politician had been invited to the Stop the War conference, I would have refused to share a platform, too. That’s because an anti-war conference is an event where – despite differences or nuances in views – everybody is there to make common cause. We are there as allies, as part of the same movement. When I appear on, say, Question Time to debate ministers, there is no presumption of common cause.’
This explanation is contradicted by Jones’s appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions in July 2012, which I described in a previous article:
‘Finding out that Kelvin McKenzie was also on the panel, Jones pontificated on Twitter about whether he should withdraw in protest because of the former Sun Editor’s lies about the Hillsborough football victims. Unsure about the ethics of appearing with McKenzie, incredibly Jones sought the advice [through Twitter] of Iraq War supporter and Blair apologist David Aaronovitch. Jones eventually decided to appear on Any Questions, noting he would donate his appearance fee to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.’
This isn’t just about Jones – it has wider ramifications because his confusing morality is indicative of a wider cultural problem. Polls show 28 percent of respondents to a 2010 BPIX/Mail on Sunday poll said former Tony Blair should be tried for war crimes. A 2010 ComRes/Independent poll found even more support for this, with 37 per cent of people saying Blair should be put on trial. Unsurprisingly, this large section of public opinion is not reflected in the mainstream media. The Morning Star is the only national newspaper that has publicly called for Blair to face a war crimes trial, as far as I am aware.
But it’s not just silence – key participants in the initiation of the Iraq War are regularly invited onto our screens and to write for national newspapers. Prescott has hosted and appeared on the BBC’s satire programme Have I Got News For You, Alastair Campbell was invited to guest edit the New Statesman and Tony Blair regularly appears in the Guardian’s comment pages to shower us with his wisdom on peace in the Middle East.
While the opinion polls quoted above shows a significant percentage of the British public supports Blair appearing in the dock, it’s clear a further, momentous shift in public opinion would be necessary before the Blair Government is held to account for the invasion of Iraq. However, this shift is going to be all but impossible to achieve while Have I Got News For You, the New Statesman, the Guardian and, yes, Owen Jones, continue to treat the guilty men and women as though they were part of the political mainstream. In short, although Jones is a strong anti-war voice, his decisions on who to ‘No Platform’ effectively normalises the murderous actions of Prescott and his cabinet colleagues.