Tag Archives: Loughborough University

The myth of Labour’s antisemitism crisis: interview with Jamie Stern-Weiner

The myth of Labour’s antisemitism crisis: interview with Jamie Stern-Weiner
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
10 February 2020

In November 2019 Verso Books published the free e-book Antisemitism and the Labour Party, edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner, an Israeli-born, London-raised DPhil candidate in Area Studies at the University of Oxford.

With antisemitism cited by many as a factor in Labour’s defeat in the general election, Ian Sinclair asked Stern-Weiner about the controversy.

Ian Sinclair: What is your assessment of the antisemitism controversy that has engulfed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party since 2015?

Jamie Stern-Weiner: Over the past two decades, whenever Israel’s grotesque human rights violations aroused popular indignation in the UK, Israel’s supporters depicted this reaction as a ‘new antisemitism’. The propaganda offensive against Labour that began in 2016 formed a novel variant of this strategy—a new ‘new antisemitism’. Whereas previous such controversies saw Jewish and pro-Israel networks mobilise against Palestine solidarity activists, the post-2015 campaign saw allegations of antisemitism instrumentalised by the full breadth of the British elite in order to delegitimise, demoralise and ultimately demobilise the Corbyn movement.

The smear campaign was pushed by three distinct but overlapping networks: the Conservative Party, the Labour Right and the pro-Israel Jewish establishment in Britain. Each played an indispensable role. Tory and Labour Right antisemitism allegations would have lacked plausibility without the validation of Jewish leadership groups, which also mobilised their considerable organisational resources behind the campaign. Conversely, the Jewish establishment’s vendetta against the Left would have gained little traction had it not been amplified by other political and media elites.

The allegations against Labour are groundless. Jeremy Corbyn is not an antisemite but among our most dedicated anti-racist politicians, while no persuasive evidence has been presented to show that antisemitism in Labour increased or became widespread under his leadership. Surveys indicate that anti-Jewish prejudices are less prevalent on the Left than on the Right of British politics, while a recent study commissioned (and then misrepresented) by the Campaign Against Antisemitism found traditional ‘anti-Jewish’ stereotypes to be disproportionately concentrated among Conservative voters and supporters of Boris Johnson. Even as the ‘Labour antisemitism’ inquisitors spent years combing through party members’ social media histories for incriminating material, the proportion of Labour members accused of expressing anti-Jewish prejudice rounds to literally zero.

The direct electoral impact of the ‘antisemitism’ smear campaign appears to have been slight. Its indirect contribution to Labour’s defeat was likely more significant: the leadership’s vacillating and defensive response to antisemitism allegations made it look weak—a perception that ranked among the most widely cited reasons for Corbyn’s unpopularity; scarce Leadership Office resources were expended on constant media firefighting; and grassroots enthusiasm was enervated by the failure of any senior party or media figure to defend activists from the sweeping accusations against them.

IS: What has been the media’s role in all of this?

JS-W: The British press is disproportionately sensitive to elite opinion and is itself part of the political establishment. Intense media hostility to the Corbyn project was therefore inevitable. Already in 2015, the Media Reform Coalition described how ‘the press set out to systematically undermine Jeremy Corbyn… with a barrage of overwhelmingly negative coverage’. A London School of Economics study the following year found ‘most newspapers systematically vilifying the leader of the biggest opposition party’. And during the 2019 election campaign, research from Loughborough University indicated that newspaper coverage was overwhelmingly biased against Labour.

The ‘Labour antisemitism’ controversy was the most extreme and protracted manifestation of this vilification campaign. Reporting was replete with factual errors. Rational criteria for assessing newsworthiness were abandoned, to the extent that random Facebook posts by ordinary Labour Party members and factional wranglings over the efficiency of internal Labour Party complaints procedures became headline material. No effort was made to set the allegations against Labour within a broader context, either politically or in terms of what is known about the distribution of racism and prejudice in contemporary Britain. And information which undermined the claims against Labour was effectively suppressed.

More fundamentally, no mainstream reporter ever investigated whether the allegations against Labour were true. Where journalists did not reflexively endorse the accusations against Labour, they were content to uncritically relay them alongside the party’s response. Accusations by Jewish communal figures or anti-Corbyn MPs were considered inherently significant, whether or not they were accompanied by supporting evidence. At the same time, individuals and entities that led the charge against Labour were not themselves scrutinised as political actors, despite the manifestly partisan aspect of the campaign.

The result was to grossly misrepresent the reality of antisemitism in Labour and the UK as a whole. For example, whereas it was widely reported that the 2017 Labour Party conference played host to numerous instances of antisemitism, none of the concrete allegations withstood investigation, while nearly all turned out to implicate people who were themselves Jewish. Perhaps more importantly, the disproportionate attention given the ‘Labour antisemitism’ story, combined with the failure to situate it within any broader statistical or political context, wildly distorted the scale of the phenomenon. Respondents to a 2019 survey estimated that over a third of Labour members had been subject to an antisemitism-related complaint; the real figure was less than one-tenth of one percent. It is difficult to conceive a more damning indictment of British journalism.

IS: There seems to be a broad consensus that the Labour leadership and the Labour Party handled the antisemitism controversy badly. Do you think they should have responded differently?

JS-W: ‘Labour antisemitism’ was never a grievance amenable to resolution through reasonable compromise, but rather the pretext for a campaign to overthrow Corbyn’s leadership and demobilise his base. It follows that nothing Labour might have done, short of total capitulation, could have prevented or moderated the media campaign against it.

It also follows that the strategy of compromise and appeasement was a mistake. None of Labour’s many concessions silenced its critics for even a millisecond. But they did divide supporters, strengthen the other side’s position and make the leadership appear feeble. Every time a senior Labour figure apologised for the party’s antisemitism problem, they merely validated wholly unsupported claims that such a problem existed. The party’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism did not win the leadership any support but did hand its enemies an additional weapon with which to smear and drive out Corbyn’s supporters.

In the course of its misguided attempt to appease unappeasable critics, the party betrayed its libertarian heritage and instituted a regime of censorship. The provision in the Code of Conduct which provided that the party’s disciplinary body ‘shall not have regard to the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions’ was nullified. And whereas the Chakrabarti Report of June 2016 urged a moratorium on trawling members’ social media archives for offensive posts, December 2019 found Labour’s general secretary boasting about the party’s use of algorithms to sift the online histories of not just members but potential members to ‘detect patterns of behaviour’.

What else could have been done? Any response should have aimed not at ending the defamation campaign but at minimising the internal divisions it provoked and the resources it consumed. To these ends, the leadership should have forthrightly stated and held to its view that allegations of a Labour antisemitism ‘crisis’ lacked evidence; that Labour’s critics were acting in pursuit of a political agenda; and that Labour did not intend to use party resources to police the thoughts and utterances of its 500,000 members.

As Norman Finkelstein has suggested, Labour might have established a small rebuttal unit to respond to significant allegations. Otherwise, each and every media story about ‘Labour antisemitism’ should have been met with the stock response: ‘The elected leadership of the Labour Party has made its views on this matter clear. Any information concerning individual misconduct should be referred to our disciplinary mechanism, where it will be dealt with according to our standard procedures. We have no further comment’. Mere expression of an unpopular opinion should not have been considered legitimate grounds for disciplinary action. And complaints statistics should have been released on a routine basis with as much transparency as possible.

Whether the party leadership had sufficient internal leeway to implement a response along these lines, I do not know. But had such an approach been pursued from the outset, it would have equipped members with a consistent and defensible line, minimised consequential internal divisions, reduced the time and money wasted on this non-issue, and—at minimum—avoided the leadership appearing unprincipled and indecisive before the wider public.

Antisemitism and the Labour Party is available as a free download from Verso Books https://www.versobooks.com/books/3215-antisemitism-and-the-labour-party

It’s The Media, Stupid

It’s The Media, Stupid
Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
20 January 2020

As soon as the general election was called for the Tories, liberal commentators moved quickly to shut down debate about the role of the media in the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

“Blame the media blame the media blame the media”, sarcastically tweeted Janine Gibson, former US Editor at the Guardian and now Assistant Editor at the Financial Times. Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff was equally dismissive, tweeting: “I see the official line is to blame Brexit. Or the media. Anything but the leader & the people who have kept him there.” BBC Director General Tony Hall wrote to the corporation’s staff after the election dismissing accusations of bias as “conspiracy theories”, according to the Guardian.

How do these defensive assertions compare to the actual evidence?

Noting that the British press “is habitually pro-Conservative is news to nobody”, the authors of a Loughborough University study of the press during the general election explain their analysis “challenges the view that 2019 was ‘business as usual’ in partisanship terms.” Writing on The Conversation website, the academics highlight “how substantial the negative coverage of Labour was throughout the formal campaign and how it intensified” as polling day approached. Comparing the findings with a study they conducted of the 2017 general election they note “the results show that newspapers’ editorial negativity towards Labour in 2019 more than doubled from 2017. In contrast, overall press negativity towards the Conservatives reduced by more than half.” As Matt Zarb-Cousin, the Director of Communications for Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign, repeatedly says: being a Tory means playing politics in easy mode.

This study broadly echoes previous research on press coverage of Corbyn. For example, a 2016 London School of Economics study of the first few months of Corbyn’s leadership found he “was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy.”

“The overall conclusion from this is that in this case UK journalism played an attack dog, rather than a watchdog”, the authors noted.

Writing towards the end of the 2019 general election campaign on the Media Reform Coalition website, Dr Justin Schlosberg showed how the supposedly impartial broadcasters often mirrored the reporting of the partisan press. He discusses a number of paired examples, including TV news coverage of the response to the Labour and Tory manifestos by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). With the well-regarded economic research institute critical of both manifestos, Schlosberg notes the IFS response to the Labour manifesto was covered 15 times  by TV news in the two days after its launch, compared to just once in the two days after the Tory manifesto launch.

The role of the media in the election was also underlined by accounts of what people were saying on the doorstep to Labour Party campaigners and journalists. “I had a handful of angry people say, ‘I would shoot him’ or ‘take a gun to his head’, whilst in the next breath calling him an extremist”, Labour MP Laura Piddock, who lost her seat, reported. Sebastian Payne from the Financial Times tweeted quotes from people he had met during the campaign: “Ian in Darlington: ‘I’ve voted for Labour; my family always have. I think he is a traitor, looking after terrorists’.”

This is “a completely sane view from this former Labour voter, which he totally came up with on his own, via his own independent and impartial research, without any help from the British media”, was journalist Mehdi Hasan’s amusing response.

Reflecting on his experience of campaigning for Labour in his home constituency of Bridgend in a blog on Medium, Dan Evans-Kanu recounts “a huge amount of people regurgitated, verbatim, media attack lines about Labour and Corbyn. Many would preface this by saying ‘I seen on the news that…’ or ‘they say that Corbyn is…’” He has an interesting conclusion: “In many ways, I feel that elements of the cultural studies movement and postmodernism, in emphasizing human agency vis a vis the media, have obscured the extent to which the media influences people.”

This far-reaching media influence is confirmed by two recent academic studies.

In last year’s book The Media, The Public and the Great Financial Crisis Dr Mike Berry, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Journalism at Cardiff University, explains how “print and broadcast media were key factors in the development of public understanding and attitudes” during the crash.

Berry was also one of the five co-authors of the 2019 Glasgow Media Group study Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief. The book includes a specially commissioned March 2019 Survation poll, which found “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-semitism” when “the actual figure was far less than one per cent.” Conducting four focus groups around the country to explore this huge disconnect, the authors note “the media and the extensive coverage that the story has received feature very prominently in the reasons that were given” for higher estimates of levels of anti-semitism in the Labour Party.

“Even amongst people who claimed to never read a newspaper and declared themselves completely uninterested in the subject it was clear that the story had cut through because of its sustained prominence in newspaper headlines”, the authors explain. Unsurprising when one considers the authors found a massive 5,497 articles devoted to the topic in a search of eight national newspapers between June 2015 and March 2019.

Indeed, it is worth exploring the media’s coverage of antisemitism – an issue which has dogged Corbyn’s leadership. Conducting a search of the BBC website in June 2018, Evolve Politics found 224 results for “Labour anti-Semitism”. In contrast, their search for “Conservative Islamophobia” uncovered just three articles. Likewise media watchdog Media Lens conducted a search of the main UK newspapers between 1 November and 12 December 2019 using the Proquest database, finding “Boris Johnson” and “Yemen” were mentioned in 30 articles, while “Corbyn” and “anti-semitism” were mentioned in an extraordinary 2,386 articles.

To be clear, it’s not just the right-wing press. A 2018 Media Reform Coalition report by Schlosberg – Labour, Antisemitism and the News: A Disinformation Paradigm – highlighted how the liberal media were often as bad, sometimes worse, when it came to reporting the so-called antisemitism crisis in Labour. The Guardian and BBC News, in particular, come off very badly in their coverage of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism: of 28 examples of inaccurate reporting made in regard to the IHRA definition “half… were found on TheGuardian.com and BBC television news programmes alone”, Schlosberg notes.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that, in many ways, the British media is a sophisticated propaganda system adept at protecting elite interests, rather than the obstinate, questioning fourth estate of journalist’s self-serving fantasies.

Of course, Labour’s election defeat was not solely down to the media, but the evidence shows it played a central role.

Those who wish to see a transformative government of the left in the future need to reflect on this reality and consider ways forward.

As always, it is vital that alternative, left-wing media is expanded, with more readers and more influence.

In addition, the left needs to start seriously challenging corporate media. Echoing the recommendations contained in Bad News For Labour, Long-Bailey has suggested Labour set up a dedicated rebuttal unit to quickly and effectively correct media lies and distortions. The University of East London professor Jeremy Gilbert goes one further, recently tweeting: “We need a mass campaign of regular canvassing, leafletting and counter-propaganda that goes on all the time, way beyond the electoral cycle. Unions should be pressured to bankroll it. Every single one of us would have to commit a couple of hours/week.”

Interestingly another option that has been increasingly raised is for left-wing writers to boycott the Guardian. Why write for a newspaper that played a key role in fatally weakening Corbyn, Media Lens, British historian Mark Curtis, journalist Matt Kennard and David Graeber from the London School of Economics have all asked?

As US media analyst Robert McChesney once said, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.