It is difficult to describe as anything other than a hatchet job the BBC Panorama special this week that sought to bolster claims that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has become “institutionally antisemitic”.
The partisan tone was set from the opening shot. A young woman whose name was not revealed tearfully claimed to have been abused with antisemitic taunts at a Labour Party conference.
The decision not to disclose the interviewee’s identity is understandable. It would have discredited the whole narrative Panorama was trying so hard to build.
The woman’s name is Ella Rose, a senior official in the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), an organisation representing Jewish and non-Jewish members of Labour at the forefront of attacks on Corbyn. Rose has a secret past too: she once worked at the Israeli embassy in London.
Two years ago she and other JLM officials were exposed collaborating with Shai Masot, an Israeli embassy official. He had to be hurriedly removed from the UK after an undercover Al Jazeera documentary showed him plotting with activists in the Labour and Conservative parties to discredit British politicians seen as a threat to Israel.
Most observers believe that Masot was operating within the embassy as part of Israel’s strategic affairs ministry, which in turn has been running black ops against western critics of Israel. Corbyn, we can safely assume, is high on that list.
Rose is on record as saying she was a close friend of Masot’s.
Her emotional, quavering voice as she spoke to Panorama presented a very different image from her appearances in Al-Jazeera’s undercover footage. There she is shown threatening to use physical violence – employing Krav Maga, a martial arts technique developed by the Israeli army – against another Jewish party member prominent in support of Corbyn.
Panorama chose to follow in the footsteps of the rest of the British media in ignoring Al Jazeera’s revelations, even though they provide vital context for challenging claims of a supposedly growing “antisemitism crisis” in Labour. For the past three years, the media have produced little more than anecdotal evidence, like Ella Rose’s, to support this narrative.
In a self-fulfilling prophecy, however, the more the media has fear-mongered about antisemitism in Labour – despite the absence of objective data to back up such claims – the more polls have shown British Jews panicking at the propsect of Corbyn reaching power.
The Panorama investigation, titled “Is Labour Anti-Semitic?”, will undoubtedly have further stoked such fear by interviewing a handful of disgruntled former employees involved in the party’s handling of antisemitism complaints.
Stripped of context, these testimonies offer a superficially plausible argument that the Labour leadership sought to minimise, or even indulge, antisemitism in the party. But the comments made by these ex-staff have to be viewed in terms of a wider power-play raging in Labour since Corbyn was elected leader.
The party has been riven by bitter, very public feuds between an old guard, which dominated under Tony Blair, and the rapid rise of the party’s left wing under Corbyn, buoyed by massive support from the wider membership.
Panorama referenced these rifts only to dismiss them as a conspiracy theory. Instead, the programme refashioned the split as a culture war between those presented as anti-racist centrists, like the disputes team’s former staff, and a supposed influx of anti-Israel, Jew-hating “Marxists” cultivated by Corbyn.
The mass purge
Some of the former members of the disputes staff interviewed by Panorama appear to have served effectively as a Trojan horse within Labour’s head office, assisting the Blairites in damaging Corbyn.
Though it was not mentioned by Panorama, these staff members were caught repeatedly violating the party rulebook by excluding thousands of Corbyn supporters during the two leadership contests, in 2015 and 2016. These mass purges had nothing to do with antisemitism. People were ousted for “offences” such as retweeting posts by the Green Party or, in one case, praising the band the Foo Fighters.
It was the enormous backlog created by these exclusions that overwhelmed the party machinery, leaving it incapable of handling disciplinary matters involving antisemitism.
Labour officials note that, even after Corbyn was secure as leader, the obstruction continued. A small number of staff – the people Panorama interviewed – actively blocked the rapid resolution of high-profile antisemitism cases, dragging them out to embarrass the leadership.
Since a new general secretary, Jennie Formby, was brought in and a new and larger disputes team appointed, including staff with legal training, the speed of handling antisemitism complaints is reported to have increased four-fold.
The paradox is that those telling Panorama that Labour is “institutionally antisemitic” are the very people who failed to deal effectively with antisemitism complaints when they were in charge.
Fears of a stitch-up
The most astounding and intentional omission from the programme, however, are the countervailing voices in support of Corbyn. The Labour leader himself and senior staff like his chief strategist, Seumas Milne, declined to be interviewed. That is understandable. They had strong grounds to suspect that Panorama planned a stitch-up.
Interviews of Labour leaders denying “institutional antisemitism” set against footage of tearful Jewish party members like Ella Rose speaking of abuse would have been a bad look.
But what was undoubtedly inexcusable was Panorama’s failure to interview even one of the many Jewish Labour members who deny the antisemitism narrative, or to note that many of the most high-profile party members suspended or expelled for antisemitism are, in fact, themselves Jewish.
Jewish members expelled
One of the expulsions briefly mentioned by Panorama was Jackie Walker, who is herself Jewish, as well as black.
The fact that Jewish activists have been disciplined for their criticisms of Israel or disputing the Labour antisemitism narrative suggests that the furor, in part at least, represents the redrawing of battle-lines within the Jewish community about who gets to speak for Jews about Israel.
This was vital, but missing, context for understanding one of Panorama’s central charges: that Corbyn’s inner circle had interfered in the complaints process by offering advice to the disputes team.
What Panorama failed to mention was that the advice was actually sought by the disputes staff. And it related to the need to handle sensitively the issue of the party being seen to take disciplinary action against Jewish members accused of antisemitism by other Jewish members.
Labour administrators were effectively being asked to take sides in an ideological fight between different kinds of Jewish activists – hardline Zionists and anti-Zionists.
‘Wrong kind of Jews’
Why, one can reasonably ask, did Panorama ignore Jewish Voice for Labour in this supposed “investigation” of Labour and anti-semitism? The group was specifically set up by Jewish members to counter the claims being made by activists like Rose.
Groups like the Jewish Labour Movement have implied that Jewish supporters of Corbyn are the “wrong kind of Jews” – an extremely ugly insinuation that Panorama appeared to endorse by entirely sidelining them. This was one of the reasons the Labour leadership censured the programme-makers in a 50-page document presented to BBC boss Tony Hall, in which it argued that Panorama had “pre-determined the outcome of its investigation”.
As Corbyn’s office noted, Panorama had cherrypicked and distorted evidence, presented only one side of the story, and relied almost exclusively on staff who have very large axes to grind.
Score-settling may make for lively TV, but it is execrable journalism.
As a public service broadcaster, the BBC is subject to an editorial policy requiring it to be impartial. Its guidelines also state that audiences should not be able to infer “the personal prejudices of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area.”
But the fact that Panorama made no attempt at even-handedness or fairness in its programme on Labour should have come as no surprise. The man in charge of the investigation was John Ware, a former Sun journalist. He cannot be considered dispassionate either about Corbyn or the prospects of Labour defeating the Conservative Party at a general election, which may be just around the corner.
Strident supporter of Israel
Two years ago, Ware wrote a lengthy article for a right-wing magazine warning of the danger of Corbyn reaching power. He was a politician, wrote Ware, “whose entire political career has been stimulated by disdain for the West, appeasement of extremism, and who would barely understand what fighting for the revival of British values is really all about”.
Shortly after Corbyn’s leadership election victory in 2015, Ware headed a Panorama documentary that sought to malign the new leader.
Ware is also a strident supporter of Israel and of its state ideology, Zionism. In a 2005 edition of Panorama he suggested that Muslims in Britain who spoke out about Israel’s crimes against Palestinians were “extremists”.
In an article in the Jewish Chronicle last year Ware concluded that anti-Zionism had “morphed into anti-Semitism – itself a Corbyn legacy”.
But that claim – that criticism of Israel is equivalent to antisemitism – needed to be interrogated rather than, as it was, assumed to be true by the Panorama special. It lies at the heart of both the split between the right and left wings of Labour, and the divisions within Labour’s Jewish membership.
‘Witch-hunt against Muslims’
Equally disturbing is Ware’s apparent view that some kinds of racism matter far more than others. This appears to be what he means by “British values”.
While he has repeatedly expressed concern about criticism of Israel, and has himself conflated it with antisemitism, his work has shown an apparent indulgence of Islamophobia. Over nearly two decades Ware has produced reports for the BBC that have antagonised Britain’s Muslim community.
In 2003 David Blunkett, Labour’s home secretary of the time and no ally of Corbyn’s, compared a programme by Ware on asylum seekers to the notoriously racist hate speech of Enoch Powell back in the 1960s.
Two years later the Muslim Council of Britain accused a Panorama documentary headed by Ware of amounting to a “witch-hunt against British Muslims”.
In 2013 Ware claimed that Islamophobia, or what he called the “I-word”, was stopping people – though not himself, it seems – from talking about Muslim “extremism”. Ware argued that Islamophobia, unlike antisemitism, was rational and justified – or in his words, hatred of Muslims was simply “reactive”.
He wrote in the Jewish Chronicle newspaper: “It is surely Muslim radicals who have brought it [anti-Muslim bigotry] on their fellow Muslims – by their promotion of Islam as a political ideology, and by invoking Islamophobia to close down criticism of this ideology.”
Imagine how that would sound if one replaces “radical Muslims”, “political Islam” and “Islamophobia” with the equivalents of “Israel zealots”, “hardline Zionism” and “anti-semitism”. Let’s try it:
“It is surely Israel zealots who have brought it [anti-Jewish bigotry] on their fellow Jews – by their promotion of hardline Zionism as a political ideology, and by invoking anti-semitism to close down criticism of this ideology.”
Suggesting that Jews are to blame for the racism they face because some extremists among them are fanatical supporters of Israel and its oppression of Palestinians would surely amount to antisemitism in most people’s view.
Skewed political priorities
The relevance of this is that Ware and the BBC made a highly politicised decision to choose to focus exclusively on Labour and antisemitism, while ignoring the well-documented racism of the Conservative Party. That choice matches Ware’s own skewed political priorities.
The BBC’s flagship political documentary assumed that Labour suffers from an “antisemitism crisis” so severe that it needed to be the sole focus of an investigation into racism in British politics.
The decision to ignore the more visible issue of racism in the Conservative Party smacks of dangerous interference by the state broadcaster in the democratic process.
Panorama’s choice is even more astonishing given that the objective data – again overlooked by the programme – indicates that Labour has much less of a racism problem than the ruling Conservative party.
A survey this week confirmed what was already widely known: that Islamophobia – racism towards Muslims and Arabs – is rampant in Conservative ranks. A YouGov poll showed an astounding 56 per cent of party members believe Islam threatens the “British way of life”.
The Tory party’s former chair, Sayeeda Warsi, has long been ringing the alarm about senior officials, warning that they are indifferent to, or supportive of, Islamophobia in the party.
Rampant Tory racism
In addition to rampant Islamophobia, figures show that the Conservatives also have a greater problem than Labour with antisemitism.
While Corbyn has been critical of antisemitic world leaders, the Conservative leadership has been cosying up to figures like Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, who is known for his Jew-baiting and expressions of support for former Hungarian pro-Nazi leaders.
Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP widely expected to become the next prime minister when Theresa May steps down, has a long track record of making inciteful, racist statements.
Anti-semitism data ignored
While the Conservatives’ undeniable racism problem has failed to attract any sustained media attention, the Labour Party’s much less serious antisemitism problem has been blown out of all proportion.
The Panorama team ignored the most elementary facts undermining the now-pervasive narrative of a Labour “antisemitism crisis”.
First, surveys show Labour voters are less likely to hold antisemitic views than the wider general public or Conservative voters, and the proportion of Labour supporters expressing such views has fallen dramatically under Corbyn. The data clearly refute suggestions that Corbyn has made the party more attractive to antisemites.
Second, Labour’s disciplinary process has found that instances of discernible antisemitism is marginal, at 0.06 per cent of its half a million members. And that is after Corbyn’s political enemies have been scouring party members’ accounts seeking evidence of antisemitism.
And third, much of the media coverage has attributed often anonymous hate speech on social media targeting Jews, including Labour MPs, to Labour activists when no evidence exists to support such attribution. The politicised climate is such now that far-right antisemitism is also being blamed on Corbyn.
Questions for the BBC
Corbyn’s critics, of course, have been trying to deflect criticism of the BBC, Panorama and Ware by arguing that Labour’s complaint is some kind of Trumpian attack on journalism. That is patent nonsense.
The BBC is a public service broadcaster paid for by British taxpayers. Its credibility and legitimacy depends on it being seen to maintain strict neutrality and a commitment to evidence, not become a media attack dog in the hands of the ruling party.
The question is why did the BBC’s flagship political investigations show decide that the marginal problem of racism in Labour was a much more urgent matter than the provable and significant racism in the Conservative Party?
Unlike Labour, the Conservatives are actually in power and, through policy-making, are in a position to improve or damage the fabric of life for minority communities in Britain.
This isn’t about protecting Corbyn. It is an expectation that the BBC sticks by its commitment to assess dispassionately British political life rather than interfere, as it did with the Panorama special, in an overt, partisan manner.
• First published in Middle East Eye.