September 16. Central Criminal Court, London. Proceedings today at the Old Bailey regarding Julian Assange’s extradition returned to journalistic practice, redaction of source names and that ongoing obsession with alleged harm arising from WikiLeaks releases. John Goetz of Der Spiegel added his bit for the defence, making an effort to set the record straight on the events leading up to the publishing of un-redacted US diplomatic cables on September 2, 2011.
The picture that emerges from Goetz is not Assange the reckless cavalier indifferent to human life but of a more considered publisher, working with news organisations to redact the names of informants, insisting on the use of encrypted communications, cognisant of the risk of harm facing them. Goetz noted that WikiLeaks had a “very rigorous redaction process”, evident in its approach to the Afghanistan files; Assange was “very concerned with the technical aspect of trying to find the names in this massive collection of documents.”
Der Spiegel itself had interviewed Assange on the process in 2010, a point remarked upon by Goetz. As Assange said at the time. “We understand the importance of protecting confidential sources, and we understand why it is important to protect certain US and ISAF sources.” Cases “where there may be a reasonable chance of harm occurring to the innocent” were identified. “Those records were identified and edited accordingly.” The practice seemed to have paid off. Goetz noted that the trial of Chelsea Manning, based on her disclosures to WikiLeaks, revealed no cases of harm to any informant.
Mark Summers QC sensed a chance to interrogate another aspect of the prosecution case on Assange’s supposed callousness about the fate of informants, captured by the alleged remark, “They’re informants, they deserve to die.” That now infamous dinner at London’s Moro restaurant is recorded by The Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding in WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (2011). It supposedly took place in early July 2010 a few weeks prior to the publication of the Afghan War Diaries. Goetz had been in attendance. Leigh, also at the dinner, was mistaken: Assange had never said anything of the sort.
James Lewis QC for the prosecution spluttered in alarm at this course of questioning from the defence. Goetz had not mentioned this in his written testimony; a supplemental witness statement would have to be submitted. Judge Vanessa Baraitser agreed, amputating a potentially fruitful line of inquiry.
A picture of tussling between authorities and media outlets emerged, with WikiLeaks and partner media outlets having communications with the US government prior to publication. Efforts were made to identify areas of sensitivity; officials were variably bemused. A delegation of New York Times reporters made their way to the White House ostensibly to discuss the imminent release, with Eric Schmitt informing Goetz of the conveyed message that 15,000 documents within the Afghan War Diaries would not be published. The call to assist with redactions was met with “derision”.
The bungle that led to the publication of the entire trove of un-redacted cables was also re-visited. It gave Goetz a chance to patiently point out that the password to the unencrypted file with the cables had found its way into the aforementioned book by Leigh and Harding. The magazine Die Freitag got wind of it, publishing the details, despite, according to Goetz, Assange’s efforts to stop it. Publishing outfits such as Cryptome capitalised with abandon. With the train set in motion, Assange and WikiLeaks contacted the State Department’s emergency phone line. The cat had scurried out of the bag; sources had been named. The response from Washington was cool, dismissive. WikiLeaks subsequently published what had already been released. During the examination of Goetz, Lewis got muddled over the Afghan War logs and diplomatic cables. The journalist was happy to correct him.
The Goetz testimony also spoke to the value of the WikiLeaks disclosures. Details had been sparse on the fate of kidnapped German national Khalid el-Masri, who had been captured by the Central Intelligence Agency in Macedonia in 2004. A search of the trove by Goetz revealed that CIA abductors had “forced el-Masri onto a military plane, sodomized him and sent him” to Afghanistan. The revelations led to the issuing of an arrest warrant by a state prosecutor based in Munich for 13 CIA agents. Another search of the cables found that pressure from Washington had been brought to bear on the prosecution to defang the process, issuing a warrant in a jurisdiction where the agents did not live.
With Goetz’s testimony done, the defence attempted to incorporate a statement by el-Masri into the court record. The prosecution took issue, claiming that he did not feature in the charges against the WikiLeaks publisher, making such evidence irrelevant and inadmissible. An agitated Lewis suggested that the defence, in reading the statement, would be wasting half-an-hour of the court’s time. Judge Baraitser was put out at the manner of the prosecutor’s objection; such an approach might mean her accepting the evidence “unchallenged”. After much discussion Lewis suggested edits. The statement seems to remain in legal limbo.
The other blazing feature of today’s proceedings was the appearance of Daniel Ellsberg, the aged whistleblower of Pentagon Papers fame. Over the years, he has become a grandfatherly presence in the debates on disclosing classified material for public consumption and debate. The documents he passed on to the New York Times in 1971 shed light on the futility of US involvement in the Vietnam War while revealing habitual public mendacity on the part of various administrations. “My own actions in relation to the Pentagon papers and the consequences of their publication have been acknowledged to have performed such a radical change of understanding. I view the WikiLeaks publications of 2010 and 2011 to be of comparable importance.”
Before the court, Ellsberg attested to the common beliefs he shared with Assange: opposing wars, holding to those cardinal principles of keeping the powerful accountable and the state transparent. Common ground was also shared about the invasion of Iraq (a “crime” and “aggressive war”); and Afghanistan, a modern Vietnam redux of infinite stalemate. Over time, attitudes had changed to documents discussing such behaviour in war. The killings, abuses and war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq had been buried in “low-level field reports” so as to be banal. The Pentagon Papers had been seen as the palace jewels of secrecy; the Iraq and Afghan war logs were merely classified as “secret”.
Such leaks as the Collateral Murder video, the infamous portrayal of a war crime committed by an US Army Apache helicopter in New Baghdad, shed light on this culture of lethal normalisation. Murder it was, but “the problematic word in the title was ‘Collateral’, implying that it was unintended.” Chelsea Manning was also to be praised for “willing to risk her liberty and even her life to make this information public. It was the first time in 40 years I saw someone else doing that, and I felt kinship towards her.”
The Espionage Act, Ellsberg reflected, discouraged such acts of informing disclosure. He found this much to his chagrin during his 1973 trial, in which motivation was dismissed as irrelevant. “The Espionage Act,” rued Ellsberg, “does not allow for whistleblowing, to allow you to say you were informing the polity. So I did not have a fair trial, no one since me had a fair trial on these charges, and Julian Assange cannot remotely get a fair trial under those charges if he were tried.”
In cross-examination, the prosecution brought up the straw man argument used by critics of WikiLeaks, including Floyd Abrams, an attorney who represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case. The argument seeks to distinguish Ellsberg’s conduct and the right of the paper to publish, as distinct from that of Assange. Ellsberg found such views ignorant of motive, whether of his or Assange’s. Abrams had not troubled himself to go through the entirety of the Pentagon papers, nor discuss motivations with him.
From this distinction arose the idea of the noble, ennobled Ellsberg, and the wicked, fallen Assange. Exempting him from criticism while criticising Edward Snowden, Manning and Assange involved “a distinction which in my view is entirely misleading.” Apart from “the computer aspects which didn’t exist back then, I see no difference between the charges against me and the charges against Assange.” He also challenged the distinction (white Ellsberg, dark Assange) by suggesting he had not done as Assange had in terms of care: redacted names, withheld 15,000 sensitive documents, or approached the Pentagon and State Department for assistance in making further redactions. The refusal to accept such offers from WikiLeaks might have been purposely done, suggested Ellsberg, to enable a future prosecution.
Ellsberg attempted to set Lewis straight in his contention that withholding four volumes of the Pentagon Papers at the time was a saintly gesture to prevent harm to the US. The whistleblower disagreed. The move was intended to prevent a disruption to ongoing peace talks. “I want to get in the way of the war, I don’t want to get in the way of the negotiations.” To have redacted the papers would have risked compromising their accuracy.
The prosecution, desperate to nab their quarry, insisted on pushing Ellsberg on the issue of harm that the disclosures might have had. Lewis seemed incredulous that any witness could claim that “there is no evidence that WikiLeaks put anyone in danger.” He also read the contents of Assistant US Attorney General Gordon Kromberg’s affidavit at some length, a crude recycling of many of the claims made at the Manning trial that failed to stick on the charge of “aiding the enemy”. Ellsberg snorted, claiming such assertions to be the mark of high cynicism. “Am I right in that none of these people actually suffered physical harm?” Lewis tartly responded: “The rules are that you do not get to ask the questions.”
Ellsberg, however had decent answers. He could also point to the findings of the US Defense Department that no demonstrable harm had arisen from the releases. At the Manning court martial, the prosecutors similarly conceded that not a single death could be identified as a result, a point made by Brigadier General Robert Carr under cross-examination.
Ellsberg also suggested that US authorities had done little by way of assisting the concealing of informant identities when approached by WikiLeaks. US wars in the Middle East over the last two decades, the sort that Assange had tried to end, had caused a million deaths and 37 million refugees.
This did not prevent Lewis from speculating about those who had disappeared in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. It was “common sense” to suggest that they had either been murdered or forced to flee. “I’m sorry sir,” came the reply, “but it doesn’t seem to be at all obvious that this small fraction of people that have been murdered in course of both sides of the conflicts can be attributed to WikiLeaks disclosures.” A truly palpable hit.
As James Lewis QC for the prosecution, representing the US government, revealed, “I’m just saying about my charger. It’s in court and I’m going to run out of battery.” It was one of those moments that said much about the fourth day of proceedings at the Old Bailey regarding one Julian Assange, publisher, Australian national and wanted by the US Department of Justice for incongruous charges of espionage.
It all had the appropriate Orwellian shades and show trial trimmings. The US prosecution team had gone remote; Assange’s legal team was physically present and masked. Technology again did its bedevilling magic at the Central Criminal Court. At one point, Joel Smith for the prosecution was attempting to get the attention of Judge Vanessa Baraitser to inform her that nothing could be heard in the court room. The screen of chief prosecutor Lewis had also frozen.
Unlike the previous three days of these extradition proceedings, the central contentions were not Assange the public interest journalist, the discloser of informant names, or President Donald J. Trump’s war on the Fourth Estate. It was the revelation that COVID-19 had found its way into the Old Bailey. On Wednesday night, Judge Baraitser was told that a member of one of the legal teams may have been exposed to the coronavirus. As was announced on Court News, “Julian Assange’s extradition hearing at the Old Bailey today will not be going ahead because the husband of one of the US lawyers has come down with COVID-like symptoms. Once he gets the result of a test the judge will determine how best to proceed.”
Assange would have had reason to reflect upon this moment with bitter mockery. His conditions in Her Majesty’s Belmarsh Prison have been a picture of shoddy treatment, both physically and symbolically. Access to his legal team has been scandalously scant, exacerbated by pandemic lockdown conditions. The entire institutional treatment of the Australian has been considered nothing less than that of a tortured figure, “shocking and excessive”, to use the words of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. His supporters, fearful, see him at risk of contracting coronavirus and suffering, in his frail state, the gruelling effects of COVID-19.
His efforts to seek bail in order to escape the dangers of viral transmission have been foiled by the pitiless Baraitser. In March, Edward Fitzgerald QC attempted to convince the judge that medical “experts consider that [Assange] is particularly at risk of developing coronavirus and, if he does, that it develops into very severe complications for him.” Should he contract it, “it would be very doubtful that Belmarsh would be able to cope with his condition.”
Swatting such concerns away, Baraitser saw little reason for concern: there were no instances of COVID-19 at Belmarsh, a reckless conclusion to draw given the self-isolation measures imposed upon a hundred personnel at the time. The group Doctors for Assange were shaken by the ruling. In their March 27 statement, they vented. “Despite our prior unequivocal statement that Mr Assange is at increased risk of serious illness and death were he to contract coronavirus and the evidence of medical experts, Baraitser dismissed the risk, citing UK guidelines for prisons in responding to the global pandemic.” The editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Kristinn Hrafnsson was furious. “To expose another human being to serious illness, and to the threat of losing their life, is grotesque and quite unnecessary.”
In June, Doctors for Assange reiterated the call that Assange be granted bail, having met “internationally recommended criteria for prisoner release during COVID-19.” Globally, prisons were being emptied of inmates to prevent the march of COVID-19. Assange remained the exception.
On September 10, 2020, history grimaced with irony. It was the prosecutors for the United States, Assange’s incessant harassers, who had been potentially infected. Notwithstanding this, Judge Baraitser was not averse to pushing onto a fifth day of proceedings, a point that agitated the legal teams and seemed to be as quixotic as it was indifferent.
Fitzgerald, representing Assange, urged the court to accept the logical assumption that “COVID will be in the courtroom.” The staff of the court would themselves be “at risk, and you yourself may well be at risk.” It was a good ploy on Fitzgerald’s part to mention the court as the primary consideration, reserving the concerns of his client for last. “Finally, our client Mr Assange, who is vulnerable you are aware, would be at risk in court.” His request for adjournment struck a common chord with Lewis. Proceedings will be postponed until September 14, awaiting the test results. In the meantime, the defence and prosecution will make interest of justice submissions on how they wish to proceed in the event the test is positive for coronavirus.
In the meantime, the rest of the Old Bailey will continue to grind. A spokesperson for the City of London Corporation was businesslike in moving forward. “The Central Criminal Court is deep cleaned every day in accordance with government guidelines and will remain open.”
It was left to Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof to sum up the day’s sentiment in wry fashion: “Looking forward to the courtroom sketch of Assange in a glass box with only the judge in the room as we proceed virtually. That’ll be [sic] quite appropriate image for this case.” Lewis, in the meantime, might be able to obtain his charger.
The third day of extradition proceedings against Julian Assange at the Old Bailey resumed on the point of politics. Assange as a figure of political beliefs; Assange as a target of the Trump administration precisely for having them. The man sketching the portrait was Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University.
It is no mean feat trying to pin down Assange’s political system. Leftward, rightward, with resistance to the centre? Lashings of libertarianism; heavy doses of anti-war and holding the powerful to account? Such figures tend to be sui generis. In his submitted statement to the court, Rogers suggests a uniform theme. “The political objective of seeking to achieve greater transparency in the workings of governments is clearly both the motivation and the modus operandi of Mr Assange and the organisation WikiLeaks.”
On the stand, Rogers described the Assange method of influence and disruption: the release of the war logs, their influence on public opinion regarding the US imperium’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, the revelations of 15,000 unaccounted civilian casualties. The butcher’s bill of the imperium, in other words, was laid bare by the WikiLeaks’ releases.
For Rogers, this approach jarred with various US administrations, but none more so than that of Trump’s. Assange’s entire approach and “what he stands for represents a threat to normal political endeavour.”
James Lewis QC for the prosecution made his effort to narrow, clip and sharpen the focus on Assange, questioning the expanse of political belief being attributed by Rogers. At times, the prosecution seemed suspended in a time capsule, suggesting, for instance, that political opinions were only applicable to governments and leaders. Rogers preferred a more complex picture: the evolving nature of what political opinion might constitute (for instance, it could include “transnational elites” and attitudes towards corporations). The issue of publishing an item or not could also constitute a form of political opinion.
Lewis then went on the attack, grumpy at the length of Rogers’ responses and suggesting that his testimony was biased towards the defence. Why had he omitted the views of such individuals as US assistant attorney Gordon Kromberg, who argued that prosecuting Assange had been a criminal rather than political matter? Again, Rogers took the preferred broad approach. Prosecutors of a certain rank tend to mimic the views of their superiors – that is their due. What mattered were those higher-ups who had initiated a change in policy regarding WikiLeaks to instigate a “politically motivated prosecution”. This could be demonstrated with some plausibility by considering the wider political context of different administrations. The Obama administration had set its heart on not prosecuting Assange; those in the Trump administration had warmed to the idea.
Not quite getting his pound of flesh, Lewis moved on to targeting the reasons why the Obama administration had gone cold on prosecuting Assange. Like many black letter lawyers on this point, the issue of Assange being confined in the Ecuadorean embassy has them in knots. “What would be the point [of arresting Assange] if he’s hiding in the embassy?” posed Lewis. Rogers, rather sensibly, suggested that this would constitute a pressuring move. “It would have made very good sense to bring it at that time, to show a standing attempt to bring Mr Assange to justice.” Lewis had also made a specious point. As investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi points out, individuals such as Edward Snowden have been duly charged despite fleeing the jurisdiction. Practical custody was hardly a necessary precondition to getting that paperwork ready.
Lewis proceeded to till the same ground as that covered in the testimony of Mark Feldstein, attempting to push the suggestion that the case against Assange might yield future charges, at least as believed by himself and his defence team. Rogers offered similar parrying: the Trump administration’s approach to Assange was distinct, its attitudes conveyed through the hostile remarks of former CIA director Mike Pompeo and the then hungry Attorney General Jeff Sessions. A difference in approach might be gathered from President Barack Obama’s commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence. This was Trump’s possible counter.
Post-lunch interest then turned to Trevor Timm, Director of Freedom of the Press Foundation. As he points out in the submitted statement, “The decision to indict Julian Assange on allegations of a ‘conspiracy’ between a publisher and his source or potential sources, and for the publication of truthful information, encroaches on fundamental freedoms.” WikiLeaks was a pioneer in secure submission systems such as SecureDrop, one that had been emulated by media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera.
It was incumbent upon journalists that they “develop relationships with their sources” and attempts to punish publishing activity arising from the use of “leaked documents of public importance” would face First Amendment difficulties.
The Trump administration, however, had proved bolder than its predecessors. The Espionage Act had been previously floated at such journalists as James Bamford, Ben Bradlee, Seymour Hersh and Neil Sheehan. It took Assange’s arrest and charging in 2019 to break with tradition.
The indictment, particularly in alleging that Assange had engaged in a conspiracy with Chelsea Manning to crack a military computer passport for reasons of remaining anonymous, would criminalise a common news practice and the whole pursuit of national security journalism. Were the prosecution permitted “to go forward, dozens of reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere would also be in danger.”
Lewis took umbrage at Timm’s claim, outlined in his statement, that Trump had engaged in an enthusiastic “war on journalism”. The FPF director was unsparing, suggesting that the indictment of the WikiLeaks publisher was part of this war, “and it is no exaggeration to say the First Amendment itself is at risk.” To Lewis, Timm replied with a salient reminder that Trump had tweeted 2,200 times about the press, describing them at stages as the “enemy of the people”. It was “very telling that Trump’s is the first one to try to bring a case like this since the Nixon administration.”
The prosecution preferred returning to that exhausted nag of an idea: that Assange could not be seen as a journalist. A form of fallacious logic came into play: the US Department of Justice had no interest in prosecuting journalists and would be breaching their own prosecutorial guidelines in doing so; Assange was not a journalist, therefore showing appropriate discrimination.
Timm had an appropriate response to this nonsensical approach. “In the US, the First Amendment protects everyone. Whether you consider Assange a journalist doesn’t matter; he was engaging in journalistic activity.” And if the DOJ was in breach of federal rules, it should follow that they be held accountable.
Timm also refused to ingest the prosecution line that the indictment was sufficiently narrow to only cover the publication of documents that had revealed the names of informants working for the US. Other charges in the indictment focused on criminalising the act of possessing the documents. That every claim would implicate journalists across the spectrum, as would “the mere thought of obtaining these documents”. A sinister, dangerous implication.
The prosecution was also caught up in what a “responsible journalist” might do. While the issue of unnecessarily publishing the name of a third party thereby endangering that person might raise matters of ethical responsibility, that, suggested Timm, was a separate question “from what is illegal or legal conduct.” A previous attempt to criminalise publishing the name of a US intelligence source had been made, by Senator Joseph Lieberman among others, in 2010 as a direct response to the WikiLeaks disclosures. But the Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination (SHIELD) Act never became law.
As for whether WikiLeaks had behaved appropriately or not in publishing the entire tranche of uncensored US diplomatic cables, despite it not being responsible for leaking the password to the relevant encrypted file containing the documents, Timm was firm. Governments should not have a hand in making such editorial judgments; the question centred on illegality, something which WikiLeaks could not be accused of.
The use and misuse of George Orwell’s truth-telling is so widespread that we can easily miss his intended meaning. For example, with perfect (Orwellian) irony, the BBC has a statue of Orwell outside Broadcasting House, bearing the inscription:
‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
Fine words, but suitably ambiguous: the BBC might argue that it is merely exercising its ‘liberty’ in endlessly channelling the worldview of powerful interests – crass propaganda that many people certainly ‘do not want to hear’.
Orwell’s real intention is made clearer in this second comment:
‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.’
In this line attributed to him (although there is some debate about where it originated), Orwell was talking about power – real journalism challenges the powerful. And this is the essential difference between the vital work of WikiLeaks and the propaganda role performed by state-corporate media like the BBC every day on virtually every issue.
On September 6, the Mail on Sunday ran two editorials, side by side. The first was titled, ‘A sinister, shameful attack on free speech’. It decried the Extinction Rebellion action last Friday to blockade three newspaper printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch’s UK News. The second editorial, as we will see below, was a feeble call not to send Julian Assange to the US, on the eve of his crucial extradition hearing in London.
Extinction Rebellion’s protest, lasting just a few hours, temporarily prevented the distribution of Murdoch newspapers, such as the Sun and The Times, as well as other titles printed by Murdoch’s presses, including the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and the Daily Telegraph.
The Mail on Sunday editorial predictably condemned the protesters’ supposed attempt at ‘censorship’, declaring it:
‘a throwback to the very worst years of trade union militancy, which came close to strangling a free press and which was only defeated by the determined action of Rupert Murdoch.’
The paper fumed:
‘The newspaper blockade was a shameful and dangerous attempt to crush free speech, and it should never be repeated.’
This was the propaganda message that was repeated across much of the ‘mainstream media’, epitomised by the empty rhetoric of Prime Minister Boris Johnson:
‘A free press is vital in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account on issues critical for the future of our country, including the fight against climate change. It is completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news in this way.’
Johnson’s comments could have been pure satire penned by Chris Morris, Mark Steel or the late Jeremy Hardy. Closer to the grubby truth, a different Johnson – Samuel – described the ‘free press’ as ‘Scribbling on the backs of advertisements’.
As Media Lens has repeatedly demonstrated over the past 20 years, it is the state-corporate media, including BBC News, that has endlessly ‘limited the public’s access to news’ by denying the public the full truth about climate breakdown, UK/US warmongering, including wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the arming of Saudi Arabia and complicity in that brutal regime’s destruction of Yemen, UK government support for the apartheid state of Israel even as it crushes the Palestinian people, the insidious prising open of the NHS to private interests, and numerous other issues of public importance.
When has the mythical ‘free press’ ever fully and properly held to account Boris Johnson or any of his predecessors in 10 Downing Street? Who can forget that Tony Blair, steeped in the blood of so many Iraqis, is still held in esteem as an elder statesman whose views are sought out by ‘mainstream’ news outlets, including BBC News and the Guardian? As John Pilger said recently:
‘Always contrast Julian Assange with Tony Blair. One will be fighting for his life in court on 7 Sept for the “crime” of exposing war crimes while the other evades justice for the paramount crime of Iraq.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has presided over a national public health disaster with soaring rates of mortality during the coronavirus pandemic, had the affront to tweet a photograph of himself with a clutch of right-wing papers under his arm, declaring:
‘Totally outrageous that Extinction Rebellion are trying to suppress free speech by blockading newspapers. They must be dealt with by the full force of the law.’
It is Hancock himself, together with government colleagues and advisers – not least Johnson and his protector, Dominic Cummings – who should ‘be dealt with by the full force of the law’. As Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet medical journal, said of Boris Johnson in May:
‘you dropped the ball, Prime Minister. That was criminal. And you know it.’
Extinction Rebellion (XR) explained succinctly via Twitter their reason for their ‘totally outrageous’ action:
An article on the XR website, simply titled, ‘We do not have a free press’, said:
‘We are in an emergency of unprecedented scale and the papers we have targeted are not reflecting the scale and urgency of what is happening to our planet.’
One of the XR protesters was ‘Steve’, a former journalist for 25 years who had worked for the Sun, Daily Mail, the Telegraph and The Times. He was filmed on location during the protest. He explained that he was participating, in part, because he is worried about the lack of a future for his children. And a major reason for how we got to this point is that journalists are:
‘stuck inside a toxic system where they don’t have any choice but to tell the stories that these newspapers want to be told.’
‘Every person who works on News International or a Mail newspaper knows what story is or isn’t acceptable for their bosses. And their bosses know that because they know what’s acceptable to Murdoch or Rothermere or the other billionaires that run 70 per cent of our media’.
Steve said he left that system because he ‘couldn’t bear the way it worked’.
The most recent report by the independent Media Reform Coalition on UK media ownership, published in 2019, revealed the scale of the problem of extremely concentrated media ownership. Just three companies – Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, Daily Mail Group and Reach (publisher of the Mirror titles) dominate 83 per cent of the national newspaper market (up from 71 per cent in 2015). When online readers are included, just five companies – News UK, Daily Mail Group, Reach, Guardian and Telegraph – dominate nearly 80 per cent of the market.
‘Before anyone denounces this as an attack on the “free press” – there is no free press. There is a billionaire-owned, profit-maximising, ad-dependent corporate press that has knowingly suppressed the truth of climate collapse and the need for action to protect corporate profits.’
Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, indicated her support too:
‘A tiny number of billionaires own vast swathes of our press. Their papers relentlessly campaign for right-wing politics, promoting the interests of the ruling class and scapegoating minorities. A free press is vital to democracy, but too much of our press isn’t free at all.’
By contrast, Labour leader Keir Starmer once again demonstrated his establishment credentials as ‘a safe pair of hands’ by condemning XR’s protest. Craig Murray commented:
‘At a time when the government is mooting designating Extinction Rebellion as Serious Organised Crime, right wing bequiffed muppet Keir Starmer was piously condemning the group, stating: “The free press is the cornerstone of democracy and we must do all we can to protect it.”’
‘Denying people the chance to read what they choose is wrong and does nothing to tackle climate change.’
But denying people the chance to read what they would choose – the corporate-unfriendly truth – on climate change is exactly what the corporate media, misleadingly termed ‘mainstream media’, is all about.
Media activist and lecturer Justin Schlosberg made a number of cogent observations on ‘press freedom’ in a Twitter thread (beginning here):
‘9 times out of 10 when people in Britain talk about protecting press freedom what they really mean is protecting press power’.
He pointed out the ‘giant myth’ promulgated by corporate media, forever trying to resist any attempt to curb their power; namely that:
‘Britain’s mainstream [sic] press is a vital pillar of our democracy, covering a diversity of perspectives and upholding professional standards of journalism…the reality is closer to the exact inverse of such claims. More than 10 million people voted for a socialist party at the last election (13 million in 2017) and polls have consistently shown that majority of British public oppose austerity’.
‘The “diversity” of our national press [… ] covers the political spectrum from liberal/centre to hard right and has overwhelmingly backed austerity economics for the best part of the last 4 decades… [moreover] the UK press enjoys an unrivalled international reputation for producing a diatribe of fake, racist and misogynistic hate speech over anything that can be called journalism’.
He rightly concluded:
‘ironically one of the greatest threats to democracy is a press that continues to weave myths in support of its vested interests, and a BBC that continues to uncritically absorb them.’
Assange In The US Crosshairs
Alongside the Mail on Sunday’s billionaire-owned, extremist right-wing attack on climate activists highlighting a non-existent ‘free press’, the paper had an editorial that touched briefly on the danger to all journalists should WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange be extradited from the UK to the US:
‘the charges against Mr Assange, using the American Espionage Act, might be used against legitimate journalists in this country’.
The implication was that Assange is not to be regarded as a ‘legitimate journalist’. Indeed, the billionaire Rothermere-owned viewspaper – a more accurate description than ‘newspaper’ – made clear its antipathy towards him:
‘Mr Assange’s revelations of leaked material caused grave embarrassment to Washington and are alleged to have done material damage too.’
The term ‘embarrassment’ refers to the exposure of US criminal actions threatening the great rogue state’s ability to commit similar crimes in future: not embarrassing (Washington is without shame), but potentially limiting.
The Mail on Sunday continued:
‘Mr Assange has been a spectacular nuisance during his time in this country, lawlessly jumping bail and wasting police time by taking refuge in embassy of Ecuador. The Mail on Sunday disapproves of much of what he has done, but we must also ask if his current treatment is fair, right or just.’
The insinuations and subtle smears embedded in these few lines have been repeatedly demolished (see this extensive analysis, for example). And there was no mention that Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, as well as numerous doctors, health experts and human rights organisations, have strongly condemned the UK’s appalling abuse of Assange and demanded his immediate release.
Melzer has accused the British government of torturing Assange:
‘the primary purpose of torture is not necessarily interrogation, but very often torture is used to intimidate others, as a show to the public what happens if you don’t comply with the government. That is the purpose of what has been done to Julian Assange. It is not to punish or coerce him, but to silence him and to do so in broad daylight, making visible to the entire world that those who expose the misconduct of the powerful no longer enjoy the protection of the law, but essentially will be annihilated. It is a show of absolute and arbitrary power’.
Melzer also spoke about the price he will pay for challenging the powerful:
‘I am under no illusions that my UN career is probably over. Having openly confronted two P5-States (UN security council members) the way I have, I am very unlikely to be approved by them for another high-level position. I have been told, that my uncompromising engagement in this case comes at a political price.’
This is the reality of the increasingly authoritarian world we are living in.
The weak defence of Assange now being seen in even right-wing media, such as the Mail on Sunday, indicates a real fear that any journalist could in future be targeted by the US government for publishing material that might anger Washington.
In an interview this week, Barry Pollack, Julian Assange’s US lawyer, warned of the ‘very dangerous’ precedent that could be set in motion with Assange’s extradition to the US:
‘The position that the U.S. is taking is a very dangerous one. The position the U.S. is taking is that they have jurisdiction all over the world and can pursue criminal charges against any journalist anywhere on the planet, whether they’re a U.S. citizen or not. But if they’re not a U.S. citizen, not only can the U.S. pursue charges against them but that person has no defense under the First Amendment.’
In stark contrast to the weak protestations of the Mail on Sunday and the rest of the establishment media, Noam Chomsky pointed out the simple truth in a recent interview on RT (note the dearth of Chomsky interviews on BBC News, and consider why his views are not sought after):
‘Julian Assange committed the crime of letting the general population know things that they have a right to know and that powerful states don’t want them to know.’
‘This week, one of the most important struggles for freedom in my lifetime nears its end. Julian Assange who exposed the crimes of great power faces burial alive in Trump’s America unless he wins his extradition case. Whose side are you on?’
Pilger recommended an excellent in-depth piece by Jonathan Cook, a former Guardian/Observer journalist, in which Cook observed:
‘For years, journalists cheered Assange’s abuse. Now they’ve paved his path to a US gulag.’
Peter Oborne is a rare example of a right-leaning journalist who has spoken out strongly in defence of Assange. Oborne wrote last week in Press Gazette that:
‘Future generations of journalists will not forgive us if we do not fight extradition.’
He set out the following scenario:
‘Let’s imagine a foreign dissident was being held in London’s Belmarsh Prison charged with supposed espionage offences by the Chinese authorities.
‘And that his real offence was revealing crimes committed by the Chinese Communist Party – including publishing video footage of atrocities carried out by Chinese troops.
‘To put it another way, that his real offence was committing the crime of journalism.
‘Let us further suppose the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture said this dissident showed “all the symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture” and that the Chinese were putting pressure on the UK authorities to extradite this individual where he could face up to 175 years in prison.
‘The outrage from the British press would be deafening.’
‘There is one crucial difference. It is the US trying to extradite the co-founder of Wikileaks.
‘Yet there has been scarcely a word in the mainstream British media in his defence.’
At the time of writing, neither ITV political editor Robert Peston nor BBC News political editor Laura Kuenssberg appear to have reported the Assange extradition case. They have not even tweeted about it once, even though they are both very active on Twitter. In fact, the last time Peston so much as mentioned Assange on his Twitter feed was 2017. Kuenssberg’s record is even worse; her Twitter silence extends all the way back to 2014. These high-profile journalists are supposedly prime exemplars of the very best ‘high-quality’ UK news broadcasters, maintaining the values of a ‘free press’, holding politicians to account and keeping the public informed.
On September 7, John Pilger gave an address outside the Old Bailey in London, just before Julian Assange’s extradition hearing began there. His words were a powerful rebuke to those so-called ‘journalists’ that have maintained a cowardly silence, or worse. The ‘official truth-tellers’ of the media – the stenographers who collaborate with those in power, helping to sell their wars – are, Pilger says, ‘Vichy journalists’.
‘It is said that whatever happens to Julian Assange in the next three weeks will diminish if not destroy freedom of the press in the West. But which press? The Guardian? The BBC, The New York Times, the Jeff Bezos Washington Post?
‘No, the journalists in these organizations can breathe freely. The Judases on the Guardian who flirted with Julian, exploited his landmark work, made their pile then betrayed him, have nothing to fear. They are safe because they are needed.
‘Freedom of the press now rests with the honorable few: the exceptions, the dissidents on the internet who belong to no club, who are neither rich nor laden with Pulitzers, but produce fine, disobedient, moral journalism – those like Julian Assange.’
The fine circus that is British justice resumed at London’s Central Criminal Court on September 7, with the continued extradition proceedings against Julian Assange. Judge Vanessa Baraitser was concerned that approximately 40 individuals had received remote video access they apparently should not have. “In error, the court sent out orders to others who had sought access. I remain concerned about my ability to maintain the integrity of the court if they are able to attend remotely.”
Showing a continuing obsession with controlling her court as manorial property, Baraitser felt that having such individuals access the proceedings might lead to breaches (she did not specify which ones). “Once livestreaming takes place, the court cannot manage this breach even less when the person is outside the jurisdiction.” Inadvertently, the judge had put her finger on the very heart of WikiLeaks and the terror it inspires in the establishment: an event or occurrence that is published, remotely; information, previously confined, escaping. “I want to make it clear that the public interest and allowing remote access is unlikely to meet the interests of justice tests.” To wit, she needed new applications from the excluded observers. “For those who consider they still cannot travel to the UK to attend the hearing, then they need to apply again and I will consider it.”
One of the organisations excluded by Baraitser’s ruling was Amnesty International, a body that has sent fair trial monitors to observe the practices of regimes more authoritarian and less inclined to observe the rule of law. Marie Struthers stated it plainly, noting the initial rejection of the application for a physical spot last month, followed by the granting of six remote viewing slots, reduced to one, then, it transpired, none. “This is not normal.” To have the organisation’s “legal observer … find out this morning that he had not been granted even REMOTE access to the Assange proceedings is an outrage.”
Rebecca Vincent, director of international campaigns of Reporters Without Borders suggested that allowing “so few trial monitors [and] journalists into today’s hearing seemed more of a political decision rather than a logistical one.” To such exclusions could also be added parliamentarians.
With assured opacity and a lack of transparency, the scene was set. What would Judge Baraitser come up with to restrict the scope of Assange’s case against extradition to the US? One lay in controlling the presentation of witness statements. The defence suggested a full show, assisting witnesses in going through their statements in court. The public might be better informed of the issues.
Baraitser offered a novel reading: doing so would not assist the defence, the public or Assange “and would not be a fair.” Another way of reading it would have been: no justifications and podiums for the cause. James Lewis QC of the prosecution thought that the statements were adequate enough. It followed that they would be made public. “In my view,” concluded Baraitser on that point, “there is no benefit whatsoever to allowing the witnesses give evidence in chief.” Thirty minutes for orientation was more than adequate.
Defence counsel Mark Summers QC focused on the staggered nature of the US indictment against Assange, beginning initially as a single charge, ballooning into an enlarged indictment stuffed by allegations of espionage, followed by a second superseding indictment. “It is a curiosity that the US had, in previous hearings, been content for the hearings to go ahead in February and May, presumably knowing that this was coming.” It was not initially clear what had changed, but by August 21, the material put before the court constituted a “potential standalone basis for criminality”. Irrespective of whether the US rejected the existing allegations linked to Chelsea Manning, “Assange can be extradited and potentially convicted for this conduct on its own and this is a resounding and new development in this case.”
One feature of the prosecution attacked by Summers was the mentioning of Assange’s alleged “co-conspirators” linked to hacking incidents. As Kevin Gosztola reminds us, they had been subject of legal prosecutions in the US and UK a decade ago, while Sigurdur “Siggi” Thordarson was mentioned in a filing by the prosecution last year. It followed that material from that case, which involved conviction in Iceland for fraud, theft and impersonation of Assange, should have been included in the previous indictment. The defence also brought up those rich remarks by the Icelandic Interior Minister at the time, who “believed the investigation [of Thordarson by the FBI] was in order to ‘frame Assange’.”
Other co-conspirators mentioned were Hector Xavier Monsegur (“Sabu”), Jake Davis (“Topiary”) and Ryan Ackroyd (“Kalya”), all making legal appearances in the Southwark Crown Court for their alleged hacking spree with LuzSec. The defence contended that, as they were all prosecuted in the UK despite “competing US indictments being issued during the currency of the UK case”, Assange should have been prosecuted in the UK alongside such conspirators at the time. “The forum bar is obviously engaged.”
The prosecution case, in short, had become a quite different creature to the beast it originally was. The indictment now claimed, for instance, that Assange and WikiLeaks had assisted former security contractor Edward Snowden to evade arrest. The prosecution had also brought the focus back on alleged nefarious cyber activity on Assange’s part, thereby discrediting the need to publish material exposing, for instance, US war crimes. Targeting the hacker distracts from the more sinister implication of targeting a publisher.
“It would be extraordinary for this court to be beginning an extradition hearing in relation to allegations like that within weeks of their announcement,” submitted Summers, “without warning and even more extraordinary to do so in circumstances where the defendant is in custody.”
The stunning lack of fairness was emphasised. It was “impossible” for Assange’s team to “deal with the allegations being put to him and in relation to material for which you have been provided no explanation for their late arrival.” Inadequate time had been given and inadequate notice, on dealing with these new “separate criminal allegations”. With that in mind, Summers submitted that the court excise the new allegations.
Obstacles to adequate preparation have never bothered the judge in this case. With her usual rusted stubbornness, Judge Baraitser put the blame down to the defence, essentially approving the conduct of the US Department of Justice. Excision could only be granted in instances of a bar outlined in statute or a case of abuse of process. But not even the forum bar seemed to sway her.
Failing in that application, Summers moved to the issue of an adjournment to January. It was not an application without risk, given Assange’s conditions in Belmarsh prison. “We have not been able to answer the allegations which have only been made in the last few weeks. This has been made worse because of the conditions we are having to work under.” No earlier application had been made for the very simple reason that Assange had not seen the new request, hobbled by poor access to documentation provided by his defence team via traditional postal means. “We have not had an opportunity to meet and consult with him.” He still had not received “the revised opening note” with accompanying documentation that the DOJ was developing more than a narrative, but the basis for “standalone criminality capable of sustaining a conviction if accepted in its own right.”
Judge Baraister initially offered a nibble of tokenistic interest. She acknowledged that the defence team had not seen Assange for some six months, and wondered if they had spoken to him by phone. Yes, came the reply, but these were incoherent episodes, consisting of two short conversations. He had “to take in information from us on – any view – complex documents and to make him aware of the issues and to take a decision on them.” A 10 minute adjournment followed. Baraitser’s decision: the defence should have applied previously to do so but did not; the defence, in not doing so, should have acted as if the proceedings would continue.
Peering through the ruins of a process that is becoming more political with each session was the testimony of Mark Feldstein of the University of Maryland, authority on history and journalism. Feldstein’s point in defence of WikiLeaks is outlined in his statement: drawing exacting definitions of what journalism is or otherwise within the US Constitution makes little sense. “Assange … is protected by the First Amendment whether he qualifies as a journalist or not.”
The testimony proceeded to develop such ideas. Thousands upon thousands of leaks of classified information had informed “the public about government decision making but they also evidence government dishonesty”. Journalists made Pulitzer Prize winning careers in using material from such leaks, an activity protected by the First Amendment as “the public had a right to be informed.” Charging publishers and news outlets was simply not done; authorities preferred to charge the source or whistleblowers. While history evinces cases of “presidential enemies” being sought, the line had always been drawn. Till now.
Court hearings in Britain over the US administration’s extradition case against Julian Assange begin in earnest next week. The decade-long saga that brought us to this point should appall anyone who cares about our increasingly fragile freedoms.
A journalist and publisher has been deprived of his liberty for 10 years. According to UN experts, he has been arbitrarily detained and tortured for much of that time through intense physical confinement and endless psychological pressure. He has been bugged and spied on by the CIA during his time in political asylum, in Ecuador’s London embassy, in ways that violated his most fundamental legal rights. The judge overseeing his hearings has a serious conflict of interest – with her family embedded in the UK security services – that she did not declare and which should have required her to recuse herself from the case.
All indicators are that Assange will be extradited to the US to face a rigged grand jury trial meant to ensure he sees out his days in a maximum-security prison, serving a sentence of up to 175 years.
None of this happened in some Third-World, tinpot dictatorship. It happened right under our noses, in a major western capital, and in a state that claims to protect the rights of a free press. It happened not in the blink of an eye but in slow motion – day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
And once we strip out a sophisticated campaign of character assassination against Assange by western governments and a compliant media, the sole justification for this relentless attack on press freedom is that a 49-year-old man published documents exposing US war crimes. That is the reason – and the only reason – that the US is seeking his extradition and why he has been languishing in what amounts to solitary confinement in Belmarsh high-security prison during the Covid-19 pandemic. His lawyers’ appeals for bail have been refused.
Severed head on a pike
While the press corps abandoned Assange a decade ago, echoing official talking points that pilloried him over toilet hygiene and his treatment of his cat, Assange is today exactly where he originally predicted he would be if western governments got their way. What awaits him is rendition to the US so he can be locked out of sight for the rest of his life.
There were two goals the US and UK set out to achieve through the visible persecution, confinement and torture of Assange.
First, he and Wikileaks, the transparency organisation he co-founded, needed to be disabled. Engaging with Wikileaks had to be made too risky to contemplate for potential whistleblowers. That is why Chelsea Manning – the US soldier who passed on documents relating to US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan for which Assange now faces extradition – was similarly subjected to harsh imprisonment. She later faced punitive daily fines while in jail to pressure her into testifying against Assange.
The aim has been to discredit Wikileaks and similar organisations and stop them from being able to publish more revelatory documents – of the kind that show western governments are not the “good guys” managing world affairs for the benefit of mankind, but are, in fact, highly militarised, global bullies advancing the same ruthless colonial policies of war, destruction and pillage they always pursued.
And second, Assange had to be made to suffer horribly and in public – to be made an example of – to deter other journalists from ever considering following in his footsteps. He is the modern equivalent of a severed head on a pike displayed at the city gates.
The very obvious fact – confirmed by the media coverage of his case – is that this strategy, advanced chiefly by the US and UK (with Sweden playing a lesser role), has been wildly successful. Most corporate media journalists are still enthusiastically colluding in the vilification of Assange – mainly at this stage by ignoring his awful plight.
Story hiding in plain sight
When he hurried into Ecuador’s embassy back in 2012, seeking political asylum, journalists from every corporate media outlet ridiculed his claim – now, of course, fully vindicated – that he was evading US efforts to extradite him and lock him away for good. The media continued with their mockery even as evidence mounted that a grand jury had been secretly convened to draw up espionage charges against him and that it was located in the eastern district of Virginia, where the major US security and intelligence services are headquartered. Any jury there is dominated by US security personnel and their families. His hope of a fair trial was non-existent.
Instead we have endured eight years of misdirection by the corporate media and its willing complicity in his character assassination, which has laid the ground for the current public indifference to Assange’s extradition and widespread ignorance of its horrendous implications.
Corporate journalists have accepted, entirely at face value, a series of rationalisations for why the interests of justice have been served by locking Assange away indefinitely – even before his extradition – and trampling his most basic legal rights. The other side of the story – Assange’s, the story hiding in plain sight – has invariably been missing from the coverage, whether it has been CNN, the New York Times, the BBC or the Guardian.
From Sweden to Clinton
First, it was claimed that Assange had fled questioning over sexual assault allegations in Sweden, even though it was the Swedish authorities who allowed him to leave; even though the original Swedish prosecutor, Eva Finne, dismissed the investigation against him, saying “There is no suspicion of any crime whatsoever”, before it was picked up by a different prosecutor for barely concealed, politicised reasons; and even though Assange later invited Swedish prosectors to question him where he was (in the embassy), an option they regularly agreed to in other cases but resolutely refused in his.
It was not just that none of these points was ever provided as context for the Sweden story by the corporate media. Or that much else in Assange’s favour was simply ignored, such as tampered evidence in the case of one of the two women who alleged sexual assault and the refusal of the other to sign the rape statement drawn up for her by police.
The story was also grossly and continuously misreported as relating to “rape charges” when Assange was wanted simply for questioning. No charges were ever laid against him because the second Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny – and her British counterparts, including Sir Keir Starmer, then head of the prosecution service and now leader of the Labour party – seemingly wished to avoid testing the credibility of their allegations by actually questioning Assange. Leaving him to rot in a small room in the embassy served their purposes much better.
When the Sweden case fizzled out – when it became clear that the original prosecutor had been right to conclude that there was no evidence to justify further questioning, let alone charges – the political and media class shifted tack.
Suddenly Assange’s confinement was implicitly justified for entirely different, political reasons – because he had supposedly aided Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign in 2016 by publishing emails, allegedly “hacked” by Russia, from the Democratic party’s servers. The content of those emails, obscured in the coverage at the time and largely forgotten now, revealed corruption by Hillary Clinton’s camp and efforts to sabotage the party’s primaries to undermine her rival for the presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders.
Guardian fabricates a smear
Those on the authoritarian right have shown little concern over Assange’s lengthy confinement in the embassy, and later jailing in Belmarsh, for his exposure of US war crimes, which is why little effort has been expended on winning them over. The demonisation campaign against Assange has focused instead on issues that are likely to trigger liberals and the left, who might otherwise have qualms about jettisoning the First Amendment and locking people up for doing journalism.
Just as the Swedish allegations, despite their non-investigation, tapped into the worst kind of kneejerk identity politics on the left, the “hacked” emails story was designed to alienate the Democratic party base. Extraordinarily, the claim of Russian hacking persists even though years later – and after a major “Russiagate” inquiry by Robert Mueller – it still cannot be stood up with any actual evidence. In fact, some of those closest to the matter, such as former UK ambassador Craig Murray, have insisted all along that the emails were not hacked by Russia but were leaked by a disenchanted Democratic party insider.
An even more important point, however, is that a transparency organisation like Wikileaks had no choice, after it was handed those documents, but to expose abuses by the Democratic party – whoever was the source.
The reason that Assange and Wikileaks became entwined in the Russiagate fiasco – which wasted the energies of Democratic party supporters on a campaign against Trump that actually strengthened rather than weakened him – was because of the credulous coverage, once again, of the issue by almost the entire corporate media. Liberal outlets like the Guardian newspaper even went so far as to openly fabricate a story – in which it falsely reported that a Trump aide, Paul Manafort, and unnamed “Russians” secretly visited Assange in the embassy – without repercussion or retraction.
Assange’s torture ignored
All of this made possible what has happened since. After the Swedish case evaporated and there were no reasonable grounds left for not letting Assange walk free from the embassy, the media suddenly decided in chorus that a technical bail violation was grounds enough for his continuing confinement in the embassy – or, better still, his arrest and jailing. That breach of bail, of course, related to Assange’s decision to seek asylum in the embassy, based on a correct assessment that the US planned to demand his extradition and imprisonment.
None of these well-paid journalists seemed to remember that, in British law, failure to meet bail conditions is permitted if there is “reasonable cause” – and fleeing political persecution is very obviously just such a reasonable cause.
Similarly, the media wilfully ignored the conclusions of a report by Nils Melzer, a Swiss scholar of international law and the United Nations’ expert on torture, that the UK, US and Sweden had not only denied Assange his basic legal rights but had colluded in subjecting him to years of psychological torture – a form of torture, Melzer has pointed out, that was refined by the Nazis because it was found to be crueller and more effective at breaking victims than physical torture.
Assange has been blighted by deteriorating health and cognitive decline as a result, and has lost significant weight. None of that has been deemed worthy by the corporate media of more than a passing mention – specifically when Assange’s poor health made him incapable of attending a court hearing. Instead Melzer’s repeated warnings about Assange’s abusive treatment and its effects on him have fallen on deaf ears. The media has simply ignored Melzer’s findings, as though they were never published, that Assange has been, and is being, tortured. We need only pause and imagine how much coverage Melzer’s report would have received had it concerned the treatment of a dissident in an official enemy state like Russia or China.
A power-worshipping media
Last year British police, in coordination with an Ecuador now led by a president, Lenin Moreno, who craved closer ties with Washington, stormed the embassy to drag Assange out and lock him up in Belmarsh prison. In their coverage of these events, journalists again played dumb.
They had spent years first professing the need to “believe women” in the Assange case, even if it meant ignoring evidence, and then proclaiming the sanctity of bail conditions, even if they were used simply as a pretext for political persecution. Now that was all swept aside in an instant. Suddenly Assange’s nine years of confinement over a non-existent sexual assault investigation and a minor bail infraction were narratively replaced by an espionage case. And the media lined up against him once again.
A decade ago the idea that Assange could be extradited to the US and locked up for the rest of his life, his journalism recast as “espionage”, was mocked as so improbable, so outrageously unlawful that no “mainstream” journalist was prepared to countenance it as the genuine reason for his seeking asylum in the embassy. It was derided as a figment of the fevered, paranoid imaginations of Assange and his supporters, and as a self-serving cover for him to avoid facing the investigation in Sweden.
But when British police invaded the embassy in April last year and arrested him for extradition to the US on precisely the espionage charges Assange had always warned were going to be used against him, journalists reported these developments as though they were oblivious to this backstory. The media erased this context not least because it would have made them look like willing dupes of US propaganda, like apologists for US exceptionalism, and because it would have proved Assange right once more. It would have demonstrated that he is the real journalist, in contrast to their pacified, complacent, power-worshipping corporate journalism.
The death of journalism
Right now every journalist in the world ought to be up in arms, protesting at the abuses Assange is suffering, and has suffered, and the fate he will endure if extradition is approved. They should be protesting on front pages and in TV news shows the endless and blatant abuses of legal process at Assange’s hearings in the British courts, including the gross conflict of interest of Lady Emma Arbuthnot, the judge presiding over his case.
They should be in uproar at the surveillance the CIA illegally arranged inside the Ecuadorian embassy while Assange was confined there, nullifying the already dishonest US case against him by violating his client-lawyer privilege. They should be expressing outrage at Washington’s manoeuvres, accorded a thin veneer of due process by the British courts, designed to extradite him on espionage charges for doing work that lies at the very heart of what journalism claims to be – holding the powerful to account.
Journalists do not need to care about Assange or like him. They have to speak out in protest because approval of his extradition will mark the official death of journalism. It will mean that any journalist in the world who unearths embarrassing truths about the US, who discovers its darkest secrets, will need to keep quiet or risk being jailed for the rest of their lives.
That ought to terrify every journalist. But it has had no such effect.
Careers and status, not truth
The vast majority of western journalists, of course, never uncover one significant secret from the centres of power in their entire professional careers – even those ostensibly monitoring those power centres. These journalists repackage press releases and lobby briefings, they tap sources inside government who use them as a conduit to the large audiences they command, and they relay gossip and sniping from inside the corridors of power.
That is the reality of access journalism that constitutes 99 per cent of what we call political news.
Nonetheless, Assange’s abandonment by journalists – the complete lack of solidarity as one of their number is persecuted as flagrantly as dissidents once sent to the gulags – should depress us. It means not only that journalists have abandoned any pretence that they do real journalism, but that they have also renounced the aspiration that it be done by anyone at all.
It means that corporate journalists are ready to be viewed with even greater disdain by their audiences than is already the case. Because through their complicity and silence, they have sided with governments to ensure that anyone who truly holds power to account, like Assange, will end up behind bars. Their own freedom brands them as a captured elite – irrefutable evidence that they serve power, they do not confront it.
The only conclusion to be drawn is that corporate journalists care less about the truth than they do about their careers, their salaries, their status, and their access to the rich and powerful. As Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky explained long ago in their book Manufacturing Consent, journalists join a media class after lengthy education and training processes designed to weed out those not reliably in sympathy with the ideological interests of their corporate employers.
A sacrificial offering
Briefly, Assange raised the stakes for all journalists by renouncing their god – “access” – and their modus operandi of revealing occasional glimpses of very partial truths offered up by “friendly”, and invariably anonymous, sources who use the media to settle scores with rivals in the centres of power.
Instead, through whistleblowers, Assange rooted out the unguarded, unvarnished, full-spectrum truth whose exposure helped no one in power – only us, the public, as we tried to understand what was being done, and had been done, in our names. For the first time, we could see just how ugly, and often criminal, the behaviour of our leaders was.
Assange did not just expose the political class, he exposed the media class too – for their feebleness, for their hypocrisy, for their dependence on the centres of power, for their inability to criticise a corporate system in which they were embedded.
Few of them can forgive Assange that crime. Which is why they will be there cheering on his extradition, if only through their silence. A few liberal writers will wait till it is too late for Assange, till he has been packaged up for rendition, to voice half-hearted, mealy-mouthed or agonised columns arguing that, unpleasant as Assange supposedly is, he did not deserve the treatment the US has in store for him.
But that will be far too little, far too late. Assange needed solidarity from journalists and their media organisations long ago, as well as full-throated denunciations of his oppressors. He and Wikileaks were on the front line of a war to remake journalism, to rebuild it as a true check on the runaway power of our governments. Journalists had a chance to join him in that struggle. Instead they fled the battlefield, leaving him as a sacrificial offering to their corporate masters.
On September 7, Julian Assange will be facing another round of gruelling extradition proceedings, in the Old Bailey, part of a process that has become a form of gradual state-sanctioned torture. The US Department of Justice hungers for their man. The UK prison authorities are doing little to protect his health. The end result, should it result in his death, will be justifiably described as state-sanctioned murder. This picture was not improved upon by a prison visit from his partner, Stella Morris, accompanied by their two children. Almost six months had passed since the last meeting.
Physical distancing was practised during the twenty minute meeting in Belmarsh Prison. Morris and Assange wore face masks and visors, a state of affairs curious given the conspicuous lack of protective wear that has been given to Assange during the pandemic. A prohibition on touching was observed. “We had to keep social distancing and Julian was told he would have to self-isolate for two weeks if he touched the children.” Were officials being careful and considerate? Not according to Assange, who claimed it was the first time he had received a mask “because things are very different behind the doors.” Morris noted a prevailing thinness, a yellow armband to indicate prisoner status, and the fact that he was “in a lot of pain.”
What awaits Assange next month promises to be resoundingly ugly. He will have to ready himself for more pain, applied by Judge Vanessa Baraitser. Throughout her steering of proceedings, Baraitser has remained chillingly indifferent to Assange’s needs, a model of considered cruelty. Keen followers of justicia will be crestfallen: limiting access to legal counsel by keeping him caged behind a glass screen; ignoring his health considerations in refusing emergency bail during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her behaviour has been in keeping with that of Chief Magistrate Lady Emma Arbuthnot, who has done her precious bit to soil the citadel of British justice in previous rulings on Assange. With a family well and truly embedded in the British intelligence and military establishment, it was alarming to even see her name allocated to the Assange case. In February 2018, she dismissed an application by the publisher to cancel his arrest warrant for refusing to surrender for his extradition to Sweden. It did not matter that Swedish proceedings against the Australian had been discontinued, or that prosecution proceedings for breaching bail had not been commenced.
To this ruling came her cool judgment on February 13, 2018 on claims by Assange’s legal team that proceedings for failing to surrender to British authorities were disproportionate and not in the public interest. The judgment is horrendous for a few reasons, and in keeping with the intentionally harsh, and unimaginative way British courts have dealt with his case. Arbuthnot, for one, was unmoved by the findings of the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. His “house arrest” and “harsh restrictions” had been proposed by Assange himself. His time in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London could have been ended by leaving “the embassy whenever he wishes”. He could use the computer facilities, eat what he wanted and see guests.
This caricature of freedom and choice was topped by her assessment that read grotesquely then, and even more appallingly now. While accepting that Assange “had expressed fears of being returned to the United States from a very early stage in the Swedish extradition proceedings”, she found little merit to them. Sweden would not have rendered him to the United States. To have done so would have precipitated a diplomatic crisis between the UK, US and Sweden. (And how, pray, would she know?) As for whether Assange would face an extradition request to Britain, he could always “be able to argue extraneous considerations, fair trial and conditions of detention in the United States prison system.”
Which brings us to Baraitser, who has served as an appropriately bad replacement after Arbuthnot stood aside from the case, despite refusing to admit to any perception of bias. Very little is known about Baraitser in the public domain, though the investigative outfit Declassified UK has been busy with some dedicated digging. On February 28, 2020 it filed a Freedom of Information request with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) seeking a list of all the cases which Baraitser had ruled upon since her appointment in 2011. Of particular interest was her record on extradition rulings. Two months elapsed before a reply from the information officer at the HM Courts and Tribunal Service confirming that it held “some information that you have requested”. But the request was flatly turned down for not being consistent with the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. “The judiciary is not a public body for the purposes of FOIA… and requests asking to disclose all the cases a named judge ruled on are therefore outside the scope of the FOIA.” This limitation maintained “the independence of the judiciary which also means that the government does not provide guidance or policy on how judges should operate in court.”
The information officer’s reasoning was specious, not least because the FOIA request was premised on identifying what should, in any case, be on the public record: the cases which a judge has seen fit to rule upon, with outcomes. This also ignored the fact that some cases involving Baraitser are actually accessible through the legal database Westlaw.
As a barrister wishing to remain anonymous explained to Declassified: “A court is a public authority for the purposes of the Human Rights Act and a judge is an officer of the court.” A court also acted in public. “There is no default anonymity of the names of cases, unless children are involved or other certain limited circumstances, nor the judges who rule on them.”
Undeterred, Declassified persevered and found 24 extradition cases over which Baraitser presided between November 2015 and May 2019 mining Factiva and Westlaw. The results show an overly keen enthusiasm for extradition. “Of these 24 cases, Baraitser ordered the extradition of 23 of the defendants, a 96% extradition record from publicly available evidence.” One of Baraitser’s rulings was overturned on appeal, with the appellate court attaching “considerable weight to the likely impact of extradition upon the health and wellbeing of the defendant’s wife”, who would be “left with very little support.” A scintilla of hope, perhaps, is in the offing.
It is simply astonishing that the first attempt by the Guardian – the only major British newspaper styling itself as on the liberal-left – to properly examine the contents of a devastating internal Labour party report leaked in April is taking place nearly four months after the 860-page report first came to light.
If you are a Labour party member, the Guardian is the only “serious”, big-circulation paper claiming to represent your values and concerns.
One might therefore have assumed that anything that touches deeply on Labour party affairs – on issues of transparency and probity, on the subversion of the party’s democratic structures, on abuses or fraud by its officials – would be of endless interest to the paper. One might have assumed it would wish both to dedicate significant resources to investigating such matters for itself and to air all sides of the ensuing debate to weigh their respective merits.
Not a bit of it. For months, the leaked report and its implications have barely registered in the Guardian’s pages. When they have, the coverage has been superficial and largely one-sided – the side that is deeply hostile to its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
That very much fits a pattern of coverage of the Corbyn years by the paper, as I have tried to document. It echoes the paper’s treatment of an earlier scandal, back in early 2017, when an undercover Al-Jazeera reporter filmed pro-Israel Labour activists working with the Israeli embassy to damage Corbyn from within. A series of shocking reports by Al-Jazeera merited minimal coverage from the Guardian at the time they were aired and then immediately sank without trace, as though they were of no relevance to later developments – most especially, of course, the claims by these same groups of a supposed “antisemitism crisis” in Labour.
Sadly, the latest reports by the Guardian on the leaked report –presented as an “exclusive” – do not fundamentally change its long-running approach.
Kicked into the long grass
In fact, what the paper means by an “exclusive” is that it has seen documents responding to the leaked report that were submitted by Corbyn and his team to the Forde inquiry – Labour’s official investigation into that report and the circumstances of its leaking. The deadline for submissions to Martin Forde QC arrived last week.
Setting up the Forde inquiry was the method by which Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer, hoped to kick the leaked report into the long grass till next year. Doubtless Starmer believes that by then the report will be stale news and that he will have had time to purge from the party, or at least intimidate into silence, the most outspoken remnants of Corbyn’s supporters.
Corbyn’s submission on the leaked report is an “exclusive” for the Guardian only because no one in the corporate media bothered till now to cover the debates raging in Labour since the leak four months ago. The arguments made by Corbyn and his supporters, so prominent on social media, have been entirely absent from the so-called “mainstream”.
When Corbyn finally got a chance to air the issues raised by the leaked report in a series of articles on the Middle East Eye website, its coverage went viral, underscoring how much interest there is in this matter among Labour members.
Nonetheless, despite desperately needing clicks and revenue in this especially difficult time for the corporate media, the Guardian is still spurning revelatory accounts of Corbyn’s time in office by his former team.
One published last week – disclosing that, after winning the leadership election, Corbyn arrived to find the leader’s offices gutted, that Labour HQ staff refused to approve the hiring of even basic staff for him, and that disinformation was constantly leaked to the media – was relegated to the OpenDemocracy website.
That Joe Ryle, a Corbyn team insider, either could not find a home for his insights in the Guardian or didn’t even try says it all – because much of the disinformation he laments being peddled to the media ended up in the Guardian, which was only too happy to amplify it as long as it was harming Corbyn.
A political coup
Meanwhile, everything in the Guardian’s latest “exclusive” confirms what has long been in the public realm, via the leaked report.
Through its extensive documentation of WhatsApp messages and emails, the report shows conclusively that senior Labour officials who had dominated the party machine since the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown eras – and were still loyal to the party’s centre-right incarnation as New Labour – worked at every turn to oust Corbyn from the leadership. They even tried to invent ways to bar him from standing in a rerun leadership election a year later, in 2016, after Owen Smith, the Labour right’s preferred candidate, challenged him.
Corbyn and his supporters were viewed as dangerous “Trots” – to use a derisive term that dominates those exchanges.
The messages show these same officials did their level best to sabotage Labour’s 2017 general election campaign – an election that Corbyn was less than 3,000 votes from winning. Party officials starved marginal seats Corbyn hoped to win of money and instead focused resources on MPs hostile to Corbyn. It seems they preferred a Tory win if it gave momentum to their efforts to rid the party of Corbyn.
Or, as the submission notes: “It’s not impossible that Jeremy Corbyn might now be in his third year as a Labour prime minister were it not for the unauthorised, unilateral action taken by a handful of senior party officials.”
The exchanges in the report also show that these officials on the party’s right privately gave voice to horrifying racism towards other party members, especially black members of the party loyal to Corbyn.
And the leaked report confirms the long-running claims of Corbyn and his team that the impression of “institutional antisemitism” in Labour – a narrative promoted in the corporate media without any actual evidence beyond the anecdotal – had been stoked by the party’s right wing, Blairite officials.
They appear to have delayed and obstructed the handling of the small number of antisemitism complaints – usually found by trawling through old social media posts – to embarrass Corbyn and make the “antisemitism crisis” narrative appear more credible.
Corbyn’s team have pointed out that these officials – whose salaries were paid by the membership, which elected Corbyn as party leader – cheated those members of their dues and their rights, as well as, of course, subverting the entire democratic process. The submission rightly asks the inquiry to consider whether the money spent by Labour officials to undermine Corbyn “constituted fraudulent activity”.
One might go even further and argue that what they did amounted to a political coup.
The bogus ‘whistleblower’ narrative
Even now, as the Guardian reports on Corbyn’s submission to the Forde inquiry, it has downplayed the evidence underpinning his case, especially on the antisemitism issue – which the Guardian played such a key role in weaponising in the first place.
The paper’s latest coverage treats the Corbyn “claims” sceptically, as though the leaked report exists in a political vacuum and there are no other yardsticks by which the truth of its evidence or the plausibility of its claims can be measured.
Let’s start with one illustrative matter. The Guardian, as with the rest of the corporate media, even now avoids drawing the most obvious conclusion from the leaked report.
Racism was endemic in the language and behaviours of Labour’s senior, right wing officials, as shown time and again in the WhatsApp messages and emails.
And yet it is these very same officials – those who oversaw the complaints procedure as well as the organisation of party headquarters – who, according to the corporate media narrative, were so troubled by one specific kind of racism, antisemitism, that they turned it into the biggest, most enduring crisis facing Corbyn during his five-year tenure as leader.
To accept the corporate media narrative on this supposed “antisemitism crisis”, we must ignore several things:
the vehement racism expressed by Labour officials, as well as their overt and abiding hostility to Corbyn;
moves by party officials forcing Corbyn to accept a new definition of antisemitism that shifted the focus from a hatred of Jews to criticism of Israel;
and the fact that the handling of antisemitism complaints dramatically improved once these right wing officials were removed from their positions.
And yet in its latest reporting, as with its earlier coverage, the Guardian simply ignores all this confirmatory evidence.
There are several reasons for this, as I have documented before, but one very obvious one is this: the Guardian, like the rest of the British media, had worked hard to present former officials on the right of the party as brave “whistleblowers” long before they were exposed by the leaked report.
Like the BBC’s much-criticised Panorama “investigation” last year into Labour’s alleged “antisemitism crisis”, the Guardian took the claims of these former staff – of their supposed selfless sacrifice to save the party from anti-Jewish bigots – at face value.
In fact, it was likely even worse than that. The Guardian and BBC weren’t just passive, neutral recipients of the disinformation offered by these supposed “whistleblowers”. They shared the Labour right’s deep antipathy to Corbyn and everything he stood for, and as a result almost certainly served as willing, even enthusiastic channels for that disinformation.
The Guardian hardly bothers to conceal where its sympathies lie. It continues to laud Blair from beyond the political grave and, while Corbyn was leader, gave him slots in its pages to regularly lambast Corbyn and scaremonger about Labour’s “takeover” by the supposedly “extreme” and “hard” left. The paper did so despite the fact that Blair had grown ever more discredited as evidence amassed that his actions in invading Iraq in 2003 were crimes against humanity.
Were the Guardian to now question the narrative it promoted about Corbyn – a narrative demolished by the leaked report – the paper would have to admit several uncomfortable things:
that for years it was either gulled by, or cooperated with, the Blairites’ campaign of disinformation;
that it took no serious steps to investigate the Labour right’s claims or to find out for itself what was really going on in Labour HQ;
that it avoided cultivating a relationship with Corbyn’s team while he was in office that would have helped it to ascertain more effectively what was happening inside the party;
or that, if it did cultivate such a relationship (and, after all, Seamas Milne took up his post as Corbyn’s chief adviser immediately after leaving the Guardian), it consistently and intentionally excluded the Corbyn team’s account of events in its reporting.
To now question the narrative it invested so much energy in crafting would risk Guardian readers drawing the most plausible conclusion for their paper’s consistent reporting failures: that the Guardian was profoundly opposed to Corbyn becoming prime minister and allowed itself, along with the rest of the corporate media, to be used as channel for the Labour right’s disinformation.
Stabbed in the back
None of that has changed in the latest coverage of Corbyn’s submission to Forde concerning the leaked report.
The Guardian could not realistically ignore that submission by the party’s former leader and his team. But the paper could – and does – strip out the context on which the submission was based so as not to undermine or discredit its previous reporting against Corbyn.
Its main article on the Corbyn team’s submission becomes a claim and counter-claim story, with an emphasis on an unnamed former official arguing that criticism of him and other former staff at Labour HQ is nothing more than a “mythical ‘stab in the back’ conspiracy theory”.
The problem is that there are acres of evidence in the leaked report that these officials did stab Corbyn and his team in the back – and, helpfully for the rest of us, recorded some of their subversive, anti-democratic activities in private internal correspondence between themselves. Anyone examining those message chains would find it hard not to conclude that these officials were actively plotting against Corbyn.
To discredit the Corbyn team’s submission, the Labour right would need to show that these messages were invented. They don’t try to do that because those messages are very obviously only too real.
Instead they have tried two different, inconsistent strategies. First, they have argued that their messages were presented in a way that was misleading or misrepresented what they said. This claim does not hold water, given that the leaked report includes very lengthy, back-and-forth exchanges between senior staff. The context of those exchanges is included – context the officials themselves provided in their messages to each other.
Second, the self-styled “whistleblowers” now claim that publication of their messages – documenting efforts to undermine Corbyn – violates their right to privacy and breaches data protection laws. They can apparently see no public interest in publishing information that exposes their attempts to subvert the party’s internal democratic processes.
It seems that these “whistleblowers” are more committed to data concealment than exposure – despite the title they have bestowed on themselves. This is a strange breed of whistleblower indeed, one that seeks to prevent transparency and accountability.
In a telling move, despite claiming that their messages have been misrepresented, these former officials want the Forde inquiry to be shut down rather than given the chance to investigate their claims and, assuming they are right, exonerate them.
Further, they are trying to intimidate the party into abandoning the investigation by threatening to bankrupt it through legal actions for breaching their privacy. The last thing they appear to want is openness and a proper accounting of the Corbyn era.
Shrugging its shoulders
In its latest reporting, the Guardian frames the leaked report as “clearly intended to present a pro-Corbyn narrative for posterity” – as though the antisemitism narrative the Guardian and the rest of the corporate media spent nearly five years crafting and promoting was not clearly intended to do the precise opposite: to present an anti-Corbyn narrative for posterity.
Peter Walker, the paper’s political correspondent, describes the messages of former, right wing Labour officials as “straying” into “apparent” racism and misogyny, as though the relentless efforts revealed in these exchanges to damage and undermine prominent black MPs like Diane Abbott are open to a different interpretation.
According to Walker, the report’s evidence of election-scuppering in 2017 is “circumstantial” and “there is seemingly no proof of active obstruction”. Even assuming that were true, such a deficiency could easily be remedied had the Guardian, with all its staff and resources, made even the most cursory effort to investigate the leaked report’s claims since April – or in the years before, when the Corbyn team were trying to counter the disinformation spread by the Labour right.
The Guardian largely shrugs its shoulders, repeatedly insinuating that all this constitutes little more than Labour playground bickering. Starmer is presented as school principal – the one responsible adult in the party – who, we are told, is “no stranger to managing Labour factions”.
The Guardian ignores the enormous stakes in play both for Labour members who expected to be able to shape the party’s future using its supposedly democratic processes and for the very functioning of British democracy itself. Because if the leaked report is right, the British political system looks deeply rigged: there to ensure that only the establishment-loving right and centre-right ever get to hold power.
The Guardian’s approach suggests that the paper has abdicated all responsibility for either doing real journalism on its Westminster doorstep or for acting as a watchdog on the British political system.
Typifying the hypocrisy of the Guardian and its continuing efforts to present itself a hapless bystander rather than active participant in efforts to disrupt the Labour party’s internal democratic processes and sabotage the 2017 and 2019 elections is its lead columnist Jonathan Freedland.
Outside of the Guardian’s editorials, Freedland’s columns represent the closest we have to a window on the ideological soul of the paper. He is a barometer of the political mood there.
Freedland was among the loudest and most hostile opponents of Corbyn throughout his time as leader. Freedland was also one of the chief purveyors and justifiers of the fabled antisemitism narrative against Corbyn.
He, and the right wing Jewish Chronicle he also writes for, gave these claims an official Jewish seal of approval. They trumpeted the narrow, self-serving perspective of Jewish organisations like the Board of Deputies, whose leaders are nowadays closely allied with the Conservative party.
They amplified the bogus claims of the Jewish Labour Movement, a tiny, pro-Israel organisation inside Labour that was exposed – though the Guardian, of course, never mentions it – as effectively an entryist group, and one working closely with the Israeli embassy, in that detailed undercover investigation filmed by Al-Jazeera.
Freedland and the Chronicle endlessly derided Jewish groups that supported Corbyn, such as Jewish Voice for Labour, Just Jews and Jewdas, with antisemitic insinuations that they were the “wrong kind of Jews”. Freedland argued that strenuous criticism of Israel was antisemitic by definition because Israel lay at the heart of any proper Jew’s identity.
It did not therefore matter whether critics could show that Israel was constitutionally racist – a state similar to apartheid South Africa – as many scholars have done. Freedland argued that Jews and Israel were all but indistinguishable, and to call Israel racist was to malign Jews who identified with it. (Apparently unaware of the Pandora’s box such a conflation opened up, he rightly – if inconsistently – claimed that it was antisemitic for anyone to make the same argument in reverse: blaming Jews for Israel’s actions.)
Freedland pushed hard for Labour to be forced to adopt that new, troubling definition of antisemitism, produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, that shifted the focus away from hatred of Jews to criticism of Israel. Under this new definition, claims that Israel was “a racist endeavour” – a view shared by some prominent Israeli scholars – was treated as definitive proof of antisemitism.
If anyone gave the weaponisation of antisemitism against Corbyn an air of bipartisan respectability it was Freedland and his newspaper, the Guardian. They made sure Corbyn was hounded by the antisemitism claims while he was Labour leader, overshadowing everything else he did. That confected narrative neutralised his lifelong activism as an anti-racist, it polluted his claims to be a principled politician fighting for the underdog.
Freedland and the Guardian not only helped to breathe life into the antisemitism allegations but they made them sound credible to large sections of the Labour membership too.
The right wing media presented the Corbyn project as a traitorous, hard-left move, in cahoots with Putin’s Russia, to undermine Britain. Meanwhile, Freedland and the Guardian destroyed Corbyn from his liberal-left flank by portraying him and his supporters as a mob of left wing Nazis-in-waiting.
Corbynism, in Freedland’s telling, became a “sect”, a cult of dangerous leftists divorced from political realities. And then, with astonishing chutzpah, Freedland blamed Corbyn’s failure at the ballot box – a failure Freedland and the Guardian had helped to engineer – as a betrayal of the poor and the vulnerable.
Remember, Corbyn lost by less than 3,000 votes in a handful of Labour marginals in 2017. Despite all this, Freedland and the Guardian now pretend that they played no role in destroying Corbyn, they behave as if their hands are clean.
But Freedland’s actions, like those of his newspaper, had one inevitable outcome. They ushered in the only alternative to Corbyn: a government of the hard right led by Boris Johnson.
Freedland’s choice to assist Johnson by undermining Corbyn – and, worse, to do so on the basis of a disinformation campaign – makes him culpable, as it does the Guardian, in everything that flowed from his decision. But Freedland, like the Guardian, still pontificates on the horrors of the Johnson government, as if they share no blame for helping Johnson win power.
In his latest column, Freedland writes: “The guiding principle [of the Johnson government] seems to be brazen cronyism, coupled with the arrogance of those who believe they are untouchable and that rules are for little people.”
Why should the Tories under Johnson be so “arrogant”, so sure they are “untouchable”, that “rules are for little people”, and that there is no political price to be paid for “cronyism”?
Might it not have much to do with seeing Freedland and the Guardian assist so willingly in the corporate media’s efforts to destroy the only political alternative to “rule by the rich” Toryism? Might the Johnson government have grown more confident knowing that the ostensibly liberal-left media were just as determined as the right wing media to undermine the only politician on offer who stood for precisely the opposite political values they did?
Might it not reflect an understanding by Johnson and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, that Freedland and the Guardian have played a hugely significant part in ensuring that Britain effectively has a one-party state – and that when it returns to being a formal two-party state, as it seems to be doing once again now that Starmer is running the Labour party, both those parties will offer the same establishment-worshipping agenda, even if in two mildly different flavours?
The Guardian, like the rest of the corporate media, has derided and vilified as “populism” the emergence of any real political alternative.
The leaked report offered a brief peek behind the curtain at how politics in Britain – and elsewhere – really works. It showed that, during Corbyn’s time as leader, the political battle lines became intensely real. They were no longer the charade of a phoney fight between left and right, between Labour and Conservative.
Instead, the battle shifted to where it mattered, to where it might finally make change possible: for control of the Labour party so that it might really represent the poor and vulnerable against rule by the rich. Labour became the battleground, and the Guardian made all too clear where its true loyalties lie.
Jeremy Corbyn, the former left-wing leader of Britain’s Labour party, is once again making headlines over an “antisemitism problem” he supposedly oversaw during his five years at the head of the party.
This time, however, the assault on his reputation is being led not by the usual suspects – pro-Israel lobbyists and a billionaire-owned media – but by Keir Starmer, the man who succeeded him.
Since becoming Labour leader in April, Starmer has helped to bolster the evidence-free narrative of a party plagued by antisemitism under Corbyn. That has included Starmer’s refusal to exploit two major opportunities to challenge that narrative.
Had those chances been grasped, Labour might have been able to demonstrate that Corbyn was the victim of an underhanded campaign to prevent him from reaching power.
Starmer, had he chosen to, could have shown that Corbyn’s long history as an anti-racism campaigner was twisted to discredit him. His decades of vocal support for Palestinian rights were publicly recast as a supposed irrational hatred of Israel based on an antipathy to Jews.
But instead Starmer chose to sacrifice his predecessor rather than risk being tarred with the same brush.
As a result, Labour now appears to be on the brink of open war. Competing rumors suggest Corbyn may be preparing to battle former staff through the courts, while Starmer may exile his predecessor from the party.
Corbyn’s troubles were inevitable the moment the mass membership elected him Labour leader in 2015 in defiance of the party bureaucracy and most Labour MPs. Corbyn was determined to revive the party as a vehicle for democratic socialism and end Britain’s role meddling overseas as a junior partner to the global hegemon of the United States.
That required breaking with Labour’s capture decades earlier, under Tony Blair, as a party of neoliberal orthodoxy at home and neoconservative orthodoxy abroad.
Until Corbyn arrived on the scene, Labour had become effectively a second party of capital alongside Britain’s ruling Conservative party, replicating the situation in the US with the Democratic and Republican parties.
His attempts to push the party back towards democratic socialism attracted hundreds of thousands of new members, quickly making Labour the largest party in Europe. But it also ensured a wide-ranging alliance of establishment interests was arrayed against him, including the British military, the corporate media, and the pro-Israel lobby.
Unlike Corbyn, Starmer has not previously shown any inclination to take on the might of the establishment. In fact, he had previously proven himself its willing servant.
As head of Britain’s prosecution service in 2013, for example, his department issued thinly veiled threats to Sweden to continue its legal pursuit of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who had sought political asylum in London’s Ecuadorian embassy, even as Swedish interest in the case waned.
With his background in realpolitik, Starmer appears to have grasped quickly the danger of being seen to share any common ground with Corbyn – not only should he pursue significant elements of his predecessor’s program, but by challenging the carefully crafted establishment narrative around Corbyn.
For this reason, he has refused to seize either of the two chances presented to him to demonstrate that Labour had no more of an antisemitism problem than the relatively marginal one that exists more generally in British society.
That failure is likely to prove all the more significant given that in a matter of weeks Labour is expected to face the findings of an investigation by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The highly politicized watchdog body, which took on the probe into Labour while refusing to investigate plentiful evidence of an Islamophobia problem in the Conservative party, is expected to shore up the Corbyn-antisemitism narrative.
Labour has said it will readily accept the Commission’s findings, whatever they are. The watchdog body is likely to echo the prevailing narrative that Corbyn attracted left-wingers to the party who were ideologically tainted with antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. As a result, or so the argument goes, Jew hatred flourished on his watch.
Starmer has already declared “zero tolerance” of antisemitism, but he has appeared willing – in line with pro-Israel lobbyists in his party – to conflate Jew hatred with trenchant criticism of Israel.
The barely veiled intention is to drive Corbynite members out of Labour – either actively through suspensions or passively as their growing disillusionment leads to a mass exodus.
By distancing himself from his predecessor, Starmer knows no dirt will stick to him even as the Equality Commission drags Corbyn’s name through the mud.
Sabotaged from within
Starmer rejected the first chance to salvage the reputations of Corbyn and the wider Labour membership days after he became leader.
In mid-April, an 850-page internal party report was leaked, stuffed with the text of lengthy email exchanges and WhatsApp chats by senior party staff. They showed that, as had long been suspected, Corbyn’s own officials worked hard to sabotage his leadership from within.
Staff at headquarters still loyal to the Blair vision of the party even went so far as to actively throw the 2017 general election, when Labour was a hair’s-breadth away from ousting the Conservatives from government. These officials hoped a crushing defeat would lead to Corbyn’s removal from office.
The report described a “hyper-factional atmosphere”, with officials, including then-deputy leader Tom Watson, regularly referring to Corbyn and his supporters as “Trots” – a reference to Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of a violent Communist revolution in Russia more than a century ago.
Corbynites were thrown out of the party on the flimsiest pretexts, such as describing those like Blair who led the 2003 attack on Iraq as “warmongers”.
But one early, favored tactic by staff in the disciplinary unit was to publicize antisemitism cases and then drag out their resolution to create the impression that the party under Corbyn was not taking the issue seriously.
These officials also loosened the definition of antisemitism to pursue cases against Corbyn’s supporters who, like him, were vocal in defending Palestinian rights or critical of Israeli policies.
This led to the preposterous situation where Labour was suspending and expelling anti-Zionist Jews who supported Corbyn on the grounds that they were supposedly antisemites, while action was delayed on dealing with a Holocaust denier.
The narrative against Corbyn being crafted by his own officials was eagerly picked up and amplified by the strong contingent of Blairites among Labour legislators in the parliament, as well as by the corporate media and by Israel lobbyists both inside and outside Labour.
Effort to bury report
The parties responsible for leaking the report in April did so because Labour, now led by Starmer, had no intention of publicizing it.
In fact, the report had been originally compiled as part of Labour’s submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, effectively giving Corbyn’s side of the story against his opponents.
But once Corbyn stepped down, the party bureaucracy under Starmer preferred to shelve it. That decision meant there would be no case for the defense, and Corbyn’s opponents’ claims would go unchallenged.
Once leaked, Starmer stuck to his position. Rather than use the report as an opportunity to expose the ugly campaign against Corbyn and thereby question the antisemitism narrative, Starmer did his level best to bury it from sight.
He vowed to investigate “the circumstances in which the report was put into the public domain”. That sounded ominously like a threat to hound those who had tried to bring to light the party’s betrayal of its previous leader.
Rather than accept the evidence presented in the leaked report of internal corruption and the misuse of party funds, Starmer set up an inquiry under QC Martin Forde to investigate the earlier investigation.
The Forde inquiry looked like Starmer’s effort to kick the damaging revelations into the long grass.
The British media gave the leaked report – despite its earth-shattering revelations of Labour officials sabotaging an election campaign – little more than perfunctory coverage.
A second, related chance to challenge the Corbyn-antisemitism narrative reached its conclusion last week. And again, Starmer threw in Labour’s hand.
In July last year – long before the report had been leaked – the BBC’s prestige news investigation show Panorama set out to answer a question it posed in the episode’s title: “Is Labour Antisemitic?”
The program presented eight former staff as “whistleblowers”, their testimonies supposedly exposing Corbyn’s indulgence of antisemitism. They included those who would soon be revealed in the leaked report as intractable ideological enemies of the Corbyn project and others who oversaw the dysfunctional complaints process that dragged its heels on resolving antisemitism cases.
The Panorama program was dismal even by the low standards of political reporting set by the BBC in the Corbyn era.
The show made much of the testimony of pro-Israel lobbyists inside the Labour party belonging to a group called the Jewish Labour Movement. They were not identified – either by name or by affiliation – despite being given the freedom to make anecdotal and unspecified claims of antisemitism against Corbyn and his supporters.
The BBC’s decision not to name these participants had nothing to do with protecting their identities, even though that was doubtless the impression conveyed to the audience.
Most were already known as Israel partisans because they had been exposed in a 2017 four-part al-Jazeera undercover documentary called The Lobby. They were filmed colluding with an Israeli embassy official, Shai Masot, to bring down Corbyn. The BBC did not identify these pro-Israel activists presumably because they had zero credibility as witnesses.
Nonetheless, a seemingly stronger case – at least, at the time – was made by the eight former Labour staff. Their testimonies to the BBC suggested they had been hampered and bullied by Corbyn’s team as they tried to stamp out antisemitism.
Panorama allowed these claims to go unchallenged, even though with a little digging it could have tapped sources inside Labour who were already compiling what would become the leaked report, presenting a very different view of these self-styled “whistleblowers”.
The BBC also failed to talk to Jewish Voice for Labour, a group of Labour party members supportive of Corbyn who challenged the way the Jewish Labour Movement had manipulated the definition of antisemitism in the party to harm Palestinian solidarity activists.
And the BBC did not call as counter-witnesses any of the anti-Zionist Jews who were among the earliest victims of the purge of supposed antisemites by Labour’s apparent “whistleblowers”.
Instead, it selectively quoted from an email by Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s chief adviser, to suggest that he had interfered in the disciplinary process to help antisemites avoid suspension.
Proper context from the BBC would have revealed that Milne had simply expressed concern at how the rule book was being interpreted when several Jews had been suspended for antisemitism – and that he had proffered his view only because a staff member now claiming to be a whistleblower had asked for it.
This section of the Panorama show looked suspiciously like entrapment of Milne by Labour staff, followed by collusion from the BBC in promoting their false narrative.
Despite these and many other serious flaws in the Panorama episode, it set the tone for subsequent discussion of the “antisemitism problem” in Labour.
The program aired a few months before a general election, last December, that Corbyn lost to Boris Johnson and the ruling Conservative party.
One of the key damaging, “gotcha” moments of the campaign was an interview with the veteran BBC interviewer Andrew Neil in which he repeatedly asked Corbyn to apologize for antisemitism in the party, as had been supposedly exposed by Panorama. Corbyn’s refusal to respond directly to the question left him looking evasive and guilty.
With the rest of the media amplifying the Panorama claims rather than testing them, it has become the accepted benchmark for judging the Corbyn era. The show has even been nominated for a Bafta award, the British equivalent to an Oscar.
Shortly after the program aired, Corbyn’s team disputed the Panorama narrative, saying it had contained “deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public”. They also described the “whistleblowers” as disaffected former staff with “political axes to grind”.
Ware and seven of the former staff members who appeared in the program launched a defamation action against the Labour party.
After the internal report was leaked in April, the legal scales tipped decisively in Labour’s favor. Starmer was reportedly advised by lawyers that the party would be well-positioned to defeat the legal action and clear Corbyn and the party’s name.
But again Starmer preferred to fold. Before the case could be tested in court, Starmer issued an apology last week to the ex-staff members and Ware, and paid them a six-figure sum in damages.
Admitting that “antisemitism has been a stain on the Labour Party in recent years”, the statement accepted the claims of the ex-staff to be “whistleblowers”, even capitalizing the word to aggrandize their status.
It said: “We acknowledge the many years of dedicated and committed service that the Whistleblowers have given to the Labour Party … We unreservedly withdraw all allegations of bad faith, malice and lying.”
Threat of bankruptcy
With typical understatement, Corbyn said he was “disappointed” at the settlement, calling it a “political decision, not a legal one”. He added that it “risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour party in recent years.”
Starmer’s decision also preempted – and effectively nullified – the Forde inquiry, which was due to submit its own findings on antisemitism in Labour later in the year.
Many in the party were infuriated that their membership dues had been used to pay off a group of ex-staff who, according to the leaked report, had undermined the party’s elected leader and helped to throw a general election.
But in what looked disturbingly like a move to silence Corbyn, Ware said he was consulting lawyers once again about launching a legal battle, personally against the former Labour leader, over his criticism of the settlement.
Mark Lewis, the solicitor acting for Ware and the whistleblowers, has said he is also preparing an action for damages against Labour on behalf of 32 individuals named in the leaked report. Among them is Lord Iain McNichol, who served as the party’s general secretary at the time.
Lewis reportedly intends to focus on staff privacy breaches under the Data Protection Act, disclosure of private information and alleged violations of employment law.
Conversely, Mark Howell, a Labour party member, has initiated an action against Labour and McNichol seeking damages for “breach of contract”. He demands that those named in the leaked report be expelled from the party.
He is also reported to be considering referring named staff members to the Crown Prosecution Service under the 2006 Fraud Act for their failure to uphold the interests of party members who paid staff salaries.
This spate of cases threatens to hemorrhage money from the party. There have been warnings that financial settlements, as well as members deserting the party in droves, could ultimately bankrupt Labour.
Corbyn to be expelled?
Within days of the apology, a crowdfunding campaign raised more than £280,000 for Corbyn to clear his name in any future legal actions.
Given his own self-serving strategy, Starmer would doubtless be embarrassed by such a move. There are already rumors that he is considering withdrawing the party whip from Corbyn – a form of exile from the party.
Pressure on him to do so is mounting. At the weekend it was reported that ex-staff might drop the threatened case over the embarrassing revelations contained in the leaked report should Starmer expel Corbyn.
Quoting someone it described as a “well-placed source”, the Mail on Sunday newspaper set out the new stakes. “Labour says they have zero tolerance to anti-Semitism. Zero tolerance means no Corbyn and no Corbynistas,” the source said.
Starmer has committed to upholding “10 Pledges” produced by the Board of Deputies – a conservative Jewish leadership organization hostile to Corbyn and the left – that places it and the pro-Israel lobbyists of the Jewish Labour Movement in charge of deciding what constitutes antisemitism in the party.
Starmer’s decision about who can serve in his shadow cabinet is a reminder that the storm over Corbyn was never about real antisemitism – the kind that targets Jews for being Jews. It was a pretext to be rid of the Corbyn project and democratic socialism.
Starmer quickly pushed out the last two prominentCorbynites in his shadow cabinet – both on matters related to criticism of Israel.
By contrast, he has happily indulged the kind of antisemitism that harms Jews as long as it comes from members of his shadow cabinet who are not associated with Corbyn.
Starmer picked Rachel Reeves for his team, even though earlier this year she tweeted a tribute to Nancy Astor, a supporter of Hitler and notorious antisemite. Reeves has refused to delete the tweet.
And Steve Reed is still the shadow communities secretary, even though this month he referred to a Jewish newspaper tycoon, Richard Desmond, as a “puppet master” – the very definition of an antisemitic trope.
Starmer’s “zero tolerance” appears to be highly selective – more concerned about harsh criticism of a state, Israel, than the othering of Jews. Tellingly, Starmer has been under no serious pressure from the Jewish Labour Movement, or from the media or from Jewish leadership organizations such as the Board of Deputies to take any action against either Reeves or Reed.
He has moved swiftly against leftists in his party who criticize Israel but has shrugged his shoulders at supposed “moderates” who, it could be argued, have encouraged or glorified hatred and suspicion of Jews.
But then the antisemitism furor was never about safeguarding Jews. It was about creating a cover story as the establishment protected itself from democratic socialism.
The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey from the UK shadow cabinet – on the grounds that she retweeted an article containing a supposedly “antisemitic” conspiracy theory – managed to kill three birds with one stone for new Labour leader Keir Starmer.
First, it offered a pretext to rid himself of the last of the Labour heavyweights associated with the party’s left and its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Long-Bailey was runner-up to Starmer in the leadership elections earlier in the year and he had little choice but to include her on his front bench.
Starmer will doubtless sigh with relief if the outpouring of threats on social media from left-wing members to quit over Long-Bailey’s sacking actually materialises.
Second, the move served as a signal from Starmer that he is a safe pair of hands for the party’s right, which worked so hard to destroy Corbyn from within, as a recently leaked internal review revealed in excruciating detail. Despite the report showing that the Labour right sabotaged the 2017 general election campaign to prevent Corbyn from becoming prime minister, Starmer appears to have buried its contents – as have the British media.
He is keen to demonstrate that he will now steer Labour back to being a reliable party of government for the neoliberal establishment. He intends to demonstrate that he is the Labour party’s Joe Biden, not its Bernie Sanders. Starmerism is likely to look a lot like Blairism.
A peace pipe
And third, Long-Bailey’s sacking provided the perfect opportunity for Starmer to publicly light a peace pipe with the Israel lobby after its long battle to tar Corbyn, his predecessor, as an antisemite.
The offending article shared by Long-Bailey referred to Israel’s documented and controversial role in training and helping to militarise US police forces. It did not mention Jews. By straining the meaning of antisemitism well past its breaking point, Starmer showed that his promised “zero tolerance” for antisemitism actually means zero tolerance of anyone in Labour who might antagonise the Israel lobby – and by extension, of course, the Israeli government.
By contrast, back in February Rachel Reeves, an MP on the party’s right, celebrated Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in the UK parliament and a well-known Jew hater who supported the appeasement of Hitler. None of that appeared to bother the Israel lobby, nor did it dissuade Starmer from welcoming Reeves into his shadow cabinet weeks later.
Doubtless, the move against Long-Bailey felt particularly pressing given that this week the door will open to the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu annexing swaths of Palestinian territory in the West Bank in violation of international law, as sanctioned by Donald Trump’s “peace” plan.
Corbyn joined more than 140 other MPs last month in sending a letter to the British prime minister urging “severe consequences including sanctions” on Israel should it carry out annexation.
Starmer, by contrast, has voiced only “concerns”. Sidelining the gross violation of international law annexation constitutes, or the effects on Palestinians, he has weakly opined: “I don’t agree with annexation and I don’t think it’s good for security in the region.”
It looks like Starmer has no intention of doing anything more than feeble handwringing – especially when he knows that the Israel lobby, including advocacy groups inside his own party like the Jewish Labour Movement, would move swiftly against him, as they did against Corbyn, should he do otherwise.
Sacking Long-Bailey has offered the Israel lobby a sacrificial victim. But it has also removed a potential loose cannon from his front bench on Israel and annexation-related matters. It has sent an exceptionally clear warning to other shadow cabinet ministers to watch and closely follow his lead. He has made it evident that no one will be allowed to step out of line.
A smooth ride
All three audiences – Starmer’s own MPs and party officials, the billionaire-owned media, and the Israel lobby that claims to represent Britain’s Jewish community – can now be relied on to give him a smooth ride.
His only remaining challenge will be to keep the membership in check.
Starmer understands only too well the common policy priorities of the various audiences he is seeking to placate. In fact, the article Long-Bailey retweeted – and which led to her ousting – was highlighting the very interconnectedness of the problems these establishment groups hope to ringfence from examination.
The article published in the Independent was an interview with Maxine Peake, a left-wing actor and Palestinian solidarity activist. As Long-Bailey shared the article, she called Peake, one of her constituents, “an absolute diamond”.
Peake had used the interview to warn: “We’re being ruled by capitalist, fascist dictators.” Establishment structures to protect capitalism, “keeping poor people in their place”, were so entrenched, she wondered how we might ever “dig out” of them.
Those who rejected Corbyn in the 2019 general election because he was seen as too left-wing, she observed, had no place complaining now about an incompetent Conservative government there to serve the establishment rather than the public.
Her brief, offending comment about Israel – the one that has been widely mischaracterised as antisemitic – was immediately prefaced by Peake’s concern that racism and police brutality had become globalised industries, with states learning repressive techniques from each other.
She told the interviewer: “Systemic racism is a global issue. The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”
The Palestinian lab
Starmer and the Israel lobby both wish to deflect attention away from the wider point Peake was making. She was referring to Israel’s well-known role in helping to train and militarise other countries’ police forces with so-called “counter-terrorism measures”. Israel has been doing so since the early 1990s.
As Israeli journalists and scholars have noted, Israel has effectively turned the occupied Palestinian territories into laboratories in which it can refine oppressive systems of control that other states desire for use against sections of their own populations.
But Starmer and the lobby chose to hoist Long-Bailey – via Peake’s interview – onto the hook of a single unprovable assertion: that Israel specifically taught Minneapolis police the knee on the neck chokehold that one of their police officers, Derek Chauvin, used for nine minutes on George Floyd last month, leading to his death.
Peake was right that Israeli security services regularly use that type of chokehold on Palestinians, and also that Israeli experts had held a training session with Minneapolis police in 2012. All that can be proved.
The specific claim that this particular chokehold was taught on that occasion, however, may be wrong – and we are unlikely ever to know, given the lack of transparency regarding Israel’s influence on other police forces’ strategies and methods.
Such opaqueness and a lack of accountability in police practices is the norm in Israel, where the security services treat Palestinians as an enemy – both in the occupied territories and inside Israel, where there is a large minority with degraded Israeli citizenship. US police forces, on the other hand, profess, often unconvincingly, to be driven by a “protect and serve” ethos.
In taking action against Long-Bailey, Starmer, a former lawyer known for his forensic skills, made a telling, false allegation. He told the BBC that the Peake interview had indulged in antisemitic “conspiracy theories” – in the plural. But only one Israel-related claim, about the knee on the neck chokehold, was made or cited.
Further, Peake’s claim, whether correct or not, is patently not antisemitic. Israel is neither a Jew nor the representative of the Jewish people collectively – except in the imaginations of antisemites and the hardcore Zionists who people the Israel lobby.
More significantly still, in condemning Peake, Starmer wilfully ignored the wood as he pointed out a single tree.
Israeli scholar Jeff Halper, a veteran peace activist, has documented in great detail in his book War Against the People how Israel has intentionally positioned itself at the heart of a growing “global pacification industry”. The thousands of training sessions held by Israeli police in the US and around the world are based on their “expertise” in repressive, militarised policing.
Tiny Israel has influence in this field way out of proportion to its size, in the same way that it is one of the top 10 states – all the others far larger – that profit from the arms trade and cyber warfare. Every year since 2007, the Global Militarisation Index has crowned Israel the most militarised nation on the planet.
A senior analyst at the liberal Israeli Haaretz newspaper has described Israel as “securityland” – the go-to state for others to improve their techniques for surveilling, controlling and oppressing restive populations within their territory. It is this expertise in “securocratic warfare” that, according to Halper, has allowed tiny Israel to hit way above its weight in international politics and earned it a place “at the table with NATO countries”.
Western bad faith
It is on this last point that the Labour left, including many of the party’s half a million members, and the Labour right decisively part company. A gulf in worldviews opens up.
Along with the climate emergency, Israel symbolises for the Labour left some of the most visible hypocrisies and excesses of a neoliberal global agenda that treats the planet with slash-and-burn indifference, views international law with contempt, and regards populations as little more than pawns on an updated colonial chessboard.
Israel’s recent history of dispossessing the Palestinians; its unabashed promotion of Jim Crow-style ethnic privileges for Jews, epitomised in the nation-state law; its continuing utter disregard for the rights of Palestinians; its hyper-militarised culture; its decades-long occupation; its refusal to make peace with its neighbours; its deep integration into the West’s war industries; its influence on the ideologies of the “war on terror” and a worldwide “clash of civilisations”; and its disdain for international humanitarian law are all anathema to the left.
Worse still, Israel has been doing all of this in full view of the international community for decades. Nonetheless, its crimes are richly subsidised by the United States and Europe, as well as obscured by a sympathetic western media that is financially and ideologically embedded in the neoliberal establishment.
For the Labour left – for Peake, Long-Bailey and Corbyn – Israel is such an obvious example of western bad faith, such a glaring Achilles’ heel in the deceptions spread on behalf of the neoliberal order, that it presents an opportunity. Criticism of Israel can serve to awaken others, helping them to understand how a bogus western “civilisation” is destroying the planet through economic pillage, wars and environmental destruction.
It offers an entry into the left’s structural, more abstract critiques of capitalism and western colonialism that it is otherwise difficult to convey in soundbites to a uniformly hostile media.
The problem is that the stakes regarding Israel are understood by the Labour right in much the same way. Their commitment to a global neoliberal order – one they characterise in terms of a superior western civilisation – stands starkly exposed in the case of Israel.
If the idea of Israel is made vulnerable to challenge, so might their other self-delusions and deceptions about western superiority.
For each side, Israel has become a battleground on which the truthfulness of their worldview is tested.
The Labour right has no desire to engage with the left’s arguments, particularly at a time when the climate emergency and the rise of populism make their political claims sound increasingly hollow. Rather than debate the merits of democratic socialism, the Labour right has preferred to simply tar the Labour left as antisemites.
With Corbyn’s unexpected rise to lead Labour in 2015, that crisis for the Labour right became existential. The backlash was swift and systematic.
The party’s right-wing scrapped the accepted definition of antisemitism and imposed a new one on Labour, formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), to ensnare the left. It focused on criticism of Israel rather than hatred or fear of Jews.
The Jewish Labour Movement, a pro-Israel group, was revived in late 2015 to undermine Corbyn from within the party. It was all but sanctified, even as it refused to campaign for Labour candidates and referred the party to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for a highly politicised investigation.
The Labour right openly conflated not only the left’s anti-Zionism with antisemitism but even their socialist critiques of capitalism. It was argued that any references to bankers or a global financial elite were code words for “Jews”.
After this lengthy campaign helped to destroy Corbyn, the candidates to succeed him, including Long-Bailey, opted to declare themselves Zionists and to sign up to “10 Pledges” from the Board of Deputies, the UK’s main Jewish leadership organisation. Those demands put the board and the Jewish Labour Movement in charge of determining what antisemitism was, despite their highly partisan politics on Israel and their opposition to democratic socialism.
The problem for the Labour right and Israel’s lobbyists, and therefore for Starmer too, is that Israel, egged on by Trump, is working overtime to blow up the carefully constructed claim – supported by the IHRA definition of antisemitism – that Israel is just another normal western-style state and that therefore it should not be “singled out” for criticism.
Israel is on a collision course with the most fundamental precepts of international law by preparing to annex large areas of the West Bank. This is not a break with Israeli policy; it is the culmination of many decades of settlement activity and resource theft from Palestinians.
This is a potential moment of crisis for those on the Labour right, who could quickly find themselves exposed as political charlatans – the charlatans they always have been – by Israel’s actions over the coming weeks and months.
Starmer has indicated he is determined to tightly delimit the room for criticism of Israel within Labour as the annexation issue unfolds. That will leave him and the party free to issue their own carefully crafted, official condemnations – similar to Johnson’s.
Like Johnson, Starmer will play his allotted role in this political game of charades – one long understood and tolerated by Israel and its UK lobbyists. He will offer some sound and fury, the pretence of condemnation, but of the kind intended to signify nothing.
This has been at the heart of UK foreign policy towards a Jewish state built on the theft of Palestinian land for more than a century. Starmer has shown that he intends to return to business as usual as quickly as possible.