Corbyn and antisemitism: Will any brave journalist souls admit they got the story wrong?

JVL Introduction

“What really distinguishes a democratic media system,” affirms Justin Schlosberg, “is that, if and when the truth does emerge, it is duly told. This requires professional journalists to have an unflinching instinct for self-reflection.”

Well, just look at the deafening, abject silence in the face of the leaked Labour Party report.

Where is the “ individual, collective and relentless willingness to ask, in the light of new evidence, whether they got the story wrong and if so, to correct the public record and acknowledge mistakes.”


This article was originally published by Medium on Fri 24 Apr 2020. Read the original here.

Corbyn and antisemitism: Will any brave journalist souls admit they got the story wrong?

The greatest threat to democracy is not lying politicians, fake news or propaganda. Such things have always been endemic to the messy reality of politics in formally democratic systems, just as they are under authoritarian regimes. Indeed, one of the essential features of a functioning democracy is that even the most trusted and respected news institutions must be allowed, on occasion at least, to get the story wrong.

What really distinguishes a democratic media system is that, if and when the truth does emerge, it is duly told. This requires professional journalists to have an unflinching instinct for self-reflection. It requires an individual, collective and relentless willingness to ask, in the light of new evidence, whether they got the story wrong and if so, to correct the public record and acknowledge mistakes.

Two weeks ago, Labour’s internal report into the handling of antisemitism complaints was leaked to the press. From the outset, the few headlines that surfaced in the mainstream news were framed in such a way as to question the report’s legitimacy. This, in spite of the fact that the veracity of the evidence contained in the report was not contested; evidence that pointed to a culture of rampant racism, misogyny and corruption going back years.

Of course, in the midst of a pandemic, no one could reasonably expect the report to be a headline news story. But given that Labour’s internal factionalism had been a recurring talking point for leading political commentators since 2015, we might have expected at least a mention. Even at the moment the pandemic was blowing up and just prior to the report’s leak, the BBC’s chief political correspondent tweeted a disparaging comment of the ‘Corbyn experiment’ by Labour’s former general secretary Iain McNichol. But when McNichol was then heavily implicated in the report and forced to step down from his present role in the House of Lords, it elicited no reaction. This, it seems, was less newsworthy than his mere utterance of any criticism directed at Corbyn.

Not only did the report meet with abject silence by such reporters, its marginal coverage in the mainstream press gave equal prominence to allegations that the investigation and leaking of the report did not follow due process. One of just two BBC reports on the story did not even make a single reference to the leaked evidence, offering only the briefest mention towards the end of concerns about “allegations” of factionalism.

This was an astonishing departure from even the most basic journalistic norms of truth-telling. Here was a document laden with hard evidence showing that staff opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership had, over a period of months and years, abused their power in order to fuel a demonstrably false narrative: that Corbyn was failing to tackle antisemitism within the party. Outside of Brexit, this narrative underscored one of the biggest and longest-running political controversies over the last three years and was one of the most salient issues of the 2019 general election.

At the height of that election, the BBC was all over what was repeatedly described as an “unprecedented” political intervention by the Chief Rabbi (in spite of the fact that he had made similar public comments just four months prior). Importantly, the Chief Rabbi’s statement laid the blame for failures in complaints handling squarely with Corbyn, in what he called “a new poison — sanctioned from the very top”. This was followed by Andrew Neil’s prime time and hugely promoted grilling of Corbyn on BBC One — expressly agreed on condition that Boris Johnson would face the same (though he never did) — and focusing on allegations that Corbyn himself was responsible for failures in complaints handling.

And all of this came on the back of a BBC Panorama investigation last summer which concluded that the Labour leadership had intervened in the complaints process in order to delay, obstruct or otherwise rig investigations into antisemitism. This, in spite of wholesale evidence to the contrary that was already in the public domain, showing repeated attempts by the leadership’s office to expedite and escalate sanctions.

The programme had relied heavily on the testimony of Sam Matthews, former head of complaints, who claimed his efforts to deal with antisemitism were being hampered by the leadership. We now know that claim was not only false, but a direct inversion of the truth. The double tragic irony revealed in the leaked report was that the behaviour of factionally-motivated staff was, in fact, the overriding cause of delays and obstruction in the party’s complaints handling process. Labour’s antisemitism problem had been made demonstrably worse by the very people who were trying to pin it on Corbyn.

Antisemitism was and remains a real problem within the Labour Party. Denial of that essential truth was always wrong, even if it was never itself an obvious proxy for antisemitism.

But this was not the crux of the controversy that dogged Corbyn’s leadership of the party. The controversy hinged on whether antisemitism had disproportionately increased under his leadership, whether it had ‘engulfed’ the party, and crucially whether he himself was complicit in it. Such claims were not sufficiently questioned or probed by journalists even when they were dominating the headlines. They were at best symptomatic of a group think ignorance on the part of those opposed to Corbyn’s leadership and at worst, to use the Chief Rabbi’s words, a “mendacious fiction”.

One of the most notorious examples of journalistic self-reflection was the front page apology published by the New York Times following their disastrous coverage of the Iraq War. Though it is debatable whether any lessons were in fact learned from the Times’ slavish repetition of state-sponsored falsehood, the wording of its infamous apology is instructive:

We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged

It is a sad indictment of our fourth estate that such gestures of media accountability are so rare. But it’s clear that if professional journalists really want to address plummeting standards and trust in the news, they have to start by looking inward. The leaked Labour report provides an unrivalled test of integrity for those who, above all else, bear responsibility for truth telling.

Comments (25)

  • dave says:

    Justin is right up to a point but he must realise that most journalists are not innocent but complicit in the campaign against Corbyn and the left. The leaked report changes nothing for them. Attempts to get the BBC accountable for the Panorama failed and I have no confidence that the management or board will revisit it. There are a few exceptions – well, I can think of only one, and that’s Peter Oborne.

    Justin also says:

    “antisemitism was and remains a real problem within the Labour Party”

    That sounds more serious than it is and I’m surprised at this phrase.

  • Bob Bran says:

    How long is the statute of limitation for libel?
    Asking for a friend with the initials JC.

  • Mr Philip Horowitz says:

    Bob, it seems to be one year. On the short side as limitation periods go.

  • RH says:

    I have to support dave’s gentle admonition about antisemitism being ‘a real problem’ in the Labour Party.

    Of course, it depends upon one’s definition of ‘real problem’ – but I think proportionality must be a consideration, and a fair few of us can think of no first-hand evidence of it over years of membership. It is certainly less of an issue than many other quotidian prejudices that one can identify.

    Why does this matter? Simply because every defensive apologia, without massive qualification, is actually grist to the antagonistic myth-making mill.

    Worse, it actually adds to the smoke of confusion over what antisemitism actually *is*, created by the fateful adoption of the IHRA mess of ‘definition’. In doing so, it actually demeans and diminishes the term.

    As to the MSM journalism behind the myths – it is difficult to overstate the failure of professional intent. The investigation of the ‘investigators’ usually provokes the reaction of a Victorian maiden accused of impropriety. Such is the ludicrous lack of self-reflection and/or competence from what has become an isolated elite.

    The sad history leading to this high point of propagandized ‘churnalism’ (as he terms it) is well-documented in Nick Davies’s ‘Flat Earth News’.

  • Edward Hill says:

    The report is hardly the independent or objective document that would invite reviewing of previously held opinions. It reads like the familiar apologia of an organisation forced to admit wrongdoing has occurred, but insisting that was in the past. So, from the 100,000 emails examined, the report has selected those that make a case for the blame being placed on the inefficiency of the previous regime, allowing rebuttal of the staffers’ testimony to ‘Panorama’.
    There is no disputing of the other major contribution to that programme, the statements of those Jewish members who failed to mention membership of a group whose later General Election statement 2019 said: “This crisis of antisemitism in the Labour Party stems from a failure of leadership from Jeremy Corbyn…We will not be campaigning unless in exceptional circumstances”
    The report’s defence of the party leader over failure to tackle antisemitism amounts to little more than the scarcely exhonerating “he did not know what was going on”.

  • David Stretton says:

    There’s a world of difference between “he did not know what was going on” and being deliberately mislead. That said can you honestly say that there was anything Corbyn could have done to tackle this issue which would have got the MSM to admit, “Okay, we got it wrong”. What was unique about the crisis, as Professor Finkelstein has observed, was that the attacks not only came from the usual suspects i.e. the Tory press but the so-called liberal media as well. The real question that needs answering regarding the report is why go to such lengths to attack the leader of the party you are suppose to serve?

  • Philip Scott says:

    Most neutral observers would have noted that anti-Semitism allegations against Corbyn were “quoted” rather than investigated. The Labour Report confirmed this – Corbyn’s opponents actively working to smear him in the eyes of the media.

    There is no excuse for protecting those who acted against Labours interests – throwing the election. We need to punish those who used Anti-Semitism against him so dishonestly and allowed a Tory victory.

    Otherwise, we need a new working class party

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    Why is “he didn’t know what was going on” scarcely exhonerating (sic)? Edward Hill can argue that Corbyn should have adopted this or that approach to fighting anti-Semitism or fighting the Right in the Party and I might agree with him. But the exoneration we are talking about relates to the charge that he enabled or encouraged anti-Semitism (the standard media line) or that he was an anti-Semite and racist (the Jewish press line). Those were the charges and the leaked Report rightly exonerates him of them.
    I am not convinced that Corbyn always chose the right way of countering these mendacious charges but any evaluation of his actions in this regard would have to take into account the balance of forces in the Party and specifically in the Party’s various committees at any given time.
    Like most members, I have no detailed understanding of this, though the Report makes a relevant albeit partial contribution in that regard. But I remember (from reports)that when the wretched IHRA document was discussed on the NEC, Corbyn was deserted by Momentum and stood alone arguing for a strong statement on the conditionality of the document ‘definition’.

  • Stephen Williams says:

    Perhaps it would help if Jeremy himself provided a lead. It is time to accept that passive acceptance of lies is not an effective way to fight smears. He has remained silent on the issue for four plus years, watching (apparently) from the sidelines while his friends were attacked, suspended and expelled , tolerating a degree of abuse from within the party that no leader has experienced before, even the blood-stained Blair. His silence was interpreted as weakness, even guilt.
    I’m still waiting for his response. What has he got to lose now?

  • JanP says:

    Re anti semitism being “a real problem in the Labour Party”. From what I remember, I think that Jennie Formby’s report dealt with that issue by analysing and describing clearly the difference between what was real anti semitism, what was ignorance, what was false accusations, and what was just pro Palestinian sentiment. Each category was addressed differently from expulsion through re education to dismissal of complaint. This analysis formed the basis of the conclusion that there was much less than 1% of real anti semitism in the party. A problem yes, but nothing at all on the scale of what was bandied about by accusers or the press. We need to keep repeating this.

  • Rowan woodward says:

    Edward, I agree that the report has self selected evidence that suits its case, and it will be interesting to see what an independent investigation throws up. However, statistics on cases processed, and the lack of standards and rigor is very well documented and was the responsibility of Ian McNichols team. The long list of actions by the leaders office and the statements made, show a consistent and full bodied attempt to address the issues, only to be apparently thwarted by the incompetence/and or deliberate hindrance of the unit. To tackle AS and racism in general, it is important that the truth is known and acknowledged openly, and appropriate actions are taken ,including apologies to those who suffered as a result, the members and last leadership if appropriate.

  • Doug says:

    First and foremost the source material needs protecting
    Shine a light on those individuals and groups responsible for the Antisemitism scam and the Industrial level of vexatious claims
    Then prosecute for hate crimes

  • RH says:

    Re. Edward Hill’s comment :

    “The report is hardly the independent or objective document that would invite reviewing of previously held opinions.”

    … that would seem best to describe about 99.9% of media reporting on the subject, and the greater part of any utterances from the JLM or BoD!

  • Allan Howard says:

    There appears to be a dichotomy in Justin’s thinking. On the one hand he poses the question ‘will any brave journalist admit they got the story wrong’ regards ‘Corbyn and antisemitism’, and on the other hand he says: ‘Antisemitism was and remains a real problem within the Labour Party. Denial of that essential truth was always wrong…..’.

    It was a black op smear campaign and had nothing whatsoever to do with journalists – ie the MSM and the Jewish newspapers (and the BoD and CAA and LAA and JLM et al) – getting it wrong. It was a manufactured and deliberate campaign of disinformation and falsehoods, and EVERY single individual and group who conspired in the whole thing new exactly what they were doing. Did Ken Livingstone say anything remotely anti-semitic? No, of course he didn’t, and he was alluding, in passing, to the Haavara Agreement, an historical fact. And yet the WHOLE of the MSM, along with the Jewish newspapers and the BoD and JLM and CAA et al dissembled the gargantuan falsehood – along with mountain loads of faux outrage and condemnation and vilification – that Ken said something anti-semetic, that what he said amounted to Jew hatred.

    And THAT about sums up how fraudulent the whole A/S thing has been, and has been right from the outset. There is nothing whatsoever that merits all the thousands of articles, and thousands of TV news items etc during the past four-and-a-half years, and but for the fact that Jeremy was leader (and had several hundred thousand member supporters), we would not have heard a dicky-bird about anti-semitism.

    As for the way the MSM et al covered the leaked document story, well it’s just emblematic of the whole smear campaign.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Referring to journalists (and the MSM etc), Justin finishes by saying that the leaked report ‘provides an unrivalled test of integrity for those who, above all else, bear responsibility for truth telling’, and says this knowing that in general the MSM and the Jewish newspapers have ALREADY spun the report to reflect on Jeremy negatively. It’s all very well espousing what journalists and newspapers SHOULD do, but given that they DON’T and, as such, just disseminate falsehoods and propaganda, surely THAT is what we should be calling out.

    And it isn’t just propaganda lies and distortions etc for the sake of it……. the whole objective is to demonise and smear your political opponents – or enemies as they no doubt see them – so as to subvert democracy, and do so so as to maintain their power and the status quo. When you have millions of newspapers describing Ken Livingstone as ‘Red Ken’ and Tony Benn as ‘Barmy Benn’ and Neil Kinnock as ‘The Welsh Windbag’ – as was the case in the 80s and 90s, for example – whilst referring to Margaret Thatcher as ‘Maggie’, THAT is totally corrupt ‘journalism’ – ie black propaganda. And they did the same when Ed Milliband was leader of the LP, referring to him as ‘Red Ed’ whilst referring to David Cameron as ‘Dave’.

    The funny thing is (not ha ha), that the one aspect of the reason for the historical defeat that most of us on the left over-looked, was the effect of the smears in relation to Jeremy being a ‘friend’ to terrorists (the IRA) and a Putin stooge etc and (allegedly!) snubbing and/or disrespecting the Queen etc, etc, etc – ie unpatriotic. We have tended to focus on Brexit and the A/S smear campaign, but apparently many former Labour voters didn’t vote Labour because of their dislike of Jeremy.

    In a Guardian article on December 13th entitled ‘ Five reasons why Labour lost the election’ it says the following: ‘Among older voters, Labour campaigners said his past support for the Irish republican movement came up repeatedly on the doorsteps.’ Well the MSM – and particularly the corporate press – have been hammering away at that one from the outset, and yet it doesn’t appear to have been much of a factor in 2017, so I can only conclude that the newspaper propagandists have just kept endlessly repeating it SINCE the 2017 GE, along with ‘disrespecting’ the queen and cohorting with foreign spies and ‘defending’ Putin in relation to the Salisbury poisonings etc, etc, etc. I thought the media were supposed to be more balanced during election campaigns, but just in the past few days I’ve come across numerous abhorrent articles from during the campaign. Here’s just one example from November 21st:

    Corbyn’s ‘manifesto of hope’ is really a Marxist catalogue of hate and intolerance

  • Allan Howard says:

    Just came across this article by Pat Stack posted on Jan 20th entitled ‘Jeremy Corbyn and the IRA smears‘:

    During the general election, claims that Jeremy Corbyn was a supporter or even a member of the IRA were a prominent part of how he was demonised.

    According to many who canvassed for Labour in the recent general election, there was much greater personal hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn than in 2017.

    I am not referring here to his Brexit stance, which has been debated endlessly elsewhere. I’m thinking of the rather more personal smears, and in particular, the ‘smear’ that he was friendly with, associated with, or apologised for the IRA.

  • Doug says:

    Which begs the question what to do about MSM and toilet papers
    My solution, put Hugh Grant and Prince Harry in charge of regulator with 3 strikes and your out of business powers
    Which then begs the question would they be missed, would society improve for their demise
    Which just leaves what would replace them

  • Stephen Mitchell says:

    I note the most recent Private Eye acknowledges there was a conspiracy by Labour officials to undermine Corbyn and prevent a Labour victory. THis is the very first time PE has moved from a position of attacking Jeremy. Only a small move but at least it is a start. There will be total silence as our media is so totally biased against the Left. It was ever thus. The media is still not challenging this governments assertion that the economy was in good shape before the virus struck. A decade of austerity left our health service threadbare. Not even able to provide staff with basic kit. The blame lies with the Conservatives and those who voted for them. Will the charge stick?? I am dubious

  • sandra yvonne yehya says:

    A voice of reason amongst so many false and misleading ones. A big thank you.

  • Ted Alleyne says:

    Allen Howard, it’s a “historic fact” that Black Africans were absolutely complicit in the slave trade to the extent that it could not have existed without their active participation. However if a white politician pointed out this fact every time a black person mentioned the poisonous legacy of slavery, they would not get a serious hearing on the left. In fact they would be quite correctly denounced as a racist. This is a broad analogue to Ken Livingstone’s dredging up of the Ha’avara Agreement in a wholly unrelated context. At best it falls into the category of “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole” (in the words of The Dude).

    Similarly, a lot of the discourse around Jewishness among the less politically educated Corbyn supporters has varied between staggeringly tone deaf and flat out antisemitic conspiracy theorising.

    This is not to deny the campaign of lying and distortion which is business as usual for the Tory press. But you can’t simultaneously say that party staffers failed to deal with antisemitism and that the entire issue was fabricated.

  • Alan says:

    My experience of antisemitism in the labour movement:

    As an activist in the Walsall North CLP in the 1980s, I knew a member who just didn’t like Jews. It was that simple, and obvious to our then (Jewish) MP, David Winnick.

    At the same time I was senior rep for ASTMS and later MSF at a factory in the GEC group. In seven years in that position, there were maybe three occasions when I had to give a member a comradely reminder that we opposed Weinstock because he was a capitalist and for no other reason. That’s it.

    The accusations are confected as part of a transparent attempt to extend the meaning of antisemitism to catch opposition to Zionism.

  • Jem Coady says:

    Ted Alleyne.
    You’re putting words into Alan Howard’s mouth. He didn’t say the entire issue was “fabricated” – your word – but that its exploitation was “fraudulent”, that it didn’t merit the widespread attention it received and had Corbyn not been leader “we wouldn’t have heard a dicky bird about antisemitism”. That’s not to say it didn’t exist, but that it was blown up out of all reasonable proportion. Also, you don’t seem to be entirely sure about the degree of correspondence between your analogy of the slave trade and Livingstone’s widely misreported quote (“a broad analogue). I share your doubt, especially as you don’t actually address the point Alan Howard was making there.

  • Alex May says:

    Excellent piece. Well argued and important. It will simply be ignored though by the BBC and other media unless they can be forced to cover it and the issues it raises. Could a petition be started?can you send the piece to the BBC and ask for comments?

  • Alex May says:

    Dave and AH query the article’s suggestion that Anti Semitism was and remains a real problem in the Labour Party. But examples of it pervading Labour throughout the last century including Labour’s `golden age’ of the 1945 government are easy to find. Ernest Bevin routinely used the word “Yids”. Ian Mikardo was excluded from the Cabinet position his experience and abilities warranted because it was felt by the leadership that there were too many Jews already prominent in the party. The Corbyn era represented for the first time an attempt to tackle all forms of racism not just pay lip service to the idea. Sadly though Corbyn decided on appeasement when Zionists and their supporters began their relentless campaign to discredit him. And they achieved their goal of strangling what had been a growing movement to highlight the persecution of the Palestinians by the Israeli regime. But that doesn’t mean the media’s role in giving unconditional platforms to Corbyn’s slanderers shouldn’t be pursued.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Ted, Ken did not ‘dredge’ up anything, and the whole fake and phony ‘reaction’ to what he said would never have happened but for the fact that Jeremy was leader of the LP. End of!

    The following is from Ken’s resignation statement:

    The contribution of Jewish people to human civilisation and culture is extraordinary. You only have to think of giants such as Einstein, Freud and Marx to realise that human civilisation would be unrecognisably diminished without the contribution and achievements of Jewish people.

    I have fought racism and antisemitism all my life. When I have served in public office I have not just given lip service but I have taken real action to tackle antisemitism. As Leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s and as London Mayor in the 2000s, I ensured London’s government resourced the fight against racism and antisemitism, as well as supported Jewish community organisations and cultural events.

    When I was Leader of the Greater London Council (GLC), it funded a number of Jewish community organisations, including the Jewish Social Responsibility Council, the Jewish Association for the Physically Handicapped, the Jewish Employment Action Group, the Redbridge Jewish Youth Association and Agudas Israel in Hackney.

    As London Mayor, I hosted, took part in and promoted events to mark the annual Holocaust Memorial Day. I hosted the Anne Frank exhibition at City Hall and the lighting of the Menorah ceremonies for the Hanukkah festival. I organised, in partnership with Jewish cultural organisations, a Jewish festival in Trafalgar Square – the Simcha on the Square. I also supported the Jewish Museum’s exhibition on multicultural Britain and published several guides to Jewish London.

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