Further reflections on “Bad News for Labour”

JVL Introduction

We have already reported on the publication of Bad News for Labour, the suppression of its launch at Waterstones in Brighton in September and, of course, on the analysis developed in the book and of mainstream media’s silence in the face of its devastating critique.

As the general election campaign gets under way, and allegations of antisemitism are ramped up, we post Jonathan Rosenhead’s  timely review and overview of the arguments put forward by Greg Philo and others in Bad News.

This article was originally published by Bricup on Fri 1 Nov 2019. Read the original here.

"Bad News for Labour" – a review

Bad News for Labour: antisemitism, the party, and public belief Greg Philo. Mike Berry, Justin Schlosberg, Antony Lerman and David Miller. Pluto Press, 2019, 272pp

This book was scheduled to be launched at Waterstones bookshop in Brighton during September’s Labour Party Conference. It didn’t happen – a flurry of protests and threats to Waterstone’s management and the event was pulled.

A bookshop pulling a book launch, that’s not normal. But did you read about it in the mainstream media – Bookshop Cancels Launch of Book Claimed to be Antisemitic? No.

At the 2018 Labour Conference in Liverpool a showing of the film WitchHunt by Jewish Voice for Labour was prevented by a phoned-in bomb hoax. We are in an era where allegations of antisemitism based only on spoken words make front page headlines. But did you read about the bomb threat in the mainstream media – Jewish Group Targeted by Bomb Threat? No.

How do I know that you didn’t? Its because the MSM didn’t report either of them. Neither that first tentative step that leads in the direction of book burning; nor the threats of violence against a Jewish group. And that’s exactly what this book is about – the presentation through the media of a dominant narrative (‘antisemitism is endemic in the Labour Party’ plus ‘the Labour leadership has failed to deal with it’) to the exclusion, one might say suppression, of any challenge to it.

Bad News for Labour examines forensically, rigorously, the across-the-board failure of the media to challenge the narrative that Labour is riddled with antisemitism. And of course the mainstream media somehow has omitted to review the book (there’s no point in being inconsistent), although it addresses one of the hottest political topics of this and previous years. It’s almost as if they wanted to demonstrate the truth of the book’s conclusions.

The authors are distinguished academics. Greg Philo in particular is the leading figure in the Glasgow University Media Group which has been analysing and reporting on media distortion since 1974, with titles like Bad News, More Bad News, Really Bad News…. Justin Schlosberg heads the Media Reform Coalition; and Antony Lerman is one of the foremost UK scholars on antisemitism.

The evidence they have assembled is overwhelming, incorporating focus groups; opinion surveys; content analysis of press, radio and television output; and case studies especially around the selling of the notorious IHRA ‘definition’ of antisemitism, of which more later.

Let me take a step back from their material. I joined the Labour Party around 1961 and have been a member for much of the intervening period. (I am currently chair of my local branch.) And of course I have met antisemites in the Party. Obviously I have done, because there are antisemites everywhere. Its just that I don’t know who they are or were – because in all that time I have never heard a single antisemitic remark from a Labour member. And being Jewish my antisemitism detectors are always activated.

Labour needs to be watchful, like all other responsible bodies, since we know the damage that antisemitism has done and can do again. And there is certainly a subculture of antisemitic discourse on social media, some of it coming from people who claim to support Corbyn and Labour, but are mostly not identifiable as members. But this picture is far from the extraordinary claims being made of endemic, indeed institutional antisemitism.

Just how far this narrative has departed from reality is shown by the poll the book’s authors commissioned (sample size 1000). They asked the question “From what you have seen or heard, what percentage of Labour Party members do you think have had complaints made against them? If you don’t already know the reality check figure, why not try answering that question yourself before moving to the next paragraph.

The average estimate across all respondents came to 34%. Hardly anyone thought that it was less than 10%. But the actual number of complaints against members received by the Labour Party is rather less than 0.1% of its membership. That is, the average punter has got it wrong by a factor of 300!

The rest of the book tries to analyse how this gross mismatch could possibly have come about. Clearly few of the respondents can have been actual members of the Labour Party – which is big, but still less than 1% of the UK population. So almost exclusively they will have got this grossly false impression courtesy of the national media.

One of the biggest media stories in the effort to paint Labour as antisemitic was the campaign to persuade Labour to adopt the that IHRA “definition” of antisemitism. This is not the place to go into the way this deeply flawed attempt to extend the meaning of the word ‘antisemitism’ to cover many types of criticism of Israel and Zionism came into being in the first place. (You can find that here in an earlier edition of the BRICUP Newsletter.) Cutting to the chase, I will trace the story from the demand by the Board of Deputies of British Jews in March 2018 that the Labour Party adopt it, to the Party’s capitulation that September.

During that long hot summer the pressure was relentless. The media gave headlines to every minor figure who criticised Jeremy Corbyn on the issue, provided sycophantic interviews with Margaret Hodge and her look-alikes; and gave any countervailing interviewees who were granted air-time a right grilling. Labour antisemitism became not a claim to be investigated or explored, but a fact to be hammered home.

In Justin Schlosberg’s chapter he puts numbers on this imbalance. What makes his account so disturbing is not the depths of bias and abandonment of usual journalistic safeguards that were revealed – after all we have come to expect no less of the gutter end of British journalism. No, the striking finding was that the violations of journalistic standards were across the board, with higher-end journalism (BBC, Guardian) if anything more unbalanced, more unprincipled than the rest.

Schlosberg records the various crimes committed against responsible journalism in the acrid discussion of Labour’s proposed guidance on some of the more contentious ‘examples’ of antisemitism that had been attached to the IHRA ‘definition’. Journalists are supposed to give voice to contesting sources – yet the Guardian (the worst press offender) quoted sources critical of the proposed guidance 3 times more than supportive sources.

Television even outdid print media with a 4-to-1 ratio against critical sources. But it’s worse than that – because the treatment given to such sources in live interviews was so dissimilar. Schlosberg provides telling examples of the ‘softball’ questioning of those criticising the Labour leadership’s position.

Another crime against journalistic professionalism was the repeated carelessness, one hates to say economy, with the truth. The IHRA ‘definition’ was regularly cited as ‘undisputed’ – yet only one newspaper mentioned the 36 Jewish organisations, or the 84 groups representing UK migrant and minority communities, that issued statements criticising it. A similar disrespect for the facts was shown in the degree of international authority accorded to the IHRA’s document. This was described as everything from ‘widely accepted’ through ‘globally recognised’ to ‘near universally accepted’ (this last from Freedland in the Guardian). BBC presenters though could go one better – “The definition accepted by more or less every country in the world”. Or Margaret Hodge on air: “the universally used definition of antisemitism which everybody else [except Labour] had adopted, every other institution”.

The reality is that at the time of this fierce summer 2018 fracas the extent of official acceptance was readily available – on wikipedia, or if you doubt that, on the IHRA’s own website. That number was 8. The number of countries in the world is between 196 and 241, depending on how you count.

Two further chapters interrogate the implications of the IHRA definition, a document that has come to have a central place in this whole counterproductive mêlée. Tony Lerman analyses forensically its origins and implications; and David Miller describes his own experience of falling foul of the thought police seeking to police adherence to it.

Miller’s original sin was a talk he gave on ‘how to stand up to intimidation on campus’ to a small meeting of Palestinian students in late 2018. In it he addressed, among other things, the problems with two of the examples of potentially antisemitic statements. The examples pronounce that it is (or could be) antisemitic i) to call a/the state of Israel a ‘racist endeavour’; or ii) to hold Israel to a higher standard of behaviour ‘than that demanded of any other democratic nation’.

The consequence of Professor Miller’s discussion of these issues were denunciation on a reactionary website, picked up by the Jewish Chronicle; anonymous emails sent to his Bristol university academic colleagues; being subject to complaints to the University of Bristol that he was an antisemite; being described as an antisemite in the university’s student newspaper; and being subject to a complaint to the Labour Party (which provoked a Jewish Chronicle attack on the party for nor expelling him following their investigation). Here we see laid out in microcosm the methodology of attacks on freedom of expression, even within academia. The systematically skewed media coverage is in effect the precondition for the McCarthyite attack on free speech.

There is more in the book than I have been able to describe. In particular Tony Lerman discusses in some detail both the Macpherson principle and the concept of institutional racism – which have been drawn into the already overheated arena by the EHRC’s (Equality and Human Rights Commission) decision to investigate the Labour Party. There is also a very handy ‘timeline’ of the twists and turns of this extraordinary saga. Covering June 2015 to May 2019 it runs to 32 pages.

In some ways it’s a shame the book could not have been delayed. In July this year, when the book was already in production, the BBC’s Panorama programme “Is Labour Antisemitic?” handily illustrated virtually every denial of proper journalistic standards and processes that Bad News for Labour analyses and exposes. For one last extraordinary case study, see the Media Reform Coalition’s forensic dismantling of this ‘flagship’ BBC programme.

Comments (16)

  • Tony Fletcher says:

    Thanks for your review. When i heard about the Waterstones incident I wrote to them and they said they were keen to offer another booklaunch – some one should take them up on this offer:

    I wrote:
    “I just read that “Waterstones Brighton caved in to vicious censorship campaign and cancelled launch of Bad News for Labour, a book, ironically about suppression of Free Debate on Israel and Palestine.”
    Is this true?”

    they replied:

    From: Waterstones
    Date: Thursday, 26 September 2019 at 11:36

    Hello Tony,

    Thank you for contacting us.

    We have cancelled this event and regret the inconvenience caused.

    We did so because we found ourselves, largely inadvertently, about to run an event without proper preparation or with the professionalism that we expect. At the most basic level, we were uncertain that we would have any books on hand. As a bookseller that expects to be able to sell books, this was the most basic of failings, but also gave us little confidence from a central prospective that the event was being managed properly.

    It is not true that we have been threatened or harassed in any way, let alone that this is the reason for the cancellation. Our own lack of organisation, and that of the publisher, is the cause.

    We will gladly arrange future events for the book. We require simply that this be done professionally.

    Kind regards,

    Anthony Cochran
    Waterstones Customer Support

  • RH says:

    An excellent summary of the current situation. It could be a guide to Labour spokespeople as a replacement for tedious and needless apology.

  • David Pavett says:

    Bad News For Labour should now be regarded as essential reading for any discussion of claims about Labour antisemitism. It details the development of the media-manufactured crisis some aspects of which are extraordinary even to people with well well-developed sceptism about our media’s concern for the truth. One of the most disturbing things in that respect has been the role played by the Guardian which even now is carrying articles by its regular comnentators claiming, for example, that a Corbyn-led government would be “the most antisemitic government western Europe has seen since 1945” (Nick Cohen). In this the Guardian/Observer has fully embraced absurdity of a particularly nasty and viscious kind.

    The book largely does what it set out to do in a responsible and professional manner. Nevertheless, I felt that it failed to satisfactorily answer the question it raises about why Labour’s response to the media onslaught was so muted, ineffective and even incompetent (my words not the books). This is explained by leadership exhaustion and a party machine acting against the leadership. While I don’t doubt the reality of both factors I don’t think that will do.

    The LP’s approach to racism, including antisemitism, is overwhelmingly at the level of a humanistic moral gesture. That is well-meaning as far as it goes but the problem is that such a moralistic stance quickly runs out of steam when faced with an avalanche of criticism of detailed issues. A perfect example of this inability of Labour to repond clearly and robustly to the pressure to adopt the IHRA “definition” and then the IHRA example. And it is not as if first class advice was not available on both issues at the time. Labour, including its leaders just couldn’t handle the debate. That is not just a matter of overwork and unhelpful officials. It’s an issue that still merits discussion.

  • John says:

    Having read the book, one fact that stays in my mind is the response from one woman in one of the focus groups, who said that her impression that the Labour Party had a major antisemitism problem had been formed by looking at the headlines in the newspaper rack in the supermarket where she worked.
    She had never read any of the articles but it was the sheer unremitting paper headline coverage that had created the perception of a real problem.
    This just goes to show how well the Big Lie tactic works.
    Just keep on repeating the same lie over and over and over again.
    That will create an impression of a problem, however untrue it may be.
    What this exposes – to my mind at least – is that the UK establishment is every bit as effective as the tactics of the former Dr Goebbels in creating wholly untruthful mindsets among the wider UK public.
    Those alleged pillars of the UK media – The Guardian and the BBC – have played an absolutely key and pernicious role in spreading disinformation.
    Our country is in peril, as are all the minorities in this country.
    These are very dark and disturbing times we are all living in.
    Maybe it is time we all looked into finding our own alternative place of sanctuary to escape to from the lying mass media of this country?

  • I have read the book and think this is a very accurate and insightful review. Well done (the other) Jonathan!

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    Yes, the book is excellent. I sold a copy to someone who has just received an investigation notice. He has just written back to say “I have just finished reading the book and it helped me immensely to put into perspective what I am being subjected to.”
    Apart from the facts and examples the book offers it offers context. And, as you can see, context means comfort. Individuals are being picked off thanks to a combination of vexatious denunciation by wreckers inside and outside the Party and either collusion or cowardice on the part of Party officials.
    One member of my own CLP (not the one quoted above) has received an “immediate suspension” notice without a single specific allegation or indication of “evidence”. Natural justice? More a denouncers’ field-day!

  • Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi says:

    Waterstones has yet to fulfil its promise to the publisher and authors to compensate for cancelling the book launch in Brighton in September by hosting events in flagship stores around the country. Readers can encourage them to make good on their pledge with polite emails to [email protected].

  • Nicola Grove says:

    Such a good and much needed book. But it’s relentless. The Guardian is definitely the worst offender.. see Jonathan Freedland’s recent editorial, How can Jews vote for Corbyn? He needs to be answered publicly and loudly

  • Charlotte Williams says:

    A brilliant review, thank you Jonathan.
    I’ve written to James Daunt.

  • Allan Howard says:

    On the website of the Campaign Against Antisemitism there is a page entitled Antisemitism Barometer 2017, and on page 6 it says the following:

    Our data also revealed patterns in antisemitism across political divides, with supporters of left-wing political parties and supporters of the ‘remain’ camp in the EU referendum all less likely to be antisemitic than those on the right or supporters of the ‘leave’ camp.

    As soon as I read this, I had little doubt that further on the ‘report’ they would come up with some explanation – offer an explanation – as to how it is that there has been so much media coverage about anti-semitism in the Labour Party in the preceeding two years or so (the Yougov poll was conducted on the 2nd and 3rd of August (2017), as stated on page 43, and their own ‘fieldwork’ conducted between July 19th and August 8th, as stated on page 83), and on page 19 this is what they say:

    The YouGov data shows, for example, that Labour Party supporters are less likely to be antisemitic than other voters, so the cause of British Jews’ discontentment with the Labour Party must be the way that it has very publicly failed to robustly deal with the antisemites in its ranks. This means that the Labour Party has fallen out of step with its core supporters, who are generally less likely to hold antisemitic beliefs.

    Yes, well that explains it, doesn’t it! So if the LP had been less ‘public’ about it like other political parties, A/S wouldn’t have been a problem!

    If it wasn’t such a serious issue it would be laughable.

  • Frank Land says:

    Send the review to The Guardian as a submission to their Long Read section in The Journal. They probably won’t accept it, but worth a try with a suitable introductory letter say why it should be published. Overcoming the problem of making our voice and evidence heard remains the issue. We can’t solve it by just talking to ourselves. But how?

  • Mark Windmill says:

    So you say that Bad News For Labour has been subject not just to biased coverage, but unprecedentedly biased coverage across an unusually wide range of media outlets? What sinister, manipulative force pulling strings behind the scenes could have brought this about? Blinking heck, give it a rest. Maybe it got bad reviews and indifference because it’s a bit of hack work?

    • Mike Cushman says:

      Maybe your comment would would have more force if you engaged with the carefully constructed and evidenced arguments in the book rather than just abusing it.

  • Mark Windmill says:

    Bet you won’t allow my comment.

Comments are now closed.