Mainstreaming the campaign for free speech

Jonathan Coulter’s talk at the Rally for Free Speech, 12th Dec 2020

JVL Introduction

Here is Jonathan Coulter’s speech at the launch rally for the Campaign for Free Speech. The event took place on 12th December and was co-organised by Labour Left Alliance and Labour against the Witch-hunt.

Jonathan spoke as a Liberal Democrat disenchanted with sectarianism and tribalism across the political spectrum, including his own party, and which stops people engaging with each other and seeking common ground.

He describes the ‘fake antisemitism campaign’ against the Labour left as the worst single episode of misinformation he has ever witnessed and finds depressing parallels in the way both Lib Dem and Labour establishments have handled it.

At the same time, he urges all those concerned about this situation to reach out to a range of potential supporters and frame their arguments within a broader struggle for free speech and against misinformation emanating from the media.


Jonathan Coulter says:

I have been active on Palestine and the Middle East for eleven years, but this has developed into a broader concern for free speech and media reform in the UK.

In October 2016, two Murdoch newspapers grossly misreported a House of Lords meeting chaired by Jenny Tonge, causing me to lead an audience complaint to the regulator, the ‘Independent Press Standards Organisation’ (IPSO). When this didn’t produce the desired results, I launched a judicial review of IPSO with the support of the Hacked Off Campaign. You can read about this and other matters on my blog www.freeexpressionforall.org (and sign up for updates at the bottom of the home page).

I have been a member of the Liberal Democrats for just five and half years, but am generally disappointed with party politics, finding it riven with sectarianism and tribalism which prevents people talking to each other properly. This is not only on the left or the far left, but I find it among the Lib Dems. I have challenged Lib Dems about the misinformation and smearing of the Labour party over antisemitism, but while many recognise what is happening, they are often unwilling to lift a finger because these are Labour people.

Getting disconcerted about party politics, I have got more active on single issues, concerning the Middle East, freedom of expression and active travel.

However, I am very happy to talk at today’s event. While I do not call myself a socialist, I identify with the idea of ‘for the many, not the few’. In fact, I know few people who want the opposite.

I like your group’s unapologetic approach in dealing with antisemitism smears, and contrast this to supporters of Palestinian rights who often appease the pro-Israel lobby in one way or another – sugaring the pill, hiding the truth, always talking about sensitivities, hoping to gain acceptance with the media, political parties or whatever. I’d have to put Jeremy Corbyn at the head of the list and have seen instances with PSC. I therefore wholeheartedly agree with Kerry-Anne’s recent article ‘How to fight the witch-hunt and win’, when she says “Every capitulation emboldens them. And that’s why it has to stop”.

However, I was less happy when Kerry-Anne presented the smear campaign simply as an attack on “the working class, and anti-racist socialists”. Kerry, your potential allies may take issue with this, because they see this smear campaign as an attack on all of us (you may remember the names of Jenny Tonge and David Ward), and something that is corrupting the people and institutions of this country. If we want to win friends and influence people in larger numbers, we need more inclusive language, focusing on what we have in common and not get hung up on differences – which often turn out to be more semantic than real.

The fake antisemitism campaign against Labour is the worst single episode of misinformation I have ever witnessed. Since 2015, the mainstream media has put out a uniform wall-to-wall narrative and failed to report evidence that disputes it. It is a surreal situation, where BBC produces a documentary about Chinese treatment of Uighurs, called ‘How to Brainwash a Million People’ (broadcast 25/11/19), while itself contributing to the brainwashing of tens of millions of British people, by more subtle means, in the run-up to the 2019 General Election.

But this is not just a problem for Labour. You may have seen articles I have published with other Lib Dems complaining that the party leaders supported the fake campaign and were unwilling to discuss the evidence behind it, about how the party establishment has systematically censored internal discussion of this, and its double-standards and hypocrisy in the handling of disciplinary complaints. Those disciplined on grounds of antisemtism are sometimes subjected to humiliating treatment, not allowed to know who is accusing them, nor the substance of their comments, which sounds like what is going on in Labour. By contrast, the party allows supporters of the party line to misbehave on a grand scale, and with impunity. This is something the party would rather not discuss but it is documented on my blog.

Looking forward, I think we need to think in terms of Russian dolls, including a smaller inner doll and a larger outer doll. The smaller doll is the misinformation about antisemitism, while the larger doll is the wider framework of misinformation in the UK resulting from the ownership and operation of the mainstream media, and the dark (anonymous) money that finances misinformation. Nick Davies magnificently described the malfunctioning of the media in his book ‘Flat-Earth News’ (2009), while Peter Geoghegan’s ‘Democracy for Sale’ (2020) showed how right-wing political campaigns and ‘think-tanks’, assisted by dark money, were pushing out misinformation, in the UK and elsewhere.

The small doll is particularly bad because ‘all the stars are aligned’: the Israel lobby and supporters, the Conservative party, the media and right-wing Labour rivals are all in the line. But the larger doll may prove much more damaging in the long term. Let’s think of matters of peace and war.

The Lib Dems are justly proud that under Charles Kennedy they opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while Labour and Conservatives went along with it. But it is often forgotten that this was a last minute and close-run decision, accompanied by considerable handwringing from a timid party establishment, fearing tabloid press disapproval and accusations of ‘unpatriotic behaviour’.

This raises serious questions. What would have happened if the Lib Dems had opposed the war much earlier? Could they have influenced MPs from other parties to vote against it? And what will happen next time with the growing authoritarianism we are witnessing within our political parties. How will they behave if, for example, government tries to drag us into a confrontation with Iran?

We should present the egregious campaign against Labour as part of a larger problem of misinformation in the UK and reach out to potential allies who are looking at the ‘larger doll’. Think of the Hacked Off Campaign, the Media Reform Coalition, Truth Defence and all those (like Edward Miliband and Kenneth Clarke) who fought for the full implementation of Justice Leveson’s recommendations. Leveson sought to rein in the press’s ability to lie and make it easier for people to complain, making use of low-cost arbitration instead of having to bear massive legal fees.

Think of people like Mary Fitzgerald, Peter Geoghegan and Carol Cadwalladr who are fighting to expose the use of dark money and the manipulation of social media, sympathetic journalists like Peter Oborne, and potentially sympathetic elements in other parties – even some members of the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) who have not spoken up much lately but have in the past. In short, we need to reinvent the campaign as an inclusive one welcoming British people of different political perspectives, but united in the vision of ‘for the many, not the few’.

Of course, some of these people may turn out to be ‘progressive-except-on-Palestine’ (PEP), but we are going to have to fight that challenge and look for different ways of engaging with them.

So, to summarise, we need to:

  • think in terms of Russian dolls
  • move out of our sectarian echo-chambers
  • focus on shared interests
  • and avoid getting hung up on our differences, that are often more semantic than real

Comments (12)

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    What a terrific statement by Jonathan Coulter. The ‘fake antisemitism campaign’ is, as he says, an ‘egregious campaign against Labour as part of a larger problem of misinformation in the UK’. It is not a matter for private Labour grief. People on the left and the right are being hurt by the ‘larger problem of misinformation in the UK’ and in ways that are new. While under no illusions about the BBC or the Guardian, they have, for many years, presented a reasonably liberal evaluation of many aspects of the news. When it comes to the ‘antisemitism wars’ that liberalism, no matter how limited, or how deficient to deal with many issues that many of us regard as important, has gone totally out of the window. Indeed, work by people like the Glasgow Media Group has shown that the Guardian and BBC are leading the attack on behalf of those who are alleging there is a tsunami of left antisemitism.

    There is immense scope for us to build alliances which would make us much stronger. So, the Muslim Council of Britain was knocked by the EHRC when it wanted an investigation of Tory Islamaphobia. Baroness Warsi, former Tory Party chair, has similarly discovered how her party sees her. Peter Oborne stands out as a right wing journalist who believes both in free speech and rigorously evidenced journalism – and there are others, less prominent, how have also stood with us. I am NOT in the Labour Party (three/four years in the 1990s was a deeply unpleasant experience and quite enough for me), but I see it as a crucial component for building a fairer and more humane society. So I am happy to help JVL’s research and campaigning against the mostly manufactured antisemitism allegations mounted against the Labour left, including its former leader. I would urge JVL, and all those fighting against this dual attempt to crush whatever left we have in Britain, and to write the Palestinians out of history, to reach out to all potential sympathisers and allies and make them (us!) welcome.

    I would also urge all of us in this campaign – and here, I think Jonathan Coulter misses the point – to retain our ‘sensitivities’. This does NOT mean apologising constantly for non-antisemitic-actions as has happened too often (and Jeremy Corbyn has been one of the wrongdoers here), nor tempering our criticism of Israel, but always remembering: the point is to win. And that victory is more likely to be achieved if we can tackle the unnecessary fears – which are now, after five years of this antisemitism stuff, very profound – among so many Jewish people. Our inclusivity needs to include Tories, Lib Dems, Greens, and unaffiliated people (like me!) and also reach out to Jewish people who have been terrorised (by the Jewish establishment, and the media, both mainstream and Jewish) but who will not – if given a chance – want to see their world disfigured by criminal abuse of the term antisemitism, nor by the Palestinians having their story and their rights expunged.

  • Joathon coulter may not define himself as a socialist but his grasp of the essentials is something that shames present leadership.

  • I fully agree with Naomi

  • Anne says:

    “If we want to win friends and influence people in larger numbers, we need more inclusive language, focusing on what we have in common and not get hung up on differences – which often turn out to be more semantic than real.”
    Excellent article, thank you. I thought exactly the above while reading a Labour Left article which spoke of being the party for ‘the working class’. Am not sure what that means.

    It is heartbreaking to speak up for the truth, in return receiving an onslaught of vicious contradiction

  • Dr Rodney Watts says:

    I am really chuffed that JVL has chosen to publish Jonathan’s talk, and largely agree with Naomi Wayne’s excellent comment, though I wonder which ‘sensitivities’ are being referenced. Like Naomi I spent a few years as a Labour activist after a longer period of apolitical antiracist campaigning which led to Labour’s 1965 Race Relations Act, which was the springboard for later Acts which encompassed wider discrimination and the creation of the EHRC. However I did become a Liberal and then LibDem activist for some 37 years, during which occurred the Blair years when we were largely to the left of Labour and as Jonathan says above we opposed the Iraq war.

    Sadly both Labour and Libdems have oscillated left and right, and we have seen a lot of principles and promises blown in the wind. I rejoined LibDems about 2 yrs ago after about a ten year break ( due to coalition with Tories) because of stand on Brexit, but did not renew after 1 yr because of the anti-Labour campaign mentioned above, together with an increasingly authoritarian regime which does not allow free speech. Of course we now have an unprincipled leadership in Labour, and I have not felt able to Join. Jonathan has been a stalwart leader of the LibDems4Free Speech and I am pleased to continue wholeheartedly supporting him, though no longer a LibDem. We really do need to grapple co-operatively with the large Russian doll!

  • John Thatcher says:

    Jonathan Coulter’s contribution, coming as it does from a Liberal Democrat is especially welcome. All who believe in debate based on accurate information have a stake in this fight, which must be won. The alternative is what we are living with now which will only get worse if we don’t stop it.

  • Thanks Naomi Wayne, it is good to meet a kindred spirt, albeit virtually.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Jonathan Coulter says the following in the above article:

    ‘The fake antisemitism campaign against Labour is the worst single episode of misinformation I have ever witnessed. Since 2015, the mainstream media has put out a uniform wall-to-wall narrative and failed to report evidence that disputes it.’

    Saying that the MSM ‘failed’ (to report evidence that disputes it) is somewhat of a misnomer, as if to say that they COULD have done so, but failed to do so somehow. It wasn’t a ‘failure’ on their part, and was of course deliberate, as they were hardly going to endorse anything that contradicts their smears and falsehoods – ie their ‘anti-semitism’ smear campaign – and the MSM have ALWAYS ‘endorsed’ the individuals and groups who have played along with the smears by falsely vilifying and demonising Jeremy, or Ken or Jackie or whoever – ie their faux outrage.

    When you own and/or control the MSM you have complete and absolute control over the narrative, and there was nothing whatsoever that Jeremy and his team could have done to counter or refute the false and phony narrative/claims/allegations, and what more proof does anyone need that that IS the case than what happened – ie the ‘reaction’ he got – when Jeremy said (on the day the EHRC published it’s so-called report} that the scale of the problem of A/S in the party has been ‘dramatically over-stated’ by political opponents inside and outside the party and the media. Or the ‘reaction by the MSM and the Jewish newspapers et al when Jeremy and his team condemned the Panorama hatchet-job. Yes, you are just vilified and demonised even more! So there is no ‘appeasement’ that’s been going on, and never has been, as there is no way on this planet to get the truth out there through the MSM. And to claim that that IS the case is to just blame the victim(s) in effect.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    In reply to Rodney Watts, I thought my comment was clear, but maybe not. I was responding to this paragraph from Jonathan: “I like your group’s unapologetic approach in dealing with antisemitism smears, and contrast this to supporters of Palestinian rights who often appease the pro-Israel lobby in one way or another – sugaring the pill, hiding the truth, always talking about sensitivities, hoping to gain acceptance with the media, political parties or whatever. I’d have to put Jeremy Corbyn at the head of the list and have seen instances with PSC”

    This is deeply unfair both to Corbyn and to PSC. Yes, Corbyn apologised too often, and when there was no need – but I reckon he was surrounded by people giving him very bad advice that if he only apologised, the antisemitism row would go away. Given the pressure he was under, and the sense he must have had of living in a dystopian nightmare, Accepting such advice was both understandable – and very wrong, as I am sure he now realises. But he never ever resiled from his support for the Palestinian cause: to call what he did ‘appeasement of the pro-Israel lobby’ is unjust and not worthy of the majority of Jonathan’s article.

    As for PSC, I recall PSC stewards on one of the huge Iraq demonstrations turning their backs on me when I asked them to try to deal with the many antisemitic badges and banners being displayed. Along with a Jewish friend, I got rid of the badges at least, by walking the length of the demo, asking all the young Bengali men wearing them to take them off. This required explaining to these complete innocents why a badge showing the Israeli flag with a swastika over the Magen David was antisemitic – and I am proud to say, they were utterly courteous and deeply apologetic and we had 100% success. Since that time, PSC has undergone a sea-change. They understand how important it is to keep trying to bring Jewish people along with their campaign. But in doing this, I haven’t noticed them ever ‘appeasing the Israel-lobby’: they are just more attuned to people like me and JVL asking them not to walk over the feelings of Jewish activists needlessly.

    Like I said: we should always be focused on what actions, words, writings are likely to bring victory that little bit closer and of trying to broaden our supporter base (or, at minimum, narrow the base of our opponents). This is NOT about selling-out or ‘appeasement’, just being committed to building our support, not just targeting the already converted. Jonathan wrote a terrific piece about inclusivity, which I as an unaffiliated Jewish activist really valued – and propose to quote wherever possible. I was just a little disappointed: calling people who you know are on the same ‘side’ as you, but some of whose tactics you may question ‘appeasers’, with all the resonance of that term, felt rather as if he was letting down his own commitment to inclusivity.

    I hope that is helpful.

  • I had a conversation with Naomi Wayne re ‘sensitivities’, from which it seems that we have been talking at cross purposes. I agree with Naomi that it is important of being sensitive to the thinking and fears of potential audiences, including Jewish groups. However in my article, I was referring to situations where people use arguments about sensitivity to justify self-censorship, i.e. not telling the truth (however diplomatically packaged) because it might upset somebody.

  • Thomas Gerald Darrer says:

    Very insightful

  • Dr Rodney Watts says:

    Thank you so much Naomi for taking the time to clarify what you were meaning regarding ‘sensitivities’ and sorry I am late in picking up on your comment due to my commitments as a Jewish Christian. Also glad, Jonathan,
    you have also taken the opportunity to give extra clarification. I know we both have a very high regard for Naomi.

Comments are now closed.