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The seemingly never-ending rumpus over antisemitism in the Labour Party has been capturing headlines for over four years now. This controversy is closely entwined with personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, which began during his victorious leadership campaign in the summer of 2015. The topic of antisemitism on the left, and above all in Labour, has become the overwhelming focus of British public debate on Jewish-related matters, and has to a large extent crowded out discussion of other forms of hatred and prejudice. Several recent books on the subject have contributed to this chorus of accusation. Bad News for Labour at last provides a non-polemical, thorough and scholarly study of this terrain. The core of the book is based—in the excellent tradition of the Glasgow University Media Unit—on a calm and detached analysis of broadcast, online and print media coverage of antisemitism and Labour, and its impact on public perceptions of the party. Sober and judicious throughout, and providing multiple perspectives on the topic as well as a useful thirty-two page timeline of its many episodes, this book raises very important issues for anybody who cares about the Labour Party or about the state of the British news media.
The intensity of the journalistic coverage on this issue has been extraordinary. Over the three and three-quarter years to March 2019, almost 5,500 national newspaper articles, or approximately four per day, have mentioned antisemitism and either Jeremy Corbyn or Labour. The interview-based research of Greg Philo and Mike Berry, presented in the opening chapter of Bad News for Labour, suggests that this relentless focus has dramatically skewed public beliefs on Labour antisemitism. Asked in March 2019 to estimate the proportion of Labour members who had been accused of antisemitism, the mean answer of their interviewees was 34 per cent (and among voters under thirty-five, 42 per cent). It is not straightforward to assess the actual extent of these accusations, in large measure because there has been considerable obfuscation on this matter, including multiple counting and the inclusion of allegations against non-members of the party. Philo and Berry discuss these difficulties carefully and authoritatively, concluding that there is no good reason to doubt the figures supplied by Jennie Formby in February 2019 which, if extrapolated, imply a true figure of 0.3 per cent of the membership over three years (including accusations that have not been upheld). The mean estimate of their interviewee sample, then, is inflated by a factor of over 100. This is far beyond business-as-usual ‘bad news’. British media reporting has resulted in the entrenchment of a public perception of antisemitism in the Labour Party that is demonstrably wildly out of proportion with the available evidence.
The second half of the book focusses on the controversies and confusions over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) ‘working definition of antisemitism’, which Labour’s National Executive Committee adopted in full in September 2018, having for several months been under intense pressure to do so. The IHRA definition, as Antony Lerman forensically shows, is itself deeply problematic. It consists of a thirty-eight word definition that is so vague as to border on meaninglessness, followed by eleven ‘examples’ of antisemitism, seven of which relate to Israel and/or Zionism. The status of these examples is unclear, but some of them could be interpreted to place considerable constraints on expressions of support for Palestinian rights: the example that mentions the ‘singling out’ of Israel has been cited, for instance, to cast the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as intrinsically antisemitic. Debate within the Labour Party over the definition was almost entirely focussed on those supporting examples that had been widely criticised as potentially endangering free speech. Justin Schlosberg’s illuminating and alarming media analysis reveals the persistent unprofessional inaccuracy and distortion in the media coverage of this debate. The IHRA definition was routinely presented as consensual and even commonsensical, with authoritative critiques of it ubiquitously ignored. MPs alleging antisemitism in the context of this debate, such as Margaret Hodge, were treated much less critically than those offering more moderate or nuanced perspectives.
How has this come to pass, and what prospects are there for a return to a more sensible public conversation? The response of the Labour Party to media exaggerations and distortions, Philo and Berry comment, was ‘weak’, in part owing to public relations shortcomings. They also note, though, that the story was repeatedly stimulated by interventions both from within and outside the party, sometimes seemingly driven primarily by political motives such as the toppling of Jeremy Corbyn. The forces spurring the media focus on alleged Labour antisemitism are not amenable to exposure through the transparent methods of discourse analysis that these scholars apply to the output of British journalists. The prominence of conspiracy theories in the history of antisemitism further complicates the discussion of the strategic use of this issue against Corbyn and his allies.
In the Israeli media, where this history does not have an inhibiting effect, there is quite open commentary on the role of that country’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs in influencing the climate of public debate on Israel and antisemitism in Europe and beyond. Philo and Berry briefly discuss the case of Shai Masot, an official at the Israeli embassy in London with links to that ministry, who was captured on film in a 2017 Al Jazeera documentary plotting to ‘take down’ British politicians regarded as hostile to Israel, including the Conservative Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan. Bad News for Labour steers clear, however, of any speculation on the possible links between this agenda and the Labour Party’s travails. This is a wise decision: the value of this book rests on the objective rigour and empirical tightness of its arguments, which will surely convince any reasonably-minded reader that media coverage of antisemitism and the Labour Party has been alarmingly tendentious, disproportionate, careless and biased. The place of this story within the broader context of message manipulation and the undermining of fact-based democratic debate in the digital era still awaits, however, systematic investigation. The failure of the media on this issue is just one aspect of a wider and still very inadequately understood crisis, in Britain and beyond, in the quality of the information shaping the perceptions and voting decisions of contemporary electorates.
We also need a deeper explanation of the intense emotions stirred on the left in particular by the issue of antisemitism. Various agendas—interpersonal, factional, presentational and geopolitical—are undoubtedly at stake in the Labour antisemitism ‘wars’, but they alone do not explain the particular propensity of this issue to cloud judgments, inflame passions, and preoccupy both journalists and their audiences. Why, for example, has The Guardian, especially online, been particularly obsessive and problematic in its coverage? On the IHRA definition, according to Schlosberg, The Guardian’s online coverage was less balanced even than that of the Sun. This is certainly to a large extent owing to editorial views at The Guardian, but given the important role of click-counting in shaping online news content, it also reveals something about the interests of The Guardian’s left-liberal readership. A commitment to overcoming all traces of racism is of course a thoroughly laudable cornerstone principle of the British left. With respect to antisemitism, this commitment has somehow become mired in profound confusion. This muddle, from which no escape is in sight, continues to be extremely damaging—not only to the Labour Party, but also to the important battle against all forms of serious racism and antisemitism, which are politically located overwhelmingly on the nationalist right.
Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief, by Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Justin Schlosberg, Antony Lerman and David Miller is published by Pluto Press. 272 pp. £14.99