Corbyn, Anti-Semitism and The Media Agenda

A letter to The Guardian this week outlines severe concerns about the recent controversy surrounding Jeremy Corbyn and anti-semitism. The letter is signed by dozens of academics, which might lead some to dismiss it as the work of the much-maligned “liberal elite.” But quite a few of them happen to be Jewish, and their points are salient. 

The letter initially argues that:

“Dominant sections of the media have framed the story in such a way as to suggest that anti-semitism is a problem mostly to do with Labour and that Corbyn is personally responsible for failing to deal with it.” 

Few would deny that anti-semitism is a serious issue for Labour, the broad left (or elsewhere on the political spectrum.) Recently discussed evidence includes Corbyn’s 2012 Facebook post defending an artist whose work certainly contained some major anti-semitic tropes, and the appalling holocaust denial post shared by a local election candidate, with subsequent efforts of Labour Executive Committee’s Christine Shawcroft to oppose his suspension (she has now resigned her own position). There are more instances besides, so the matter requires heavy-duty scrutiny and action. 

However, a major question is whether the current agenda is being driven by people acting in good faith, with a primary concern of challenging bigotry and protecting victims. 

It’s no secret that large sections of the establishment and billionaire media have sponsored many forms of bigotry for a very long time. 

In the old days the right used to scaremonger a great deal about Jews, a Daily Mail headline about “German Jews flooding in” being typical of countless instances. 

The Mail, whose proprietor Lord Rothermere was a famous admirer of Hitler, clearly had a problem with Jewish people escaping Germany in the atmosphere of Kristallnacht and the run-up to the holocaust. 

Following the fall of The Third Reich, anti-semitism developed a severe branding issue. Since then, media-led hatred has instead focused on people of colour, Muslims, Eastern Europeans and others (not to mention rancid homophobia). 

But the relative un-fashionable nature of over anti-semitism didn’t stop BBC favourite Nigel Farage from riffing on the old trope of Jewish influence in the media late last year (not that he was ever pulled up on it.) 

Nor did it prevent general media darling Jacob Rees-Mogg consorting with the Traditional Britain Group, home of Hitler apologist Gregory Lauder-Frost (“Poland asked for it from 1919 onwards”). 

Rees-Mogg recently met with US far-rightist and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. However, he managed to avoid setting off weeks of headlines about links between The Tory Party and resurgent fascistic tendencies in the US. 

Neither did Theresa May’s dinners with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre spark a string of Newsnight reports, despite the paper’s name being a byword for ceaseless bigotry. 

And as The Guardian letter asks: 

“Where are the columns condemning the links between Conservative MEPs and right-wing parties across Europe in the European Conservative and Reformist Group which trade on anti-semitism?”

Many more points could be made in the same vein regarding the Conservative Party’s links to overt bigotry. Unite The Union’s 2016 dossier details a litany of cases that include instances of anti-semitism. Currently, The Conservatives owe their very position in government to support from the DUP, a party with deep and virulent anti-Catholic and Irish roots.

It’s important to note, as the academics do in The Guardian, that this isn’t a case of Tu – Quoque “whataboutery.” Rather, we need to question the motives and machinations behind the furor:  

“It is not “whataboutery” to suggest that the debate on anti-semitism has been framed in such a way as to mystify the real sources of anti-Jewish bigotry and instead to weaponise it against a single political figure just ahead of important elections.”

Another recent writer to the Guardian recently observed: 

“It is patently obvious that criticism of Corbyn and The Labour Party on grounds of anti-semitism is being encouraged by individuals who – unlike the Labour leader himself – have rarely participated in the general struggle against racism.”  

Could there be a coordinated strategy targeting the Labour leader, involving the likes of right-wing blogger Paul Stains (better known as Guido Fawkes)? Stains was a leading noise behind the absurd recent claims that Corbyn had been used as a spy for the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia. 

Some of the coverage has displayed the all-to-common low journalistic standards of relying on rumour, conjecture and limited sources. 

The Guardian letter alleges that a narrow range of sources has often used so as to frame the issue in a very specific way. 

Much of what is going on is a good example of the “Conveyor Belt Effect”: one part of the press (right-wing in this case) prints a story – the BBC shows cover it – then the Guardian feels it has to cover it. The Guardian covers it without any sort of critical slant, which essentially ends up validating the initial framing. Should liberals like the Guardian, accept that every incident the right-wing flags up as newsworthy is actually newsworthy? 

Claims that large numbers of members had resigned due to the controversy represent a classic conflation of cause and correlation. In fact, lots of the many thousands of enthusiastic party joiners from Corbyn’s early time as leader are now at the time of their membership running out (there’s a month grace period where they are still considered members). As such, it’s entirely predictable that membership will drop between 12 and 18 months after a surge, just as it did with The Green Party. 

Most recently, the sense that some groups of victims might be more politically useful than others has morphed into a sense in that some Jewish people are more politically useful than others. 

Corbyn’s celebration of a Passover feast in his constituency with the group Jewdas attracted a new round of criticism, led by Guido. Jewdas are supposedly bad news because their views might be considered left-wing – the wrong type of Jew perhaps (not forgetting the old far-right trope that Communism itself is a Jewish plot). 

As Another Angry Voice comments, this kind of “good jew – bad jew” analysis itself reeks of anti-semitism. Are the Jewish people and their centuries of persecution merely props to be picked up and discarded at the whim of fairweather friends who are so quick to persecute others? 

The roots of anti-semitism are deep and pernicious, though current discourse on the topic often fails to score too high on the hear-light scale. 

As Owen Jones recently wrote for Huck Magazine, a good place to start in tackling anti-semitism is via political education. Some of what has happened in The Labour Party highlights the necessity of such an approach, as does the often shallow mud-slinging nature of attacks on them.

Stephen Durrant

The Media Fund