Academic report critical of media coverage of Labour’s anti-semitism debate

It’s been a hot summer, especially for the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, over his handling of the controversy concerning alleged anti-semitism in the party and its adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism together with examples. At its height, the dispute dominated the media and it is the way the media covered this controversy that has been the subject of an in-depth, academic-level research by the London based Media Reform Coalition (MRC). The report can be read at: http://www.mediareform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Labour-antisemitism-and-the-news-FINAL-PROOFED.pdf . Although published last month, the report has received little coverage in the mainstream media, but it has been given prominence in the daily socialist newspaper the Morning Star.

Perhaps this ‘blackout’ is not surprising when you read the report’s main findings which : “identified myriad inaccuracies and distortions in online and television news, including marked skews in sourcing, omission of essential context or right of reply, misquotation, and false assertions made either by journalists themselves or sources whose contentious claims were neither challenged nor countered.”

Ever since his surprise election as Labour leader in 2015, (and re-election a year later) Jeremy Corbyn has been given a very rough ride by the media. In the spring 2018 edition (214) of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom’s journal Free Press, editor Tim Gopsill tracked the right wing press attempts to destroy the Labour Party’s revival, (pages 4 and 5 see: https://www.cpbf.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/FP214.pdf ), with headlines such as ‘Jezza’s Jihadi Comrades’ (The Sun) and the Daily Mail attacks on his supposed support for terrorism. The Sun even ran a story ‘Corbyn and the Commie Spy’ which Gopsill described as ‘the fantasies of a minor Czech intelligence functionary of the 1980’s, as if they had unearthed a top-secret plot’. This nonsense was trumped by what appeared in The Times on 15 September 2018, which dug up the old discredited story, that another Labour leader, the late Michael Foot, was a paid Soviet informer; discredited because Foot in July 1993 had successfully sued The Sunday Times over a story that the KGB believed him (MF) to have been ‘an agent of influence’. But back to media’s coverage of the row about anti-semitism in the Labour Party.

The Media Reform Coalition’s report concludes about sourcing of stories that: “both quantitative and qualitative analysis of sourcing revealed marked skews which effectively gave those attacking Labour’s revised (anti-semitism) code and championing the IHRA definition a virtually exclusive and unchallenged platform to air their views,”. “By comparison, their detractors — including a number of Jewish organisations and representatives of other affected minorities — were systematically marginalised from the coverage.”

It is worth noting, that lawyer Stephen Sedley, visiting professor at the University of Oxford and a former judge of the court of appeal of England and Wales pointed out that the UK government, which had adopted the IHRA “working definition” and the examples, had been warned by the Commons home affairs select committee in October 2016 that in the interests of free speech it ought to adopt an explicit rider that it is not anti-semitic to criticise the government of Israel, or to hold the Israeli government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, without additional evidence to suggest anti-semitic intent. “This was ignored” he wrote in a Guardian panel discussion on ‘How should anti-semitism be defined?’ https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/27/antisemitism-ihra-definition-jewish-writers The issues of free speech and freedom of expression are central to this question, but this aspect was not recognised by much of the media.

These arguments may seem to be settled for the time being, (although there are many individual disciplinary cases of alleged anti-semitism by members still to be processed by the party) but the right wing media’s hostility to the Labour Party, its policies and leadership have been with us for decades and will always be so. Media hostility to Labour dates back to the leaking of the Zinoviev letter by the security services to the Daily Mail four days before the 1924 General Election, when the Daily Mail splashed headlines across its front page claiming: Civil War Plot by Socialists’ Masters: Moscow Orders To Our Reds; Great Plot Disclosed. Labour lost by a landslide.

The need for accurate and fair reporting highlighted by the MRC report are critical in the interest of democracy and informed public debate. Sections of the media, especially the partisan press, will never accurately report the Labour Party, which is why we need to monitor and challenge their distortions and look to build an independent media more reflective of our society and its diversity.

Since writing this article, Dr. Justiin Shlosberg from the Media Reform Coalition has written an open letter to the Guardian Reader’s Editor. You can read it at: http://www.mediareform.org.uk/blog/an-open-letter-to-the-guardian-readers-editor

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