A Media Storm: Antisemitism in the Labour Party

Published: 4 April 2018

Country: UK

By Eline Jeanne

Screen_Shot_2018-04-04_at_11.55.09The past few days have seen the media reporting heavily on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, with a focus on antisemitism. This was triggered by a Facebook comment posted a few years ago by Corbyn underneath an image of an antisemitic wall mural, in which he questioned its removal. The issue was brought to light by Luciana Berger, Labour and Co-op MP for Liverpool Wavertree. On March 23rd she tweeted a screenshot of the artist’s Facebook page with Corbyn’s comment, as well as an image of the actual mural, writing that she was awaiting an explanation on this from the Leader’s Office. The case has ignited mass media coverage and debate, and the discussion has shown clear polarised views, both in and out of the Jewish community.

The mural, which was painted by graffiti artist Mear One, depicts six bankers and business men sitting at a table counting their money. Some of the men had clear antisemitic characteristics, such as large hooked noses. Furthermore, as Michael Segalov wrote for The Guardian, the work clearly used similar imagery to antisemitic Nazi propaganda. There is therefore no question that Mear One’s mural was antisemitic, and had to be removed. However, when the artist posted about the planned removal on his Facebook page, Jeremy Corbyn commented: “Why? You are in good company. Rockerfeller destroyed Diego Viera’s [sic] mural because it includes a picture of Lenin.” According to Corbyn’s own statement, he was supporting the artist’s right to free speech and hadn’t studied the mural closely.

The media was fast to react. Outlets such as the BBC were diplomatic in their reporting, using Corbyn’s apology statement heavily, and also included quotes from critics who were disturbed by the mural and Corbyn’s reaction to it. The view that Corbyn himself is not antisemitic, but some of his actions have been, was expressed by numerous news outlets. One of these was the Independent, who ran a piece titled “Jeremy Corbyn is not antisemitic – but he needs to accept that some of his devoted followers are”. In this article, the author Tom Peck states: “Guilt by association is a standard political attack method and it is not always fair.” The overall narrative of the piece is: just because Corbyn’s party has been caught in antisemitic acts in the past, does not make Corbyn antisemitic. But articles like this seem to overlook the concerns of many people that he holds antisemitic views.

On the other side, there were several articles published that were very critical of Corbyn and the Labour Party, and branded both as antisemitic. One newspaper than went down this route was tabloid The Sun, who ran a comment piece written by Clare Foges who claimed that “the roots of Labour’s anti-Semitism run deep.” The article was overtly negative and critical, with Foges claiming the Labour Party is a “cesspit of intolerance”. The Sun has covered the Labour Party rather maliciously in the past, and so the aim of this article is questionable. Are they genuinely concerned about potential antisemitism within the Labour Party, or are they using this case to continue their heavy political criticism of the party? Either way, the Sun piece gave little concrete information or points of view, and instead sensationalised the topic.

It is important here to discuss the political dimension of this case, as this is not an isolated incident. All major news agencies participated in the coverage of Corbyn’s mural comment, and the broader debate about antisemitism in the Labour Party. According to some, the coverage was heavily skewed.

The Guardian ran a letter signed by over forty senior academic “condemn[ing] what they see as an anti-Corbyn bias in media coverage of the antisemitism debate.” These academics feel that the news framing around this issue has lacked context and varied opinions. They make an important point in the letter: “It is not “whataboutery” to suggest that the debate on antisemitism 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.” The fact that there are major elections taking place soon cannot be forgotten when we analyse how the media has responded to this case. Corbyn’s Facebook comment was brought to light several years after it was posted, and so it is only fair to ask: why now? While we can never be sure if this issue was raised now for political reasons or not, we do have to take a step back when analysing and see this case  in a broader political playing field. This is not to disregard claims of antisemitism. Recorded incidents of antisemitism have increased in the UK in recent years, and there have been cases of it in political parties, including the Labour Party.

Numerous articles analysed these antisemitic incidents related to Corbyn and the Labour Party, such as the Facebook groups Corbyn was a member of which posted antisemitic content, which came to light earlier this month. These articles allowed the reader to gain a broader understanding. The Telegraph ran one such article, which critically looked at Corbyn and the Labour Party’s past with antisemitism. Such articles are important, as they situate the story in a broader historical and political context.

It is critical to analyse whether the media provided evidence for increased antisemitism within the Labour Party. A different article published by The Telegraph stated: “The somewhat reluctant political consensus seems to have concluded that while Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has played a central role in the explosion of anti-Semitic abuse that has increased within his party, the Labour leader himself (probably) doesn’t harbour any personal animosity towards the Jewish people.” This statement is in line with a point made by many media platforms, that antisemitism is very much present within the Labour Party. But is there evidence to back this up?

The Telegraph’s article includes a timeline of antisemitic incidents within the Labour Party, including Vicki Kirby’s suspension after an antisemitic tweet and Aysegul Gurbuz’s similar offence. In 2016, Corbyn established the Shami Chakrabarti Inquiry, an independent inquiry investigating allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party. The inquiry found that while the Labour Party “is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism”, there is an “occasional toxic atmosphere” in the party, and Chakrabarti subsequently provided 20 recommendations to better this. Few articles mention this inquiry, and instead focus only on the instances of antisemitism that have occurred. Whilst of course these cases need to be highlighted, the media must also provide other facts, such as those that emerged from the Chakrabarti Inquiry.

While the media, for the most part, reported on this issue in an informed manner, social media was less measured. Soon after Corbyn’s past Facebook comment was brought to light, and the media started reacting to it, the hashtag #PredictTheNextCorbynSmear emerged on Twitter. The hashtag is based on the idea that Corbyn has been hit by numerous smear campaigns in the past, and has been used over 700 times on Twitter. While some might find truth in this, it has been pointed out by many people that the existence of this hashtag is antisemitic. Branding the current issue as a smear campaign undermines the fact that Corbyn’s comment about the mural could be deemed as antisemitic, and disregards the Jewish community’s concern about this issue.

There is disagreement over the issue within the Jewish community too, and we can see this on their media platforms. The Jewish Chronicle felt that the situation was clear: Corbyn and his party are antisemitic. Their piece titled “There is only one word for Jeremy Corbyn”, that one word being liar, claims that Corbyn had to have known the antisemitic message behind the mural, and thus his apology claiming he was not aware makes him a liar. This article is in line with the Jewish Chronicles past reporting on Corbyn and the Labour Party, which has consistently pointed out antisemitism.

On the other hand, there are also Jewish organisations and people who feel that the current issue around Corbyn has been exaggerated. Jewish media group Jewish Voice on Twitter has been outspoken in their support of Corbyn. They feel the media has manipulated the situation, and that while there might be some issues around antisemitism in the Labour Party, Corbyn has been in the forefront of the fight against antisemitism and racism. This split within the Jewish community was also mirrored at the protest against Corbyn which took place on March 26th. While the vast majority present at the protest were demonstrating against antisemitism present in the Labour Party, there were also a small group of individuals there in favour of Corbyn. This counter rally was rarely mentioned in the media though, with the New Statesman being one of the only outlets shedding light on the counter-protest.

It is clear that there is not a unanimous opinion on this issue, and this can be seen in the media as well. On a broad scale, one can say that the UK media reported critically on this case. Of course, there were some instances of sensational reporting, but if we look at the major media organisations we see well-researched and contextualised articles. Social media, particularly Twitter, was more problematic; however, there too discussion took place. The issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party, and other political parties, seems far from over, and thus we must keep our eye on how the media handles these situations.