OPINION: How Jeremy Corbyn’s cantankerous cronies failed to rewrite history

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OPINION: How Jeremy Corbyn’s cantankerous cronies failed to rewrite history

In the second of two articles, reporter John Ware reveals how issues in his Panorama report on the Labour Party were misrepresented and reflects on the legacy of the Corbyn years.

Promotional image for The Labour Files
Promotional image for The Labour Files

John Ware took Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the group Jewish Voice for Labour and a pro-Corbynite journalist to court for defamation over his 2019 BBC Panorama exposé on antisemitism. In the second of two articles, he reveals how Al Jazeera failed to understand issues highlighted in the Panorama report and did not give those it accused a proper right of reply. You can read part one HERE

Finding themselves on the margins of political life, the Corbynites seem determined to show that their version of Labour’s antisemitism crisis is the historically accurate one.

They insist that the recent report by Martin Forde KC validates their claim that the crisis was largely the fault of Labour’s factional “civil service” – Panorama’s whistle-blowers who handled antisemitism complaints and fellow officials at Labour HQ.

Forde does find that the complaints system was unfit for purpose, and unable to cope with the “explosion in complaints” that followed Corbyn’s election as leader.

Yet no system could have coped.

But while the Corbynites blame factionalism by Labour HQ, Forde concludes that “responsibility for this rests not wholly with one side”.

As for HQ officials –including a Panorama whistleblower – trying to sabotage the 2017 election, Forde finds no evidence for that.

John Ware in Jerusalem.

He also gives short shrift to Corbyn’s key claim, which cost him the whip and propelled him back to backbench obscurity: that antisemitism was exaggerated to smear him.

The metric Corbyn uses to evidence his claim is an unreliable proxy for the scale of anti-Jewish sentiment in Labour. While he correctly states that upheld complaints to date represent a small fraction of members (about 0.33 percent) , this no more reflects the actual number of Jews who felt barely tolerated in their branches and constituency Labour parties (CLPs) (despite near-universal disdain for Benjamin Netanyahu) than recorded crime reflects the actual level of crime; many chose not to complain for several reasons.

Nor does it include CLP motions that breached the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance [definition of antisemitism], cheerfully voting and campaigning for the likes of Pete Willsman, recently expelled for smearing rabbis as “Trump fanatics” and ranting about antisemitism allegations being “whipped up” by the Israeli embassy.

Although 0.33 percent sanctioned is tiny relative to a 430,000 membership, it nonetheless translates to some 1,400 members, which I find pretty shocking for a party that shouts loudly about its anti-racist credentials.

The latest portrayal of the crisis as largely artificial and a smear campaign aimed at undermining Corbyn is contained in programme two of a four-part series called The Labour Files by the Al Jazeera TV channel, which is owned by the Qatari government. “The true story behind the Labour Party’s antisemitism crisis” the script boldly asserts.

It’s a daft claim simply because there’s no consensus on what constitutes antisemitism, and even less about when anti-Zionism shades into antisemitism.

Sir Keir Starmer (left) alongside former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (centre)

Nonetheless, the programme’s producer, Richard Sanders, harbours no doubts. Although not a “huge admirer” of Corbyn, he is a “fervent anti-Zionist”, he doesn’t remotely consider Ken Livingstone’s comments about German Zionists colluding with Hitler as antisemitic, he asserts that Israel is a “fundamentally, inherently, racist, oppressive state… I’m sorry – it simply is”; and that the IHRA definition of antisemitism “so obviously, so brazenly deprives the Palestinian people” of the “right” [to criticise Israel as a ‘racist endeavour’]…“I’m sorry, it is… a racist ethno-state”.

Despite this daunting list of certitudes, Sanders declares that he comes to the subject as a “professional journalist” who seeks to be “very forensic and factual and unpolemical” because “you really have to be on solid ground”.

On closer inspection, however, the ground under several of Al Jazeera’s claims, crumbles away.

Sanders asserts that political interference in antisemitism disciplinary cases was “primarily” about “pressurising for harder, faster measures on antisemitism”.

Certainly some interventions were about “catalysing” action because Corbyn was getting stick from the media. But no official reports have I seen state (or even suggest) that intervention was “primarily” directed towards this. There’s plenty of evidence the other way around.

Forde himself concludes that “interference at times went beyond what was the legitimate interest of LOTO [leader of the opposition’s office] most notably in relation to cases which involved allies of Jeremy Corbyn”.

And while he acknowledges that he had not seen “clear and convincing documentary evidence” that this was “systematic”, as claimed by some senior HQ staff, he also says that most challenges by LOTO staff outside of National Executive Committee meetings are not “the kind of interventions of which documentary proof would exist” anyway. The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that interference was widespread and spanned the three-year period of its investigation.

Al Jazeera also completely misunderstood a case highlighted in Panorama showing LOTO interference in the case of a Corbyn ally. It said its “investigation finds” that far from interfering, LOTO’s view about whether the ally should remain suspended had been sought by officials. It had; but what Al Jazeera overlooked was the highly salient fact that LOTO’s view was only sought because LOTO had intervened from the outset – within four hours of the individual’s suspension, in fact. Yet this evidence was available to Al Jazeera.

How “solid” is Al Jazeera’s unchallenged assertion that Israel is an apartheid state? Presumably Sanders and his executive producer, Phil Rees, would say very. Rees says apartheid is “a fact” and Sanders has opined that Israel behaves “in a way that is considerably worse than apartheid South Africa”.

John Ware interviewing former Labour staffers on Panorama. (Credit: BBC Panorama – Is Labour Anti-Semitic?)

“Apartheid Israel” is self-evidently not a “fact” since it rests on the assumption that because Israel is a Jewish state, it must be an apartheid state, whereas there are many other nation states who define themselves by their ethnicity and prioritise their cultural interests. True, entrenched discrimination exists in several respects against Israel’s Arab citizens, but in law their civil and religious rights are safeguarded, even if insufficiently upheld. Not good, but not apartheid either.

Al Jazeera asserts: “In 1967, Israel invaded and occupied the remaining Palestinian land.” This is, of course, a fact, but omits a relevant historical one: that Israel won a war of self-defence when Jordan – which had annexed the West Bank – was defeated in its attempt to wipe out the fledgling Jewish state.

How “solid” are Al Jazeera’s claims about how antisemitism has been exaggerated? The anti-Zionist pro-Corbyn Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) asserted – again unchallenged – that Jews are “6.3 times more likely to be investigated by the Labour Party for allegations of antisemitism than non-Jews”.

Labour officials handling complaints don’t recognise this claim. They say the vast majority of investigations into JVL members relate to their support for recently proscribed organisations dismissing the antisemitism crisis, not for saying or doing something antisemitic – organisations such as Labour Against the Witch-hunt (LAW), which have opposed practically every antisemitism measure introduced by Labour.

“To get chucked out if you’re Jewish, you have to have been a repeat offender by saying pretty egregious things,” I was told. “Like Nazi comparisons, banging on about the Rothschilds or conspiracy theories about Jewish/Zionist/Israeli control of politics, the media and finance.” Yet Sanders, who says he has “a lot of admiration” for JVL, has since repeated its claim without caveat.

Sam Matthews, Head of Disputes 2016-2018, was featured in the BBC Panorama. (Credit: BBC Panorama – Is Labour Anti-Semitic?)

Al Jazeera also asserts that one of Panorama’s whistle-blowers, Ben Westerman, had “turned reality on its head” by claiming that during his investigation into antisemitism in Liverpool’s Riverside CLP, a JVL supporter, Rica Bird, had asked him if he was from Israel.

It’s true that a tape of the interview doesn’t show Bird asking Westerman – who is Jewish –that question. What it does show is Bird asking Westerman which Labour party branch he is from. He answers that her question is not relevant. What Al Jazeera doesn’t show – but what the tape does – is that Bird persists. “Oh. No, it might not be [relevant]. Just thought it might be interesting.”

Why did Bird “just think” Westerman’s answer “might be interesting”? She was just trying to be “comradely, friendly”, says Al Jazeera. Is it sure? During his questioning, Westerman had been critical of JVL, so he assumed she had him down as a Zionist; her persistence over “what branch are you in?” was not as blunt as, say: “Are you from Golders Green?”, but it suggested to him that she was trying to find out if he was also Jewish by reference to whether his branch had a sizeable Jewish membership.

On Al Jazeera, Bird insisted passionately that she didn’t ask the Israel question so it can’t be ruled out that Westerman mistakenly convinced himself that she was asking him: “Where are you really from?” Yet his evidence is that the Israel question came at the end of the interview as the parties were leaving.

The tape appears to end abruptly just before that point as Westerman is in mid-sentence, so it is not definitive that the Israel question was not asked. His colleagues say he reported the incident on his return to London.

Kat Buckingham, Head of Disputes and Discipline 2015 – 2017 (Credit: BBC Panorama – Is Labour Anti-Semitic?)

The bottom line is that the tape cannot be relied on as a definitive record of everything that was said in this interview and afterwards, whereas Al Jazeera seems confident it can be.

Corbynites have also become particularly exercised by a brief clip on Panorama from Izzy Lenga, a former vice-president of the National Union of Students, where she talked about her experience on campus.

At times, she was subjected daily to antisemitic abuse (on and offline) that included comments like “Hitler was right” and “Hitler didn’t go far enough” as well as Holocaust denial “with absolutely no sanctions and absolutely no repercussions”.

Lenga’s Hitler comments referred to attacks from the right when they were targeting her on campus. However, she also recounted Holocaust denial as a feature of abusive comments from the left.

As Lenga explained, the attacks from both left and right were “very similar… and almost often the exact same tropes”. Through no fault of her own, the fact they were similar meant these comments became mixed up in the editing and we should have made that distinction – Hitler from the Right and Holocaust denial from the Left – clearer.

Corbynites become particularly exercised by a brief clip on Panorama from Izzy Lenga, a former vice-president of the National Union of Students

A relatively minor slip, yet Corbynites have banged on and on about this, as if it invalidates the entire 59 minutes of Panorama. Presumably Al Jazeera knew that the Holocaust denial like that experienced by Lenga from the Left has led to expulsions of Labour members for neo-Nazi views. The antisemitism logs seen by Al Jazeera contain meticulous notes on such cases.

How “solid” was a 17-minute section in programme one of The Labour Files, which portrayed one of its key witnesses, the Corbyn activist Damian McCarthy, fighting back tears as the victim of a hate campaign by Jewish activists? It turns out that McCarthy conducted a campaign of hate himself and was also a disgraced barrister disbarred for dishonesty.

In the Al Jazeera programme, an anti-Corbyn activist, Luke Stanger, was accused of intimidating McCarthy by sending a dossier to his employer (who, unknown to Stanger, was also his stepfather). The dossier included vile messages supporting “the beheading” of McCarthy’s “entire family” and his deceased mother being “skull f****ed”.

Some viewers, me included, took this to mean Stanger approved of these messages. He categorically did not and has condemned them as “deplorable” and “evil”. His purpose was to demonstrate McCarthy’s responses to the hideous messages to his family by someone Stanger didn’t even know.

McCarthy had already been publicly outed by [the Twitter account] Gnasher Jew and Stanger as using a Twitter handle “Truth and Justice Socialism” spewing out a stream of inflammatory hate-filled posts such as: “Zionists worked hand in hand with Nazis to send innocent Jews to their deaths… then worked to establish the racist state of Israel” and “Jews are gassing people in Gaza.”

None of those accused (including me) were offered a filmed interview to rebut the specific criticisms/allegations against us. We were merely offered a written response

Yet Al Jazeera made no mention of this, I assume, because it didn’t consider his tweets to be antisemitic. On no mainstream UK channel would McCarthy have been regarded as a credible witness in support of a thesis that the mainstream media had inflated antisemitism within Labour into an issue that didn’t merit the label “crisis”. Not a single challenge to any of Al Jazeera’s claims was put to any of its 20 mainly Corbyn-supporting interviewees.

None of those accused (including me) were offered a filmed interview to rebut the specific criticisms/allegations against us. We were merely offered a written response, and even these were just bunched up at the end of the programme, instead of being inserted as responses to each allegation as and when they arose – which is fairer and is how Panorama dealt with 26 responses from Corbyn’s office, and other rebuttal clips. For Al Jazeera to dignify the accusation from Corbyn’s office that the BBC had “betrayed its duty of impartiality” takes the chutzpah biscuit.

Common to all four “Labour Files” programmes is the notion that most antisemitism allegations were bogus, generated to thwart a lifelong campaigner for Palestinian rights from becoming prime minister with the unsavoury twist in programme three that this undeserved focus has been at the expense of more deserving minorities, principally black and Muslim members.

The programme asserts that Labour’s antisemitism crisis has generated a “hierarchy” of racism in the party and presents this as if the Forde report has also found this to be a fact. He didn’t. Rather, Forde refers to a “perceived hierarchy” – i.e.  it was the perception of witnesses who submitted evidence to his inquiry of how they felt.

Common to all four “Labour Files” programmes is the notion that most antisemitism allegations were bogus, generated to thwart a lifelong campaigner for Palestinian rights

Yet antisemitic complaints continue to this day to be by far the single largest source of complaints in Labour, dwarfing complaints about anti-black or anti-Muslim racism. That may, of course, be due to a greater reluctance to complain; it’s impossible to know.

But asserting the existence of a hierarchy of racism as a fact again suggests Al Jazeera sees what it wants to see. To that extent the series appears closer to agenda journalism than the more dispassionate mainstream version claimed by its producers miffed by the fact that the series has sunk almost without trace. “Clearly there is going to be a sort of omerta applied to this entire thing,” groaned Sanders.

He’s settled for being hosted on obscure left-wing outlets such as Alexei Sayle’s podcast, in which the Liverpudlian comedian effs and blinds his way through the conversation: “John Ware… I think I can say looks like a prick… this man thinks he is f***ing all that…” etc. Sanders chuckles.

Give it time, says Al Jazeera’s “expert commentator” Peter Oborne. It was a “landmark piece of journalism” that will be looked back “in 10, 20, 30 years, as the turning point in the understanding of this issue and of the contemporary history of Britain, and the Middle East and the Labour Party”.

I doubt that somehow.

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