Ofcom dismisses claims of antisemitism against Al Jazeera

Mike Cushman

Predictably, when Al Jazeera broadcast The Lobby in January detailing Israeli subversion of British politics, the Zionist attack machine was fired up. They submitted five separate complaints to the media watchdog, Ofcom, alleging antisemitism, bias and invasion of privacy.

Cover of Ofcom report on 'The Lobby'
Cover of Ofcom report on ‘The Lobby’

Ofcom undertook a detailed examination of the claims and published their 60 page findings on 9 October. On every aspect of each claim they found that Al Jazeera had conducted themselves with professional rigour and had breached neither broadcasting rules nor the IHRA (mis)definition of antisemitism. Each and every item of the lengthy allegations was rejected.

Broadcast Standards case

For the first time, the IHRA definition has been tested by a British quasi-judicial tribunal: it determined not to classify criticism of Israeli activity as antisemitic.

The guidance published with the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism includes the following as a contemporary example (amongst others) of what could constitute anti- Semitism in public life and the media, taking into account the overall context: “Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions”.

The guidance also suggests that manifestations of anti-Semitism might include the targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collective. There was therefore the possibility that a programme, such as The Lobby, which focused on the actions of the State of Israel and alleged that individuals associated with it were attempting to inappropriately influence British democracy, may be considered by some to be anti-Semitic.

Importantly however, the IHRA guidance makes clear that criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.

We considered that the allegations in the programme were not made on the grounds that any of the particular individuals concerned were Jewish and noted that no claims were made relating to their faith. We did not consider that the programme portrayed any negative stereotypes of Jewish people as controlling or seeking to control the media or governments. Rather, it was our view that these individuals featured in the programme in the context of its investigation into the alleged activities of a foreign state (the State of Israel acting through its UK Embassy) and their association with it. We also noted that a number of the organisations featured in the programme, such as Labour Friends of Israel and Conservative Friends of Israel, are not defined by any adherence to Judaism or having a predominantly Jewish membership.

As per the IHRA guidance, Ofcom did not consider that such a critical analysis of the actions of a foreign state constituted anti-Semitism, particularly as the overall focus of the programme was to examine whether the State of Israel was acting in a manner that would be expected of other democratic nations.

For these reasons, our Decision is that there was no breach of Rule 2.3.  [This requires that material which may cause offence must be justified by the context. Under “meaning of context” the Code lists a number of factors including the editorial content of the programme and the service on which it was broadcast.]

This attempt to extend antisemitism to cover criticism of the actions of the Israeli Government failed miserably, to the chagrin of the self-described Campaign Against Antisemitism. This failure echoes the failure of the Fraser case against the University and College Union to similarly extend the meaning of antisemitism.

Shai Masot & Jeremy Newmark with Israeli ambassador Mark Regev speaking at an event at Labour party conference in 2016 (Al Jazeera)
Shai Masot and JLC Chair Jeremy Newmark with Israeli ambassador Mark Regev speaking at an event at Labour party conference in 2016 (Al Jazeera)

This second failure does not mean that we can relax about the threat posed by the IHRA definition. Israel’s apologists will continue to try to use it to suppress exposure of Israel’s actions until we can persuade this Government, or a future Labour Government, to accept that the eleven exemplars do not help in any way to identify antisemitic incidents. By sowing confusion, they obscure real antisemitic threats.

Fairness and Privacy cases

  • ‘Ofcom has not upheld this complaint made by Ms Ella Rose of unjust or unfair treatment and unwarranted infringement of privacy’.
  • ‘Ofcom has not upheld this complaint of unjust or unfair treatment and unwarranted infringement of privacy made by Kingsley Napley LLP (“Kingsley Napley”) on behalf of Mr Russell Langer.’
  • ‘Ofcom has not upheld this complaint of unjust or unfair treatment and unwarranted infringement of privacy made by Kingsley Napley LLP (“Kingsley Napley”) on behalf of Mr Luke Akehurst.’
JLM Director Ella Rose boasts how she can 'take' Jackie Walker
JLM Director Ella Rose boasts how she can ‘take’ Jackie Walker

The report goes into considerable detail about Ella Rose’s complaint but it can be summarised as saying she was very upset about being found out. She believes that her abuse of Jackie Walker and her smooth translation from Israeli Embassy employee to Director of the Jewish Labour Movement were of no public interest. The report states, ‘Ms Rose said that her personal religious faith which involves attachment to Israel should not make her “a target for infringement of privacy”’. This claim of impunity on the basis that Israel is part of her religion is radical restatement of the repeated assertion that any critique of Zionism is antisemitic. At no point does Ella Rose claim she was misrepresented, her distress is that she was represented all too accurately. She seems to believe that she has the right to stay in the shadows despite taking on the role of Director of an organisation seeking to influence Labour Party policy and therefore British political life.

Russell Langer is former Campaigns Director at the Union of Jewish Students and the current Public Affairs Manager with the Jewish Leadership Council. As well as working with Israeli Embassy operative Shai Masot, Mr Langer seems to have had an irony bypass. Part of his complaint was that he was surreptitiously filmed preparing to surreptitiously film a meeting of Labour Friends of Palestine.

The report shows considerable scepticism of the veracity of at least parts of Russell Langer’s claim and gives details of the content of some unused footage which shows his involvement with Masot which he tried to deny. The footage showed that:

Mr Langer had complained about the excessive involvement of the Israeli Embassy in events organised by British Jewish organisations. Mr Langer also confirmed that he has relations with the Israeli Government.

Langer’s lawyers claimed that ‘contrary to the impression created in the programme, Mr Langer hardly knew Mr Masot and had only ever been introduced to him, but had never worked with him.’ But Ofcom found, ‘Mr Masot had some sort of relationship with the JLC and that he knew Mr Langer’

Luke Akehurst, a former Labour Councillor and Director of We Believe in Israel, is a well-known and vocal pro-Israel activist. Again, he was upset that his views had been all too accurately reported. He claimed that:

the footage of Mr Masot speaking with the undercover reporter had been “heavily edited” so it would have been unclear to viewers what the undercover reporter should liaise with Mr Akehurst about.

But on the contrary Ofcom found:

From reviewing the unedited footage, it appeared to Ofcom that the conversation between Mr Masot and the undercover reporter had been edited in the programme as broadcast. However, it was our view that the extent of the editing was very limited and the conversation included in the programme was an accurate reflection of what was said about Mr Akehurst and the manner in which it was said in the unedited footage. Further, it was our view that the programme as broadcast would have made clear to viewers that Mr Masot wanted the undercover reporter to set up the youth wing of the LFI and that to do so, he should liaise with heads of other pro-Israel movements, such as Mr Akehurst. Therefore, we considered that the conversation had not been heavily or unfairly edited.

It was Al Jazeera’s scrupulous accuracy that was so upsetting to Israel’s friends in this aspect as in many others.

Claims of bias, unfairness and antisemitism made repeatedly against Israel’s critics are usually bounced around an echo chamber of like-minded groups. They gain a claimed authority with each repetition and endorsement. The lesson from this report is that when these claims are subjected to scrutiny they fall apart. We must insist that judgements of claims are made by panels that are not dominated by people who have already declared they see antisemitism everywhere and in every defence of Palestinian rights. Neither should they be judged by partisans for Palestine, as a finding of innocence would not be convincing to outside observers. They must be judged in impartial forums, when they are, in this case just as in Fraser v UCU, the claims of antisemitism are demonstrated to be protection of Israel not defence of Jews.