Jonathan Coulter describes the weaponisation process, the targeting of the Labour Party and his own experience in challenging media distortions. He seeks to explain why this is happening, and goes on to suggest how pro-Palestinian rights activists can push back, in alliance with other groups.
Britain’s acquiescence with the weaponisation of antisemitism; can we really be so daft?
I recently launched a Judicial Review of the press regulator IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation) for failing to heed a group complaint about two Murdoch newspapers which had grossly misreported a House of Lords meeting to launch the campaign for Britain to apologise for the impact on the native Palestinian people of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Between them, the newspapers had smeared a whole meeting of Palestine sympathisers as ‘antisemitic’ and, by implication anybody who spoke at or attended similar meetings.
In this endeavour I worked closely with the Hacked Off Campaign. Hacked Off has no position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but supported me as it considers IPSO to be a ‘sham regulator’ that the press barons established to protect their own interests, and not those of the public, and because it felt that my specific complaints had merit and were important.
As I explained in my letter to supporters, we achieved much in getting a judge to accept the case ‘on the papers’. However another judge who heard the case on April 17th took a very different tack, raising a question over the court’s jurisdiction, and ruling against me on the grounds I had raised. The judge in effect declared that IPSO’s rules, written by the press industry, gave IPSO discretion to do exactly as it wanted within those rules.
Notwithstanding this setback, the issues are very much alive, and another person has made a related complaint to IPSO, this time about scurrilous articles in the Jewish Chronicle.
The context – a battle on British soil
When, about a decade ago, I started researching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I soon concluded that it was being fought out at least as much in Western countries as in the Middle East. This had been the case from the beginning, because Zionist doctrines originated in 19th Century Europe and it was Britain that issued the famous Balfour Declaration during World War I. In accordance with the colonial thinking of the time, Europeans (gentiles and Jews alike) tended to see Palestine rather like a blank canvas on which they could carry out their own designs.
Since World War Two, first Zionists and then the state of Israel tirelessly and successfully used spin and PR to bring the western nations behind Israel. Israel was presented variously as ‘a plucky David facing the Arab Goliath’, ‘a tolerant and democratic country in a tough neighbourhood’, and, as always ‘responding to Arab/Palestinian aggression’ rather than as an aggressor in its own right. However, as the decades of occupation drew on, western perceptions as to the identity of David and Goliath became confused or often reversed, and so the ‘hasbara’ wore thin.
It is in this context of declining credibility that Israel and its western advocates have truly weaponised the concept of ‘antisemitism’ in Western countries, and particularly in the UK, the country with one of the strongest Palestine Solidarity movements. There have been two major features of this:
- Their repeated, and often successful, attempts to get western Governments and public institutions to adopt bogus or dodgy definitions of the term ‘antisemitism’ that conflate it with legitimate criticism of Israel and its supporters, and to force this on public institutions such as universities and local governments.
- A powerful media campaign smearing as ‘antisemitic’ those who are critical of Israel.
As soon as it became known that Jeremy Corbyn, a known supporter of Palestinian rights, was likely to become leader of the Labour Party (and potentially Prime Minister), the Labour Party, and particularly Corbyn supporters, became leading targets of these denunciations. The campaign has been unremitting, reaching peaks before the local elections of 2016 and 2018 and at the time of Labour’s Autumn Conference in Blackpool. My case against IPSO was closely related to this, as I along with 29 co-complainants had witnessed the press smearing people involved in the Balfour apology campaign.
The process of weaponisation has been amply exposed on the pages of ‘Free Speech of Israel’ and elsewhere. Suffice it for me to say that the strategy has been crude and obvious, and the reasoning full of holes. Hugh Tomlinson’s legal opinion laid bare the inadequacy of the IHRA Definition of antisemitism which the British government had ‘adopted’. As for antisemitism within the Labour Party, I have seen no body of evidence demonstrating that the party has a special problem that would justify singling it out from other sections of British society and parroting denunciations across the media. Indeed statistical evidence shows that antipathy towards Jews across UK society is minor compared to that felt towards some other religious and ethnic groups, and that it is strongest on the far right.
Why is this happening?
This is the question that really intrigues me. Why is British society and the political establishment allowing this noxious campaign to proceed? And how can it happen in a country like the UK, that has a track record in standing up to the threats and abuse of foreign powers? I get a sense of cognitive dissonance about public morality; on the one hand, I see British people doing a vast amount of more-or-less selfless voluntary work for an array of different causes, while at the same time they seem spineless in the face of political manipulation. Are we a fickle people, or is something else going on?
I have sounded out a variety of politicians and public figures, and have spoken to others who have made similar soundings, and can identify five explanatory factors:
- The sheer intensity of campaigning and the extent of the lobby’s reach, from right to left. Other lobbying groups, e.g. militant Brexiteers, manage to get fiercely propagandistic and pejorative lines adopted in certain newspapers, notably The Mail and The Telegraph. However, Israel appears to have greater reach and as it can get favourable coverage across the board, including outlets such as the Guardian and the BBC. Here it is worth noting a comment by the journalist Nick Davies in his ground-breaking book, ‘Flat-Earth News’ (p122-125); he refers to the Israel lobby as an ‘electric fence’ of which journalists seek to steer clear for fear of getting powerful electric shocks, including a phone that never stops ringing.
- The poor performance of the media. Some of this must be put down to anti-left and pro-Israel biases among the media barons, but at least as much can be attributed to mechanistic failings within the press. Here Nick Davies shows that the media lack the journalistic resources to research and check most of their stories, for which reason they have increasingly relied on a burgeoning PR industry to deliver stories ‘on a plate with a sprig of parsley on top’. Israel and its supporters are well equipped to provide this in in timely fashion. He also points to a range of ‘rules of production’ including ‘avoiding the electric fence’ (see above), selecting ‘safe ideas’, going ‘with the moral panic (see below)’, and the ‘Ninja turtle syndrome’, all of which tend to bias journalists away from arguments that upset powerful lobbies and established ideas (see p109-153).
- The fear factor: faced with potential media smears, British politicians and public figures prefer to keep their heads below the parapet for self-preservation or so that they can fight other political battles. This is understandable if, as stated by Jackie Walker, accusations of antisemitism are as damaging to one’s reputation as being called a pedophile or a murderer. However, legitimate fear can morph into cowardice. At present in Britain, after all, opposing Israel can’t cost you your life, unlike the situation in my wife’s country in Central America, where standing up for human rights can result in a ‘sicario’ on a motorbike putting a bullet in your head.
- Political opportunism. The weaponisation of antisemitism against Corbyn has proved useful to his opponents on the Labour right and to other parties. A host of politicians have jumped on this band-waggon without looking closely at the evidence and forgetting that they have a duty to protect British citizens (whether political allies or foes) against the intrigues of a foreign power.
- Moral panic. Stan Cohen advanced this concept in his study ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’ (1972) to explain a media storm and other events after a clash between ‘mods and rockers’ on a beach in 1964. He described a process whereby: (a) the ‘folk devil’ is symbolised in an oversimplified narrative; (b) facts are exaggerated and distorted, fuelling a ‘moral crusade’, and; (c) further immoral actions on the part of the folk devil are anticipated. We can see a similar, but much more damaging, pattern in the history of witch-hunts against minorities including: the Roman persecution of Christians, blamed for military reverses; medieval targeting of Jews for dark, murderous practices; 16th and 17th century witch-craft trials in protestant Europe and North America; the McCarthyist anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, and; the current campaign about Labour antisemites. Witch-hunts can put public figures under massive pressure to conform to the moral crusade, and can cause doubters or opponents to ‘bend in the wind’ so as to limit the political damage. I find this in President Eisenhower’s failure to act promptly against Senator Joseph McCarthy, and in Jeremy Corbyn and some other public figures’ unwillingness to call out the role of pro-Israel lobbyists in the campaign against the Labour Party.
It’s time to build a truly national campaign
This problem could be tackled were a group of leading public figures and politicians to join hands and mount a national campaign to expose the reality about antisemitism smears, but fears and opportunism presently combine to prevent this. So it is up to pro-Palestinian rights activists to develop a strategy that can attract the necessary support. Here are some ideas.
A high percentage of these activists are on the left, which I find unsurprising; I first noted the left’s tendency to speak up vigorously on international injustices when the Vietnam War was raging. As we see above, the Labour left needs to defend itself against pro-Israeli smears, but this means reaching out to other parts of the political spectrum, beyond its own echo-chambers. It takes a little thought to realise that the cause of Free Speech on Israel has enormous unexploited potential in the centre of British politics and even right of centre.
If we look at the centre, one of the leading political causes is currently the reform of press regulation. This is being led by the Hacked Off Campaign where we see an alliance of Labour figures like Ed Milliband and Tom Watson, Lib Dems, and rebel Tories like Lord Attlee and Kenneth Clark; it also enjoys strong support in the House of Lords. The present Government has managed to narrowly block proposed amendments to the Data Protection Bill which would have put the second part of the Leveson Inquiry back on track. However, a change in Government or voter arithmetic will put it straight back on the parliamentary agenda.
I tend to see the cause of ‘Free Speech on Israel’ as a subset of the Hacked Off Campaign. Both causes seek remedies to media abuse and inaccuracies, while both struggle with politicians’ acute fear of the media, a point that both Ed Milliband and Kenneth Clark hammered home in the 9th May Commons debate on the Data Protection Bill.
Excerpts from the 9th May House of Commons Debate on the Data Protection Bill
Edward Milliband: Now I will answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Wellingborough. I set out the reasons adduced by the press and, indeed, the Government for the cancellation of this inquiry, but let us be absolutely honest: there is one overriding reason for the Government’s decision to abandon it, and that needs to be discussed. It is quite simple. It is fear: fear about the wrath of the press. That is why the Government have made this decision. The press do not want the inquiry to go ahead, and the Government fear attacks on them by the press. That is why the last Labour Government did not take action against the press: they too feared the consequences. But what did we also say after 2011? We said, ‘Never again will we succumb to fear and make the wrong decisions, which are not in the public interest.’
Kenneth Clarke: In the present mad climate of political debate, I think that quite a lot of people—for one reason or another, as has always been the case in politics—are currying favour with the proprietors and editors of newspapers, or are fearful of those proprietors and editors. It is difficult to deny that that may have played a part in the sudden decision that we do not want to know any more about matters such as relationships between the police and the press.
To date much of Hacked Off’s campaigning has been about press abuse of individuals and families, both with or without police complicity. The names of victims such as Dowler, McCann, Hollins and Grant come to mind. However the Campaign is even larger than this, and is concerned with the press repeatedly smearing large groups of people, like Muslims or immigrants, something that tends to silence dissenting voices and prevent the country from debating topics in a rational manner. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Campaign worked with me on my complaint against IPSO.
We need to build on this bridge, with a view to achieving two key aims:
- to make the press answerable for individual abuses, and patterns of abuse (something that will require a regulator with investigative powers), and;
- to drastically reduce the cost to ordinary people of securing redress from the press (Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 could provide for this through low-cost arbitration).
For those to the ‘right of centre’ of British politics, the most compelling cause of recent years has been Brexit, which is popularly represented as ‘getting our country back’ from an encroaching European Union – in my view deeply erroneous and sometimes disingenuous argument that ignores the voice that the EU has given Britain in international affairs. Another topic on which we hear every day is the Russian threat to our external and internal security – this time I believe with some justification.
But while the European Union and Russia win the titles of ‘top bogeymen’, we should simultaneously consider the threats posed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, all of them countries that Britain often goes out of its way to please despite their acting against our best interests. Israel has interfered egregiously and with impunity in our internal affairs on multiple occasions, including the move to ‘take down’ our Deputy Foreign Secretary. Defending national sovereignty is a legitimate aim, but rather than simply focusing on the bogeymen, we need to search for rational ways to maximise it overall, given threats we face on different sides.
We British should first unambiguously acknowledge we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated in a way that has undermined our freedom of expression in matters that affect Israel. The aggressive weaponisation of antisemitism follows a series of propaganda initiatives since the 1940s, and has brought out some of our worst characteristics, notably a widespread willingness to constantly appease and hope things will blow over. But this only whets the Lobby’s appetite and results in further bullying and manipulation. We only have ourselves to blame for this, so it is time to say enough is enough, and work together to reclaim liberties for which our forebears struggled.
If we can create the necessary space for free speech and rational debate, we can contribute much to the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it will have positive knock-on effects on our relationships with Arabs and Muslims generally. In order to accomplish this, we should in particular get behind the Hacked-Off Campaign that seeks to hold the media accountable for what it publishes on a wide range of topics, ranging from intrusive reporting into the affairs of vulnerable people to the smearing of entire categories of people.
Jonathan Coulter is 69, retired, and has spent his career in overseas development, in jobs which have involved much travel. It has made him a passionate advocate for foreign policies that are just and coherent, and for accurate reporting. He is currently Newsletter Editor for Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine (www.ldfp.eu).