We came to the meat of Panorama: Is Labour Antisemitic nearly halfway through – the allegation that the Labour Party’s leaders interfere in the disciplinary process when people are accused of anti-Semitism.
This is not a new claim – it was broken by The Sunday Times (if I recall correctly), in a report by Gabriel Pogrund based on a leak of confidential papers.
Information that has come out since that revelation suggests that one of the contributors to Panorama: Is Labour Antisemitic was responsible for that leak. Other claims suggest that the same person provided further information to Mr Pogrund and may also have shredded documents relating to party members against whom complaints had been made that he (for it was a he) had personally and unilaterally decided should not be investigated.
So who, exactly, interfered with the complaints process in the Labour Party, again?
John Ware seemed determined to pin the blame on the party leadership. He pontificated: “In an email, Mr Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne, asked for a review of the disciplinary process into anti-Semitic complaints. There was a risk, he said, of ‘muddling up political disputes with racism’.”
Brace yourself, because you are now coming to a sequence in which the meaning of claims and comments depends hugely on their context, the amount of information you’re provided, and the intention of the person imparting it. You are in the land of the nit-pickers – and here was the first example.
This email has been quoted selectively and out-of-context, it seems – not the first time people accusing others of anti-Semitism have resorted to such a tactic!
I was lucky enough to have been in my car listening to Radio 4’s PM on Thursday when Evan Davis quoted the email in more detail.
He said: “There was one aspect we gave mention to… on our programme, and we thought you might like some fuller context. Now this is about an email from Seumas Milne, key aide to Jeremy Corbyn – in fact, the key aide to Jeremy Corbyn, you might say, and we quoted him as writing the following in an email: ‘Something’s going wrong, and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism.’ And we got that quote from a BBC press release yesterday (July 10), it was in the Panorama programme, and this would naturally be taken as evidence of political interference in the disciplinary procedures. He’s in the leader’s office; he’s not meant to be tampering with the uh… the investigations.
“But Labour have said this was a selective quotation. The full email actually concerned a specific case of charges of anti-Semitism against Jewish people. One Jewish member was under investigation – a Corbyn supporter, someone who, in fact, was the son of a Holocaust survivor – and Seumas Milne had been asked his opinion on this case.
“And the fuller quote from the email says this…: ‘If we are more than very occasionally using disciplinary action against Jewish members for anti-Semitism, something’s going wrong and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism. Quite apart from this specific case I think, going forward, we need to review where and how we’re drawing the line and if we’re going to have clear and defensible processes.’
“You’ll have to make up your own mind as to whether that amounted to interference on Milne’s part, and whether the BBC’s edited version was a reasonable edit or not.”
OF COURSE IT WASN’T!
He was making the very clear point that it is wrong to suggest that a Jewish person, the son of a Holocaust survivor, hates Jewish people because they ARE Jewish people – and he was drawing the obvious conclusion that a disciplinary process that even suggests such a thing in more than a tiny minority of cases must be seriously – if not fatally – flawed.
The operative phrase is indeed “we’re muddling up political disputes with racism”, but without the vital piece of context – that he was referring to a case against a Jewish member – Panorama was inviting readers to leap to a false conclusion. His suggestion that “we need to review where and how we’re drawing the line and if we’re going to have clear and defensible processes” is a clear indication of his own opinion – that the party’s processes were neither clear nor defensible.
And even the PM report of the email isn’t complete. Here’s the full quotation, courtesy of Steve Howell on Twitter:
Panorama has quoted emails out of context:
Former disputes head Sam Matthews specifically asked Seumas Milne for his view.
Milne's comment on 'muddling up political disputes with racism' concerned cases involving Jewish members – one of whom was the son of a Holocaust survivor. pic.twitter.com/hEQItY8gFe
— Steve Howell (@FromSteveHowell) July 10, 2019
In the light of that information, let’s go back to Panorama.
Next to appear was Mr Matthews, who told us that he had interpreted the email – which was about the treatment of an anti-Semitism case against a Jew, remember – as follows: “This was the leader’s office requesting to be involved – directly – in the disciplinary process.”
This is not true. There was no demand to be involved in any individual case. It was a warning that the process needed reform, but it was not an expression of a desire to influence that reform in any overbearing way.
Mr Matthews continued: “This is not a helpful suggestion; it is an instruction.”
In the light of what we now know, do you think he was tellling the truth then?
And again, about Seumas Milne: “In that context, when he says I think we need to review this process going forward – that isn’t a suggestion. That’s him instructing what he expects to happen – without needing to say it.”
Even if it was an instruction, given the correct context, rather than that in which Mr Matthews framed it, Mr Milne would have been right to demand a review. Would he not?
And the Labour response puts the cap on this: “The leader’s office did not intervene. These former disaffected employees sought the view of staff in the leader’s office, which was complied with in good faith. These disaffected former officials include those who have always opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, worked to actively undermine it, and have both personal and political axes to grind.”
It seems clear, given what we have heard about the leaks to The Sunday Times, that this may certainly be true in Mr Matthews’s case.
Next up: Dan Hogan, another former member of the disputes team, saying “there was an increasing darkness”.
He went on to claim that “the leader’s office and Jennie Formby and her team wanted us… wanted us out.”
Could this be because these members of the disputes team were following their own political agenda, rather than acting impartially, as they were expected to do?
And he said Ms Formby’s claim that tackling anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is a central priority was “a joke”. He said people she brought in when she became general secretary overruled members of the disputes team – because they were following their own agenda, as I just suggested? He said, on a number of cases he worked on, they “downgraded what should have been a suspension to just an investigation or, worse, to just a reminder of conduct; effectively a slap on the wrist”. Because that was all these cases deserved?
Clearly this programme now needed to undermine Ms Formby and her people. So we are told about one of the new faces, a councillor and Corbyn loyalist named Thomas Gardiner, who was “given a veto over which anti-Semitism complaints should be investigated”. We were told that an email, flashed on the screen but out-of-focus, proposed giving Mr Gardiner political oversight over anti-Semitism complaints. Labour says this email was never sent to him and any suggestion that he was offered such control was “a malicious political attack on a party staff member by a disaffected, politically-hostile former employee”.
“But: ‘Political overseer’ was how the staff saw him,” Mr Ware said directly to camera. He can only have been referring to those staff he interviewed, whose opposition to the Labour leadership should now be clear to all.
Next we were told of the kind of issue Mr Gardiner was given to handle. Commentator Dave Rich was up again. By the way, he was credited as “Author: The Left’s Jewish Problem” but is probably better-known as deputy communications director of the Community Security Trust, a charity established to secure the safety and security of the Jewish community in the UK. All charities must be apolitical – that is, they must not interfere with politics – and while their members may have their own political views, it is true that questions may – and should – be asked of an organisation that has been so strong in its opposition of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership and has such a man in a communications role.
He referred to an image of the face-hugger from the Alien films, attached to the Statue of Liberty, with the Star of David on its back. He said the meaning was that Jews are an alien creature, sucking the life out of America. “It was an image that belonged in 1930s Germany,” he said. Although this is impossible as Alien wasn’t released until 1979, you can appreciate what he meant.
Martha Robinson was up next, to say how shocking the image was – clearly anti-Semitic. We were being set up to hear that Mr Gardiner disagreed, and sure enough, that was the next, voiced-over, claim. His argument – in many cases, Ms Robinson said, was that an image was anti-Israeli, or opposed to the State of Israel.
One can understand such an argument, to a large extent. Israel has long been seen as a magnet for financial and material support from the United States, and it is possible to see how someone may describe that in terms of an alien (read: foreign) power acting as a parasite against the US. The Star of David in the image is shown as it is depicted on the Israeli flag, and therefore may be seen as a symbol of Israel, here, rather than of the Jews.
But it is arguable either way and, certainly, an image intended to criticise the Israeli government may be used by anti-Semites as well. So it would have been important to examine the attitudes and behaviour of the person who tweeted the image, one Kayla Bibby, of Liverpool, and its origins.
Apparently it came from a far-right website and was originally captioned “bloodsucking alien parasites killing America”. Ms Bibby, now suspended, has said she regrets any offence caused.
Is she an anti-Semite? Or was she making what she thought was a reasonable comment about the relationship between the State of Israel and the United States? That is a hard judgement to make.
It seems to me that the disputes team members – or at least, those “disaffected” members on whom Mr Ware relied to make this programme – had a knee-jerk reaction to the image, while Mr Gardiner took a more diplomatic view.
Ms Robinson appeared, to say she had spent “day after day” reading anti-Semitic comments from members, only to have Mr Gardiner dismiss them or downgrade the punishment from her recommendations. We cannot have enough information on which to judge the truth of that statement. A single – well-documented – example does not establish a pattern.
Mr Matthews was next, to say that having Mr Gardiner overseeing his work was “awful” and made it impossible to do that job “in the way it had been done previously”. Considering what we had heard so far, and the facts that have become clear about the people speaking, it seems clear that “the way it had been done previously” was unacceptable.
These now-ex-staffers, it seems clear, were “drawing the line” in accordance with their own prejudices – not in line with any “clear and defensible” processes. But you weren’t supposed to think that.
So when Mr Matthews says, “Jennie created an environment and a culture that was toxic for me and my team,” this tells me that she was trying to drag Labour’s disputes process back from what now seems to have been prejudice-driven hysteria.
Labour’s comment: “It is unfair to attack staff members who cannot publicly defend themselves,” is accurate and has been stated previously, in reference to this subject. That being said, if a decision was controversial, it should be possible to call the party to account for it.
The further comment, that “It is simply untrue to say that there were any significant number of disagreements about what constituted anti-Semitism” is as impossible to judge as Ms Robinson’s claim that she had been reading anti-Semitic comments from members, day after day. We weren’t there; we don’t know.
Another testimony: “Until 2016, being Jewish was either a neutral thing or it was a positive thing; people would celebrate diversity. That changed decisively, in my personal experience, in 2016, when a local member… compared me to a Nazi in the local newspaper.”
So, if true, what had changed? Who was this person? Had they done something to provoke such a suggestion? Was it prompted by some outside influence? There certainly isn’t enough here to support the immediately-following claim that “Labour isn’t now an anti-racist party”.
The next segment referred to Jackie Walker, of whose story I know a great deal. We’ll leave it for tomorrow.
To be continued…
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