BBC’s Panorama - Is Labour Antisemitic? - analysis

Former staffers gave a harrowing account of an institutionally racist party in the BBC's Panorama program.

The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, delivers a speech in Manchester, Britain, March 22, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE)
The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, delivers a speech in Manchester, Britain, March 22, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE)
The British Labour Party has declared war on the BBC. The trigger was a probe by the BBC’s Panorama program into antisemitism within Labour Party ranks titled “Is Labour Antisemitic?”
In the flagship BBC program aired last week, eight whistleblowers – some breaking a non-disclosure agreement to tell their story – accused Labour senior officials of interfering with the party’s antisemitism investigations and grossly misleading the public about their handling of mounting complaints.
The former staffers gave harrowing accounts of an “institutionally racist” party in which Jewish members were subjected to abuse. One interviewee said it was “self-destroying to be a member of the Labour Party and Jewish.”
They spoke of a complaints department team so undermined by party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s aides that its members suffered mental breakdowns, with one contemplating suicide.
Labour’s attempts to stop the show from being broadcast proved futile. Not only did Labour’s antisemitism make the headlines yet again, but just one day before the screening, distinguished peers announced their resignation from the party: former health minister Lord Darzi, former general secretary Lord Triesman, and former Royal College of Physicians president Lord Turnberg.
Echoing the sentiments of a growing number of disillusioned Labourites, the three accused Corbyn of heading a party that is “very plainly institutionally antisemitic.”
Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism is nothing new. It has been at the top of the UK news agenda for the past three years. The party leader is also being investigated by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. So why did the Panorama probe ruffle Labour’s feathers and cause such an uproar?
“The charade of Mr Corbyn as an anti-racist activist has been blown apart,” explained Campaign Against Antisemitism’s chief executive Gideon Falter.
The former staffers “have been compelled by their conscience to speak out,” added Falter. “Whilst claiming to act against Jew-hatred, Jeremy Corbyn’s agents and allies have carefully protected antisemites.”
At the heart of the program’s revelations is the party’s complaints process, which instead of being independent, was in fact meddled with by Corbyn’s general secretary Jennie Formby, chief of staff Karie Murphy, director of strategy Seumas Milne, and adviser Andrew Murray.
Meddling was intended to let antisemites off with the lightest possible punishment, often overriding complaint team’s recommendations and dismissing their investigations.
“It’s a joke,” former investigator Dan Hogan told Panorama. “On a number of the cases... the people that she [Formby] brought in when she became general secretary overruled us and downgraded what should have been a suspension to just an investigation, or worse, just a reminder of conduct which is effectively a slap on the wrist.”
The top aids, it was revealed, have gone to great lengths to achieve their goal. There was a 2018 email from Milne urging a review of the disciplinary process into antisemitic complaints. “Something’s going wrong, and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism... I think going forward we need to review where and how we’re drawing the line.”
To former head of disputes Sam Matthews, Milne’s message said that Corbyn’s office wanted direct involvement with the disciplinary process.
In another 2018 email chain, Formby is seen as allegedly attempting to interfere with the selection of the panel for the case of accused member Jackie Walker. “The NCC cannot be allowed to continue in the way that they are at the moment,” reads Formby’s email, “and I will also be challenging the panel for the Jackie Walker case.”
The email was copied to Corbyn’s personal email as well as Milne’s and Corbyn’s chief of staff Karie Murphy.
Formby later addressed the same group to say, “I’ve permanently deleted all trace of the email. Too many eyes all on my Labour address. Please use my Unite address.”
LABOUR HAS since told Panorama that Formby stopped using her party email because of concerns over a political opponent having access to it. However, outraged former Labour general secretary Ian McNicol is not convinced. “The issues that are raised within these emails should ring alarm bells across the party,” McNicol told Panorama. “To try to interfere politically within the NCC is just wrong.”
The leader office’s heavy intervention has allegedly extended to high-profile cases such as those involving Marc Wadsworth, Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker, Glyn Secker and Moshe Machover, as well as the case of an antisemitic mural whose painter was famously supported by Corbyn. All the while Labour reassurances were given out to the media and public that these accusations were being seriously and independently investigated.
For Matthews and his fellow whistle blowers, Corbyn’s Labour has normalized modern antisemitism. The team members grew increasingly frustrated in light of Corbyn’s public claims about the party’s disciplinary process being free of political interference, and by Formby taking pride in improved complaints procedures since becoming general secretary.
It became clear that this was a party concerned with public relations and damage control rather than investigating complaints and getting to the root of the growing problem. Labour’s former head of the disputes team, Mike Creighton, told Panorama of a 2016 conversation with Milne, who sought advice about how the party should deal with antisemitism.
Creighton advised speeding up the handling of top-level antisemitic cases and for Corbyn “to make a significant speech on the issue of the Middle East, particularly saying that Israel had a right to exist.”
Milne is alleged to have laughed at the advice, leading Creighton to the conclusion that what Milne was seeking was not a way to deal with antisemitism, but a means to handle “the bad publicity we’re getting.”
The damning program has cemented the perception of what MK Yair Lapid called “Corbyn’s problem with Jews.”
“Is Labour Antisemitic?” has lifted the lid off a culture where Jew-hatred is so deeply ingrained it is accepted as normal. After the Jewish community’s “Enough Is Enough” London demonstration, for example, Formby did not dig deep into the community’s pain or the causes of Labour’s antisemitism, but instead allegedly described the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council as “some of the rudest people” she ever met.
“To people like Jennie,” Matthews told The Jewish Chronicle, “the leader is without any faults. It really is like a cult.”
Panorama’s investigation, as predicted, made the front pages of the national press, including The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, among others.
Its aftermath saw Labour drawing fierce criticism from politicians far and wide, including current candidate for PM Jeremy Hunt, who on Twitter described Corbyn as “a man either willfully blind to antisemitism or [who is] antisemitic himself,” condemning the Labour leader for “allowing this cancer to infiltrate our politics.”
Most illuminating, however, was the feedback from disillusioned Labour Party members. “Whatever the truth or lies,” tweeted one alarmed supporter, “this is a continuing gaping wound. This is not going away and [is] losing votes.” Another wrote, “The perception is out there. It’s damaging, and a strong party would have sorted it. Why hasn’t Labour? That’s the question.”
It is unfortunate that the BBC did not take this golden opportunity to dig deep into the very causes of Labour’s antisemitism and the reasons for the increase in antisemitic complaints since Corbyn became leader. An in-depth examination of the causes and nature of antisemitism in general would have been helpful, whereas a considered look at the recent rise in antisemitism worldwide is long overdue.
Panorama’s probe prompted fresh pressure on Corbyn to resign, with betting bookies reporting a “huge number of bets” on the Labour leader departing this year.
Whether Corbyn does resign or hangs on to his post, Panorama has undoubtedly burst his “peace activist” bubble, and cemented the perception of the Labour leader as antisemitic. Should he resign in the days to come, antisemitism would rather ironically prove to be Corbyn’s downfall.