In rushing to consensus, UK media failed in its duty during Labour anti-Semitism row

Nasim Ahmed

Middle East Monitor  /  March 21, 2023

I’ve been watching the fallout from KC Martin Forde’s first public interview since the release of his report examining the handling of anti-Semitism complaints within the UK Labour Party. I’ve also been listening to British-American broadcaster Mehdi Hasan discuss his new book, Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading and Public Speaking. Though there is no apparent connection between the two, I was struck by the overlap between Hasan’s criticism of the media on both sides of the Atlantic and the frenzied way in which the British mainstream media covered allegations of anti-Semitism during the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Predictably, there has been near complete silence from the same British media to Forde’s recent revelations which debunked many of the narratives that are thought to have played a major role in bringing down the former Labour leader.

Win Every Argument‘ is an excellent book. Hasan draws on his experience as a journalist and broadcaster, as well as his background in debating and public speaking, to provide useful tips and insights. During his recent visit to the UK, Hasan appeared on several shows and podcasts where he spoke about failures in contemporary journalism and the dangers of groupthink. Hasan’s frustration over the fact-free manner of Fox News‘ coverage of American politics, which he expressed during conversations, is as relevant to British media’s coverage of alleged anti-Semitism in Labour. Talking about his motivations for writing the book, Hasan, now a presenter on MSNBC, said that the right is generally better at winning arguments than the left and hoped that his book will arm left-wing commentators and create a level playing field.

One of the examples Hasan cites in his book to explain why the right is better at winning arguments than the left is the right’s mastery of debating techniques like Gish Gallop. The tactic is successful because it overwhelms political adversaries with a rapid series of assertions, half-truths and misleading statements in order to make their opponent appear uninformed or confused. By bombarding opponents with many arguments, the person using the Gish Gallop aims to prevent their adversaries from effectively responding to each point. The aim is not to arrive at the truth. Instead, the fact-free style of delivery is designed to overwhelm adversaries with sheer volume of baseless information and half-baked truths. Hasan believes that Donald Trump’s success is largely due to his mastery of Gish Gallop, which the former US president deploys to not only overwhelm his opponents but also to evade accountability over his fact-free manner of speaking.

A second motivation Hasan mentioned for writing the book is to shake up journalism. One of the main problems in the industry, argues Hasan, is that journalists are too quick to form consensus and generally fail to ask probing questions. It’s a major problem in the US, says Hasan, but over recent years the rush to “consensus formation” has also plagued the British media.

There were clear parallels between Hasan’s explanation of the techniques of misinformation – often attributed to the right – and the techniques that had been adopted to undermine Corbyn during Labour’s anti-Semitism row. Gish Gallop and the rush to form consensus were some of the main features of the Corbyn era. Often false and fat-free allegations of abuse, intimidation and anti-Semitism dogged the leadership of the former Labour leader.  Yet for all the headlines about “mounting antisemitism” in Labour, investigation by Professor Greg Philo shows that the media panic was, to say the least, unjustified when considered alongside the scale of alleged anti-Semitism in the party. In an interview during the height of the anti-Semitism row, the Glasgow University professor revealed that out of 1,106 specific complaints of anti-Semitism, just 673 were related to actual Labour members. Given that party membership stood at over half a million at the time, the allegations, even if they were true, was around 0.1 per cent of the total.

Corbyn himself acknowledged that “one anti-Semite is one too many,” a view which we can all agree with. However, the UK media’s rush to form consensus around the issue combined with the bombardment of the British public with fact-free allegations of anti-Semitism created a completely distorted picture of reality. This is exactly what Philo said he had found. When pollsters asked the British public what share of Labour members faced complaints of anti-Semitism, the average guess was 34 per cent — over 300 times the real total.

Only after Corbyn had departed did his critics begin to admit that anti-Semitism had been weaponized by pro-Israel groups to silence political opponents. For example, in July Labour MP Dame, Margaret Hodge, and the former Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove, Ruth Smeeth, were exasperated by the group, Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA). Both Hodge and Smeeth featured heavily during the party’s anti-Semitism row under Corbyn, but when the group criticized the current leader, Keir Starmer, Hodge responded saying: “I’m fed up of CAA using anti-Semitism as a front to attack Labour.”

Media reaction, or the lack thereof, to comments made by Forde, the barrister hired by Labour leader Keir Starmer to the party’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints within the party under his predecessor, has only reinforced the claim that British journalists had failed in their duty to report truth as they were in their rush to form a consensus.  Speaking about his report for the first time since its release last July, Forde said that he felt vindicated after watching the four part documentary produced by Al-JazeeraThe Labour Files.

Shocking details revealed in the series showed how quickly the campaign to block Corbyn’s path to Number 10 moved into gear. Led by the British establishment, the campaign against the long-standing supporter of the Palestinian cause and vocal critic of Israel, was aided by the right-wing press, as well as self-styled left-wing publications like The Guardian and, most shocking of all, the Labour Party itself which, it would later be revealed, sabotaged Corbyn’s chance of becoming prime minister.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera, Forde revealed that he had come under pressure from the BBC and the veteran journalist John Ware. The 75-year-old – who purchased the right-wing paper, The Jewish Chronicle as part of a consortium – produced the highly contentious ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?‘ for BBC Panorama, the broadcaster’s flagship investigative program. Breaking his silence, Forde said that the BBC and Ware applied pressure on him to amend paragraphs about the program in which he described the use of internal Labour Party emails by Panorama as “entirely misleading.” In addition to taking issue with claims in BBC Panorama, Forde found that Labour had installed a hierarchy of racism where anti-Jewish racism is taken more seriously than Islamophobia or any other forms of discrimination. He also made 165 recommendations.

Since the publication of the report, Forde said that he has heard almost nothing from the Labour Party leadership and as far as he is aware none of the recommendations have been implemented. Given his findings debunked the British media narrative about anti-Semitism in Labour under Corbyn, few were surprised to hear him say that he has been virtually ignored by the press. Forde revealed that he was approached once but only by a journalist who had not read his report. When asked to return after reading the report the journalist never came back.

If anyone needed reminding, both Hasan and Forde have exposed the dangers of rushing to consensus and galloping to conclusions on nothing more than half baked truth if not outright fabrications. At the very least the British mainstream media should admit to their error. But then again, they don’t need to as their silence over The Labour Files and the Forde report speak volumes about their own failure as journalists.

Nasim Ahmed is a political analyst