Wednesday, 5 October 2022 — Media Lens
The damaging revelations about the Labour Party in the recent four-part Al Jazeera series, ‘The Labour Files’, and the almost totalitarian silence in response by British news media, should ram home the illusory nature of ‘democracy’ in the UK.
Based on the largest leak in British political history, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit has exposed how Labour party officials smeared and intimidated rivals on the left of the party. The leaked data comprises 500 gigabytes of documents, emails, video and audio files from the Labour Party, dating from 1998 to 2021. They reveal:
- The weaponisation of antisemitism by the right-wing of the Labour Party to hinder Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of becoming Prime Minister.
- A ‘hierarchy of racism’ within the Labour Party disciplinary process which prioritises the investigation of alleged antisemitism cases over other forms of racism.
- Shocking examples of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism within Labour.
- The crushing of dissent within Labour under Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership.
At the start of the first documentary, Al Jazeera promised:
‘To reveal how senior officials in one of the two parties of government in the UK ran a coup by stealth against the elected leader of the party. The programme will show how officials set about silencing, excluding and expelling its own members in a ruthless campaign to destroy the chances of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Britain’s Prime Minister. Candidates for key political roles were blocked and constituency groups suspended as the party’s central office sought to control the elected leadership.’
‘The files tell the story of how the hopes of many new party supporters are crushed. How established politicians and party bureaucrats used the media to destroy a movement that sought to change British society.’
The Al Jazeera (AJ) investigation showed that false accusations of abusive behaviour were hurled at Corbyn supporters in order to have them suspended or expelled from the party. At Labour HQ, party officials were tasked with trawling through members’ social media posts to find anything incriminating, particularly any material that could be deemed ‘antisemitic’.
Whistleblower Halima Khan, who worked as a Labour Party investigations officer, told AJ that ‘Palestine’ was one of the search terms used to find incriminating evidence. She described what it was like to work within Labour HQ at this time:
‘For a young Muslim woman it was an incredibly toxic environment to be working in, in that unit. I explicitly asked whether or not my job would be at risk for supporting the freedom and liberation of Palestinians. And the response was, quite frankly, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”’
Starmer’s support of Israel, and rejection of it being labelled an ‘apartheid state’ by human rights groups including Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Israel’s own B’Tselem, is well-documented; as is the strength of the Israel lobby within Labour.
So, what happened inside the Labour Party when Starmer replaced Corbyn as leader?
Carol Buxton, a former local Labour chairperson in Newham, east London, was candid:
‘Under Starmer, it changed quite quickly. We were told what we couldn’t debate at meetings. We couldn’t debate miscarriages of justice [in Labour internal disciplinary cases]. And quite quickly, I believe, freedom of speech was shut down in the Labour party. It was a very, very unpleasant and toxic atmosphere to be in because you could be accused of all sorts of things. It was like warfare.’
Greg Hadfield, former Secretary of Brighton and Hove Labour Party, told AJ:
‘The Labour party is a criminal conspiracy against its members. It acts unlawfully. It libels its members. It gives no natural justice to those accused of offences. And it tears up the rule book, the constitution, on a whim.’
The AJ series shines a light on the struggles Corbyn had with the party’s central bureaucracy which resisted the leftward shift his victory had initiated when elected as Labour leader in 2015. When he was finally able to have Labour general secretary Iain McNicol (now Baron McNicol of West Kilbride) replaced by Corbyn ally Jennie Formby in 2018, the painfully slow processing of disciplinary cases on antisemitism came to light. Recall that this slow investigation of Labour antisemitism cases had been a huge stick which the media used to thrash Corbyn.
Andrew Feinstein, a veteran anti-racist campaigner originally from South Africa who has written and lectured on genocide prevention, is shown in one AJ programme examining Labour’s confidential disciplinary files. Hundreds of party activists had been suspended on the basis of these files. Feinstein pointed to clear examples of real antisemitism. But there were also many examples of cases where ‘there was no antisemitism whatsoever’. These were typically people criticising Israel for its crimes.
‘To suggest that this is somehow antisemitic is simply trying to avoid Israel being called out for its appalling abuses in the [Palestinian] Occupied Territories.’
After 2018, once Corbyn was in control of the party bureaucracy, the disciplinary process improved dramatically. As Peter Oborne, former Daily Telegraph chief political commentator observed, honest representation of the statistics of the party’s internal disciplinary record:
‘does a great deal to raise deep questions about the dominant media narrative on the Corbyn era.’
Feinstein emphasised that:
‘The key finding, backed up by the evidence, which we can see represented graphically here, is that the key failings of the Labour party on antisemitism took place in the period before April 2018 – before Jeremy Corbyn had control of the party bureaucracy [our emphasis].’
As the AJ narrator noted:
‘Yet Jeremy Corbyn has taken all the blame and his factional opponents within the party none at all.’
Is BBC Panorama Antisemitic?
This rational honesty was notably lacking when BBC Panorama broadcast a hatchet job in July 2019, pitched as an ‘impartial’ investigation asking the loaded question, ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’ The programme was presented by BBC journalist John Ware who had previously made clear his antagonism towards Corbyn’s politics, not least in an earlier edition of Panorama.
There is no space here to detail the systematic bias, distortions and misrepresentations of Ware’s report; all laid bare at the time very clearly by former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook.
Just one of the many troubling aspects of the Panorama programme was that one of the interviewees alleging endemic antisemitism within Labour was Ella Rose, presented as a young Jewish Labour Party activist. But there was no mention of her position as a senior official in the Jewish Labour Movement, an organisation that was at the forefront of attacks on Corbyn. Nor was there mention of her having worked at the Israeli Embassy in London as Public Affairs Officer.
As exposed by the 2017 Al Jazeera series, ‘The Lobby’, revealing the power of the Israel lobby in British politics, Rose had colluded with Shai Masot, an Israeli spy who was filmed trying to ‘take down’ British government minister Alan Duncan and who was trying to set up a network of pro-Israel advocates in Labour to prevent Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. This was glaringly omitted from BBC Panorama’s programme.
As we noted in a media alert shortly afterwards, Panorama was immediately followed by the flagship BBC News at Ten programme which gave it extensive coverage, pumping up the propaganda value of the fake ‘investigation’. BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg intoned gravely:
‘Many party members have left, and if Labour can’t get a grip of racism in its own ranks, what might they lose next?’
The viewing public was supposed to swallow the BBC’s implication of endemic Labour antisemitism as impartial, objective reporting.
‘This is a problem that has dogged the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, not for a few weeks, not just for a few months, but for several years now.’
By contrast, Peter Oborne told AJ in ‘The Labour Files’:
‘The BBC produced a documentary bearing directly on the character and fitness for office of the leader of the Labour Party, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, in a moment of intense constitutional crisis [over Brexit]. Now, that’s a momentous intervention in British politics. So, I do think the BBC have to look really carefully at their record here.’
The 2022 Forde report into racism and bullying in the Labour Party, discussed further below, also noted that Panorama’s use of Labour Party internal emails to present a picture of Corbyn interfering to undermine the investigation of antisemitism was ‘entirely misleading’.
‘The Labour Files’ highlighted yet another troubling – to put it mildly – aspect of the Panorama broadcast. Ben Westerman, a Jewish member of Labour’s disputes team, claimed that he had personally encountered antisemitism during a face-to-face disciplinary meeting with a Labour activist. He claimed that the person had asked him where he was from and, when he refused to say, had asked him if he was from Israel.
In fact, as AJ revealed, Westerman had been interviewing Helen Marks, a Jewish Labour party activist who had been accused of antisemitism. She had been accompanied to the meeting by her friend, Rica Bird, a Jewish woman. It was Bird who had asked Westerman where he was from. But she had actually asked him which local branch of the Labour Party he was from. She had never asked him if he was from Israel. The women had a tape recording to prove their version of events. Panorama has never issued an apology for this, or the other serious failings in its broadcast.
Indeed, reporter John Ware and several of the young interviewees launched a legal claim against Corbyn’s Labour Party, claiming defamation. When Starmer took over as leader, he ignored clear legal advice from Labour Party lawyers and went ahead with payments to Ware and the ex-Labour employees and apologised ‘unreservedly’. The cost of the case to the Labour Party was reported as around £600,000 with about £180,000 in damages paid out to the eight individuals.
And yet, as AJ revealed, Labour legal advice had stated:
‘In my opinion, the Party is likely to successfully defend these claims. The defamatory meaning identified by the claimants can be shown to be fundamentally flawed.’
Moreover, the legal expert added:
‘For a reporter who has fronted a highly critical (indeed condemnatory) documentary about a political party to receive a six figure sum in damages would, I think, have an exceptionally chilling and indeed disproportionate effect on free speech.’
Peter Oborne told AJ:
‘This is the most unambiguous legal advice I’ve ever seen.’
That Starmer went ahead anyway, and with such a huge payout, is a clear sign once again that he wanted to disassociate himself as much as possible from Corbyn, his predecessor. It is vital to this Blairite politician that he is not perceived as a threat to the Establishment.
‘A Hierarchy of Racism’
One of the most disturbing aspects of the AJ investigation into the Labour Party is further evidence supporting one of the conclusions of the Forde report that:
‘The Labour Party is not a welcoming place for people of colour’.
This was an understatement, as we will see.
The much-delayed Forde report was published in July 2022. It was written by barrister Martin Forde who had been commissioned by Starmer to investigate factionalism within the Labour Party. This was sparked by the 2020 leak of an 860-page Labour document, ‘The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014 – 2019’, first leaked to Sky News.
In our media alert at the time, we noted that the leaked internal report revealed that senior Labour figures on the right of the party had actively tried to stop Labour winning the general election in order to oust Corbyn as party leader. The report included copious damning examples of email and WhatsApp exchanges among Labour officials expressing contempt for Corbyn and anyone who supported him, including other Labour staff, Labour MPs and even the public.
Starmer essentially suppressed Labour discussion of the damning leaked document, attempting to defuse the situation by commissioning an independent inquiry. However, the Forde report would have made uncomfortable reading for Starmer and the current Labour management.
As Jonathan Cook summarised:
‘Despite its careful wording and bogus even-handedness, the Forde Inquiry conceded that the Labour right had indeed waged a dirty factional war against Corbyn and the left of the party, weaponizing antisemitism to tar them.’
Moreover, as the Forde report concluded, the leaked WhatsApp messages revealed:
‘overt and underlying racism and sexism’.
Alex Nunns, a former Labour Party speechwriter under Corbyn, told AJ:
‘What’s worrying is that in the response to the Forde Report that accusation has been completely ignored, and they’re not willing to acknowledge it or talk about it.’
Marcia Hutchinson, a Black former Labour councillor in Manchester, said:
‘It shone a light on some of the things that have been going on. I’m afraid Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership is giving succour to racists within the party.’
Shockingly, Hutchinson told AJ:
‘I faced more racism in my five years in the Labour Party than I have in the rest of my life combined’.
The Forde Report even identified a ‘hierarchy of racism’ in which investigations of alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party took precedence over Islamophobia and anti-Black racism:
‘the Party’s more recent steps to address the problems with antisemitism, for example, have not been matched by a commitment to tackle other forms of racism’.
Halima Khan, mentioned earlier, a member of the Labour investigations team, told AJ:
‘When I would speak to my peers and the superiors about why we’re not tackling Islamaphobia and anti-Black racism with the same ferocity as we were with antisemitism, the response was always, “Antisemitism is the organisation’s priority”.’
‘As soon as an email would come in from the Jewish Chronicle [a weekly newspaper], I would be told to stay behind and act on that case even if it was just to suspend the member without even sending them questions, just so we could go back to the Jewish Chronicle and say, “We’ve suspended this member”.’
By contrast, as the AJ narrator says:
‘Other forms of discrimination do not result in automatic suspension’.
‘When we’d get lists from Labour Muslim Network, they would often sit in the complaints centre for a while, or in the complaints in-box. We weren’t ever instructed to work on these immediately.’
‘The Labour Files’ revealed the particularly egregious case of Labour HQ targeting Muslim Labour activists in Newham in east London. A dossier on Labour Party Muslim members and their families in Newham, containing private information about their lives and activities, was sent to Labour Party HQ in London. The dossier racially profiled Labour Party members in Newham, listed properties they own, where they park their cars, registration numbers, and where their children go to school.
The document, seemingly put together by a former local Labour Party member concerned about the ‘infiltration’ of Muslims, advised David Evans, Labour general secretary, to suspend Newham’s local parties and its Muslim leaders.
Oborne, who has recently published a new book, ‘The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong About Islam’, told AJ:
‘I found this dossier completely unbelievable. Reading this is like reading some far-right tract by some demented American right-winger. And this is published or done inside the Labour Party. It’s terrifying.’
‘It’s utterly shaming, this report. I mean, utterly shaming. It’s against everything the Labour Party is supposed to believe in. I’d even thought, if I was the police, I’d be looking into investigating this dossier because it strongly suggests that the Labour Party’s been breaking the law.’
In March 2021, Newham’s two party branches were suspended. More than 5,000 party members, mostly Muslim, were thus denied a voice in Labour Party democracy.
Khan told AJ:
‘When I mentioned the potential criminality of this dossier, I was effectively pushed off the project as I challenged the Party’s decision to suspend the whole of Newham, based on the dossier.’
Why might Starmer’s Labour party behave in this appalling way? ‘The Labour Files’ presented one plausible explanation; namely, appealing to so-called ‘Red Wall’ voters, typically regarded as working-class White people, in some cases perhaps somewhat bigoted, even racist. Avoiding the alienation of these voters is, suggested AJ interviewees, behind the Labour Party’s degrading approach to tackling Islamophobia and anti-Black racism.
Louie Mende, a Black Labour Party political assistant from 2018-2022, said:
‘They’re trying to find a position that will please a liberal, urban voter as well as a person in the Red Wall seats who they believe to be people who are mostly White, and who won’t stand for issues that will improve equality in this country.’
‘There’s a sort of battle for the bottom; a battle for the sewer between the Tories and Labour now for sort of bigoted White votes – suggests that the Labour Party has lost its way.’
‘Al Jazeera’s Labour Files corroborate that there is something rather ill, troubling, frightening about the Labour Party.’
Hutchinson, quoted earlier, was even more damning:
‘What happened to me was enough to make me step down. It reeks of a culture where anti-Black racism is accepted, not only tolerated, but actively promoted’.
The Media Clams Up
Oborne, to his credit, told AJ:
‘I think the British media has a lot to answer for – including me. […] The media should have done what the media is supposed to do which is to question the official versions of the truth, or the Labour Party version of the truth, and gone, “What was really going on?”’
And what has the ‘mainstream’ media response been to the damning findings of AJ’s careful, in-depth investigation? An almost complete blanket of silence. It really is a remarkable demonstration of the near-totalitarian behaviour of British ‘journalism’. As far as we can tell, there has been just a single article in the entire national press. This was a rather safe, toned-down piece in the Express. To his credit, Peter Hitchens at least mentioned the AJ films in a brief section of his Mail on Sunday blog on 2 October.
In an article titled, ‘Al Jazeera’s Labour Files has blown a hole in the British media’s Corbyn narrative’, for the Middle East Eye website, Oborne observed:
‘The papers that banged on day after day, and month after month, on allegations that Corbyn was a racist have all but ignored the Al Jazeera reports. The same applies to the BBC, which played a major role in framing the understanding of Corbyn and antisemitism in the run-up to the 2019 election.’
‘it is impossible to justify the media omerta around the Al Jazeera films. It reminds me of the long refusal of the mainstream British media to engage with the phone hacking scandal involving criminality across large sections of the British media more than a decade ago.’
Surely, the Guardian must have covered the revelations in some depth? In fact, the series was mentioned within a single sentence in an article titled, ‘Left is marginalised as Starmer allies dominate at Labour conference’, by Jessica Elgot, the paper’s deputy political editor:
‘Those from the Jeremy Corbyn years, especially those who were part of intense internal battles during his leadership, believe much of the animosity is personal grievance. They point to the Martin Forde QC report on the toxic party culture, as well as a recent Al Jazeera documentary on controversial ways in which party expulsions were handled.’
How about Owen Jones, the Guardian’s supposed authentic voice of the left? Would he rage about the appalling treatment of ethnic minorities and left activists within Labour? Not a chance. In a column welcoming Starmer’s speech to the Labour Party conference, Jones could not even bring himself to mention the Al Jazeera series which was so devastating about Starmer’s Labour. Instead, Jones proclaimed, ‘Starmer should be confident about entering No 10’ and he ‘has finally hitched himself to some bold policies’.
Eventually, on 2 October, the Guardian published an opinion piece by columnist Nesrine Malik. She noted that:
‘A strange, unsettling amnesty over allegations of prejudice seems to have been granted to Keir Starmer’s resurgent party.’
She referred briefly to AJ’s investigation in the penultimate paragraph:
‘There has even been silence in response to the claims in Al Jazeera’s Labour files, which alleged that claims of racism were weaponised, exaggerated, even fabricated, as part of the effort to purge its Corbynites. I asked for a response, none has been forthcoming.’
Of course, the newspaper in which her column had appeared was also virtually silent about the series in its news pages. And, as we will see below, there was no response from the paper when we challenged senior editors.
In the Twittersphere, ‘mainstream’ journalists and commentators appeared to regard ‘The Labour Files’ as radioactive; no discussion was taking place inside their privileged club.
Claudia Webbe, the Independent MP for Leicester East, highlighted the AJ series on Twitter and asked:
‘Why are we not talking about this?’
Mohammed Akunjee, a criminal defence solicitor, praised her, saying:
‘She should be applauded as the only politician to even mention it. The answer is that we are all talking about it. It’s only MSM and politicians doing an impression of an ostrich over the issue.’
It is tragicomic to observe several ‘big guns’ at the Labour Party conference doing their best to avoid giving a response to ‘The Labour Files’ when confronted by an Al Jazeera reporter.
In July 2019, Chris Mason, now BBC Political Editor, sent out *12* tweets in a single day, a few days in advance of the Panorama broadcast of ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’ We may have missed it, but we could not find a single tweet from Mason in response to ‘The Labour Files’.
This is, of course, standard ‘impartial’ behaviour for prominent journalists; echoed by Mason’s predecessor, Laura Kuenssberg, who would often amplify, and share to her large number of followers, critical remarks about Corbyn by the Jewish Board of Deputies, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Britain’s Chief Rabbi or whichever new source had attacked the then leader of the opposition.
As a vanishingly rare exception, Michael Crick, formerly of both BBC News and C4 News, tweeted after the first part of the AJ series had been broadcast:
‘Every political journalist should watch the film & decide for themselves. I agree with Peter Oborne that the media – including us – should have looked into this far more. Trouble is every story in the saga was very complicated & disputed & it was hard to nail down the truth.’
The notion that ‘it was hard to nail down the truth’ is, of course, a massive cop-out. It did not take almighty resources to read sufficiently widely, beyond the Westminster bubble, to determine that the public was being subjected to a propaganda blitz to destroy Corbyn’s electoral chances; or that his successor, Starmer, was crushing dissent and democracy within the Labour Party. And, moreover, that Islamophobia and anti-Black racism in Labour were, and are, being downgraded, overlooked or even promoted.
Craig Murray, former UK ambassador, responded to Crick:
‘You did not try to find the truth, and you gleefully amplified the lies. You have a major news organisation behind you. I am just an old man with a laptop and I could find the truth, including on some of these very incidents Al Jazeera featured, in 2016.’
In our 2018 book, ‘Propaganda Blitz’, we detailed at length the cynical demolition of the prospects for socialism under a Corbyn-led government. There were the usual suspects at the far-right of the media ‘spectrum’ – the Sun, Daily Mail, The Times and Telegraph among them. But, perhaps more insidious – because of their supposed reputation for reliable, even challenging, reporting – BBC News and, especially, the Guardian, were in the vanguard of the attack. It is obvious that they would be reluctant in the extreme to revisit the scene of their crimes – which are ongoing.
In a series of tweets, Jewish Labour activist Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, one of the AJ interviewees, challenged BBC Radio 4 Today editor Martha Kearney:
‘BBC failure to even mention #LabourFiles in interviews with Starmer is shocking…As a Jewish woman elected to Labour’s NEC and suspended last week by the party… I’m shocked that you failed to question Keir Starmer on the Today programme this morning about the content of Al Jazeera’s documentaries “The Labour Files”…The three episodes broadcast over the past six days demonstrate serious racist and factional abuses carried out at the highest level in Starmer’s party. I am one of those who appear in the series. Please contact me to arrange an interview.’
As far as we know, there has been no response from the BBC.
Cook summed up the media’s callous behaviour and suppression of any reporting or discussion of the Al Jazeera series:
‘Which BBC program will acknowledge Al Jazeera’s revelations, let alone pursue them further, when the BBC’s flagship news investigation program, Panorama, is deeply implicated in the very smears Al Jazeera exposed. The BBC would in effect be investigating its own malpractice.’
‘And similarly for the Guardian. To investigate the leaked documents would convict the paper – traditionally seen by many Labour voters as their house journal – of colluding in a bogus antisemitism narrative against the Labour left that it played a central role in building. The Guardian would expose itself not as it wishes to be seen – as a fearless, independent newspaper confronting the British establishment with uncomfortable truths – but as a key pillar of that very establishment.’
We challenged both Katharine Viner, Guardian editor, and Pippa Crerar, Guardian political editor, to report on ‘The Labour Files’. We also challenged Paul Brand, UK editor of ITV News, and Chris Mason, BBC News political editor. We received the usual brushweed response of…utter silence.
Some will argue, ‘It’s time to move on’; ‘It’s all in the past’; ‘The Corbyn era is over’. Perhaps, understandably desperate to be rid of the most diabolical Tory government to date, others will say, ‘You’re only helping the Tories’; ‘We need to get behind Starmer’; ‘Leave all this for another day’.
But that would be intellectually dishonest and morally unforgivable. Many Jewish, Asian, Black and other people within the Labour Party have been treated appallingly. No-one has the right to demand that their grievances be swept under the carpet.
The issues investigated by Al Jazeera do not just impinge on the way the Labour Party operates; it reveals deeply damaging practices within British democracy itself. That a class war took place within the Labour Party – with the Right now dominant, however much Starmer proclaims himself to be ‘of the centre-ground’ – was a disaster for the living conditions and prospects of the vast majority of the British people, as we are now seeing.
Listen to the words of Wimborne-Idrissi. She was interviewed for ‘The Labour Files’ and gave her view afterwards here. In particular:
‘If I were to have a face to face discussion with Keir Starmer, I would ask him does he seriously believe that the people of this country want a party in which the sort of injustices and abuses that were revealed in the Al Jazeera files take place. People will ask the question, if you cannot manage dissent and honest debate in your own party, how on earth can you presume to stand as the leader of the government of a nation?’
It is a vital and disturbing question that remains unanswered.
Al Jazeera’s ‘The Labour Files’ is a must-watch series. For the state-corporate media, it’s a ‘must-ignore’ series.
All four episodes are available on YouTube:
Part 1: The Purge
Part 2: The Crisis
Part 3: The Hierarchy
Part 4: The Spying Game