Launching Labour’s election campaign yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn called on journalists to “just report what we say”. He evaded such questions as whether he would step down if Labour loses, how he would vote in a second referendum (which is actually the party’s policy), and whether the members of his shadow cabinet would take the corresponding posts in government.
It’s disturbing that the Labour leader should have so tenuous a conception of the role of an independent media in a liberal democracy. Note that Corbyn’s call was not for “fair” coverage, which would have been a reasonable if ill-defined request, but literally for journalists to repeat what the party tells them. When the peerless Beth Rigby, political editor of Sky News, had the temerity to ask Corbyn a question, she was booed by the party’s supporters.
This is not how journalism works under any reasonable definition. It is the role of my profession to ask questions and scrutinise claims. However imperfectly, we do it on behalf of the public. As the great Protestant ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “The political virtue of a free society is that it makes power responsible, disperses power into as many centres as possible, thereby creating a system of checks and balances, and refuses immunity from criticism and review to any centre of power and prestige.”
Corbyn’s incomprehension of this principle is mirrored on the right. In a television discussion with me a couple of months ago, a Brexit Party MEP called for The Times to sack me for referring to his party as racist (I’m still there, Mr Habib). And it took me back to 2015, when Corbyn emerged as the favourite to win the Labour leadership. The issue of his long and very problematic statements on Jewish issues was bound to come up – not, as Corbynite conspiracy theorists imagine, because of a decision by us journalists to concoct a smear, but because what we already knew about him had quite suddenly become newsworthy and important. And so it did. Corbyn’s campaign officials approached the Jewish Chronicle, to which I’m a longstanding contributor, offering an interview. Stephen Pollard, the JC editor, accepted the offer and asked me to do the interview. On being told that I’d be the one asking the questions, Corbyn pulled out.
I’m guessing the motivation but I suspect that Corbyn’s offer to Britain’s leading Jewish publication was predicated on his notion that a newspaper’s role is to “just report what we say”. What he would have said to the JC was doubtless a series of bromides about his opposition to anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, without any critical assessment of his own role in provoking them. And my role as an interviewer is not to take dictation but to ask questions.
I’ve interviewed many people in public policy, science, the arts and other fields, including a prominent critic of Israel (Peter Beinart), and without exception they’ve told me that I’ve fairly represented our discussion. But, crucially, an interview is always a discussion, not a monologue. As is evinced by his petulance when asked a tough question (recall when Krishnan Guru-Murthy asked him, on Channel 4 News, about his reference to his “friends” from Hamas and Hezbollah), Corbyn doesn’t understand this role of the fourth estate.
If we’d had our discussion back in 2015, I’d have been able to warn him that the issue of anti-Semitism would dog him and mire the Labour Party in scandal, and so it’s proved. I know Corbyn’s political record, and he knows I know it. Polling evidence suggests that almost all British Jews (more than 85%) consider Corbyn to be anti-Semitic. That’s a devastating finding for any politician, but especially for a party with deep roots in Britain’s Jewish community and historic links with Labour Zionism. No such question would ever have emerged under leaders like Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, all of them friends of Israel and of Anglo-Jewry.
I share the view of, among many others, Margaret Hodge that Corbyn is an anti-Semite. I do so on the grounds of the evidence and nothing else. I don’t know what’s in Corbyn’s heart: I can only go on his words and actions. If a politician offers support for a mural depicting sinister hook-nosed bankers at a table resting on the backs of the poor, then the most charitable explanation is that he can’t recognise anti-Semitism even when he is looking straight at it. But in truth, Corbyn can’t have seen anything exceptionable about such grotesque imagery because his political life has been spent among people who think like this (he attended an event as late as 2013 organised by a declared Holocaust denier, Paul Eisen). He will formally denounce anti-Semitism while simultaneously exemplifying that very characteristic. Among so many examples, I’ll cite just one that I recalled this week while attending the launch of a new exhibition at the Wiener Library in London.
The library is a remarkable institution doing vital educational work. It’s the world’s oldest archive on the Holocaust and genocide. Its new exhibition is titled Forgotten Victims: The Nazi Genocide of the Roma and Sinti. Back in 2011, when he was a long-serving but obscure backbencher, Corbyn signed an early-day motion calling for Holocaust Memorial Day to be redesignated Genocide Memorial Day – Never Again for Anyone. The motion noted that “Nazism targeted not only Jewish but also Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, lesbian, gay and bisexual people and others they deemed undesirables”.
This statement is literally true and, in the context of the motion, quite shameful. Its implicit message is that Jews should pipe down a bit and not be so exclusive about the greatest crime in modern history. It’s the same charge that would later be stated by Jackie Walker, a Momentum activist expelled from the Labour Party for anti-Semitism, who criticised Holocaust Memorial Day for supposedly commemorating only Jewish victims. Apart from anything else, it’s profoundly ignorant: Holocaust Memorial Day explicitly commemorates the victims of genocide across ethnicities and conflicts.
The right and essential way of commemorating those victims is not by political invective and the subtle (or not so subtle) anti-Semitic insinuations of Corbyn and his supporters. It’s to do what the Wiener Library has done with its new exhibition.
It’s of purely autobiographical concern to me and of no necessary interest to anyone else, but I’m very familiar with Anglo-Jewry’s concern for the Roma peoples. One of the early researchers cited by the Wiener Library for its exhibition was a scholar called Dora Yates, who was my great-great-aunt. She was the first Jewish woman to graduate with an MA from a British university (the family name was originally Getz, and then anglicised), She lived all her life in Liverpool, studying and teaching at the university. She was a pioneer in the history and culture of Europe’s Roma peoples and a translator of folk tales from Romani dialects. During the war years, she worked for the University Refugees Committee and voluntarily acted as Romani interpreter for refugees arriving in Liverpool. She died in the 1970s at her home in the Wavertree district of the city, which in a neat historical twist is currently represented in Parliament by Luciana Berger.
As is well known, Luciana was driven out of the Labour Party by anti-Semitic abuse and intimidation, and will be standing for the Liberal Democrats in Finchley and Golders Green. When she resigned, the chair of her Constituency Labour Party, one Alex Scott-Samuel, was revealed to have repeated Rothschild conspiracy theories on an online radio show that was at the time broadcast by David Icke.
These are dark times in British public life. The scene is especially dismaying for those of us on the centre-left who have usually (in my case, almost always) voted Labour. The party is now led by a man who is unfit for public office, and whose influence has attracted to Labour some of the most malevolent people I’ve come across in politics. A recent opinion poll for the JC revealed that 78% of British Jews would prefer a no-deal Brexit to the prospect of Corbyn becoming prime minister.
For what it’s worth, that’s not my own position: my immediate concern as a voter and commentator is to oppose a Conservative idee fixe on Europe that is the most damaging policy pursued by any British government since the 1930s. To that end, the uneasy position I’ve come to is to hope that people of goodwill across parties, including the Greens, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the many decent and moderate Labour MPs that I know and respect, are returned to Parliament to affirm the European ideal and the merits of openness to immigration.
I’m pleased that the only Labour MP to have been deselected is the obvious mountebank Chris Williamson. But it has to be said that the course that Labour has taken under Corbyn and his Wykehamist advisers in the last four years has coarsened public life and reintroduced atavistic prejudices that have no place in a civilised society. Labour will take a long time to recover from the obloquy and shame that it has attracted and that it richly deserves.
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