Dr Justin Schlosberg and Laura Laker - 27 September 2018
A detailed study carried out by Dr Justin Schlosberg and Laura Laker for the independent Media Reform Coalition concluded that a “myriad of inaccuracies and distortions” in media reporting on the antisemitism row within the Labour Party. The new report laid out that in reporting the Labour antisemitism row, the UK media were guilty of “marked skews in sourcing, omission of essential context or right of reply, misquotation, and false assertions made either by journalists themselves or sources whose contentious claims were neither challenged nor countered.“
MRC applied the following criteria:
- "The concept of disinformation to denote systematic reporting failures that broadly privileged a particular political agenda and ideological narrative. This does not mean that these failures were intentional or that journalists and news institutions were inherently biased. We recognize, for instance, that resource pressures combined with acute and complex controversies can foster particular source dependencies or blind spots"
- "Nor does our research speak in any way to allegations of smear tactics. To interrogate the root causes of disinformation would necessitate a far more wide-ranging study than was undertaken here. We start from the well-founded assumption that concerns about antisemitic hate speech within the Labour Party are genuine and not necessarily or entirely misplaced. There have been unambiguous examples of racist discourse invoking holocaust denial, generalized references to Jews in stereotyped contexts, and critiques of Zionists or Zionism that explicitly use the terms as proxies for Jews. Some of these cases have involved holders of official positions within the party, including local councilors."
- Over 250 articles and news segments from the largest UK news providers (online and television) were subjected to indepth case study analysis involving both quantitative and qualitative methods
- 29 examples of false statements or claims were identified, several of them made by anchors or correspondents themselves, six of them surfacing on BBC television news programmes, and eight on TheGuardian.com
- A further 66 clear instances of misleading or distorted coverage including misquotations, reliance on single source accounts, omission of essential facts or right of reply, and repeated value based assumptions made by broadcasters without evidence or qualification. In total, a quarter of the sample contained at least one documented inaccuracy or distortion.
- Overwhelming source imbalance, especially on television news where voices critical of Labour’s code of conduct were regularly given an unchallenged and exclusive platform, outnumbering those defending Labour by nearly 4 to 1. Nearly half of Guardian reports on the controversy surrounding Labour’s code of conduct featured no quoted sources defending the party or leadership
In total, MRC found 27 examples of misleading and 28 examples of inaccurate reporting made in regard to the IHRA definition. Half of the latter were found on TheGuardian.com and BBC television news programmes alone. Figure 1 presents the distribution of these reporting failures for those outlets with more than 10 units in the sample. The bars show the number of misleading and inaccurate reporting instances for each outlet. The line graph shows the overall proportion of reporting failures (misleading and inaccurate figures combined) relative to each outlet’s volume of coverage.
The outlet with the highest proportion of reporting failures was The Sun followed by the Daily Mail and BBC Television News. BBC online registered the lowest proportion of reporting failures followed by the Independent.
In addition to false statements regarding the scope of adoption, MRC also found two references by journalists to a statement that was incorrectly attributed to the IHRA itself. In fact, the statement criticising attempts to adapt the definition had been issued by the UK’s delegation to the IHRA. It should be emphasized that it is highly improbable that these instances constitute an exhaustive list of inaccuracies even within the limited sample of analysis.
MRC did not include several examples of journalists or sources commenting on the degree to which Labour had consulted on its revisions prior to 5th July, all of which suggested that the party had either not consulted adequately, or not consulted at all, especially in relation to Jewish community groups. Yet in none of these cases did the journalists in question seek a response from the party. We did not record such assertions as ‘false’ since it is impossible to establish for certain how far Labour did consult prior to 5th July, and there are certainly legitimate grounds for arguing that the party did not consult enough. But this argument very quickly moved from a point of contention in the initial coverage, to received wisdom later on. Consider, for instance, an article that appeared on TheSun.co.uk on 5th July which reported that
- Figures from the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) met with the party's general secretary Jennie Formby to discuss the new rules earlier this week, and Labour sources said they were "positively received".
Table 1 lists examples of both false and contentious statements that were entirely unchallenged, countered or unqualified in either reports or opinion pieces within the sample:
On BBC Today it was stated that the IHRA definition of antisemitism had “been accepted by almost every country in the world”. In fact, 31 member countries of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) supported the adoption of a non-legally binding Working Definition of Antisemitism to guide the organisation in its work on 26 May 2016. To date, according to the IHRA, the working definition has been adopted and endorsed by the following governments and bodies: The United Kingdom (12 December 2016), Israel (22 January 2017), Austria (25 April 2017) Scotland (27 April 2017), Romania (25 May 2017), City of London (8 February 2017), Germany (20 September 2017), Bulgaria (18 October 2017), Lithuania (24 January 2018), and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (6 March 2018).
In mid July, an unprecedented joint statement signed by more than 40 Jewish organisations around the world (including seven in the UK) was published critiquing the IHRA definition. This received only two mentions within the sample one in an opinion piece carried by the Independent 25 and the other as a brief citation in the last sentence of a Guardian report. In August, a letter co-signed by 84 groups representing Black and Asian minority groups across Britain defending Labour’s revised code produced just one headline in the Independent, whilst a similar letter signed by Arab leaders in Israel’s parliamentyielded one headline in the Guardian. In contrast, shortly after the joint statement by progressive Jewish groups, a letter published on behalf of 68 rabbis condemning Labour’s code revisions and accusing the party of harbouring “severe and widespread antisemitism” was frequently cited throughout the sample and yielded dedicated headlines in the Mail, Mirror and Guardian.
Perhaps more seriously, we observed that television news anchors and correspondents tended to subject defensive sources to relatively fierce scrutiny and challenge. Indeed, defensive sources that adopted relatively moderate positions were met with notably confrontational questioning whereas critical sources adopting relatively extreme positions were often not challenged at all in live or recorded interviews. Consider for instance the approach taken by Andrew Neil on the BBC’s Daily Politics show when questioning John Mann, a Labour MP who had long been outspoken in his criticism of his party and the leadership on antisemitism:
- Andrew Neil: The Chief Rabbi in the United Kingdom says that your party is treating Jews with contempt. Margaret Hodge, one of your fellow Labour MPs...has said that Jeremy Corbyn himself is an antisemite and a racist. What do you say to that?
- John Mann: It’s not just the Chief Rabbi. For the first time ever we’ve had rabbis across the entire Jewish spectrum from the liberal rabbis through to the ultra-orthodox rabbis combining together in oneletter. It’s never happened before. And it’s quite extraordinary to have that unanimity across the Jewish community.
The framing of the dialogue in the case of Marc Wadsworth is a useful example of how the media have handled the Anti-Semitic claims. Labour MPs were openly talking of a leadership challenge and it was against this backdrop that Wadsworth accused Ruth Smeeth, a Jewish MP who had been critical of Corbyn on a range of issues (and especially antisemitism), of “working in hand in hand” with the Daily Telegraph. Given the immediate focus of the event, this was immediately interpreted by some as a veiled antisemitic attack, drawing on a racial stereotype of Jews controlling the media.
Of crucial significance here was Wadsworth’s reference to an interaction he witnessed between Smeeth and a single reporter from a single newspaper. There was nothing in his original comment that either explicitly or implicitly generalized this interaction into a broader accusation of working with the right-wing press or media at large. Indeed, he was subsequently caught on camera having a private exchange with Jeremy Corbyn stating that he ‘outed’ Smeeth for “working with the‘Torygraph’”. This would seem to support the view that Wadsworth’s charge was not one of collaborating or conspiring with the press in general.
Yet this is precisely how Wadsworth was indirectly quoted in 13 out of 35 reports. At its most benign, such paraphrasing adopted words such as “colluding with the right-wing press” without any qualification. Some reports went further and omitted the ‘right-wing’ descriptive limiter, including John Pienaar in his report for the BBC’s Six O’Clock News:
- Was this hard left prejudice? A pro-Corbyn activist who'd handed out a statement saying rebel MPs should be sacked as candidates turned on a Jewish MP for what he called collusion with the press.
And at the extreme end of the spectrum Wadsworth was reported in the Sun as accusing Smeeth of being part of a “Jewish media conspiracy” and in a separate article, simply attacking her for being Jewish”
About the Media Reform Coalition (MRC)
Media Reform Coalition was set up in September 2011 to coordinate the most effective contribution by civil society groups, academics and media campaigners to debates over media regulation, ownership and democracy in the context of the phone hacking crisis and proposed communications legislation.
MRC work with partner groups and supporting individuals to produce research and to organise campaigning activities aimed at creating a media system that operates in the public interest.
Media Reform represents an independent coalition of groups and individuals committed to maximising the public interest in communications. The current chair is Professor Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths, University of London.
The Media Reform Coalition is committed to:
- Supporting media pluralism
- Defending ethical journalism
- Protecting investigative and local journalism.
You can contact MRC at: MRC c/o Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, Dept of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London, SE14 6NW. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org