BBC R4’s ‘PM’ presents one-sided comment on MP’s suspension

The February 27th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘PM’ – presented by Evan Davis – included quite a lot of content relating to the suspension of Labour MP Chris Williamson following the emergence of footage of a speech he made to Momentum activists in Sheffield.

Nineteen seconds into the programme (available here) Davis told listeners that: [emphasis in italics in the original]

Davis: “The Labour MP Chris Williamson has just been suspended. We’ll talk to someone who defends him.”

At 02:48 listeners heard a news bulletin.

Newsreader: “In the past few minutes the Labour MP Chris Williamson has been suspended. He’d already apologised for saying his party gave too much ground in its handling of complaints of antisemitism. Mr Williamson said he deeply regretted the comments he made at a meeting of activists.”

Following a report from the BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith in which listeners were told that “Mr Williamson’s fate is being cited by some Labour MPs as a test case for the Labour leader to demonstrate he takes seriously the issue of antisemitism”, Evan Davis gave an overview of the story – from 5:23 – which included the following:

Davis: “But for Labour if Chris Williamson is a problem, then so must be his supporters and there are many of them, at least judging by the reaction on his Facebook page to his earlier apology.”

Listeners then heard four selected comments read out – all supporting Williamson and with one promoting a conspiracy theory.

Woman 1: “I’m beginning to think you’re the only Labour politician with any real integrity and the guts to stand up for truth and justice. Hashtag I stand with Chris Williamson.”

Woman 2: “I understand your reason for this but as far as I’m concerned what you said was right. Tom Watson is a huge disappointment. I voted for him once but never again.”

Woman 3: “Corbyn has met with the Board of Deputies and other Jewish groups to address the antisemitism issue. He has bent over backwards and every time it’s not enough. The fact of the matter is their plan is to destroy the Labour party. Chris has had the courage to speak out and should be commended.” [emphasis added]

Man: “Nothing to apologise for. There may well be some incidents of antisemitism by members but it is only a small minority. I don’t believe it to be widespread.”

Davis next brought in the BBC’s political correspondent Ian Watson to report on “what has been happening behind the scenes today”.

If listeners were expecting to hear a different perspective on the story than that reflected in those reactions from Williamson’s supporters – in accordance with BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality – they would no doubt have been surprised when Davis then introduced (from 09:45) yet another commentator of the same stripe.

Davis: “Let us talk to Jenny Manson – co-chair of a group called Jewish Voice for Labour. Now that is an organisation that describes itself as an organisation of Jews with a socialist tradition who tend to be on the Left of the party and support Jeremy Corbyn.”

Listeners were then given to understand that the interview with Manson had been set up before the news of Williamson’s suspension broke.

Davis: “Jenny thank you very much for joining us. Obviously we’d planned to talk to you not knowing that Chris Williamson had been suspended but what’s your reaction to the suspension tonight?”

Following some technical problems, listeners heard Manson’s response.

Manson: “I’m very upset. I think that there is a terrible injustice happening to Chris Williamson. He is a remarkable anti-racist. At that meeting he may have spoke a bit outspoken. People speak like that when they’re speaking at a public meeting. What he said as far as I understand was that antisemitism is terrible but it is not a Labour party problem and that’s what Jewish Voice for Labour have been arguing for a long time now and many ordinary people…”

At that point Manson was cut off again and Davis brought in the newsreader to give another summary of the news while communication was being re-established.

11:57 Davis: “I really want to hear what she wants to say because many people in the Labour party obviously feel that Chris Williamson was out of order and was completely inflaming the situation.”

He then asked Manson to “finish your point about why it’s unfair”.

Manson: “Well as far as I understand it this is on the basis of a speech that Chris made in this last week. All that Chris was saying – and I’ve listened to the account and I’ve read the accounts – was that antisemitism is a terrible thing but that the Labour party hasn’t particularly got a problem of antisemitism and that’s my understanding. We’ve looked at this issue for the last few years very carefully at Jewish Voice for Labour. We’ve discovered that antisemitism is not greater in the Labour party than in other political parties…”

Davis then interrupted her to challenge that claim.

Davis: “Can I suggest though that there’s a sort of intensity of feeling that spills into antisemitism among some activists and some Labour members that is different to what you would find among average people in society, that Labour does have a problem and most…many people in Labour do regard it as a problem.”

Manson’s response included the claim that “in 50 years as a member of the Labour party, at meetings I’ve never met it [antisemitism] and that’s a very, very common statement”. She went on to claim that “there seems to be problems on social media” and – having pointed out that she doesn’t ‘do’ social media – to claim that” it often turns out not to be a Labour party member. Some people infiltrated websites and pretended to be Corbyn supporters”.

She went on to promote a blatant falsehood: [emphasis in bold added]

Manson: “But a lot of groups within the Jewish community do not consider it’s a major problem, including for example the Haredi Jews who have written letters supporting Jeremy Corbyn and who I speak to quite frequently who’ve met antisemitism all their lives but not from people in the Labour party.”

Davis did not bother to clarify to listeners that Manson was apparently referring to the tiny, fringe anti-Zionist sect Neturei Karta and that over 85% of British Jews “see antisemitism as having significantly infiltrated all levels of the [Labour] party”.

Proposing that “you have a different threshold for antisemitism than other people”, Davis then brought up the Naz Shah story which Manson dismissed as “a joke made by an American Jew” before coming up with her own erroneous definition of antisemtism.

Manson: “Antisemitism broadly is hatred of Jews […] it’s hatred of Jews with – I’m told by lawyers I’ve talked to about it – with a sense of impending violence. Something very, very nasty. And it’s being stretched to be criticisms of Israel that people don’t like, criticism of Zionism that people don’t like and in some cases just quick unthinking talk.”

Failing to challenge that inaccurate definition of antisemitism – and to remind listeners that there is one accepted definition used by their own government – Davis tried to put the point that stereotypes of Jews are tolerated in a way that stereotypes about other groups of people are not. However the broadcast again ran into technical difficulties and the item was brought to a close.

As we see the producers of ‘PM’ apparently thought it satisfactory to provide audiences with an entirely one-sided view of this story based on comments on Facebook from Chris Williamson’s supporters and a representative of a tiny, extremist political group which in no way represents mainstream Jewish opinion in the UK.

That point was made by several listeners on Twitter.

One Radio 4 journalist – Chris Wimpress – responded with the claim that no-one else was available.

However, as Davis made clear at the beginning of his conversation with Manson, the interview with the JVL co-chair had in fact been planned in advance.

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BBC R4 ‘Today’ listeners hear an esoteric item on antisemitism

BBC Radio 4 fails to clarify a commentator’s ‘particular viewpoint’

 

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BBC R4 ‘Today’ listeners hear an esoteric item on antisemitism

The February 23rd edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme included an item (from 49:14 here) concerning the UK Labour party. Presenter Nick Robinson introduced the item as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original]

Robinson: “Compare and contrast the following reactions to the resignations of nine Labour MPs in the past week alone. ‘There is now brutality in the Labour party. Racist bullies are responsible for driving one – Luciana Berger – out of the party and it needs to change if more are not to follow.’ That was the reaction of the party’s deputy leader Tom Watson. In contrast: ‘there is no place for harshness and bullying in the party and to tell you the truth, I don’t believe it exists on a wide scale’. That was the response of the leader Jeremy Corbyn. So who is right? And how can the party’s divisions on bullying, on antisemitism and indeed over Europe now be bridged?

Robinson discussed that topic with two labour MPs – the first of whom he introduced as “Chris Williamson, Labour MP for Derby North, a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn”. However – despite the BBC’s obligation to provide “…news, current affairs and factual programming of the highest editorial standards so that all audiences can engage fully with issues…” and notwithstanding Robinson’s challenges to some of his interviewee’s talking points – the interview quickly descended into an esoteric conversation that most listeners would have had great difficulty following.

Robinson: “Chris […] what would you say is the scale of bullying and scale of antisemitism in the Labour party?

Williamson: “Well I’ve never witnessed any bullying and – I’ve got to say like Chuka Umunna – never seen any examples of antisemitism. That’s not to say that neither of those things exist but the truth is that the Labour party has a proud tradition of standing up for social justice, fighting racism in all its forms, right back from the early 1930s when we stood – the Labour party – with the Jewish community in Cable Street against Oswald Mosely’s fascists, to being the backbone of the anti-Nazi League in the 1970s.”

Robinson: “It’s a curious formula to say that you’ve never witnessed any antisemitism. You yourself apologised for signing a petition opposing a ban on a musician who blamed the Grenfell Tower disaster on so-called ‘Jerusalemites’. So far from not witnessing it, you accidentally – you apologised for it – went along with it.”

Williamson: “That’s very, very unfair. Look I didn’t know that the individual concerned had made those remarks and actually deleted the Tweet within 12 minutes of actually posting when it was brought to my attention.”

The unnamed “musician” is Gilad Atzmon who – despite being an antisemite who promotes conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial – used to be quite a regular fixture on the BBC. Williamson did indeed delete his Tweet promoting a petition defending Atzmon and made an apology based on what was described in the New Statesman as “a claim that for many stretches credulity”.  

Robinson however did not bother to provide listeners with the details of that story or to ask Williamson how he ‘accidentally’ managed to sign a petition supporting an antisemite without bothering to do any background research. He went on:

Robinson: “What about when you defended a man who’d said Jewish Trump fanatics were to blame for antisemitism allegations in the Labour party? You defended that man. He was a member of the National Executive Committee.”

Williamson: “He…well…well you’re trying to pick out isolated examples here Nick to try to imply that there is a major problem.”

Robinson: “No, I’m asking you to justify the fact that you said you’ve never seen something when in your own personal case you have twice faced allegations of going along with antisemitism.”

Again Robinson did not provide listeners with the details of the example he used or even the name of “that man” – Peter Willsman – so that they could check out the story and judge Williamson’s responses for themselves.

Williamson: “Allegations are one thing – aren’t they? – but just because somebody makes an allegation doesn’t make it true. If you actually go down that road you’re then very much into the McCarthyite witch hunt era, aren’t you?”

Robinson: “Is John McDonnell responsible for a McCarthyite witch hunt when he says ‘we’ve got to be quicker, we’ve got to be fiercer in dealing with antisemitism’? Is he a McCarthyite?

Williamson: “Well let me quote you what a Jewish journalist…”

Robinson: “No, I’d like you to respond to Mr McDonnell.”

Williamson: “Well yeah I am gonna respond with this comment actually and it’s a comment from a Jewish journalist and I think if you’d just do me the courtesy of listening for a moment Nick, I think you’ll find it highly significant. He wrote on the 21st of July last year ‘Expect a group of high-profile right-wing MPs and councillors or members to resign from the Labour party in protest. Don’t fall for this. In reality this will be just another attempt to sabotage Labour, possibly setting up a new moderate splinter party in the process, using false claims of antisemitism as their totemic issue’.”

The anonymous journalist that Williamson claims is Jewish is Asa Winstanley – a known anti-Israel activist and a contributor to the extremist siteElectronic Intifada’ and the Hamas linked, London-based outfit MEMO. Significantly, Williamson omitted part of the Tweets he ‘quoted’.

With listeners not told who that “Jewish journalist” is and not made aware of his long record of anti-Israel activity and his stance concerning antisemitism in the Labour party, they would of course be unable to judge Williamson’s response.  

Robinson: “So do you agree the claims are false?”

Williamson: “Now that is a Jewish journalist and I would also refer you to…”

Robinson: “I was asking for your view Mr Williamson.”

Williamson: “I would also refer you to the letter that was signed by over two hundred prominent Jewish members of the party who say in an open letter that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn…”

Robinson: “Can you tell me your view. You’re only quoting other people’s views.”

Williamson: “Let me just answer in my own way…that Labour and Jeremy Corbyn are a crucial ally in the fight against racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism.”

That letter cited by Williamson naturally appeared in the Guardian and its signatories include numerous anti-Israel campaigners who conveniently deny the existence of antisemitism in his party. Again, without that essential background information, listeners would be unable to judge Williamson’s response for themselves.

The interview came to an end shortly after that with Robinson again citing Labour MPs:

Robinson: “So Tom Watson is wrong…Tom Watson is wrong when he talks about racist bullies. John McDonnell is wrong when he says the party’s not dealing with antisemitism quickly enough or fiercely enough. They’re all wrong.”

Williamson: “Well I don’t…no…I’m not saying that. I mean I do think there was delays in the…err…dealing with the complaints that have been made but I think it’s important to put those into context as well. Labour is the biggest party in western Europe now and there were a number of complaints. Around a third of them however were deemed not to have sufficient evidence – potentially malicious complaints being made about antisemitism – and obviously the Labour party does need to deal with that and there was a bit of a delay but look, there is no place for antisemitism in the Labour party.”

Williamson’s framing of the topic under discussion in this item is based on the fallacy that if an anonymous “Jewish journalist” and unnamed “prominent Jewish members of the party” say so, then allegations of antisemitism can’t possibly be true.

With Nick Robinson having made no effort to unpack that sophism or to explain to listeners what sort of political milieu the little known fringe activists invoked by Williamson inhabit, this item clearly did the exact opposite of helping audiences to “engage fully” with the issue of antisemitism in the UK Labour party.

Related Articles:

BBC Radio 4 fails to clarify a commentator’s ‘particular viewpoint’

Guardian letter claims Corbyn is an “ally in the fight against antisemitism” (UK Media Watch)