BBC Panorama & the Labour Antisemitism Crisis
Richard Sanders, a producer of the Al Jazeera Labour Files, asks why serious allegations by the national public broadcaster about the leader of the opposition were not properly scrutinised
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On July 10 2019, viewers of BBC Panorama were told an extraordinary story. Izzy Lenga, a young Jewish member of the Labour Party said: “I joined the Labour Party in 2015. The antisemitic abuse I received was what I was subjected to every single day. Telling me Hitler was right. Telling me Hitler did not go far enough.”
It was the most remarkable claim in John Ware’s film Is Labour Anti-Semitic?, which cemented a public perception that the party had a problem with rampant Jew-hate that its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had failed to fix. But was it accurate?
Last month, Al Jazeera broadcast a three-part series, The Labour Files, drawing on internal party documents. The second part – ‘The Crisis’ – presented an alternative perspective on Labour’s antisemitism crisis. It investigated the Panorama episode and made four very specific allegations.
Firstly, it considered the programme’s treatment of an email by Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications.
Panorama claimed that the email revealed interference by the leadership in the complaints process. Al Jazeera showed that Milne was invited by the party official overseeing complaints to give his opinion, and that the email referred to a single, very specific case – that of “a Jewish activist, the son of a Holocaust survivor”. The Forde Report – established by current Labour Leader Keir Starmer – has described Panorama’s use of internal Labour Party emails as “entirely misleading”.
Secondly, Al Jazeera pointed out that most of the uncaptioned young Jewish party activists Panorama interviewed were, in fact, board members of the anti-Corbyn Jewish Labour Movement. It pointed out too that the programme failed to interview anyone from the pro-Corbyn Jewish Voice for Labour.
The Al Jazeera film told the story of Rica Bird, an activist from the Liverpool Riverside constituency, who attended a disciplinary interview conducted by Ben Westerman, a party staffer who is Jewish, in 2016. Westerman claimed in the Panorama that, at the end of the 2016 interview, he was asked “are you from Israel?” Clearly distressed, he says “what can you say to that?… It’s this obsession that spills over all the time into antisemitism”. A recording of the interview shows clearly that Bird asks “which branch are you from?” There is no mention of Israel. Panorama also failed to report that both Bird and the other woman present that day were Jewish.
The final story was Izzy Lenga’s who, although viewers weren’t told this, was the Jewish Labour Movement’s international officer. A simple Google search revealed that Lenga was referring to a specific incident at Birmingham University in 2015. At the time, there was no suggestion at all that it had anything to do with the Labour Party or its members.
As Peter Oborne, the former chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph, says in the Al Jazeera film, “it does make you wonder if, in the summer of 2019, we’d reached a stage where you could say whatever you liked about Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party”.
None of Al Jazeera’s reporting on Panorama was new, though it clearly was for many watching the film. The Labour Party released the full Milne email the day after the Panorama was broadcast. And the identities of the film’s uncaptioned interviewees have also been reported before. Joshua Funnell revealed the Rica Bird tape in The Canary just a week after the film was broadcast. I’ve also written about it previously.
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The Izzy Lenga story is so astonishing that it ought surely to have set alarm bells ringing at the BBC for anyone with even the remotest familiarity with the internal culture of the Labour Party. It certainly did with a number of viewers.
None of these doubts or contradictions found their way into the national media.
The BBC told Al Jazeera that its Panorama programme was “a serious piece of investigative journalism” carried out with “due impartiality and accuracy”. There was no attempt at rebuttal or explanation for the very specific allegations levelled at the programme.
Since its broadcast, the BBC has maintained silence, apparently trusting that the rest of the media – wary of having its own record examined – will maintain omerta on the subject.
At present, this trust appears to be justified. For a programme by the nation’s public broadcaster, which effectively destroyed the reputation of the leader of the Opposition at a time of intense constitutional crisis, this almost universal silence is extraordinary.