Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 6 July 2018

Islamophobia and Antisemitism: a case study in BBC bias

In March and April, there was constant BBC coverage of Labour’s problems with antisemitism. One piece, in March, talked about a ‘saga’. I have no general problem with this coverage. Labour does have a problem, so it should be covered by the BBC. However there has been far less coverage of the problems the Conservative party has with Islamophobia. Is there an objective reason to justify this?

The antisemitism story was notable for two important reasons. First religious organisations had publicly complained. Second these complaints had been supported by prominent Labour figures. However exactly the same applies to Islamophobia. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) have called for an inquiry, as have other leaders and groups. Sayeeda Warsi, former co-chairman of the Conservative party, has repeatedly called for more action (the latest here).

But to suggest equivalence between the two stories is misleading. The Conservatives’ Islamophobia problem is a much bigger issue for two reasons. First, the senior Conservative Sajid Javid has attacked the MCB for harbouring members with unacceptable views on extremism and not representing Muslims. In contrast Labour leaders have not attacked the Jewish organisations in the same way (by saying, for example, that their views come from a pro-Israel stance), and have met directly with them. Whatever the truth of Javid’s claim about extremism, the charge that they are unrepresentative is rather undermined by an organisation affiliated to the Conservative party, the Conservative Muslim Forum, also calling for an inquiry. (Letter to Theresa May here.)

Second, while Labour has never to my knowledge run an anti-Jewish campaign to win a general or mayoral election, the Conservatives did exactly that against Sadiq Khan who is now mayor of London. David Cameron even libeled an ex-Imam in his attempts to link Khan to Muslim terrorism.

Thus on any objective criteria, the Conservative Islamophobia problem has been a more serious story than Labour antisemistism. Yet the balance on the BBC has been the other way around, with far more coverage of the latter than the former.

What is the source of the bias? One may be that BBC News tends to ‘follow the story’, which invariably means following stories in the press. Corbyn has few friends in the major press titles, whereas the Conservatives are openly supported be much of the press. Another, I’m afraid to say, is that the BBC is very reluctant to criticise the government on its own account, something that goes back many years.

Case studies such as these are critical in establishing that the media has a clear bias against the current Labour leadership. (There are others: this is rather fun, and also academic research: here for example) The BBC itself, which is deluged with criticism from all quarters, seems to find it difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. The classic line that because they get criticism from both sides they must be doing something right is nonsense. The political right in particular, because they know the BBC is sensitive to criticism, puts a lot of resources into criticising the BBC, and it will continue to do so whatever the BBC’s output.

All this presumes that Islamophobia and Antisemtism are viewed as equally bad. I personally think they should be, but unfortunately terrorism and Western wars in Islamic countries may have confused many people. Here is Sajid Javid again:
“All communities can do more to try and help deal with terrorists, try and help track them down. But I think it is absolutely fair to say that there is a special burden on Muslim communities because whether we like it or not these terrorists call themselves Muslims. It is no good for people to say they are not Muslims, that is what they call themselves. They do try to take what is a great peaceful religion and warp it for their own means.”

The idea that Muslims bear a ‘special burden’ has been the excuse used by the right wing press for consistent Islamophobia. When a member of the ‘non-Muslim community’ kills Muslims outside of a mosque, and says when arrested that he wanted to kill all Muslims, he is described by the Times as a mentally troubled lone-wolf, as if to emphasise that there is no special burden there. As in so many things, the irresponsibility of the right wing press has influenced sections of society for the worse. Perhaps it has also influenced the BBC.


  1. Channel 4 news FactCheck 'Beware cherry-picked stats on Labour and antisemitism', Georgina Lee, 25 Apr 2018, argues that 'The graph suggests that 32 per cent of Labour supporters agreed with one of the antisemitic statements they were presented with. That’s somewhat lower than Conservative supporters (40 per cent). Among the political parties, Liberal Democrats are least likely to agree with an antisemitic statement (30 per cent).'

    It goes on that 'The researchers asked British Jewish people: “Do you feel that any political parties are too tolerant of antisemitism among their MPs, members and supporters?” Of the 2,025 British Jewish people who responded to the survey, 83 per cent said that Labour is too tolerant of antisemitism among their MPs, members and supporters. That’s significantly higher than the proportion of British Jews who think the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are too tolerant of antisemitism (19 per cent and 36 per cent respectively).'

    And it concludes 'Analysis of the British Election Study results – the gold standard of UK polling data – shows that 63 per cent of British Jews voted for the Conservatives in 2017, while just 26 per cent said they voted Labour. But that raises a chicken-and-egg question: are British Jews more likely to accuse Labour of tolerating antisemitism because they are Conservatives themselves, or are they Conservatives precisely because they perceive Labour to be soft on antisemitism? The short answer is: we don’t know.'

  2. believing in Islam and being born into the Jewish race are simply not equivalent things. Hitler famously did not only persecute only those Jews who were religious and ignored any atheist Jews - he persecuted anyone with jewish ancestry. I

    Islam is closer to Catholicism in that it is a choice to believe in the religion but is often associated with particular countries. To say that Islamophobia and Anti-semitism are identical is in itself anti-semitic.

  3. Excellent piece. Hope the BBC has enough people with sufficient courage - or these days even intelligence, to take it on board.

  4. "on any objective criteria, the Conservative Islamophobia problem has been a more serious story than Labour antisemitism."
    Yes, and on the latter Jamie Stern-Weiner's investigations of media coverage provide a service similar to your own debunking of media macro:

  5. A well written contribution to the debate illuminating the ghastly opportunism and hypocrisy of the Tories who, as one body, leapt on the anti-semitism meme as a method of discrediting Labour.

    As a person of Jewish Background, I have found the antisemitism issue with regard to Labour vastly exagerated and misunderstood, largely involving conflations of anti-semitism with anti zionism. Some of the definitions of antisemitism themselves, so poorly worded that they cast their net over some orthodox Hasidic groups who are strongly anti-Zionist, with on Hasidic group in particular even calling for the dismantling of the State of Israel.

    Jewish scholars such as Norman Finkelstein and Jamie Weiner have written extensively on this issue making it clear that the statements of Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone are not antisemitic in nature. The hounding of Ken Loach is an egregious example of how antisemitism has been trivialised by the Tory media.

    The mural incident (that was rooted out by a Tory apologist) was by no means an unambiguous example of anti-semitism yet within a short space of time it was defined as such and Corbyn implicated -no real debate was had.

    Labour and the jewish community have a great tradition of challenging capitalism and fighting for social justice - it is a great shame that many votes from that community will be lost because of media imbalance.

    Since 2010, the Tories have been very good at manipulating consent using their 'nudge unit'(Behavioural Insights Team) to influence perception, particularly about fiscal issues (deficit bad etc. shortage of money etc) it would not surprise me if they knew exactly what they were doing with the antisemitism slur against people who have been fighting racism all their lives.

    This managing of consent reached its 'nadir' with May proclaiming in the House that 'Labour was rife with antisemitism.' AS disgusting and distorted a statement as Cameron's shameful slander that Corbyn is a 'terrorist sympathiser.' The both denigrated the House by these acts.

  6. The claims for ant-Semitism in the Labour Party come from right wing Labour MPs who want to damage Jeremy Corbyn and the newly enlarged membership, and the Labour Friends of Israel LFI for similar reasons.

    When Labour members are outraged by the actions of the Israeli Defence Force, in short 'MURDER' of Palestinians, they are accused of antisemitism, criticism of the Zionist Israeli government is not antisemitic.

    To prove the point, here is what a Jewish Rabbi says himself and is not alone in the world of Jewish opinion on this matter.

  7. Although I have often criticised you for using media bias as a crutch, I think this blog post is spot on.

  8. I question whether Labour really does have a problem with anti-Semitism, at least on anything like the scale implied by the BBC's focus. There is a backlog of about 100 complaints with the Labour NCC about supposed AS in the party, which in a party of 600,000 is next-to-nothing, and if you look closely at the details of the complaints, many of them are clearly ridiculous.

    Agree with the rest.

    1. The problem is that my Party has accepted that it is not a welcoming place for Muslims and Jews. And I can add that Christian Zionists like myself are heir to the "occasional toxic atmosphere". The official line of zero tolerance is better than belittling the problem. My party has a second problem in resourcing and training of our disciplinary procedures. Given that there are legitimate fears because Corbyn has such a strong pull over the party that his hatred of Israel will mean that we will ignore the recent UN call for 4 options to protect Palestinians because it doesn't fit in with Corbyn's "unreserved condemnation of Israel" narrative. We need to position our Party on the lines of the Shadow Foreign Secretary and publicise the recent UN report and ask all parties to engage with the UN. That means encouraging Hamas, Fatah and Israel to negotiate with the UN.


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