The BBC Panorama programme was flawed – but can’t be ignored

It seems that most of Twitter had made their minds about last night’s BBC Panorama before tuning in. Across my timeline, responses were predictably either that it was a “hatchet job” and could be dismissed completely, or “cast iron proof” that the party is institutionally antisemitic and to criticise Panorama is to engage in denialism, with little room for nuance in between these two positions. There were crucial flaws with the programme that should not be ignored, but neither can we dismiss wholesale many of the allegations made or the testimony of members and ex-staff members.

This polarisation – which I’ve long argued is the result of both ends of the debate trying to force the issue of antisemitism through the prism of Jeremy Corbyn as an individual – is part of the reason that the problem has been such a protracted one. In many respects, whether Jeremy Corbyn is antisemitic himself isn’t the central issue here. It’s the question of whether a space has opened up in the party where people with antisemitic views feel comfortable enough to voice them whether online or in meetings. I believe the answer to that question is yes.

In the programme, some voices were more credible than others. Some of the editing choices struck me as a little strange, and concerns have been raised that some of the evidence used had been misquoted to the extent that their meaning was changed, which is alarming and needs properly investigating. And, ultimately, the idea of an ostensibly neutral state-funded broadcaster running a damning expose on the opposition party sits uneasily with me.

There were parts of the programme that were ahistorical – not least this idea that “lifelong Marxists” only started joining the party in 2015. The press releases were also flawed, particularly the allegation that “Jeremy Corbyn has done more to inflame antisemitism than any political leader since the Second World War”, which outrageously offensive hyperbole that completely erases the treatment of Jewish figures and communities under Stalin, the expulsion of Jews across the Middle East including during Iran’s Islamic Revolution, and modern figures including but by no means limited to Viktor Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump. Even looking exclusively to British political figures, or just party leaders whether inside or outside of the Labour Party, this is pure revisionism.

And yet I cannot believe that anyone could watch the programme I did and not be moved by the testimony of members like Stephane, who spoke of being harassed by another member who made a video calling him a “fucking Jew”. I cannot believe that anyone could watch Ben Westerman, speaking as both a Jewish party member and staff member within the Governance and Legal Unit, and not sympathise with the uniquely awful position that put him in. The programme too was absolutely right to raise the issue of the impact on the mental health of party staff having to sift through this vile filth, the external pressure of all the focus on them and not being able to respond to criticism (though there is of course a certain irony in the programme then making attacks both implied and explicit on existing staff who face similar problems), and their perception that they did not have the necessary control or support within their roles to address the problem.

Importantly, the programme raised the issue of the party’s use of non-disclosure agreements and if these had been used appropriately, which merits a much bigger conversation. It also underlined the importance of a completely independent process for complaints – though I’m not yet clear what the model for this should be – to take us out of this catch-22 where the leadership is damned both for not taking enough leadership and for interfering. The conversation can then finally move to what this model should look like, and how we address our underlying cultural issues in a debate that has become dominated by process and procedure.

Every Labour member should be able and willing to engage critically and in good faith with valid arguments from the other side of the debate – something I’m seeing vanishingly little of. For Jewish members like myself, the astonishingly bad faith discourse is alienating and largely led by people talking for or over us when we’re perfectly capable of speaking for ourselves. The Panorama programme was flawed, but not fatally so, and should be used as an opportunity to draw out some of the issues raised and finally be able to draw a line under the scourge of antisemitism in our party that shames us all.

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