Al Jazeera Journalism Review

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Al Jazeera Investigations - the making of the Labour Files

An Al Jazeera investigation into the running of the UK’s Labour Party has revealed evidence of an ‘Orwellian’ smear campaign against its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a ‘hierarchy’ of racism within the party and even the hacking of journalists. Here’s how it came about 

 

The call came about 7.30 in the evening. 

I’d just returned home and one of the Investigative Unit’s producers in London told me they had received a leak of documents from the British Labour Party. It’s one of the two parties that govern Britain and the leak spanned the time that it was led by Jeremy Corbyn from 2015 to 2020. 

Corbyn was from the left of the party and had a progressive social democratic agenda that included increased spending on a public health service and free university education. His agenda was only considered radical in so far as it challenged 40 years of neoliberal economic policies that had concentrated wealth in the hands of a small number of people. 

He was also the first leader of a major Western party to declare that he would recognise an independent Palestinian state if he won power.  

My first question: Did the leak include the party’s disciplinary files? 

That might seem an odd question to ask. So, it needs some context for those living outside the UK.

Corbyn had been a lifelong anti-racism campaigner. He was arrested while campaigning against the apartheid regime in South Africa. I had met him on a few occasions and travelled with him to Tunisia in 2011 after the fall of the Ben Ali regime. At that time, he was a long-serving Member of Parliament and I was very impressed with his detailed knowledge of global affairs. He also firmly believed that the people of the Middle East had the right to determine their own identity as we watched the Arab Spring unfold. 

Fast-forward four years and Corbyn is elected leader of the Labour Party by its members. Hundreds of thousands of newcomers joined the party - mostly young people - who engaged with Corbyn’s vision of a more equal Britain and a fairer world. Labour became the largest political party in Europe.

After initial success in the polls, something remarkable happened. 

Members of the Labour Party who supported Corbyn began to be suspended and expelled by the party’s bureaucracy. And, oddly enough, these progressive, socialist members were accused of being bigoted racists.  

By 2018, the Labour Party, with its history of combating racism and promoting equal rights, was being portrayed in the British press as a party of antisemites who were adopting the policies of the far-right. Avowedly left-wing campaigners were being smeared as if they were supporters of neo-Nazi groups. It became know as the “antisemitism crisis”. It overshadowed the Labour Party under Corbyn and disabled him as a politician. It was one of the factors that led to his crushing electoral defeat in 2019. Corbyn himself was accused of antisemitism by some and even those who didn’t level the charge at him, claimed he at least tolerated antisemites in the party.   

Avowedly left-wing campaigners were being smeared as if they were supporters of neo-Nazi groups

 

So, let me return to the phone call with the I-Unit’s London producer over a year before we released The Labour Files. Yes, the files included all the party’s disciplinary records from 2015 onwards. That would provide fascinating information that could throw light on what was happening inside the Labour Party during Corbyn’s “antisemitism crisis”.

The next call with the producer was more worrying. The document trove was 450 GB. That’s huge. It contained hundreds of thousands of word documents, PDFs and emails. How would we handle that?

I gathered a team of four investigators, who spent more than six months going through the documents. It was a pain-staking, meticulous task. We created a search tool to find information based on subjects and words embedded in files. 

An analysis of the disciplinary files provided the first revelation. It showed that the narrative that dominated political debate in Britain for five years was completely wrong. 

The I-Unit does not publish document leaks like some organisations. We are signatories to the code of Britain’s Office of Communications (Ofcom), which along with data protection laws, rightfully protect privacy. We only publish documents that expose wrongdoing and that the public should know about. We notify people that documents refer to them and we ask for their response to the evidence we have gathered.

We were never going to publish the disciplinary files. But analysing them provided us with a staggering story. 

For Corbyn’s first two and a half years as leader, he did not control the party bureaucracy and had no role in overseeing the disputes team that handled complaints of antisemitism. During that period, while an opponent of Corbyn was General Secretary of the Labour Party, 44 antisemitism compliants were brought before the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), the body which decides whether to suspend or expel members. Once Corbyn placed an ally in charge, 379 antisemitism cases went before the NEC.   

The dominant media narrative of the Corbyn era presented an Orwellian vision, where truth was subverted and facts inverted

 

The files included a letter that Corbyn sent to then General Secretary, Iain McNicol, in 2018 pleading for him to do more to deal with complaints of antisemitism. Corbyn wrote: “It is clear that the current processes are far too slow to meet the volume of disciplinary cases the party has to deal with.” 

In a draft response, McNicol claimed the scale of antisemitism in the party had been exaggerated: “Over half of the complaints made relate to non-members and therefore are not a matter for the complaints team.”

He pressed on Corbyn that “misguided comments attacking the (disputes) unit undermine the work they do and serve only those in the right wing press”.

Yet it was the right-wing press that consistently claimed Corbyn was not doing enough to quash antisemitism and even that he was encouraging it. 

We assembled the statistics in a graph and found that from the moment when Corbyn’s ally became General Secretary of the Labour Party, the number of investigations, suspensions and expulsions went up exponentially. 

This graph on its own negates the dominant media narrative of the Corbyn era. It presents an Orwellian vision, where truth is subverted and facts inverted.

The disciplinary files give away another secret. That the definition of antisemitism was so wide that party members were suspended for criticising Israeli agression against Palestians. One was suspended for demanding that the International Criminal Court charge former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel for war crimes. The 2014 Gaza War, named Operation Protective Edge by Israel, killed more than 2,000 Palestinians. Its brutality angered many in the Labour Party and yet the expression of that anger was sufficient for the member to be suspended and investigated for antisemitism. 

Anybody who stated that Israel is an Apartheid state would also be suspended. Yet Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and most of the world’s human rights groups agree that it is. It is a fact. 

Something clearly was not right. What was even more surprising, was that members were being investigated for sharing links to a 2017 I-Unit investigation into improper influence by Israel in British politics . A senior political officer at the Israeli embassy was covertly recorded discussing with a British civil servant how to deal with MPs who are critical of Israel. “Can I give you some MPs that I would suggest you take down?” he asks her. The investigation forced the Israeli Ambassador to apologise to the British government and the diplomat was sent home.

The narrative that dominated political debate in Britain for five years was completely wrong

 

Yet sharing links to this investigation was enough to get a member of the Labour Party suspended and investigated.

Other evidence discovered in the Labour Files pointed to the influence that British pro-Israel groups have on Labour Party leaders. Amanda Bowman, the vice president of the influential Board of Deputies of British Jews, met Steve Reed, a government minister close to Sir Keir Starmer.

She raised the subject of BDS - the campaign to boycott Israeli goods and divest from the country in order to pressure Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian land.

Israel is deeply concerned about BDS and the British Conservative (Tory) Party has agreed to introduce legislation making it illegal for public bodies to boycott Israel.

Bowman told Reed she “understands that while Labour might hesitate to support Tories on anti-BDS legislation”, she “advises that Labour would be unwise to do anything to oppose this”. 

Bowman went on: “The Board of Deputies are keen to counter suppositions from Labour MPs that because they’re nominally committed to combating antisemitism, that it gives them carte blanche to say what they like about Israel.” 

Reed said he would “never accept attempts to exceptionalise and deligitimise Israel”. That included stating that Israel was an apartheid state.

And, of course, it meant that Palestinians were shut out of public debate in the UK. While 4.7 million Palestinains live either in an open jail or under military occupation, discussion of their plight was silenced while the political class in Britain engaged in a manufactured debate on whether the leader of one of the two parties of government was an antisemite.

The Labour Files has rewritten a turbulent period in British political history, revealing a poverty in its political debate and a lack of curiosity by its journalists

 

The Labour Files includes many accounts of wrongdoing, dishonesty and skullduggery. But the smearing of Corbyn and his supporters with allegations of antisemitism is probably the most egregious revelation. The narrative that the British public was told was simply wrong, and many within Corbyn’s party were willing to prevent their own party’s leader from winning an election by presenting him as unfit to govern. 

The Labour Files has rewritten a turbulent period in British political history. It reveals a poverty in its political debate and at the very least, a lack of curiosity by its journalists. And it shows how lobby groups can invert truth. The pro-Israel lobby has the right to promote the nation, as many  lobby groups promote their country. But the pro-Israel lobby plays another game; it silences debate about Israel’s merits as a nation by claiming that that the very debate amounts to antisemitism. That has a chilling impact on freedom of speech.   

While social media is alive with discussion about the Files,  Britain's newspapers and television channels have avoided almost any comment. 

Media Lens described the unwillingness to report The Labour files as akin to the Mafia’s code of silence. But it goes much deeper than owning up to a mistake. "The issues investigated by Al Jazeera do not just impinge on the way the Labour Party operates; they reveal deeply damaging practices within British democracy itself."

 

Now watch our exclusive interview with Phil Rees about the making of The Labour Files

 

 

 

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