For all the nuanced language of the long-awaited Forde report, there is one key finding that lays bare a carefully constructed lie. It was a lie that implicated not just the right of the Labour party but a great swathe of Britain’s political and media class. And it was a lie that underpinned much of the dominant narrative leading up to, during and since Labour’s disastrous performance in the 2019 general election.
This lie was not that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had a real and serious problem with antisemitism. The Forde Report is right to call out those on the left who sought to deny or downplay the existence of anti-Jewish prejudice within the party. Of course it’s true that the vast majority of Labour’s half a million members under Corbyn were not implicated in antisemitism complaints. And it’s true – as the Forde Report acknowledges – that there was some double counting of complaints and several based on people who turned out not to be Labour members. But suggestions that allegations of antisemitism were nothing more than a smokescreen, smear job or conspiracy were always wrong: both morally and factually.
The Forde report is equally clear that the antisemitism issue was indeed weaponised by Corbyn’s ideological opponents. The problem for them, however, was that the existence of antisemitism within the party – even in some of the shocking and pernicious forms exposed in a leaked report – proved on its own insufficient to topple the leadership. This was especially clear following the root and branch reforms introduced by Corbyn’s ally Jennie Formby after she took over as Labour’s general secretary in April 2018. In order to fatally undermine the Corbyn project, it had to be shown that Corbyn himself, or at least his office, was somehow complicit in the problem: that the leadership was the problem.
Looking back, it’s easy to spot the broad evolution of this narrative. After Labour’s unexpected gains in the 2017 election, media hostility towards the leadership ramped up significantly. First, the focus was on easily debunked allegations that Corbyn was either an ally or paid informant of the former Soviet Union. That didn’t convince The Guardian or make a dent in Corbyn’s newfound popularity: by early 2018 Labour was still basking in the afterglow of the election the previous year and riding high in the polls. Even in the spring and early summer of 2019, after the antisemitism crisis embroiling the leadership had saturated headlines for the best part of a year, Corbyn’s Labour was consistently polling far higher than it had in the lead-up to the 2017 election, and comfortably ahead of the Tories.
This is when allegations that Corbyn’s office had been unduly interfering in complaints investigations and actively blocking efforts to tackle antisemitism began to take hold. It was the story that finally framed Corbyn as the ultimate source of the problem: not for anything he had done in the past, but for what he was doing as leader of the party.
To understand how this story gripped the media agenda, it helps to consider one of the most fundamental of news values: allegations on their own – especially in the thick of political controversies – don’t usually make for lead headlines. What was needed was hard evidence, the kind that could buttress a broadsheet ‘exclusive’, reverberate across the Sunday politics shows and shape headlines for the week ahead.
And in March 2019, Corbyn’s opponents got what they were seemingly looking for: a cache of emails leaked by former Labour staff which supposedly proved the Corbyn leadership was blocking action on antisemitism.
The story took off on 2 March with The Observer reporting that “members of Labour’s high command opposed recommendations to suspend several party activists accused of antisemitism”. It was followed shortly after by a typical hit piece in The Sun headlined “Jeremy Corbyn’s cronies ‘meddle in Labour antisemitism cases to stop their friends getting kicked out of the party’”. Similar articles surfaced in The Times and Sunday Times, all leading up to the BBC’s controversial Panorama edition in July 2019: Is Labour Anti-semitic?
In one particularly noteworthy sequence (highlighted in the Forde report), Labour’s former head of disputes told the BBC’s John Ware that an email he received from Corbyn’s then head of strategy was, in effect, a request “to be involved directly in the disciplinary process”.
But there was a problem. The full content of such email chains not only didn’t prove the allegations of unsolicited meddling but, if anything, the very opposite.
This was the lie at the heart of Panorama and much of the preceding and subsequent coverage. As the Forde report makes abundantly and repeatedly clear, it was the staff in Labour’s compliance unit – including some of the former senior officials framed as whistleblowers by Panorama – who not only requested but “insisted” on guidance from the leader’s office during this period. Indeed, the Forde report found that the “advice from two Loto [leader of the opposition] staff members which was subsequently criticised was, however, requested insistently by the GLU [governance and legal unit] and in our view provided in good faith”.
For their part, former officials told the Forde inquiry that obstruction and pressure from the leader’s office was applied “offline”, and that their “insistence” on getting input via emails was an attempt to bring this to light. But either they didn’t tell this to Panorama’s producers, or the producers chose to ignore it.
It gets worse. Emails which surfaced long before the leaked Labour report showed the leader’s office at times pleading with seemingly unmoved senior officials to both expedite and escalate disciplinary action on some of the most serious and high-profile antisemitism cases. In April 2019 – three months before Panorama aired – Buzzfeed published emails showing then Corbyn-aide Laura Murray repeatedly emailing party officials asking why action was not being taken to stop Ken Livingstone from returning to the party (following a two-year suspension for antisemitism), and why council candidate Alan Bull had not been suspended for a Facebook post suggesting the Holocaust was a hoax.
These emails were ignored by the UK’s ‘quality press’ and broadcasters, including Panorama, presumably because they didn’t quite fit the opposing and preferred narrative of obstruction and unsolicited interference by the leadership. That such allegations were so enthusiastically laundered across the mainstream media, even in the face of glaring counter-evidence, remains one of the most brazen examples of a disinformation paradigm.
Although, at times, the Forde Report appears to give equal weight to the email evidence and the hearsay cited by former officials (ie “offline” pressure), it is fairly damning and unflinching in its critique of the media. It highlights examples in The Sun, Sky News, BBC, and even the Jewish Chronicle before concluding that it was “entirely misleading” for such media reports to frame emails as evidence of undue interference in the complaints process by the party leadership.
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of these stories. The allegations of undue and unsolicited interference provided the trigger for the investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which in turn paved the way for Corbyn’s ultimate suspension from the parliamentary Labour party, having served as Labour MP for Islington North since 1983. After four years of unrelenting hostility towards his leadership from both the media and Labour’s political establishment, including two failed coups, this was the story that preceded a dramatic shift in the polls. And it was one that proved insurmountable, paving the way for a record-breaking majority secured by the Tories in the December 2019 election.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Justin Schlosberg is a media academic and author based at Birkbeck College, University of London.