Political columnist Peter Oborne has taken his media colleagues to task for missing one of the biggest stories of the year. By STEVEN DOWNES
One of the country’s most respected political commentators has said that “it is impossible to justify the media omerta” surrounding The Labour Files series of documentaries broadcast over the past week by Al Jazeera about the purge within the party of those supportive to former leader Jeremy Corbyn.
These included, on Friday, the release of “The Spying Game”, a special extra episode focused on the hacking of this website, and the role played by the Labour Party, all the way up to its leading official and a front-bench MP.
Peter Oborne, the former chief political columnist of the Daily Torygraph, is not, it is fair to say, some hard-left Trot who is regularly wheeled out to support Corbyn. But he features prominently in the Al Jazeera series, often in the role of “honest broker”, and while he is clearly impressed by the quality of the broadcasters’ research, he is less complimentary about the defeaning silence from his erstwhile colleagues in print and broadcast media.
The failure of the press to follow-up any of the widespread and well-documented accusations in the Al Jazeera films, many of which echo or repeat the findings of Labour’s own Forde Report, has clearly troubled Oborne.
“It reminds me of the long refusal of the mainstream British media to engage with the phone hacking scandal involving criminality across large sections of the British media more than a decade ago,” he wrote in a comment piece for the Middle East Eye website at the weekend.
“Diligent journalism by Al Jazeera has made a serious case that something went wrong with the media reporting of the Corbyn era,” Oborne wrote.
But this appears to be Labour’s media “strategy” over the Al Jazeera programmes: say nothing, don’t react, hope it all goes away and people will just forget about it.
Certainly, there’s been not a peep of reaction to the serious allegations of wrong-doing and lawlessness by Croydon Labour councillors and the involvement in receiving stolen data of Croydon North MP, Steve Reed. Not even any kind of warped denial.
The muted media response may be, at least in part, because out of necessity, Al Jazeera’s Investigations Unit has had to keep their cards – and the massive files of leaked documents that led to their programmes – very close to their chest. Without sight of the evidence for themselves, other broadcasters and media outlets have felt limited in what they might usefully report.
Not that that usually stops them.
Given Oborne’s own political background, it is ironic that it was another Big Beast of the right-wing press’s comment pages, Peter Hitchens, who managed to mention the Al Jazeera programmes in his own Sunday newspaper column yesterday.
He, too, was sympathetic to those victims of the Labour Party’s purge featured in the documentaries. And Hitchens found no constraints in reporting what he had managed to watch for himself during the week.
“Sometimes, light shines into a tiny corner of the world and you see something which wholly upsets the conventional view of things,” Hitchens wrote.
He recalled the story of Jenny Manson, a Jew, and retired tax inspector in her 70s. Manson is a Corbyn supporter.
“I disagree with her about almost everything,” Hitchens writes.
“For some years she has been facing accusations of antisemitism because of her defence of Mr Corbyn. She is slight, humorous, quiet and friendly.
“In a new and extraordinary TV documentary on Al Jazeera (which has its own interest in the subject of Israel), she plays a telephone message left for her, as a result of political attacks on her. Part of it runs ‘You ****ing Nazi bitch, you should burn in the gas oven, you stinking Nazi swine’.
“The culprit has since apologised and accepted a police caution. But is this what politics has come to?”
Of course, you might expect influential voices on the right to jump on the allegations against Keir Starmer’s Labour Party and use them for their own political ends. The paper that Hitchens works for once did 17 pages in a single day of full-frontal assault against Corbyn when he was the Labour leader and seen as a threat to the Establishment. At the heart of the allegations against Corbyn was usually a smear of antisemitism. Against a lifelong campaigner against all forms of racism.
Just as Labour managed to investigate a Jew, Jenny Manson, for trumped up charges of antisemitism (she was eventually cleared). Or to kick Marc Wadsworth, a black journalist from Reed’s Croydon North constituency, on trumped up charges of “bringing the party into disrepute”, another nasty episode that featured in the Al Jazeera series.
As Oborne recounts, “This narrative often dominated front pages for days on end, and occasionally led coverage on the BBC and other news channels. There is little doubt that these charges inflicted real and lasting damage on the Labour leader, and played an important role in his crushing defeat in the last general election.”
Oborne continues, “The overriding message of the Al Jazeera series is that a great deal of British media reporting during the Corbyn era was false, particularly the terrible claim that members of the Labour leader’s inner team intervened in disciplinary processes to protect friends and allies from antisemitism charges.
“…If its overall thesis is correct, the entire history of the Labour Party over the last seven years will need to be recast, and Corbyn himself should be seen as the largely innocent victim of a media witch hunt, rather than the rancid antisemitism enabler portrayed in the run-up to the 2019 election and thereafter.”
Oborne, like Hitchens, notes that Al Jazeera, funded by the Qatari government, will have strong reasons to pursue some kind of agenda, in particular the treatment of the Palestinian people – a cause which Corbyn has long supported himself, placing himself in direct opposition to the position of the government of Israel.
But Oborne draws a conclusion that sometimes – much of the time – to get a proper reflection on the state of our nation, we have to seek out the views of others, outside the Westminster and Fleet Street bubbles, where there are so many coincidences of interests.
“It has once again taken a foreign media organisation to sceptically examine British reporting,” Oborne says.
“Diligent journalism by Al Jazeera has made a serious case that something went wrong with the media reporting of the Corbyn era. Its journalism deserves a conscientious and detailed response.”
Read more: #TheLabourFiles: MP Reed, Evans and the Croydon connection
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Read more: #TheLabourFiles: anti-racism campaigner expelled by party
Read more: #TheLabourFiles: MP Reed provided endorsement for Stanger
*This article was updated on Oct 4 to clarify that Jenny Manson, although placed under investigation by the Labour Party, was eventually cleared of any charges.
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