A series of scandals expose the institutional racism of both the Westminster bubble and the London-based mass media. Labour’s alleged anti-Jewish racism is undisputed and condemned without equivocation. But right-wing racism is questioned and debated. Consequently, mainstream media manage and normalise the racism of both the political centre and the right wing. They do so via apologia, denial and minimisation. Dr TJ Coles, Associate Researcher with the Organisation for Propaganda Studies, explains how it works.
With the Labour Party’s ongoing, alleged anti-Semitism row making the headlines, other parties have been hit with racism scandals. The media’s handling of the latter reveals much about attitudes towards centrist and right-wing politics in modern Britain. Consider these recent cases.
Barely a day passes without the right-wing Jewish Chronicle attacking Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for alleged anti-Semitism. One of the latest concerned Corbyn’s foreword to a recent edition of J.A. Hobson’s 1902 book Imperialism: A Study. The book argues that, at the time, the Rothschild family controlled, ‘chiefly,’ but not entirely, the money of Europe, including the financing of war. This is not anti-Semitic. It is fact. The historian Niall Ferguson was commissioned by the family to write The House of Rothschild, a multi-volume history of their wealth, which has long since declined.
Ferguson writes that the Rothschilds’ ‘was easily the biggest bank in the world. Strictly in terms of their combined capital, the Rothschilds were in a league of their own until, at the earliest, the 1880s … [N]o individual today owns as large a share of the world’s wealth as Nathan and James as individuals owned in the period from the mid-1820s until the 1860s … The economic history of capitalism is therefore incomplete until some attempt has been made to explain how the Rothschilds became so phenomenally rich.’
Hobson goes on to note that this was not true of the US, where JP Morgan (who was not Jewish) ran the economy. Those who accuse Hobson and thus Corbyn of anti-Semitism leave out the passage concerning Morgan. The anti-Corbyn brigade focused on this single page of Hobson’s 400+ page volume in order to accuse him of anti-Semitism. In the language of the period, Hobson’s reference to Rothschilds as belonging to a ‘peculiar race’ meant particular race, in the same way that Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations write that rich men ensure that their needs are ‘peculiarly attended to.’ In today’s usage, referring to Jews as ‘peculiar’ on the basis of their Judaism would indeed be anti-Semitic.
Does The Jewish Chronicle (JC) care about anti-Semitism or does it care about left-wing anti-Semitism? If it cares about left-wing anti-Semitism that its professed care is obviously motivated by politics. A simple test is to compare the coverage of Corbyn’s foreword to the allegedly anti-Semitic book with that of Carl Benjamin, an allegedly anti-Semitic UKIP MEP candidate who said that he didn’t ‘give a shit’ about remembering the Holocaust. At the time of writing, four JC articles specifically about Corbyn’s foreword have been published. To date, a single article about Benjamin, in his totality; has been written by the JC. This typifies the wider media’s interest in, and in many cases contrivances of, alleged left-wing racism compared to easily provable right-wing or even centrist racism.
Benjamin is on the far right of British politics. But what of the so-called centre? In February, seven Labour MPs quit the party to join the new Independent Group (TIGgers). They were followed by an eighth. Significantly, one of the TIGgers, Luciana Berger, says that she left due in large part to institutional anti-Semitism. We might have expected the media to allege that the TIGgers are themselves institutionally racist when their co-founder, Angela Smith (ex-Labour MP), referred to ethnic minority people as having a ‘funny tinge.’ Given that the de facto leader, Chuka Umunna, is of Irish-Nigerian heritage and that the co-founder is a Jewish woman, we might have also expected the TIGgers (three of them are ex-Tories) to take action over Smith’s comments.
But nothing happened. Smith offered a meagre, online video apology. Berger and Umunna did not expel, investigate or suspend Smith for racism. (Oh, yes, of course! It’s an ‘independent’ group, so no one can be expelled or suspended.) Mainstream media did not allege that the TIGgers are institutionally racist. Arguably, this lack of response to Smith’s ‘funny tinge’ comments reveal a deep-rooted racism; that people from ethnic minorities are not important enough for white people to keep abreast of preferred terminology. The ephemeral media response—the incident was forgotten in a few days—also reveals the politicisation of racism.
Let’s take another example. During a radio interview with Jeremy Vine, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, said that women endure enormous amounts of online abuse, especially ‘coloured’ women. Incredibly, this came just one day after Rudd demanded that the Labour party take ‘special behavioural measures’ over candidates in Rudd’s constituency due to their alleged anti-Semitism. (The fact that Rudd is preparing for a Tory leadership contest, that a snap election could happen at any time, and that she held her seat in the 2017 general election by a majority of just 346 votes, surely, has nothing to do with these demands.)
Mainstream media did not call for Rudd’s immediate resignation or firing over her ‘coloured’ women remarks. Instead, certain publications on the left (e.g., the Independent) offered condemnation, while those on the right (e.g., the Telegraph) minimised or even denied the importance of Rudd’s statement. Inviting us to empathise with Rudd, the Daily Mail, for instance, ran a headline, ‘”Mortified” Amber Rudd is forced to apologise…’ The Telegraph ran the op-ed, ‘Why I refuse to join the outrage bandwagon against Amber Rudd’s “coloured woman” gaffe.’
In the title of his Spectator article, Brendan O’Neill (editor of Spiked! and the recipient of Koch Brothers money) also refers to Rudd’s remarks as a ‘gaffe.’ O’Neill writes that Rudd ‘clearly wasn’t using “coloured” in a derogatory way.’ The fact that the word ‘coloured’ when used to describe black people, is itself derogatory doesn’t seem to occur to O’Neill. His failure or refusal to accept or understand Rudd’s racism inadvertently proves the deep-rooted racism of the right. In the same article, O’Neill jumps to the defence of Angela ‘funny tinge’ Smith.
Perhaps The Spectator is an easy target? Consider, then, the response of LBC’s Sheila Fogarty. Fogarty says that ‘coloured isn’t abuse as such.’ Note the qualification, ‘as such.’ Fogarty then goes on to deflect from the seriousness of Rudd’s comments by highlighting the fact that racism is everywhere: in the Tory party writ large, in the new Independent Group, in football (‘in really derogatory terms,’ as if Rudd’s terminology wasn’t really derogatory). For Fogarty, the issue is not the casual racism of Rudd’s language and thought processes, but rather, the manner in which Rudd expressed them. ‘Surely you would expect somebody of the seniority of Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, former Home Secretary–former Home Secretary–you would expect someone of that level of ability, because, my goodness, she has ability, and the seniority of the positions that she’s held, just to be savvier than that?’
The implication is that it’s okay to think this way, just be careful how you express yourself. Actually, anyone who paid any attention to Rudd’s record as Home Secretary would not expect any better. After all, Rudd presided over the Windrush scandal; one of the most racist and shameful episodes of recent British political history. The fact that Rudd was given another job in the cabinet as opposed to resigning the whip or being fired—or at least confined to the backbenches—is a reflection of the innate racism of the political system. Lack of disciplinary action sends a signal that, while a racism scandal will not be ignored, it will also not be treated seriously enough to end one’s political career.
Equally, those who pay attention to Rudd’s role as DWP Secretary would expect little else. It is worth recalling that, in addition to being condemned by the UN for its ‘structural racism’, Britain has also been censured for discrimination against disabled people, specifically as a result of Department for Work and Pensions policies. A Cambridge University academic who co-authored a study for the BMJ into austerity-related mass deaths, says that Tory policy towards the poor constitutes ‘economic murder’. Despite this, Rudd continues to roll out damaging Universal Credit.
We find more double standards when it comes to Islamophobia. Consider Sheila Fogarty’s response to a caller, who asked in a reference to the blanket coverage of Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis, ‘What happened to the morning-to-night, wall-to-wall, coverage about the black people [abused by the] Conservative Party?’
Fogarty replies, ‘But … in the Jeremy Corbyn story we’ve had members of his own party saying they believe the party is institutionally racist’. Fogarty apparently doesn’t realise that when a party fails to call out racism in its own ranks (in this case Tories calling out anti-black racism) it is because the party is institutionally racist, hence the refusal/failure to speak out. Either the party is racist and doesn’t care, or it is so racist that it doesn’t even realise. Fogarty says of Labour, ‘We’ve had a huge investigation in the party that left many people wanting more because they didn’t think it was sufficient’.
Fair enough. But consider what happens when Baroness Sayeeda Warsi makes her fourth public call for action to be taken against Islamophobia in the Tory party: almost nothing. Fourteen low-level members were suspended (sacrificed pawns) for allegedly Islamophobic tweets. Not only does the party fail to adequately respond, the media do not launch a sustained assault on the party. Worse still, sectors of the media not only minimise Islamophobia, they deny that it exists.
Comparing Islamophobia to anti-Semitism, Douglas Murray in The Spectator critiques ‘the falsehood that these are equal and equivalent problems.’ He describes anti-Semitism, accurately, as ‘an irrational prejudice built on centuries of stereotypes and hatreds which culminated in the worst crime in human history.’ But, by implication, there is no such thing as an irrational prejudice against Muslims, because Muslims are dangerous savages, so what’s there to be rational about? Placing the word Islamophobia in quote marks (i.e., denying its existence and therefore inadvertently proving its existence), Murray says that Islamophobia is ‘a term which can claim almost anything that the wielder claims it to mean.’ Ergo, it has no legitimacy because some people broaden its definition too widely. But can’t the same be said of any ‘ism’?
Finally, consider this example: We’ve read a great deal about racist idiots on Twitter and Facebook claiming to be supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. The media and political enemies of Corbyn committed the logical guilt-by-association fallacy of citing these hateful tweets as proof of inherent anti-Semitism within the senior ranks of the Labour Party. But recently, it was reported that Islamophobes have tweeted in favour of the multimillionaire Brextremist, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Where is the cry of institutional Islamophobia in the Tory party, other than the silenced cries of Baroness Warsi? Where are the media editorials and blanket television coverage citing these Rees-Mogg associations as ‘proof’ of institutional Islamophobia in the party?
Like Corbyn, who says that anti-Semites do not speak for him, Rees-Mogg states that Islamophobes do not represent him, either. Rees-Mogg’s disclaimer appears to have satisfied the media. Corbyn’s has not.
In conclusion, these contemporary examples of blatant racism highlight the mainstream media’s tactic of managing racism when racism comes from centre and right-wing parties. This technique does a great disservice to victims of racism. It signals to the public and politicians alike that racism against certain ethnic groups is acceptable, particularly when it comes from certain sources. The management-of-racism technique includes apologising, ignoring, minimising, and even denying that there is a problem. In other cases, pundits invite us to sympathise with those who make racist statements or comments. Media need to equalise their coverage of racism. Failure to do so only exposes the system as inherently racist.