Keir & Loathing: The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey and The Independent's idiocy

It's a mess, and Keir Starmer and The Independent don't come out of it well.

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A Labour shadow cabinet member was fired yesterday for… retweeting an interview with a famous actor that appeared in a national newspaper. On the face of things that’s mind-boggling. But the story hit on the great shame of the modern Labour Party — antisemitism

The interview, published by The Independent, with Maxine Peake included this section: 

Systemic racism is a global issue,” she adds. “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.” (A spokesperson for the Israeli police has denied this, stating that “there is no tactic or protocol that calls to put pressure on the neck or airway”.)

In the original version of the article, this section originally contained a link to an Amnesty International article that discussed US police departments training in Israel. That link was later removed without any note or clarification from The Independent. 

The linking of Israel to George Floyd’s death was the element of Peake’s statements that was considered to be antisemitic -- effectively putting some of the blame for the man’s death on Jews. That position can be argued in both good and bad faith.

Certainly, I believe Maxine Peake overreached in her claims. What is true is that US police officers do train in Israel. That is a fact. How you analyse that fact is where difficulties arise. 

The article — including the passage I quoted above and the Amnesty International link — was retweeted by Rebecca Long-Bailey (RLB), then Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education: 

This immediately caused a wave of angry responses from people who believed — sometimes in good faith, sometimes in bad faith — that she had endorsed an antisemitic conspiracy theory.

Two hours later, RLB issued a clarification, which it was subsequently revealed had been agreed with the Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer: 

This clarification was not enough for many people… including Keir Starmer, who had agreed on the wording of the clarification with his colleague!

Three hours later, RLB was fired. 

Starmer’s statement baldly argued that he had asked RLB to step down for “sharing an antisemitic conspiracy theory.” There was no nuance, no mention of the Amnesty International link, and — this is where it gets interesting for me as a writer of a media criticism newsletter — no mention that the source of the interview was The Independent.  

The Independent’s own news story on RLB’s sacking didn’t name the source of the interview she shared, pretending that it was not part of the story. The clarification appended to the interview contained no timestamp -- making it hard to know how long after RLB shared the interview that it was added -- and it made no reference to removing the Amnesty International link. 

Other publications and broadcasters followed suit in not naming the publication that RLB shared. They simply said she had “shared an antisemitic conspiracy theory”. This is a classic example of the media circling the wagons — keeping another paper out of the conversation and focusing the fire on two women: RLB and Maxine Peake. 

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This is also an important example of how clarifications should work. When clarifications are added they should be timestamped and they should include and note all changes made to an article.

Clarifications should be done as a matter of course whenever an article is changed after publication, not just when there’s attention on a story. What publications do when they’re not under close scrutiny is as important as when they’re in the middle of a storm. Here’s a good column from back when The Guardian had a readers’ editor.

RLB issued a thread of tweets following her sacking that is worth reading: 

Rebecca Long-Bailey @RLong_Bailey
1.Today I retweeted an interview that my constituent and stalwart Labour Party supporter Maxine Peake gave to the Independent. Its main thrust was anger with the Conservative Government’s handling of the current emergency and a call for Labour Party unity.1.TodayIndustry Report 17th June 20201.today

Keir Starmer was interviewed on BBC News to explain his thinking. I think he’s cowardly and used this as an opportunity to remove a rival from another wing of the party. He also managed to kick a story about government corruption from the top of the headlines — the Robert Jenrick/Richard Desmond scandal — where he and his top team refused to demand Jenrick’s sacking or resignation. 

Maxine Peake has corrected the claims she made. Her clarification was clearer and more direct than anything the media or The Independent specifically has said: 

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.

Update (added at 15.11 on Friday, 26 June 2020): The Huffington Post’s Paul Waugh published a tick-tock of the events before, during, and after RLB’s sacking. I hadn’t read it when I wrote the post above and it doesn’t materially change my arguments. However, do read it as Paul suggests there was some different timings/motivations at work than might have been apparent from the public statements.