Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? (Who Guards the Guardians?)

A guest post by Jonathan Hoffman

On Sunday, the following Motion proposed by me and seconded by Harry Levine was on the agenda of the Board of Deputies of British Jews:

“The Board regrets the regular appearance of antisemitic material in The Guardian and its online blog “Comment is Free”.  The Board urges all who oppose antisemitism to refrain from buying the Guardian or advertising in it, until its Editor has proved that he is willing to confront the problem.”

The matter falls into the ambit of the Defence Division of the Board. They did not like the boycott element of the motion, so they proposed their own ‘spoiler’:

“The Board of Deputies of British Jews is appalled at the continued biased and anti-Israel reporting which appears in the Guardian newspaper, and its online web forum, Comment is Free, which regularly crosses the boundaries of legitimate criticism into the realms of antisemitism. The Board deplores the persistent lack of intervention and toothless approach to this issue taken thus far by the Press Complaints Commission, and expresses its support for initiatives which will create a transparent and robust regulatory system, to cover not only the mainstream press in general but also electronic, technical and specialist media.”

Their motion was discussed first (despite the fact that the only reason it was there was my motion).

The discussion was bizarre. Alex Brummer (a journalist now with the Mail, formerly The Guardian) stressed the importance of a free press and called the motion ‘intellectual fascism’.

Another former journalist (ex-Reuters) said much the same.

Alex Goldberg (an interfaith professional) said he has written for CiF and had always found the editing sympathetic and The Guardian is not an antisemitic newspaper: after all, the Guardian website features the “Sounds Jewish” podcast.

Someone quoted Jonathan Freedland as saying how careful and wide-ranging the daily editorial conference is.

Several people said that The Guardian is not an antisemitic paper (though, neither the ‘spoiler’ nor my motion claims it is, just that it carries antisemitic material regularly).

Three or four people said the motion was ‘toothless’ implying that they might support my motion. (I did not rise to speak as I wanted to speak to my own motion).

The ‘spoiler’ motion was defeated by a substantial majority (46-77).  I put this down to a combination of:

(a) the ‘hands off the free press’ argument

(b) the ‘toothless’ argument and

(c) – linked to (b) – those who wanted to vote for my motion instead. (I was in category (c) as was Harry).

Only after two hours was my motion addressed. But it wasn’t. The Chairman moved that ‘the motion be not put’ without any discussion and it was carried overwhelmingly. I put this down to a combination of the ‘hands off the free press’ argument and the fact that after two hours people’s attention span is reduced and they thought they had heard enough about The Guardian.

The ‘motion not be put’ device is completely undemocratic.  The Constitution (SO17) gives a Deputy the right to speak to a Motion and have it voted. If a Motion was frivolous or otherwise unacceptable I could understand that the Chair might call for a vote that it ‘not be put’. But no-one could say that of this motion – after all it was taken seriously enough that a ‘spoiler’ was tabled.

 But draw your own conclusions – you can read the speech I would have made – opposing the ‘motion be not put’ motion – below.

Here’s the text of my prepared speech:

We have a constitutional duty to advance Israel’s security, welfare and standing. We also have a duty to protect, support and defend the interests of Jews.

The Guardian is the polar opposite of advancing Israel’s security, welfare and understanding. It defames and lies about Israel continuously. Robin Shepherd has called it “the mainstream Anglo publication most hostile to Israel in the world.” Moreover it frequently crosses the line into antisemitism. After Israel released 1027 terrorists in exchange for Gilad Shalit, a Guardian columnist – Deborah Orr – unbelievably wrote that Israel chose the 1027:1 ratio for racist reasons. She wrote “there is something abject in their eagerness to accept a transfer that tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe – that the lives of the chosen are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours.

I can cite many more examples. Former Ambassador Ron Prosor wrote: ‘Never has a British broadsheet so openly served the agenda of Middle Eastern extremism. The Guardian must be commended for its transparency: readers can no longer doubt its affinity for Hamas’.

This Motion needs to be debated. It needs to be debated because the Board must take a stand against The Guardian and must encourage others to do the same. A strong stand. “Deploring” and “being appalled” – as the defeated Defence Division motion states – is toothless (one of the reasons it was defeated). It is simply talking to ourselves.

It is time for the Board to take the lead in using economic leverage against The Guardian until things change. The Guardian matters. It is approximately the 200th most visited website in the world (for comparison, the BBC is the 45th). That’s tens of millions of unique users a month. The Board supports Advocacy Conferences but unless it’s willing to act and act decisively against the sources of delegitimisation, it’s fighting only one half of the battle.

They did it in Australia. Faced with a similar problem with “The Age” newspaper in Melbourne, the Jewish leadership took a stand. They severed ties with the newspaper, accusing it of “clear and consistent vilification of the world’s only Jewish state”. They did it in Australia – are we really too timid and too much of a pushover to do it here?

When this Motion was debated in Defence Division there were four objections raised. All are easy to answer.

The first was “People will say we’re trying to control the media”. Simple response: We must not let antisemites tell us how to deal with antisemitism

The second was “We don’t believe in boycotts”. The Defence Division says our Motion will “undermine the community’s long held opposition to boycotts”.

Ah yes .. I remember now …. That was the same opposition which led the Board of Deputies to resolutely refuse to join the Boycott of Nazi Germany which began on 21st March 1935. The Board continued to refuse to join the Boycott throughout the 1930s. It was on the wrong side of history then. Is it really going to make the same mistake again?

The third argument was “There are not enough Jewish readers/advertisers of the Guardian to make it successful”. My response is that this is about building a coalition of right-thinking people. There are plenty of non-Jews who will support us. Indeed there are plenty who are mystified as to why we have not done it already.

The final argument was “A debate/vote will show us divided”. My response to that is So What? Is it so shameful for Jews to be seen to be disagreeing? We are a notoriously disputatious people – we disagree all the time for heaven’s sake.

Many people have told us that we should not have to move this Motion. The Executive should have acted long ago. I completely agree. It is shameful that the Executive is not sponsoring this Motion just as it was shameful that the Board failed to join the Boycott against Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

That makes our right to have the right to have this Motion debated unquestionable.  Standing Order 17 gives us that right. If this Motion was frivolous then we could accept that this Motion be not put. But the Defence Division clearly does not think it frivolous since we have spurred it to come up with its own Motion.

If a Deputy cannot have such an important Motion debated, then we might as well shut up shop and go home … what is the point of becoming a Deputy … and what kind of example is this to the young people we are trying to persuade to become Deputies…??

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