Dispatches: how to build a conspiracy theory

16 Nov 2009 by CST

This morning's Guardian has two articles, a news story and an opinion piece, trailing tonight's episode of Dispatches, Inside Britain's Israel Lobby, by the Daily Mail columnist Peter Oborne. Hardcash Productions, the company that has made tonight's programme, have suggested that it will include some investigation of CST's activities, although we have explained to Hardcash that CST does not lobby on behalf of Israel, but in fact exists to combat antisemitism and racism in Britain, and to provide physical security against antisemitism for British Jews.

Because CST does not do pro-Israel advocacy, it is not our intention to counter whatever Dispatches and Peter Oborne have to say about Israel's actions, and whether or not British politicians should support or oppose Israel; or to answer the case they try to make about the work of Israel's supporters in the UK. That is for others to do. Nor do we believe that Oborne, or anybody at Dispatches or Hardcash Productions, is antisemitic or intends to promote antisemitism in any way. However, we do have concerns, based on the language used by Channel 4 to promote the programme on their website, and the comments that have been posted there by members of the public, that the programme may unwittingly play up to antisemitic stereotypes, and thereby excite and encourage antisemites to think that their views have been validated by a mainstream broadcaster. These concerns have only been strengthened by today's Guardian opinion piece, written by Oborne and Dispatches journalist James Jones.

Oborne and Jones state openly in the article that:

It is important to say what we did not find. There is no conspiracy, and nothing resembling a conspiracy.

This is good to know, and confirms our assumption that Oborne and Dispatches do not intend to broadcast anything that resembles an antisemitic conspiracy theory. What is troubling, though, is that this article resembles exactly that, and if Oborne and Jones cannot see it then it further undermines our faith in their ability to spot and avoid antisemitic resonances in the programme itself. We will try to explain here the conspiracy themes that run through their article:

1. The"pro-Israel lobby" controls what comes out of the mouths of politicians and the pens of journalists

Oborne and Jones write that their idea for the programme came when David Cameron, speaking at a CFI lunch, did not condemn Israel's actions in Gaza earlier this year. You might think it unremarkable that a politician would avoid saying something that would not go down well with his audience, whatever event he was speaking at. There is an element of 'bear despoils woodland' to this. But for the authors, it was evidence of something much more sinister:

Afterwards, we resolved to ask the question: what are the rules of British political behaviour that cause the Tory leader, his mass of MPs and parliamentary candidates to flock to the Friends of Israel lunch in the year of the Gaza invasion? And what are the rules of media discourse that ensure such an event passes without even being noticed?

If such "rules" do exist, this begs a few questions. Who sets the rules? Who enforces them? and how? Whoever it is, they would have to be immensely powerful to be able to dictate to David Cameron, potentially the next Prime Minister, what he can and cannot say about such an important foreign policy issue. This applies equally to "rules" enforced in the ultra-competitive arena of the British media. Both questions are left unanswered, but serve to frame the rest of the article.

2. There is a single controlling conspiracy, despite any superficial differences

Oborne and Jones write:

During an investigation lasting several months, we have been able to reach several important conclusions. We maintain there is indeed a pro-Israel lobby in Britain. It is extremely well-connected and well-funded, and works through all the main political parties.

For instance, Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) – once described by the famous Conservative politician and historian as "the largest organisation in western Europe dedicated to the cause of the people of Israel" – claims that 80% of all Tory MPs are members. The Labour Friends of Israel is equally formidable. In 2001, Jon Mendelsohn, a former chairman of LFI and now Gordon Brown's chief election fundraiser, was quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying that "Zionism is pervasive in New Labour. It is automatic that Blair will come to Labour Friends of Israel meetings."

Note the way that the "pro-Israel lobby" is referred to as a single body that works through apparently separate organisations in different, opposing political parties. There is no room here for Tories who happen to support Israel, and Labour-ites who happen to support Israel (or for that matter Lib Dems who happen to support Israel and are members of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel). You would not know from this article that CFI and LFI are entirely separate organisations, with separate governance structures, staff, funding and all the rest. There is an assumption - with no evidence offered - that these separate organisations are merely parts of a single whole, moving and acting as one. Genuine antisemites often represent the Jewish or Zionist conspiracy as an octopus, or a spider sat in its web. This is the image that is echoed by Dispatches' wording here.

3. The conspiracy is international

The article continues:

Meanwhile, a parallel operation is carried on against media organisations that criticise Israel's foreign policy. In particular, the Guardian and the BBC suffer from a barrage of complaints and emails, many from outside the UK. The BBC has proved unable to cope. As the culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw (a former BBC reporter), rather bravely remarked after director general Mark Thompson turned down a request from the Disasters Emergency Committee to broadcast a humanitarian appeal for Gaza: "I'm afraid the BBC has to stand up to the Israeli authorities occasionally. Israel has a long reputation for bullying the BBC."

The wording here implies, although it does not state it explicitly, that this "parallel operation" is somehow coordinated with pro-Israel lobbying efforts here in the UK. This can be understood to mean that UK supporters of Israel are able to generate extensive pressure from overseas onto British media outlets; or alternatively, that UK-based lobbying and overseas lobbying are coordinated by some unnamed central coordinating body. The authors may argue that they do not mean to imply any connection between these "parallel operations", and they certainly do not offer any evidence of a connection. If so, they ought to point that out explicitly, to avoid the possibility of their article being read as suggesting a conspiracy.

4. Nothing is genuine, everything is artificial

Just taking the examples cited above, the implication is that any politician who speaks about Israel has to observe a set of "rules" laid down for them by supporters of Israel; that what the media does or does not report on in relation to Israel is similarly controlled by supporters of Israel; that the BBC's reasons for not broadcasting the DEC appeal were not the real reasons; and, most importantly, that when supporters of Israel, whether Jewish or not, express support for Israel or complain about criticism of Israel, their words are not genuine, but are designed to serve a unified political system of control and intimidation. There is no room in this article for politicians who genuinely support Israel. This is another common theme of conspiracy theories: that if anybody deviates from the 'truth' as defined by the conspiracy theorist - in this case, that Israel has behaved appallingly and must be criticised - it must be because they are denied the public space in which to publish or broadcast, they are scared of the consequences or because the conspiracy will not allow them access to the true facts.

5. Ignore evidence that doesn't fit the theory

Many supporters of Israel have reacted to news of tonight's programme with an acerbic response of "if only we had such influence". The reason for this can be found in the fact that Oborne and Jones' article is long on allegations of pressure and influence by the "pro-Israel lobby", but very short indeed on evidence of any pro-Israel outcome as a result of this activity. One example they do provide, concerning criticism by William Hague of Israel's behaviour during the war in Lebanon in 2006, is simply not borne out by the facts. Oborne and Jones write:

The Israel lobby is not afraid to use its political muscle. After Hague said Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 2006 was "disproportionate", there was an explosion among donors.

The accompanying Guardian news article takes up the story:

Hague fell out with CFI after describing Israel's 2006 attack on Lebanon – in retaliation for a Hezbollah raid – as "disproportionate" and allegedly faced threats to withdraw funding from Lord Kalms, a major Tory donor and CFI member, the film reports.

Cameron later gave an undertaking not to use the word again, the programme claims.

The article does not state when Cameron is supposed to have given this undertaking, but the Lebanon war, Hague's comments and Lord Kalms' criticism all took place in the summer of 2006. In March 2007, David Cameron gave a major interview to Britain's leading Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, in which he defended at length Hague's comments and his specific use of the word "disproportionate":

Yet during last summer's Lebanon war, critics  suggested that Cameron was actively positioning his party as hostile to Israel, perhaps in part to attract Muslim support. Most explosive was the verbal missile launched by his Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who declared that "elements of the Israeli response were disproportionate, risking unnecessary loss of civilian life and an increase in popular support for Hizbollah".

Some prominent Jewish Tories, notably Lord Kalms, were furious. Hague, Kalms wrote in the Spectator, was an "ignorant armchair critic" whose views were not merely unhelpful but "downright dangerous". Cameron, meanwhile, was accused of staying conveniently silent.

"I think Stanley Kalms's piece was wrong," he says now. "I see Stanley from time to time, but he was wrong about this. We have a very sensible foreign policy. I've not been silent about this, I set it out on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. It's a policy about liberal conservatism. Liberal because we should be in favour of humanitarian intervention and the spread of democracy and freedom, but conservative because we should be practical and sceptical about grand schemes to remake the world.

"William Hague is a very strong Shadow Foreign Secretary. We're both very good friends to Israel, both strong supporters, but we believe it's right to be frank and straightforward on occasion if there are things the Israeli government does that we don't agree with. To be someone's friend is to tell them when you think they're right and when you think they're wrong."

But that explosive phrase about "disproportionality"..."Yes, I think that was a statement of fact. I think attacks on Lebanese army units, the bombing of Christian parts of Beirut, were disproportionate. The use of cluster bombs. Israel had every right to attack the Hizbollah guerrillas who had rained in thousands of rockets. But the point I'd make really strongly is that we did not call for an immediate ceasefire. Lots of Labour politicians were.

"We thought Israel had a right to respond vigorously to the rocket attacks, as their own people were being killed. But that does not mean you should not also be able to say that elements were disproportionate." Presumably he suffered some personal grief over the party's stance. "Yes, lots of people told me they didn't agree with me. I was on holiday at the time, actually, in an almost entirely Anglo- Jewish household - the Feldmans were there, James Harding from The Times was there, the Spiegels... So I'm not insulated from what members of the community feel, if that reassures you."

He laughs. A political wake-up call, then? "No, as I still think I said the right thing. And the evidence shows I did. I was very struck in my recent trip to Israel that what it wants badly is a stable, democratic, peaceful Lebanon where there aren't armed militias."

Taking the interview as a whole, David Cameron was clearly on a charm offensive to the Jewish community. Yet he still felt comfortable with insisting that he and William Hague were right to describe Israel's actions in Lebanon as "disproportionate". Perhaps Oborne and Jones should consider this interview when asking themselves about "the rules of British political behaviour" that govern what David Cameron says in public about Israel. Nor is this the only evidence that Dispatches' claim on this point is entirely wrong: according to the Daily Telegraph, William Hague even defended his use of the word "disproportionate" at a CFI lunch in 2008:

Hague was speaking at the Conservative Friends of Israel lunch which was held in the ballroom of the Dorchester. It was a lavish do and around 100 Tory MPs hot-footed from the Commons to make the occasion.


He defended his assertion in the summer of 2006 that some of the Israeli bombing of Lebanon was disproportionate. He said: “We do not subcontract our foreign policy and we should still be able to criticise. Don’t ask a friend never to be a candid friend.”

There is another, very simple, example of how the programme makers appear to have decided on their theory and conclusions before accumulating any facts.  The Guardian opinion piece states:

For instance, Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) – once described by the famous Conservative politician and historian as "the largest organisation in western Europe dedicated to the cause of the people of Israel" – claims that 80% of all Tory MPs are members.

The Guardian news article states:

At least half of the shadow cabinet are members of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), according to a Dispatches programme being screened on Channel 4.

If both these figures are true, then simple maths should tell Dispatches that joining CFI actually decreases your chance of being elevated to the shadow cabinet; or at least that shadow cabinet members are less supportive of Israel than Tory backbenchers.

6. Condemn conspirators with their own words

Anthony Julius has written elsewhere of the habit of anti-Zionists to twist the words of supporters of Israel in order to condemn them. Oborne and Jones' article quotes Jon Mendelsohn of Labour Friends of Israel saying:

"Zionism is pervasive in New Labour. It is automatic that Blair will come to Labour Friends of Israel meetings."

The context of this quote in the Guardian article is to illustrate that LFI is "equally formidable" to CFI in its influence. However, the quote was originally made in May 2000, in an article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency tracking the different voting patterns of British Jews over the years, and asking how they would vote in the 2001 General Election. In this context, it comes across as an attempt by an LFI official to make the case, in the Jewish media, that Jews should vote Labour - very different from how it is presented by Oborne and Jones.

The purpose of this post is not to accuse anybody of being antisemitic, nor is it to defend Israel or silence those who would criticise it. We also recognise that Oborne and Jones present a lengthier and at times more nuanced case in their pamphlet which was published today. But part of CST's work is to point out the potential for antisemitic resonances or impact that sometimes occurs within public debate about Jewish-related issues. This, for instance, is the reason why we now publish an Antisemitic Discourse Report alongside our Antisemitic Incident Reports. This is also the reason why we felt it important to explain the problems with the particular article written by Oborne and Jones and published in today's Guardian. Oborne and Jones conclude by warning that "the present obscurity surrounding [the "pro-Israel lobby"] can, paradoxically, give rise to conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact." Paradoxically indeed, because their own article is an example of exactly what they are warning against.

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