Dispatches: Where is the evidence?

23 Nov 2009 by CST

David Henshaw, the Executive Producer of the Dispatches programme Inside Britain's Israel Lobby and Managing Director of the company that produced it, Hardcash Productions, has written an article for the Guardian's Comment Is Free website in which he says:

Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, made the point in last Monday's Dispatches film that it would be astonishing if newspaper articles critical of Israel led directly to racist attacks. Where was the evidence?

It is not CST's job to respond to the rest of the Dispatches programme, but recording and analysing antisemitic hate crimes in the UK is very much CST's business, and there is plenty of evidence, going back several years, that the number of antisemitic incidents in Britain rises when the media is full of stories that are extremely hostile to Israel. In January this year, for example, when Israel and Hamas were at war in Gaza and there was a great deal of strong criticism of Israel in the British media, an unprecedented number of antisemitic incidents were reported to CST: 286 in the month of January, by far the highest number of incidents recorded by CST in a single month (CST has been recording antisemitic incidents in the UK since 1984). In total, CST recorded 609 antisemitic incidents in the first half of 2009, more than in the whole of 2008. Of these 609 antisemitic incidents, 201 included a reference to events in Gaza alongside the antisemitism. These do not include anti-Israel incidents that are not antisemitic, or even antisemitic placards or chants on political demonstrations. All of this is clearly explained in CST's report on antisemitic incidents during this period, which is on the CST website.

There were also incidents of direct antisemitic abuse, like the one involving Foreign Office diplomat Rowan Laxton, where the abuse was triggered by a specific media report about Israel (CST does not publicise the details of most incidents reported to us, but Rowan Laxton was not the only antisemitic incident perpetrator, reported to CST, who made direct reference to a news report about Israel while abusing Jews). It is important to point out that this does not mean that the media reports actually cause the antisemitic attacks: they may be the trigger, or the proximate cause, but the underlying cause is the bigotry on the part of the incident perpetrator. It is also worth stressing that the media reports may be entirely fair and balanced, but can still trigger something in a would-be hate crime perpetrator. Hate crime analysts in the police, academia and minority communities have long recognised the interplay between trigger events, media reporting and hate crimes. Henshaw's collaborator on Dispatches, Peter Oborne, even wrote a pamphlet about it three years ago to accompany another Dispatches episode about Islamophobia. Henshaw may be astonished by the idea that media reports can lead to racist attacks, but it is not a controversial idea to those of us who work in this field.

Perhaps you can forgive David Henshaw for being unaware of the extensive work that has been done to analyse the impact that overseas events - reported via the media - can have on antisemitic incident levels in the UK. Except that Henshaw wrote to CST during the making of Dispatches to ask us about "CST's analysis that criticism of Israel in the media leads to anti-Semitic hate crimes." We replied, explaining that his wording was far too simplistic, but that there is evidence of a connection:

This wording overly simplifies CST's analysis of what is a complex and nuanced phenomenon. CST has no issue with criticism of Israel itself, nor is it part of CST's function to rebut that criticism. However, antisemitic incident data recorded by CST and the police shows that the number of antisemitic incidents in the UK rises significantly during periods of extreme public and media hostility to Israel; and this includes hate crimes that contain direct reference to media coverage of Israel (such as the recently publicised case of the senior Foreign Office official, Rowan Laxton). This evidence suggests that extreme anti-Israel sentiment can sometimes have an antisemitic impact in Britain, but CST does not claim that media criticism of Israel leads directly to antisemitic hate crimes, much less that media reporting of Israel is itself antisemitic or to blame for antisemitic incidents in Britain. The only people to blame for antisemitic incidents are the antisemites who cary them out. In addition, CST's Antisemitic Incidents Reports, which are available on CST's website, make it clear that CST distinguishes between incidents that are antisemitic and those that are merely anti-Israel. The reports covering 2006 and the first half of 2009 have specific sections explaining this.

As anyone who watched Dispatches will recall, none of this was included in the programme, which merely broadcast Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger's rejection of the possibility that media reports can play a role in the dynamics of hate crime, as if that was the final word on the matter. David Henshaw asks, "Where was the evidence?", but CST supplied the evidence directly to him. It is up to Henshaw to include whatever he likes in his programme, but to infer that no evidence exists to show a relationship between media reporting and antisemitic hate crime is simply not accurate.

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