There have been a number of press reports today uncritically reporting that NUS President Aaron Porter was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse ahead of the demo in Manchester. It is possible that the reports are true. If this is the case then it is clearly a very serious incident and should be totally condemned in no uncertain terms as a sinister development in the ongoing debate around his leadership. However, it is necessary to look closer at the reports in the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and on Sky before we reach any conclusions.
The Daily Mail reports that “One photographer reported chants of ‘Tory Jew scum’” and on the basis of this anonymous source constructs its story. Sky asserts without supporting evidence or an indication of any source that demonstrators ‘surrounded him, chanting anti-Semitic insults and calling for him to resign as he attended the rally’ and the Telegraph reports that unnamed ‘Witnesses report that among the chants directed at him from a small number of demonstrators were “——- Tory Jew”. So far we have as evidence a photographer and unnamed witnesses as the basis of these news stories.
It is interesting to note that the allegations of anti-Semitism do not appear on the Guardian’s coverage of the Manchester demo nor the recently updated BBC report, which says only that a ‘small but loud group also made their views heard about wanting to replace the National Union of Students president, Aaron Porter.’ Only the right-wing media outlets have been stressing this particular angle of the story, with Reuters neglecting to mention it. Do the other media outlets not trust its basis in truth? It is quite possible from the hostile tone of their previous coverage that the Mail, Telegraph and Sky are pushing their own political agenda to discredit student protesters on the basis of flimsy supporting evidence.
Footage has emerged of the final moments of the demonstration which suggest one source of potential confusion:
The chant, “Aaron Porter, we know you. You’re a fucking Tory too!” is clearly audible and it is one that most of us familiar with demos have heard, whether with reference to Porter or Nick Clegg. The Mail, too, reports this as being the main chant, basing their story on the separate utterance, ‘Tory Jew scum’ as allegedly heard by a photographer. The Telegraph, however, reports the anti-Semitic chanting as “——- Tory Jew” which is very similar in sound to ‘Tory too’ and makes no mention of ‘Tory Jew scum’.
This similarity has been noticed by Edinburgh Anti-Cuts who attended the demo and wrote on Twitter that “Reports #Manchester chanting ‘you’re a Tory jew’ to Aaron Porter today – Not true – actual chant was ‘You’re a Tory too’ #demo2011#dayx.” An eye-witness account by a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty also fails to mention the anti-Semitic angle, and this is from a group known for its sensitivity to anti-Semitism on the Left. If we accept the reasonable possibility that the Telegraph has conflated ‘Tory Jew’ and ‘Tory too’ then this leaves us with only the word of an unnamed photographer as the substantive basis for these allegations.
In fact, the Mail goes further by positing a direct causality between the alleged anti-Semitic remarks and Porter pulling out of the rally in Manchester. This seems to be stretching the facts too far because it see more likely that Porter knew the rest of the general crowd would be hostile. Debates about his leadership have been ongoing for weeks and student unions have been preparing motions of no confidence in his presidency. If this was Porter’s reasoning then it was sound because the reception given to his Vice President, Shane Chowen, from the much larger crowd at the rally forced him off the platform. On this point, then, the Mail article is potentially misleading. It is also misleading of Sky and the Telegraph to assert that demonstrators ‘surrounded [Porter], chanting anti-Semitic insults’ if, as the Telegraph appears to suggest, it was only ‘a small number of demonstrators’ who are alleged to have used anti-Semitic terms and even this is open to dispute in the Telegraph’s account of events.
Again, it is quite possible that some anti-Semitic remarks were made. That the rest of the protesters, according to the Telegraph, chanted “No to racism, no to racism” suggests that this might have been the case. However, reasons for suspicion lie in the fact that the only outlets to report this angle of the story are right-wing and politically biased against students. Moreover, the sources are unnamed and potentially conflicting, and it is possible that the Telegraph’s ‘witnesses’ misheard a more innocuous chant. In the absence of stronger corroborating evidence and video footage proving the allegations of anti-Semitism the student movement has to be careful about debilitating smears from the Tory press whilst also making it clear, if the reports are true, that no form of racism can ever be tolerated in our movement.
UPDATE: See another good analysis from Alex Andrews which has a definite chronology to the news reports in a way that I was technically incapable of finding out!