Channel 4 has ‘fact checked’ a statement by Jeremy Corbyn in response to the report by the EHRC on how the Labour Party dealt with antisemitism when he was leader. His statement was based on research in the book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief, written by five academics including Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Justin Schlosberg, Antony Lerman and David Miller.
The Channel 4 FactCheck is critical of two points he makes:
That ‘0.3% of party members had a case against them which had to be put through the process’
Public perception was that ‘one third of all Labour party members were somehow or other under suspicion of antisemitism’. This was based on the results of an opinion poll commissioned for the book
The first criticism that they make of the 0.3% figure is that no comprehensive data was available on antisemitism cases before Jennie Formby took over as General Secretary in 2018. After taking office, she was then able to provide figures for the period from April 2018 to January 2019.
The figure of 0.3% appears on page 52 of our book. FactCheck did not contact us to discuss this and do not seem to have read all of the book. Had they done so, they would have seen that the figure is an extrapolation from the detailed figures from 2018 – 19 which take account of the absence of data from the earlier years. As we wrote, ‘if we assumed a constant level of cases over three years, the number would still come to just 0.3 per cent of the membership’. We also suggested that the number would possibly be less.
In January 2020, Jennie Formby published new figures which supported this. They related to the years 2017 – 2019. She gave figures on 1,201 complaints about members. Of those processed with decisions, 388 were dismissed as being without foundation and 321 were sent a reminder of conduct.
The total number who had left the Party was reported as 220. This included people who were automatically excluded as they were found to have supported another party, some whose membership lapsed, as well as others who decided to resign. This could be because they did not want to face the evidence against them or alternatively, they believed the process was wrong and that they were innocent. The actual number within the 220 who were expelled was just 56. A further 71 on top of the 220 were given formal warnings. There were still some unresolved cases but if we add those who have left to those receiving formal warnings, the figure would represent about 0.05 per cent of the membership at the time. In July 2019, Jennie Formby had written in a published reply to the Party Deputy Leader that ‘antisemitism-related cases that have been taken through the stages of our disciplinary procedures since September 2015 relate to roughly 0.06% of the Party’s average membership during this time’. It seems very likely that the 0.3 per cent figure cited by Corbyn is well within what the figures from the Labour Party would indicate.
The second issue that FactCheck discusses is the opinion poll from the book which Jeremy Corbyn quotes. FactCheck repeats the findings given in the book that a section of the public had not heard of the issue and others chose the ‘did not know’ option. They also note that, ‘The sample size was respectable at just over 1,000 people and the results were ‘weighted’ to take account of demographic factors.’
The respondents in the poll who knew of the issue then answered the question, ‘From what you have seen or heard, what percentage of Labour Party members do you think have had complaints of antisemitism made against them?’ On this, FactCheck states: ‘It’s true that the mean average answer to this question was ‘34 per cent’ – which is presumably where Mr Corbyn’s claim comes from.’
They then seek to downgrade this result by focusing on the ‘most popular’ figure picked. This is a very strange way of reporting public opinion. The option which happens to have the most choices is unlikely to be very significant if there are another ten possible options. But they pursue this and give the ‘popular answer’ as 0-9 per cent. What they do not say is that only 14 per cent of those who expressed an opinion gave this figure while 86 per cent were above it.
They also note that the total number of Labour Party members could have been provided when asking the question. But this would then be a deliberative poll where respondents are offered information which they can consider when developing a more informed answer. We were investigating the impact of media reports saying that Labour was ‘riddled’ with antisemitism and that the Party was ‘wholly infected’. There is no point us giving information which the interviewees may not otherwise know, especially if that produces a more critical understanding of beliefs derived from the media.
They quote academics making the obvious point that if questions are asked in different ways then results may vary and that it is important to know how the question is understood by respondents. That is why academics like us conduct qualitative research using focus groups and interviews alongside the quantitative studies to check exactly on these issues. An extraordinary absence in the FactCheck account is that they make no mention of the qualitative research which we undertook for the study. This clearly showed the link between beliefs and media reports. Crucially, the qualitative work reproduced the trend which we found in the quantitative research adding to its validity.
Overall, FactCheck seems to be straining to find flaws where they do not exist.
Since the original publication by FactCheck, they have now updated it to note that the 0.3 per cent figure comes from an extrapolation. They have also noted the existence of our qualitative research and that to give data on Labour membership figures would have changed the research method to deliberative polling.
Greg Philo is Professor of Communications and Social Change at the University of Glasgow, and Director of the Glasgow University Media Unit. He is co-author of More Bad News from Israel (Pluto, 2011), and co-author of Bad News for Refugees (Pluto, 2013).
Mike Berry is a lecturer in the Journalism School at Cardiff University and is the author of The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis (2019) and co-author of More Bad News from Israel (Pluto, 2011).
Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief is available from Pluto.