Socialist filmmaker Ken Loach has released his final movie, about Syrian refugees finding their feet in an English working-class community. It makes it all the more grotesque that Loach’s political foes are trying to present him as a dangerous bigot.
Ken Loach attends the photocall of his movie The Old Oak at the Locarno Film Festival on August 8, 2023 in Locarno, Switzerland. (Alessandro Levati / Getty Images)
It used to be a cliché of British public life that left-wing radicals would eventually find themselves transformed into harmless “national treasures.” The Labour politician Tony Benn went through this process of absorption after retiring as an MP, when there was no longer any question that he might exercise power and use it to transform British society.
Many people wondered if Jeremy Corbyn would receive the same treatment after Labour’s defeat in the 2019 general election. However, it looks as if Britain can no longer afford this particular heritage industry in straitened economic times. Nearly four years after he stepped down as Labour leader, any suggestion by a mainstream pundit that Corbyn might not have been so bad after all is likely to provoke a reaction from their colleagues that brings to mind Donald Sutherland’s unearthly shriek in the final scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The filmmaker Ken Loach has been on the receiving end of similar treatment lately. Loach has just released what he says will be his final film, The Old Oak, at the age of eighty-seven, having contributed to Britain’s film and television culture since the 1960s. A close look at the effort to blacken Loach’s name on spurious grounds tells us a lot about the standards governing public debate in Britain.
In a radio interview with Loach to discuss The Old Oak, the BBC journalist Jo Coburn quoted from a statement that described him as being “appalling in his antisemitism denial.” For Coburn, the fact that this statement existed at all was reason enough to cite it on national radio. She seemed taken aback when Loach demanded that she provide evidence to substantiate the claim or else withdraw it.
The accusatory statement came from the self-styled Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), which is actually a small right-wing pressure group that specializes in denouncing critics of Israel. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge condemned the organization last year when it turned its fire on Corbyn’s successor Keir Starmer:
I’m fed up of CAA using antisemitism as a front to attack Labour. Time to call them out for what and who they really are. More concerned with undermining Labour than rooting out antisemitism.
This has always been an accurate description of the CAA, which did not undergo a sudden transformation when Starmer took over from Corbyn, although politicians like Hodge were happy to make use of the media firestorms it generated between 2015 and 2019.
A close look at the effort to blacken Loach’s name on spurious grounds tells us a lot about the standards governing public debate in Britain.
Coburn’s interview wasn’t the first time someone has been unable to respond when asked to justify attacks on Loach with evidence rather than an appeal to authority. Earlier this year, Labour announced that it was blocking the candidacy of Jamie Driscoll, a Labour mayor in England’s North East. The official rationale for doing so was that Driscoll had appeared at a public event with Loach in Newcastle to discuss the director’s films. According to Labour’s current leadership team, Loach is such a toxic figure that anyone who shares a platform with him is unsuitable for public office.
In reality, Labour apparatchiks wanted to stop Driscoll from running again because he is a left-wing social democrat who supported Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. This move forms part of a much wider purge directed against left-wing candidates. However, Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves stuck doggedly to the official line when the Guardian journalist Simon Hattenstone asked her about the row.
It’s well worth reading the exchange between Hattenstone and Reeves in full:
I tell her I am Jewish and that I agree with a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism, but the party is so gung-ho that it is now labelling people antisemitic who simply aren’t — and there is a danger of destroying lives in the process.
“Well, look, I’m not on the bodies that make those decisions, so I don’t know the details of that case. But it is so important that we are seen to — and we do — tackle antisemitism. Ken Loach, you might like his films, but his views . . . well, certainly, they are not ones I share.”
That doesn’t make him antisemitic, I say.
“You don’t think Ken Loach is antisemitic? OK. Well, I think we might have to agree to differ.”
Why does she think he is antisemitic? “Look, I’m not on the bodies that make these decisions, but I think it’s right we have a zero-tolerance approach,” she repeats.
You can’t make such an accusation without supporting it, I say.
“Well, look, I’m not on the body who makes these decisions,” she repeats yet again. Loach later tells me there was no due process in his expulsion: he was just told he was unfit to be a party member; antisemitism wasn’t mentioned.
Reeves clearly wanted to imply that Loach was antisemitic without having to spell it out, let alone provide evidence in support of her claims. A less scrupulous interviewer would probably have allowed her to do so. By probing what Reeves had said, ever so gently, Hattenstone obliged her to make a formal accusation of the utmost gravity while simultaneously admitting that she had no idea what she was talking about.
Rachel Reeves clearly wanted to imply that Ken Loach was antisemitic without having to spell it out, let alone provide evidence in support of her claims.
Shortly after the Guardian interview was published, Driscoll announced that he was going to run for the position of North East mayor as a left-wing independent against the official Labour candidate, and soon raised a substantial campaign fund. Reeves now claimed to be fully conversant with the facts of the case: “Jamie Driscoll against good advice, shared a platform with people who had been expelled from the Labour Party for anti-Semitism. And I’m not going to make any apologies for that tough stance on anti-Semitism.”
Driscoll brushed this argument aside with contempt:
Ken Loach was not kicked out of the Labour Party for anti-Semitism. He is a highly respected British filmmaker who recently received a standing ovation at Cannes.
His latest film “The Old Oak” set in the North East, was partially funded by the BBC. He recently got invited to meet the Pope in the Sistine Chapel — is Rachel Reeves saying Pope Francis is anti-Semitic? Someone should ask her.
Driscoll went on to accuse the Labour leadership of blatant hypocrisy, noting that Starmer himself had appeared in one of Loach’s nonfiction films, “and even used footage from this in his leadership campaign video.” A member of Labour’s shadow cabinet, Ed Miliband, had also interviewed Loach about his filmmaking career for a podcast: “Will they be forced to explain their actions and blocked from standing for public office?”
The dispute over Driscoll’s candidacy triggered a fresh round of debate about Loach’s record in the British press and on social media. If you dip your toe in these waters, you’ll soon come across strident assertions that Loach supports Holocaust denial. The story of how this absurd claim took shape is an unedifying case study of how to generate smoke without fire.
Let’s start with a 2017 op-ed from the New York Times by the novelist Howard Jacobson. Jacobson presented the Labour conference of that year, the third to be held under Corbyn’s leadership, as an antisemitic horror show that culminated in the following shameful incident: “A motion to question the truth of the Holocaust was proposed.” On closer inspection, the episode to which Jacobson referred wasn’t a motion, it wasn’t at the conference, and it didn’t question the truth of the Holocaust — quite the hat trick of inaccuracy.
House of Cards
An Israeli speaker, Miko Peled, was speaking at a fringe event during the Labour conference in Brighton. Such events are not part of the conference itself and have no function in Labour’s decision-making process. Peled was not a member of the Labour Party, let alone a conference delegate, and could not have proposed a motion of any kind.
One can legitimately argue that while certain views about history are wrongheaded, malicious, or downright evil, those views should not be a matter for the criminal justice system.
In the course of his speech, Peled said that he did not think Holocaust denial should be outlawed. The Daily Mail, a notoriously xenophobic rag that has published cartoons depicting refugees as a plague of rats, carried a lurid, heavily slanted report on the meeting, claiming that he believed Holocaust denial should be an acceptable topic of discussion within the Labour Party. However, the verbatim quote from Peled’s speech that the article supplied did not mention Labour at all.
The Mail also quoted Peled as saying, “we don’t invite the Nazis and give them an hour to explain why they are right,” which hardly suggested that he considered the atrocities of Nazism to be a matter of legitimate debate. If there was any confusion or misunderstanding about his remarks, Peled explained that he was talking about the criminal law in a statement to the Guardian, while reminding the newspaper that he was Jewish: “The Holocaust was a terrible crime that we must study and from which we must all learn. I reject the idea that Holocaust deniers, foolish as they may be, should be treated as criminals.”
This was not a hypothetical discussion, as several European countries do have laws against Holocaust denial, while Britain does not. There is obviously a huge difference between disagreeing with such laws on the one hand and believing that the Nazi genocide of the Jews did not really happen on the other. One can legitimately argue that while certain views about history are wrongheaded, malicious, or downright evil, those views should not be a matter for the criminal justice system.
Although the online version of Jacobson’s column included a link to the Guardian article that contained Peled’s statement of clarification, the column itself gave an entirely misleading version of events. Anyone reading what Jacobson had written without access to other sources would have gathered the impression that somebody got up at the Labour conference and put forward a motion, to be voted upon by delegates, denying or questioning the well-established facts about the mass murder of European Jews by the Third Reich. That would certainly be a horrifying scenario, if it bore any relation to the facts.
Building on this rhetorical house of cards, Jacobson went on to attack Ken Loach in particular:
In a moment that will live in infamy, the distinguished film director Ken Loach defended questioning the Holocaust. “I think history is for all of us to discuss,” he said, dodging the question of why the Labour Party should have chosen the Holocaust, of all historical events — and not slavery, say — to subject to scrutiny.
As we have seen, it was demonstrably false for Jacobson to suggest that even a single member of the Labour Party had “chosen the Holocaust . . . to subject to scrutiny” at the 2017 conference. Now he was claiming that the entire party had decided to legitimize Holocaust denial. It may not come as a huge surprise to learn that Jacobson was also playing fast and loose with the views that he attributed to Loach.
“Reported by Whom?”
Loach was being interviewed during the conference by the same BBC journalist, Jo Coburn, with whom he clashed more recently. Coburn pressed him to accept that Labour had suddenly become infested with antisemitism under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Loach rejected her framing of the issue and suggested that Corbyn’s opponents were making false claims about the prevalence of antisemitism to undermine his leadership.
Loach suggested that Corbyn’s opponents were making false claims about the prevalence of antisemitism to undermine his leadership.
Tellingly, Coburn cited the Labour politician Ruth Smeeth as a reliable authority on the subject, when Smeeth’s conduct was in fact a perfect example of what Loach was talking about. The MP used her position to defame a black Labour activist, Marc Wadsworth, with trumped-up charges of antisemitism. The treatment of Wadsworth was a particularly egregious case, as it concerned what he had said at a public event with cameras rolling. In the words of David Rosenberg, who testified on his behalf at a disciplinary hearing: “There is video evidence that was shown during the hearing which shows unmistakeably [sic] that Ruth Smeeth was lying about the words she attributed to Marc Wadsworth.”
Smeeth created a vivid impression — if not, perhaps, the one she wanted to convey — by showing up at Wadsworth’s disciplinary panel with an entourage of white Labour MPs accompanying her. She successfully pushed for Wadsworth’s expulsion from Labour on the catchall charge of “bringing the party into disrepute,” which could mean anything or nothing. His expulsion reflected the political balance of forces within Labour rather than any considerations of justice and is a lasting stain on the party’s reputation.
This was the context in which Coburn brought up the story about Miko Peled’s speech. She put her own spin on it by suggesting that several people had been debating whether the Holocaust was fact or fiction:
Coburn: There was a discussion about the Holocaust, did it happen or didn’t it? Is that the sort of discussion . . .
Loach: I don’t think there was a discussion about the Holocaust, did it happen or didn’t it.
Coburn: Well, it was reported.
Loach: It was reported. Reported by whom?
Loach delivered the last two phrases with sarcasm dripping from his voice. Rightly assuming that he was not being given an accurate report, he refused to be drawn into condemning a nonexistent “discussion about the Holocaust, did it happen or didn’t it?”
Loach moved to change the subject at this point with the remark quoted by Jacobson. Jacobson seems to have relied upon a Tablet article by Yair Rosenberg that simply falsified the exchange between Loach and Coburn, leaving out the part where the filmmaker questioned her account of what had been said without including an ellipsis to show that there were missing words.
A Failure of Logic
While there’s no reason to credit Jacobson or Rosenberg with good faith here, it is certainly possible for genuine misunderstandings to arise when somebody gives a television interview, especially if there is more than one voice in the discussion. Loach and Coburn were talking across each other and may not have heard everything that the other person said. In a situation like that, it is perfectly reasonable to ask someone to clarify their views.
This is what Loach had to say when the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland attacked him along the same lines as Jacobson:
In a BBC interview I was asked about a speech I had not heard and of which I knew nothing. My reply has been twisted to suggest that I think it is acceptable to question the reality of the Holocaust. I do not. The Holocaust is as real a historical event as the World War itself and not to be challenged. In Primo Levi’s words: “Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.” The first terrible pictures I saw as a nine-year old are ingrained on my memory as they are for all my generation.
Like readers of this paper, I know the history of Holocaust denial, its place in far right politics and the role of people like David Irving. To imply that I would have anything in common with them is contemptible. The consequences of such a smear are obvious to all: let the poison escape and it will be picked up on social media and reputations may be tarnished for ever. A brief phone call would have clarified my position.
The Guardian would only publish a severely truncated version of Loach’s reply to Freedland. This should have been the end of the matter. “Ken Loach declined to condemn an Israeli speaker who does not think Holocaust denial should be a criminal offence” may not be as dramatic a story as “Ken Loach endorses Holocaust denial,” but that’s what actually happened.
British political debate is congested with people pretending to believe things that they clearly do not believe.
At no point did anyone try to explain why a British socialist would want to deny that the genocide of European Jews by the Nazis during World War II took place. A person who knows very little about the radical left might think that Loach would be inclined to whitewash the crimes of Stalinism. In reality, he is a Trotskyist whose movie about the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom, draws heavily upon George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and is sure to enrage any latter-day Stalinists. But the idea that Loach would want to soft-soap the record of Nazism fails the test of logic as well as evidence.
The fact that people are still hawking this claim around the public sphere speaks volumes about the dearth of critical thinking in the British media. If anyone seriously thought that Loach held the same views as a notorious bigot like David Irving, it would have resulted in his total exclusion from polite society. Starmer wouldn’t have included a clip from one of Loach’s films in his campaign video; Miliband wouldn’t have interviewed him for his podcast; and Reeves wouldn’t have struggled to think of a reason when she casually branded the director as an illegitimate figure. British political debate is congested with people pretending to believe things that they clearly do not believe, in order to fill up the space that might otherwise be used for serious discussion of issues.
The plot of The Old Oak concerns a former mining community in northern England and the arrival of a group of Syrian refugees fleeing the war in their country. It was released in British cinemas just as the Conservative home secretary Suella Braverman plumbed new depths with her bigoted ravings about immigration. Keir Starmer’s leadership has responded to every Trumpian move from Braverman and her colleagues by pledging to be more effective in keeping out refugees than the Tories.
Writing in the Guardian, Nesrine Malik bemoaned the fact that Braverman will face so little pushback for her latest outburst:
There is no heavy moral counterweight to her, because there are few people making the argument at a high-profile political level — in a way that is consistent and central to progressive politics — that frames immigrants as people who have made the UK their home. Whatever their lifestyle looks like, they have the right not to be maligned, bullied and demoralised by their leaders. It is left to immigrants themselves, or their children and grandchildren, to plead for the humans behind the headlines, as I have just done.
Or it is left to public figures such as Gary Lineker to point out not only the factual incoherence of such far-right statements, but also their wickedness, before they learn that there are indeed high stakes when it comes to speaking about immigration.
This situation did not arise naturally or spontaneously. Over the last decade, there has been a sustained effort to tear down and discredit those who were most likely to challenge racist ideas, with the liberal broadsheets playing a very active role in that campaign. When people look back on this period of British history, they will have no trouble figuring out who was really paying heed to the lessons of Europe’s dark past.Original post