Skwawkbox gets it wrong (again)

Steve Walker’s pro-Corbyn blog Skwawkbox is a mixed bag. Sometimes it includes useful information about internal Labour Party politics, acquired through the author’s contacts in the party. But it has also established a reputation as a left-wing mirror image of the right-wing anti-Corbyn media, whose shoddy and dishonest journalistic methods it often imitates, albeit in pursuit of diametrically opposed political objectives. Like the worst elements of the right-wing media, Skwawkbox notoriously relies on generating traffic through clickbait headlines and controversy-generating stories that show little concern for accuracy.

A recent example of Skwawkbox’s flawed journalism is an article titled “Scottish govt set to drop IHRA as ‘dog’s breakfast’ hate-crime law revised”. The reference is to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and its working definition of antisemitism. That definition, and more particularly the illustrative examples attached to it, have been the subject of intense dispute, on the grounds that some of the examples conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism and can be used to suppress opposition to the state of Israel.

In June 2017, in a setback for pro-Palestinian and other critics of the IHRA document, the Scottish government announced that it was “formally adopting” the IHRA definition (along with the contentious examples). So it would certainly be welcome news if the Scottish government was indeed “set to drop” the IHRA definition, as Steve Walker claims. For that reason the Skwawkbox story has been widely shared on social media. Unfortunately, like a lot of reports by Skwawkbox, it isn’t true.

Steve Walker bases his claim that the Scottish government is going to reverse its adoption of the IHRA document on a report by the Independent Review of Hate Crime Legislation in Scotland, which was drawn up by Lord Bracadale. (The Scottish government is currently carrying out a consultation over the report’s recommendations and has yet to make a decision on whether to implement them.)

Walker writes that Bracadale has proposed to “repeal all of Scotland’s current racial harassment laws in order to combine all hate-crime legislation into a single Act, with a standard definition applying to all forms of racism”. He continues: “As the IHRA working definition is specific to antisemitism, as well as having well-known legal weaknesses, it would be excluded.” Walker further asserts that this “would result in the removal of the IHRA working definition from Scotland’s legal framework”. I’m afraid this is just garbled nonsense.

In his report Lord Bracadale does recommend (p.106) that “all provisions relating to hate crime and hate speech should be consolidated into one piece of legislation. This would cover all statutory aggravations and provisions relating to incitement/stirring up of hatred”. However, when it comes to the “standard definition applying to all forms of racism”, as Skwawkbox describes it, Bracadale proposes no innovations at all.

He accepts (pp.50, 135) the long-established legal position that racially aggravated offences (assault, threatening behaviour, harassment etc), and incitement to racial hatred, are categorised as racial because they are directed against members of a group defined by reference to “race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins”. (Antisemitic criminal acts are held to be racial on the basis that Jews, unlike Muslims for example, are a mono-ethnic faith community. Which is why no separate category of antisemitic hate crime exists.) Bracadale is not arguing for any change in the law in that regard. So if the Scottish government introduces legislation based on Bracadale’s recommendations, the “standard definition applying to all forms of racism” will remain exactly the same as it is at present.

In any case, all of this is irrelevant to the Scottish government’s decision to adopt the IHRA definition and examples. Walker just misunderstands the legal status of that decision. It did not result in the IHRA document being given the force of law in Scotland, and appears to have been more of a symbolic gesture of support for the Zionist lobby, the practical implications of which are still unclear. As the Scottish government itself has stated in response to an FOI request asking for clarification of its adoption of the IHRA’s disputed position on antisemitism:

“The definition will help to inform the Scottish Government’s work in this area and we will continue to work with key partners to explore how using this definition translates into operational practice. However, it is for individual public bodies to decide whether or not to adopt the IHRA definition. The definition is not legally binding, which is made clear in the text of the definition.”

So the question of the IHRA definition’s “removal” from “Scotland’s legal framework” doesn’t arise, because the definition is not part of that framework in the first place. It has never been incorporated into any existing anti-hatred legislation. Consequently a decision by the Scottish government to implement Bracadale’s recommendation to “combine all hate-crime legislation into a single Act, with a standard definition applying to all forms of racism” would have no impact whatsoever on the government’s adoption of the IHRA document. The spin that Skwawkbox puts on this (“Scottish govt set to drop IHRA”) is entirely misleading. In his eagerness to publish an attention-grabbing story, Steve Walker failed to carry out the basic background research.

But this is par for the course with Skwawkbox. In another recent article Steve Walker accused Theresa May of “snubbing” her Jewish guests by failing to turn up to a Chanukah reception at Downing Street. Regarding May’s non-appearance at the event, Steve Walker wrote: “The Jewish Chronicle made the barest of mentions of her absence, claiming she was unable to get away from the House of Commons.”

What the JC in fact reported was this: “Mrs May was unable to attend Monday’s Chanukah reception as the Commons debate over Brexit continued late into the night.” So to characterise May’s non-appearance as a “clear snub”, which is how Skwawkbox quotes one presumably anti-Tory attendee as describing it, would appear to be a misrepresentation of what actually happened. The situation was that May was tied up in a major political crisis in parliament and as a result was unable to make it to the reception in person. So she sent communities secretary James Brokenshire in her place.

Some people have observed that if Jeremy Corbyn had been the prime minister who failed to turn up at the Chanukah reception the JC wouldn’t have let him off so lightly. This is of course true. Under those circumstances it would have been the JC who’d have misrepresented the prime minister’s actions as a “snub”. That’s because the JC, and the mainstream media generally, twist the facts to serve a right-wing political agenda. Skwawkbox’s answer to that is to twist the facts to serve a left-wing political agenda.

As I’ve previously argued, this approach is counterproductive. The journalistic methods of the Right can’t be repurposed to serve the political aims of the Left. If the “new left media” are to play a positive role as an alternative to the anti-Corbyn bias of the mainstream media, they have to demonstrate their commitment to improved standards of journalism, not mirror the worst practices of the MSM. They should seek to inform and educate, provide objective analysis, and clarify complex political issues for the benefit of their substantial leftist readership. Inaccurate, ill-researched and sometimes intentionally misleading propaganda of the sort Skwawkbox specialises in just doesn’t cut it.

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