British press did not understand this story

By Roy Greenslade, December 8, 2011
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Paul Flynn made an antisemitic statement last week and British newspapers reacted by ignoring it. Indeed, there was no mainstream media coverage aside from an article on the BBC website and another in the Western Mail, the paper that covers Flynn's Newport constituency.

The story, which was broken by this newspaper, was given an airing in Israel and on various Middle East websites.

But why did Britain's national press not take it up? Here was a high-profile politician stating that it was inappropriate to appoint Matthew Gould as Britain's ambassador to Israel because he happens to be Jewish.

Substitute black or gay or Roman Catholic for Jewish and it's hard to imagine that it would have been overlooked.

There was barely any mainstream media coverage

Flynn went further than that because he raised a much more worrying, and clearly antisemitic, sentiment by referring to conspiracy theories. Surely this should have raised eyebrows on newsdesks across what used to be called Fleet Street? A usually sensible, if radical, MP was calling into question the loyalty of a member of the country's diplomatic service on the grounds of his Jewish background.

That strikes me as a story but I readily concede that it might not have been viewed that way because editors - while not necessarily agreeing with Flynn - probably didn't view it as being antisemitic. They didn't comprehend its meaning and therefore didn't see the harm.

I imagine editors viewed it as routine political badinage and failed to spot its deeper resonance.

Flynn, who has since apologised for his statement, had fallen into the trap of regarding a Jew who is British as being Jewish first and British second and thinking that this would affect his judgment as an envoy.

Moreover, he was assuming that all Jews hold the same opinion about Israel and, presumably, about what should and should not happen in relation to Palestinian claims. Flynn referred to Mr Gould having acknowledged that he is a Zionist, as if this made him even less impartial (simply because he believes in the self-determination of the Jewish people to live in a sovereign Jewish homeland).

Yet none of this clearly mistaken thinking, which gives comfort to those who are antisemitic, was considered worthy of coverage by the legions of why-oh-why columnists.

It is an age since papers routinely carried obviously prejudicial articles about Jews. But there remains a deep-seated misunderstanding about what does, and does not, constitute antisemitic material.

And, yes, I have been a sinner too. In February this year, I stupidly wrote that "as a Jew" media owner Richard Desmond "may well have negative views of Muslims". I was rightly taken to task by this newspaper for my thoughtlessness.

The rest of the press ignored it too, but I am merely a media commentator. Paul Flynn is an MP, a lawmaker. His statement should have been highlighted.

Incidentally, I note that the press were not alone is remaining mute. Labour leader Ed Miliband said nothing. Yet he thought Jeremy Clarkson's asinine comments about strikers did need addressing. A case there, I feel, of wrong priorities.

Roy Greenslade is professor of journalism at City University

Last updated: 12:27pm, December 8 2011