The Levene coverage stinks
A Jewish financier crashes and the stereotyping begins again
In some respects it has not been a bad financial crisis for Jews. After all, several of the heroes who rebuilt the system post the great panic — including the Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke and International Monetary Fund boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn — have been drawn from our community. But if you followed the media, this would have barely registered.
What a contrast with the coverage of the alleged bad guys. The convicted fraudster Bernard Madoff, who lost an estimated $50bn of investors’ funds, is now a household name. What is also known, because the media constantly remind us of it, is that his victims were mainly Jewish charities and individuals. It may have been impossible to tell the Madoff story without some reference to his background. Nevertheless, it was rubbed in our faces.
In much the same way, the bankruptcy and investigation of the affairs of the financier Nick Levene, on this side of the Atlantic, have received much the same treatment, with the Telegraph among those to refer to him as a “British Madoff”.
A portrait of Levene’s lifestyle in the Sunday Telegraph opened with a scene of a lavish barmitzvah for his second son at Battersea Park on the South Bank of the Thames.
The organisers, we were told, were Banana Split, the people behind Simon Cowell’s 50th birthday bash. Levene was part of the “fast-rolling set of north London businessmen”. He travelled on the “coat-tails of super-successful friends such as Sir Philip Green, the retail tycoon; Richard Caring, the owner of Annabels; and the Tchenguiz brothers”.
A portrait of Levene’s lifestyle opened with a lavish barmitzvah
“North London” is sub-editors’ shorthand for “Jewish”, and the list of friends is meant to suggest that his was a flash Jewish set. Of course, it was far more complicated than this. Levene also happens to have had a respectable financial CV, had worked among the blue bloods in the Square Mile and has served on a subsidiary board of M&G, the investment arm of the Prudential, and one of the City’s more influential fund managers. His clients were just as likely to be drawn from the upper echelons of the FTSE100.
Among those to lose money when Levene went down were the Scottish transport magnates Brian Souter and his family, known for their deeply felt Christian moral values.
Whether it is failure, as in the case of Levene, or success, ethnicity is often an important part of media coverage. In the case of New York-based investment bankers Goldman Sachs the disgrace, as it is seen, is that the firm is making too much money. It might be thought that at a time when so many banks have behaved rashly and lost fortunes that the media would hail success.
But not a bit of it. Goldman is disparaged for making too much lolly even though it is vowing to give record sums to good causes through its charitable trust.
The firestorm was ignited in Rolling Stone magazine when writer Matt Taibbi wrote that the bank was “a giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.
This infelicitous and widely repeated description was lighted upon by Dominic Lawson, writing in the Sunday Times, who noted that given Goldman’s Jewish origins it was “distasteful and close to Hitler’s accusations in Mein Kampf” which talks about Jewish financiers squeezing and sucking the blood again and again.
Lawson notes that these phrases have a direct echo of the blood libel against the Jews, when in fact Goldman is “just a ferociously driven meritocracy”.
One can be over sensitive about these matters. But the tendency to scatter around descriptions which are likely to lead to racial stereotyping has been very much present throughout the great panic.
It is possible to write about Levene, for instance, without mention of north London, friends in the Jewish community or barmitzvahs. The FT, among others, has managed it. Unfortunately, too often the press finds it difficult to show restraint.
Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail