Robert Halfon MP has told of his anger over the use of the term “Jewish lobby” in the recently published political diaries by Lady Sasha Swire.
Speaking at a Board of Deputies fringe event at Conservative Party conference, the Harlow MP bemoaned the fact that “diarists are now allowed to talk about the ‘Jewish lobby’ in parliament with impunity” as he discussed measures to prevent the spread of hatred, racism and antisemitism online.
The JC last week reported how the wife of former Tory minister Sir Hugo Swire referred to the “Jewish lobby” on two different occasions in the book, which has attracted headlines over its gossipy revelations about ex-Prime Minister David Cameron’s time as leader.
Mr Halfon had been calling for tougher use of defamation laws in the online sphere - in line with those usually applied to newspapers and books - when he remarked that Lady Sasha’s book appeared to have escaped further attention.
Elsewhere in the discussion about the forthcoming Online Harms Bill, Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins, who has responsibility for safeguarding, made it clear that the government was due to give a full response to the consultation on the Online Harms White Paper in the autumn.
While being careful not to pre-empt that response, she said she would imagine that “any independent regulator will look very very carefully” at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
Jewish communal organizations have called for the bill to recognise the need for Facebook and Twitter to adopt the IHRA definition.
Mr Halfon said that while he had supported the recent 48-hour long boycott of social media organised by grassroots Jewish organisations after the rapper Wiley’s antisemitic rants, he felt there was a need to be “very careful” over similar actions in the future.
“Every time you boycott a social media company you give space to those who promote online hate,” he said. “It gives them more space than they already have.
“I would use boycotts very sparingly.”
Mr Halfon also backed the need for moderation of social media content, but warned this process could be subjective itself.
“What happens if a social media company decides it doesn’t like the stance of the state of Israel - and then starts moderating people who write comments in support of the state of Israel?” he said.
Lord Popat, the Tory Peer, identified the spread of fake news – including conspiracy theories against Jewish and other minority communities – as something which needed to be confronted.
Saqib Bhatti, MP for Meriden, said he was “absolutely behind all three recommendations”. Particularly with regard to the IHRA definition, he said that “having such a framework doesn’t mean we’re inhibiting free speech, it means we’re stopping the world of free speech being corrupted by those who seek to divide us.”
Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies, said: “We are grateful to our panelists – Victoria Atkins MP, Rob Halfon MP, Saqib Bhatti MP and Lord Popat – for taking the time to join us for a discussion of such an important subject.
“Online is the new frontline in the fight against antisemitism - and not just antisemitism, but misogyny, anti-Muslim hatred, homophobia and racism and bigotry against other religions, ethnicities and minority groups. “