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Alert to the arguments

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 12:32 UK time, Tuesday, 13 March 2007

One of the things the College of Journalism tries to help BBC journalists think about is the kind of question raised by the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, David Rowan, on Today recently.

levy203_pa.jpgHe was invited on last Friday to talk about a piece in his paper written by the rabbi at Lord Levy's local synagogue, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet. (You have to subscribe to the JC to get more than this summary).

Rabbi Schochet's target was what he called “the blatant nastiness in some of the tabloids and the recent seeming trial by media” of Lord Levy.

He had previously talked about "sinister corners” from where, he argued, the leaks in the cash-for peerages story emanated. And in a TV interview had claimed that “the Jewish community is becoming increasingly more sensitive that there is one Jew, who has been called the most dynamic Jew in Anglo-Jewry, seemingly being hung out to dry here.”

Readers will make up their own minds about Rabbi Schochet's arguments but David Rowan makes an interesting point - and one that all journalists should think about, whether they agree with his conclusion or not - about how key words in the way stories are reported or framed have a significant effect (intended or otherwise) on the understood meaning... even if the words or facts chosen are not, in themselves, in dispute.

David Rowan doesn't accuse the BBC of making such choices in this case - though that doesn't mean BBC journalists should not be alert to the arguments.

In his interview, David Rowan points to such things as the inclusion of Lord Levy's middle name - Abraham - in articles such as this one in the Daily Mail, an inclusion he argues that underlines and emphasises the fact that Michael Levy is Jewish, the son of "devout Jewish" parents.

In the same article, David Rowan points out, we don't learn either the middle name nor the religious affiliation of the two other main players, Ruth Turner and Jonathan Powell.

Rabbi Schochet's article and to some extent David Rowan's appearance - and that of Sir Alan Sugar also on Today - seem prompted by a concern amongst Lord Levy's friends and supporters that he's being turned into the scapegoat for the whole cash-for-peerages affair.

Only time will tell on that. But, David Rowan argues, there is what he calls "a strong tradition" in both British politics and British political fiction of the Jewish "money man" who "comes in from the outside" and makes a convenient scapegoat; in fiction, Trollope's Augustus Melmotte, in history Sir Eric Miller and Joseph Kagan of the Wilson years.

His argument is that these provide a strong pattern into which the media are able to push the Lord Levy story - should they either wish to or unconsciously allow themselves to. And, he hints - though without, it has to be said, explicit evidence - that a guiding hand in the Downing Street "circle" might well be "managing" the story with precisely this in mind.


  • 1.
  • At 01:59 PM on 13 Mar 2007,
  • Pat wrote:

the vast majority of people in this country would not even be aware of Levy's jewish heritage. it strikes me that institutions like the jewish chronicle enjoy building up these people as pillars of their community so that they can accuse others of knocking them down

  • 2.
  • At 07:41 PM on 13 Mar 2007,
  • Alex Swanson wrote:

I don't believe for a moment that anyone is getting at Lord Levy for his Jewishness.

From the perspective of an outside observer, it seems to me that he did the dirty work for a boss he thought regarded him as part of the team, and now it's gone sour, he's being hung out to dry. He didn't realise - perhaps he still doesn't - what sort of man Tony Blair really is; fair enough, most people in this country clearly still don't. We are still routinely presented every so often with yet another group of people who've spent years watching with total equanimity others being victimised, and doing nothing because they were sure that they themselves were immune, only to discover with shocked surprise that they weren't after all. The latest one is life peers, who weren't at all bothered about the hereditaries being trodden on because they themselves were quite different, right? Levy is just another example. The moment it suits Blair to get rid of him, that's his lot. Ruth Turner et al, take note.

Wherever he is now, Martin Niemoller must be laughing like a drain.

PS To BBC staff - don't think it won't be your turn as well, sooner or later. All it takes is a reason and an opportunity. And it's not as if you're building up credit with others who might stand your corner.

PPS And it might be worth pointing out that this is typical socialist behaviour. The Bolshevists, despite early weakness, established themselves in the young USSR by exactly this tactic.

  • 3.
  • At 09:13 PM on 13 Mar 2007,
  • Kate wrote:

Having just read that Daily Mail article, it does go into the background of the others, mentioning Ruth Turner was born in Ireland. You could allege racism in that if you were desperate enough I suppose.

If religion plays no part in your life, why mention it? If they'd have been devout Christians I'm sure it would have been, like Anne Widdicombe or Ruth Kelly.

Surely, as one of Levy's roles is that of Middle East envoy, his Jewishness is both pertinent and relevant?

Is it Rowan's assertion that being Jewish should make you exempt from the law? First the catholics and their adoption agencies, and now this!

And what Alan Sugar's interview on Today told us about anything at all is a mystery to me.

  • 5.
  • At 10:15 AM on 14 Mar 2007,
  • Glen Allan wrote:

I am a christian (a poor one) I do not proclaim to understand all the intricacies of Judaism. I do understand that the media use shorthand to telegraph to the readers the sub-context in their articles.

Using Lord Levy's middle name Abraham is used to paint the mental picture of a moneyed Jewish wheeler dealer and portray a character that has been perpetuated throughout Western History - shylock - greed without humanity.

I would say that whether or not Lord Levy is guilty is nothing to do with me, but I would ask what was in it for him in his capacity as a Labour fundraiser.

He raises funds for the Labour Party:-

a) Because he believes in what they are doing and is a social altruist?

b)Because he receives political influence and access to powerful people to further his own interests?

c) Because he represents powerful interests in the Jewish Lobby and brokers their interests with government?

I think you must ask the fundamental question of a man, when no one is watching and you wont be caught, will that man do the "right" thing according to his faith?

I would hope that Judaism does not condone improper behaviour just because someone happens to be a Jew, but rather reflects on the moral tenets of its faith and asks, did the person fundamentally break the universal faith of morality and were their actions proper?

Bearing in mind that the man in question happens to be a Lord of the Realm.

Good article and all the best.

  • 6.
  • At 11:20 AM on 14 Mar 2007,
  • Des Currie wrote:

The one thing the Jews are expert at is creating diversions for any member of the Jewish community. Levy could be as guilty as sin and after Judaic spin has come into play he will be being sold as whiter than white washing powder.
Next the holocaust will come into play, if it has not already.
Des Currie

  • 7.
  • At 03:01 PM on 14 Mar 2007,
  • Tim wrote:

Surely you should be allowed to say anything about a person if it is true.

Lord Levy is Jewish. His middle name is "Abraham". He was the Labour party's money man. These are all facts. Rabbi Schnochet should concentrate on the lies spread about jews not attack those who print the truth. No-one whould be complaining if a Nobel prize winner or a champion althelete was accurately described as jewish. If you seek a group identity, as many jews do, then you must be prepared to accept the flip side, which is the bad conduct by a member of your group will reflect badly on the whole group. That is what a group identity entails.

  • 8.
  • At 03:16 PM on 14 Mar 2007,
  • Sarah, Basingstoke wrote:

Is anybody really suprised that the Daily Mail could publish an article that could be considered as anti-semitic?

  • 9.
  • At 10:29 AM on 15 Mar 2007,
  • keith fleming wrote:

Sarah, Basingstoke,

you are quite correct: who indeed would have thought The Daily 'hurrah for the blackshirts' Mail would print an article some might consider anti-semitic? What next, The Independent in shock environment-themed front page?

No doubt Lord Levy is being 'hung out to dry', but I think it rather tendentious to suggest anti-semitism as lying behind this. The 'hanging out to dry' is a matter of political expediency. Labour urgently require a scapegoat, and their chief fund-raiser presents the most obvious target for this. Because he is so obviously deeply involved in something dodgy.

It's unfortunate that this gives The Mail the opportunity to make sly suggestions. It's equally unfortunate that the actions of a rag well-known to peddle in the worst excesses of jingoistic xenophobia might come to serve in the defence of a man up to his neck in sleaze. It matters not one jot to me, and I suspect most people, if Levy isChristian, a Muslim, a Hindu, or even a highly trained chimp: what matters is his involvement in the scandal.


Not buying this. He is a target because of what he has done, not where he worships.

  • 11.
  • At 08:39 PM on 16 Mar 2007,
  • Ian Kemmish wrote:

The argument that the name "Abraham" (also a good Moslem name, albeit usually with a different spelling) imparts more information than the name "Levy" (an exclusively Jewish one) seems sensitive to the point of allergy.

  • 12.
  • At 10:15 AM on 17 Mar 2007,
  • Jane Gerson wrote:

The question is not whether Lord Levy's middle name of Abraham is a fact, but whether or not it is a relevant fact. It is not usual practice to disclose middle names of people in the news because it is usually of no interest or importance. The fact that it was used leads one to question why. I think the answer to that is rather clear.

Newspapers can write whatever they choose, however the way that information is framed is extremely relevant. Context is key. Imagine if a Christain serial killer was constantly referred to by the news as "the Christian serial killer John Smith is...." It is offensive regardless of whether it is one for something allegedly complimentary, just like the steteotype that "Chinese are good at math".

  • 14.
  • At 12:38 PM on 18 Mar 2007,
  • Adrienne wrote:

Is it racist to point out the black carribean boys are over-respresented in school exclusions, in coming to the attention of our criminal justice system, or featuring in the lower attainment groups in school?

On the other hand, is it anti-semitic to point out that Jewish people (under half a percent of the population) are over-represented in the House of Lords, in being awarded Nobel Prizes, or featuring in certain professions?

Are these two sides of the same coin?

  • 15.
  • At 12:48 PM on 18 Mar 2007,
  • Adrienne wrote:

Is it racist to point out the Black Caribbean boys are over-represented in school exclusions, in coming to the attention of our criminal justice system, or featuring in the lower attainment groups in school?

On the other hand, is it anti-semitic to point out that Jewish people (under half a percent of the UK population) are over-represented in the House of Lords, in being awarded Nobel Prizes, or in certain professions?

Are these not two sides of the same coin? Which is the more offensive, to report unpalatable statistics as they are, or to obfuscate them because some find it convenient not face the facts and consequences?

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