Clouding the issue

May 3, 2020

Smear campaigns are used increasingly to silence criticism of government

Professor John Ashton.

Dear All,

We see it every time a journalist asks the American President, Donald Trump, a difficult question. In response he lashes out at them, their organisations and their community accusing them of being liars, purveyors of ‘fake news’, and ‘disgraceful’ human beings. Thus, he avoids the need to actually answer any rational and difficult questions.

We see this tendency increasing the world over: leaders elected on rightwing, marginally fascist platforms evade accountability by simply denying facts and insisting that their critics are actually evil conspirators with sinister agendas who are plotting to thwart the will of ‘the people’ and their dear leader. We see it happening in Brazil, in Pakistan and in India — to name but a few alleged democracies where this has become routine. The leaders denounce their critics and then their allied lobbies swing into action by launching character assassination campaigns to discredit the critics. This sort of distraction successfully deflects attention from the actual issue.

We see it happening more and more in Britain as well; ever since the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn from backbencher to Party leader, this tactic has been spectacularly successful. Successful because smear campaigns have been adopted and propagated by what we once assumed were credible media outlets.

Another example of this was seen in the UK last week: BBC’s Panorama (of April 27) reported on the shocking failure of the government to ensure that health workers have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). It highlighted not only the Conservative government’s failure to act quickly and understand the danger it was placing health professionals in but also the fact that it had been completely negligent in terms of ensuring that the stockpile required in case of a pandemic was properly maintained. The stockpile needed replenishing as early as 2009, the year before the Tory-LibDem coalition was in government but in the decade since then nothing was done to remedy this despite warnings about missing vital equipment. Because of this neglect, there were no gowns, visors, swabs or body bags in the stockpile when Covid-19 reached the UK. In addition to this, British companies who had approached the UK government wanting to manufacture the PPE, received no answer and some are now filling huge orders of PPE for the USA.

Yet another revelation was that the government had, during the crisis, often counted stock in a misleading way so that, for example, gloves were counted as singles not pairs; Downing Street admitted that this had indeed been the case

A big story you might think, but most of the media hardly reported on the revelations. Instead all the attention was focused on Professor John Ashton, the public health expert who was interviewed in the programme. The 72-year-old Ashton has been associated with various universities including the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has worked with the World Health Organisation and also served as a Regional Director of Public Health (for Cumbria) for 13 years but he resigned in 2006 when the Labour government set up foundation trusts in the health service. He thought this a negative move which would be a return to pre-NHS independent hospitals. He was also very critical of Coalition reforms of the NHS in 2012. He is somebody who does not mince his words and is extremely blunt when voicing his views. After the Panorama programme, instead of there being a focus on what he had said on the PPE shortage crisis, the entire focus was on him personally – he was labelled not just a loony left wing Labour Party member (he was but now is not) with a Tory bashing agenda, but also smeared with the ‘Anti-Semitic’ label.

On social media there was outrage about remarks that it was claimed that he was basically a ‘Jew hater’. At the time of the 2012 Israeli military attacks on Gaza he had said it was “sickening to see Zionists behave like Nazis” and he was one of many people who had called for an enquiry into the Labour Friends of Israel (the organisation whose activities were linked to Intel operatives in the Israeli Embassy in London and which was extremely active in undermining Corbyn’s leadership with unending accusations of ‘anti-semitism’ if ever a word was uttered about Israel or Israeli policy). Ashton had also been rather scathing in his remarks about two Jewish Labour MPs, Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman, who left the party after creating much bad publicity for Corbyn and Labour. In a tweet he had responded to a post calling the latter a “vile Zionist” with the comment (in 2014) “Is it time for a human being to stand against Louise Ellman in next year’s general election?”. As for Luciana Berger he had questioned her northern credentials saying “she is from London and a Zionist. Full stop. Doesn’t fit with Liverpool universalism” and he had alleged that she was “silent on full disclosure of campaign funds from Labour Friends of Israel.”

So there you are – his remarks on how the government had made serious mistakes in handling the pandemic were to be overlooked because of his political views on Israel and Israel’s role in British domestic politics.

But this shows just how effective these ‘smear is the best form of defence’ tactics are, not only is social media bombarded with the distraction story. The mainstream media outlets pick it up and prolong its life. Meanwhile, the UK’s Health Secretary (i.e minister) responds by implying that the journalists who criticise government actions are biased and not objective, while Home Secretary Priti Patel replies to a question about the fact that medical staff are facing PPE shortages with the stony response “I’m sorry you feel that way…” which in translation means “that’s is your unobjective view and I’m not sorry for the shortages just sorry that this is your perception.”

Welcome to the age of denunciation.

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

Clouding the issue: Smear campaigns are used increasingly to silence criticism of government