It’s a tale worthy of Kafka. Dr Pete Newbon, a lecturer in humanities at Northumbria University, is being investigated by his employer for making fun of Jeremy Corbyn. Dr Newbon tweeted a picture of the former Labour leader reading to a group of schoolchildren from Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Only the image had been photoshopped to show Corbyn holding the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion instead. This is what is generally known as ‘satire’.
Corbyn’s social media enthusiasts piled on the academic and began bombarding Northumbria University on Twitter, knowing of course that the sort of people who populate higher education PR would be panicked into action by the fear of trending on Twitter. Rosen, who is Jewish, claimed the Photoshop was ‘loathsome and anti-Semitic’ and the BBC accommodated one of its favourite far-leftists with an article on its website accusing Dr Newbon of having posted a ‘manipulated image’. Given the number of Very Online millennials the BBC employs, it’s safe to assume the Corporation knows how memes work and was being disingenuous in pretending otherwise.
Predictably, Northumbria caved in to the mob and its allies at the BBC and announced:
We are aware of concerns raised following a Twitter post by a member of staff. @northumbriauni is committed to combatting racial inequality in all its forms and we have adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism. We are investigating the complaints raised as a matter of urgency
— Northumbria Uni (@NorthumbriaUni) May 19, 2021
The reference to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism speaks volumes about the university’s ignorance. The IHRA definition, you’ll be shocked to learn, does not consider satire of anti-Semitism to be a form of anti-Semitism. Yet, Dr Newbon is now under investigation and faces a hearing before his bosses. There is a petition urging the university to come to its senses.
I call this Kafka-esque because Dr Newbon is a Jewish campaigner against anti-Semitism who has spent years fighting anti-Jewish hatred within the Labour party and the broader left. Michael Rosen, who claims Dr Newbon’s tweet was anti-Semitic, has spent years defending the Labour party from charges of anti-Semitism. He said of Labour anti-Semitism: ‘It’s not a Labour party problem it’s a societal problem’, and: ‘There are times when you might have thought that UK Jews were experiencing a pogrom’. Of Corbyn: ‘I’ve known Jeremy Corbyn for 30 years. He is no anti-Semite. He has put his neck on the line hundreds of times in opposing racism, anti-Semitism, far-right fascism, holocaust denial.’
I asked Northumbria University about its treatment of Dr Newbon and was told:
The university’s investigation into a Twitter post made by a member of staff is in progress. For clarification, the member of staff in question tweeted through his own personal account, in a personal capacity, and not on behalf of the university. We take all matters of this nature extremely seriously and it is important we follow our internal policies and procedures to ensure consistency and fairness.
That opponents of Dr Newbon’s efforts to satirise anti-Jewish racism would seek to smear him as an anti-Jewish racist is obnoxious but hardly surprising. What is surprising is Northumbria University agreeing to participate in this vendetta against one of its academics. I asked the university a number of other questions for which I have yet to receive an answer, but among them were these:
- Has the university previously investigated an academic staff member for making satirical political comment?
- Does the university believe investigating an academic staff member for making satirical political comment is consistent with respect for academic freedom?
- Would the university encourage anyone who has concerns about political speech or social media activity by other academic staff members to avail themselves of the complaints process?
These are crucial questions because they go to the heart of how the university has conducted itself. If Northumbria routinely investigates academic staff for satirising or otherwise commenting critically on politicians, it must be very busy indeed given how commonplace it is for lecturers and professors to do so. Doing so would also suggest Northumbria has scant regard for academic freedom, but that might be defensible if the university applies its standards evenly.
This is where Northumbria is setting itself up for problems, though. If all it took to get Dr Newbon hauled before his bosses was a politically motivated Twitter mob, will the university apply the same standard to its other academic staff? If one of its lecturers satirises or criticises, say, Benjamin Netanyahu on social media (which, given the political profile of higher education personnel, isn’t exactly out of the realms of possibility), should Netanyahu supporters bombard the university’s Twitter account and expect to secure the same kind of disciplinary action Corbyn partisans did? If not, Northumbria has some very serious questions to answer about double standards.
None of that helps Dr Newbon, of course, who now must answer to a mob of his political enemies through the good offices of Northumbria University. A Jew on trial for ridiculing anti-Semitism. Seems about right for the times we live in.<//>
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