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10 February 2021

Ken Loach’s defenders are making an old and familiar mistake

When someone is accused of bad behaviour, their friendship with you is irrelevant.

By Stephen Bush

The actor and comedian John Bishop and the Labour MP Ian Lavery have both defended the film director Ken Loach, whose invitation to speak at St Peter’s College, Oxford, has been criticised by the university’s Jewish Society due to his history of controversial remarks. Among them were Loach’s declaration that the 30 Labour MPs who joined the 2018 “Enough is Enough” protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party were “the ones we need to kick out”, and that claims of Labour anti-Semitism were “exaggerated or false”.  

Freedom of speech is vitally important, particularly at a university, but a university campus or a university college are not only institutions of higher education: they are also the home of their students, and it was, therefore, in my view, a mistake for the master of St Peter’s College to invite Loach and treat him as an honoured guest. It is not the same as an invitation from a university film society.

Others can reasonably disagree: you might conclude that Loach’s contribution to British cinema outweighs anything else. You might have a maximal position about free speech on campus. But the defences deployed by Bishop and Lavery are not reasonable. Bishop tweeted: “my position is clear: Ken Loach does not have prejudiced bone in his body. He is one of the most honourable men I know and I would stand with him till I could stand no more – then I would kneel”, while Lavery, also on Twitter, said: “I stand firmly with @KenLoachSixteen why? Because he stood by me and many others in times of struggle. No hesitation.”

Both men are using what I think of as the “Me Too Formulation”, which is frequently wheeled out by friends and supporters of people accused of sexual harassment: I’ve met so and so, and they are a great bloke, so they cannot have done what they are accused of. Shakespeare in Love is a brilliant film, so no one involved in it can possibly have done anything untoward. And so on.

The formulation is obviously ridiculous: if someone is accused of groping women who are in their early twenties, their friendship with me, a man in his thirties, is self-evidently irrelevant. When the director Brad Bird described the film-maker John Lasseter “as a person like anyone else. He was a person who was very protective of us at a time when we needed it”, he was not injecting much-needed nuance into the conversation about the allegations of sexual misconduct against Lasseter. He was simply delivering a non-sequitur that has no more bearing on the allegations in question than whether or not Lasseter likes cream in his coffee.

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A person who responds to an allegation of anti-Semitism against someone by talking about their friendship and regard for the accused, or a person who responds to an allegation of groping women by doing the same, are making a similar, but different, mistake. Someone in the latter group has failed to understand that women are people, whose concerns and priorities have an equal value to their own, and those of their mates or of their political allies, while someone in the former group has failed to extend that same courtesy to Jews.

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And that inability to understand the problem is why Labour largely failed to tackle sexual harassment in the party, failed catastrophically to tackle anti-Semitism within its ranks and why neither problem is guaranteed to improve, even though the party’s rulebook is set to be rewritten by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission as a result of that failure.

[see also: What we learned from the EHRC report into Labour anti-Semitism, and what happens next]