A public health expert has come under attack, accused of “radical leftism” and antisemitism.
Professor John Ashton was chair of the UK Public Health Association and was north west regional director of public health between 1993 and 2006. He made a number of high profile media appearances earlier in the year, including interviews on Newsnight, Panorama, and as a panelist on Question Time. Ashton was highly critical of the Conservative government’s mishandling of the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis. All his challenges to government policy have been well-founded.
Following these appearances, Ashton was targeted by the right-wing Guido Fawkes blog. It challenged his expertise due to his political affiliations. Further attacks then came from the Jewish Chronicle. It used old tweets, mostly around Israel’s invasion of Gaza, to accuse him of antisemitism.
Ashton spoke exclusively to The Canary about the articles, the fallout from being targeted, and the impact it has had on his life.
Ashton feels that the pattern of these attacks was a deliberate attempt to undermine his criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. He was indeed unequivocal.
For example, on 11 March, as UK cases were rising, Ashton said on BBC Newsnight that he was “tearing [his] hair out” about the government response. He continued:
We’ve got a complacent attitude… We’ve wasted a month when we should have been engaging with the public. … We should have got a grip on this a month ago. … I want to know why we’re not testing, why we haven’t tested those people coming back from Italy?
“We’ve got a complacent attitude… & we’ve wasted a month. If this now spreads the way it looks as though it’s likely to spread, there will not be enough hospital beds & people will have to be nursed at home”
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) March 11, 2020
On 12 March, he made further criticisms of the government on BBC Question Time: saying he was “embarrassed”. He also challenged Boris Johnson for failing to ‘convene COBRA’ early enough.
“We’ve lost control here. The Govt’s approach has been paternalistic, old-fashioned, top down, we’ve lost 4/5 weeks now.”
— Dr Lauren Gavaghan (@DancingTheMind) March 13, 2020
On 13 March, he also criticised Johnson’s slow response on Good Morning Britain.
And on 27 April, an episode of BBC’s Panorama lifted the lid on the ongoing scandal of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline NHS workers. Its findings were damning. Ashton, one of the experts who took part, was highly critical of the government’s failure to stockpile PPE. He also said:
The government failed to appreciate the enormity of what was coming our way at the end of January. They failed to get a grip. They took advice from too narrow a range of people, and when things continued to escalate out of control, they started to spin the story to make out that actually they’d been following the science and everything that they did made perfect sense. I think it’s disgraceful.
Guido Fawkes started making accusations against Ashton on 13 March. The blog sought to undermine his criticism of the government’s coronavirus response stating “Question Time Expert Is Labour Member”. It failed to establish why this should undermine his expertise after a long career with Public Health England (PHE) and as an academic. However, as Ashton told The Canary, although a former Labour member he actually left the party last year “because of the way Louise Ellman and Luciana Berger were treated by some people” in the party.
On 13 April, Guido Fawkes accused him of “radical leftism”.
Then on 28 April, Lee Harpin claimed in a Jewish Chronicle article that Ashton “has a long history of making inflammatory statements, comparing “Zionists” to Nazis and wrote that “Jews” should reflect on the actions of the Israeli military”.
When offered right of reply by Harpin, Ashton told him that running the story “wasn’t conducive to world peace and interfaith harmony”.
Ashton told The Canary:
But the fact they’ve dug this stuff up – whatever the validity of it – after six years, it’s obviously political isn’t it? That’s where we are.
Further allegations followed in the Jewish Chronicle on 29 April. That day the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) also sent a letter of complaint to the BBC director-general Tony Hall. The letter used claims made by the JC articles and called on Hall to remove Ashton as a BBC approved commentator. It also asserted:
poisonous rhetoric on Israel, including views espoused by Professor Ashton, has given rise to a new form of antisemitism.
Its signatories, MP Stephen Crabb and Lords members Eric Pickles and Stuart Polak, claimed that Ashton’s:
past comments should not be excused by any expertise he may possess on public health issues… the BBC has a responsibility to thoroughly vet all contributors and take a zero-tolerance approach to racism of any kind.
Ashton told The Canary that the way the tweets were presented:
enabled them to say, or to give the impression, that I’d spent six years tweeting antisemitic things. Whereas actually, the tweets that I did were discretely related to particular events involving Israel’s aggression on Gaza.
Ashton wrote many of the tweets used as evidence against him in 2014 when Israel bombed Gaza:
I know I was critical of the actions of Israel at the time because they were extensively bombing Gaza and it was reported they killed a lot of children. A lot of people were outraged at the time. And that’s the context.
Statistics from B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – estimate that between January 2009 and April 2020, 3,524 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. These figures don’t include Palestinian deaths through lack of access, or delayed access to medical care. It also states that Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014 led to 2,204 Palestinian deaths in 50 days. This included over 500 children. An investigation by Defense for Children International into this 50-day war:
found overwhelming and repeated evidence that Israeli forces committed grave violations against children amounting to war crimes. This included direct targeting of children by Israeli drone-fired missiles and attacks carried out against schools.
As a medical expert, Ashton told The Canary that he found the impact of the war on children impossible to ignore. During this time, he raised the issue of seeking access for injured children in Gaza to receive medical care from Alderhey Children’s Hospital.
A subsequent article in the Jewish Chronicle made further allegations against Ashton. For example, it claimed:
On Holocaust Memorial Day in 2017 he wrote: “It would be helpful if everybody remembered that the Holocaust was about Gays, Gypsies and the Disabled as well as Jews.”
In May 2018, after a Holocaust exhibition opening in his home city of Liverpool he tweeted: “And the Gay holocaust and the holocaust of those with learning difficulties?”
But Ashton was reflecting on the wider context of the Holocaust. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) also acknowledges the impact on other communities. It notes:
An estimated 10-15,000 men who were accused of homosexuality were deported to concentration camps. Most died in the camps, often from exhaustion. Many were castrated and some subjected to gruesome medical experiments.
It also records the murder of at least 20,000 “Roma and Sinti men, women and children” at Auschwitz-Birkenau. At least another 2,897 were murdered in Auschwitz. According to HMDT:
The experience of Europe’s Roma and Sinti population has parallels with that of the Jewish people. Both populations were targeted on the grounds of their race and had previously suffered centuries of discrimination.
According to HMDT, alongside a programme of eugenics and persecution:
It is estimated that close to 250,000 disabled people were murdered under the Nazi regime.
“Nothing to do with religion”
One of the tweets held as evidence against Ashton concerns circumcision of male babies in the US. But as he told The Canary:
I regard circumcision as a safeguarding issue involving children who cannot give informed consent’.
Ashton’s not alone in this opinion. Intact America campaigns against this practice, noting that it’s a “painful and traumatic” experience that can lead to complications, “some severe”. It also notes that: “Medicine is big business, and newborn male genital cutting is a billable service”.
An academic study found that:
When the incidence for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews are factored, less than 0.5 percent [of infant male circumcision] cases in the U.S. are within the context of a religious rite. The other 99.5 percent are purely secular in nature.
Ashton’s criticism of the government was experientially based. He told The Canary:
I’ve been right on just about everything and I called everything ahead of time. None of what I said has been hindsight. It’s all been based on my experience and reading of the events as they were unfolding and reinforced by experience in Bahrain.
Ashton explained that he was invited to Bahrain following an appearance on “Sky News at the end of January”. His role was to “identify various weaknesses” to produce “a report… with quite a lot of recommendations”. These included increasing testing capacity to deal with the emerging pandemic. He said, “they implemented…all” of his recommendations.
At the time of writing, Bahrain has 15,731 confirmed cases and 29 deaths. This compares to 288,834 confirmed cases in the UK and 40,680 deaths.
In reference to his harsh government criticism on TV appearances in March he said:
It was because I’d seen, and been part of doing the thing properly, that I could see so vividly where we were going wrong from the early days because they were doing it right.
So I knew what to do, not just from that but because my previous career… involved me dealing with all the other viruses that we’d had… Avian Flu… and the SARS and Swine Flu.
“Eminently well qualified”
Ashton feels that the timing of the attacks so soon after the Panorama episode is not a coincidence. “After Guido laid into me,” he said, it became clear to him that certain groups try “to ensure that anyone who’s not on the right, gets their political credentials ventilated in television appearances”.
Francesca Unsworth, director of BBC News, however, defended Ashton. In a letter to CFI. Unsworth explained that Ashton “was eminently well qualified to speak about this subject”. She continued:
Professor Ashton did not, of course, make any comments of the kind that you describe in this programme and I hope you understand that I would have grave doubts about the impact on freedom of speech, and the BBC’s ability to report freely and impartially, if we were to ban contributors from speaking on the subject of their acknowledged expertise because of the political views they have expressed, however abhorrent some members of the audience may find them. More broadly, we do not ban any contributors from our output as you would wish.
Yet, this defence led to further criticism of Ashton from the Jewish Chronicle, CFI and Campaign Against Antisemitism. The organisations deny there was any political motivation behind their articles and actions. The Jewish Chronicle stated:
Prof Ashton’s qualifications as an expert are not the issue. The issue is that he has – repeatedly, over many years – made remarks which under the IHRA definition are antisemitic.
The smears against Ashton have affected his professional life and brought about further complaints. One challenged his “unprofessional behaviour on television”. Another came, he feels, from someone “who’d obviously seen the piece in the Jewish Chronicle”. Ashton explained:
I’m a very open person and I’ve always lived my life in the open and I expect to be able to have conversations with people. But it seems you can make allegations about someone and not have to be accountable. But it’s all incredibly stressful.
Ashton also shared the further impact of this smear campaign after a lifetime career in public health:
I couldn’t sleep last night. I’m serially retired (first retired in 2006) but I’ve done significant pieces of work since then and I still have employment links and contracts with different bodies. I’m still a fully paid-up member of my professional body (Public Health) and of various Royal Colleges. And I don’t want my career to end up being tarnished with the branding of being antisemitic.
An ongoing “witchhunt”
The attacks against Ashton have similarities to attacks that have consistently sought to undermine the left over the past five years.
The journalists pushing these criticisms have also played an active role in what some Jewish groups on the left have called a “witch-hunt”. This has extended to negative coverage of both left-wing Jewish members and others perceived to be active in the Labour Party.
For example, Harpin wrote a series of “inaccurate” stories about Labour activist Audrey White. These led to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) upholding six breaches of its Editorial Code for accuracy against the Jewish Chronicle. As a result, White received substantial compensation. Harpin was also a signatory to a letter claiming that “Labour is no longer a force for good in promoting anti-racism”.
In 2018, Guido Fawkes broke a story that former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn attended Seder (a traditional Passover feast) with left-wing Jewish group Jewdas. The blog claimed Jewdas was “despised by mainstream Jews”. This story went on to dominate mainstream news despite the fact that it was inherently critical of an important Jewish organisation.
In 2009, Stephen Pollard, now Jewish Chronicle editor, wrote in the Times:
Blogs such as Guido Fawkes, which are hosted beyond UK jurisdiction, are far freer and can publish all kinds of gossip with impunity. And once it is in the ether, even if only online, a story can affect the way that journalists and Westminster insiders regard a politician.
An explanation from Jewish Voice for Labour makes clear why claims made against many on the left, including Ashton, are so dangerous:
A charge of antisemitism carries exceptional moral force because of the negative connotations rightly attaching to the term. It is illegitimate to make such claims to discredit or deter criticism, or to achieve sectional advantage. To do so is to devalue the term.
To be clear: conduct is antisemitic only if it manifests ‘prejudice, hostility or hatred against Jews as Jews’.
Guilty as charged?
Many of the allegations against Ashton seem to stem from his use of the word Zionist and Zionism. This fails to account for the concept of political Zionism, which is not supported by many Jewish people. There’s an important distinction between criticising the Israeli state and its actions against Palestinian people and this reflecting on all Jewish communities or individuals. The Canary’s Jewish co-founder Nancy Mendoza wrote:
I’m a Jew, firmly opposed to antisemitism. I am not, however, a political Zionist.
The fact is that Israel has become an apartheid state and the divisions are on ethnic, not religious, lines. And Zionism is a colonial project that began at the end of the 19th century, long before Hitler came to power in Germany, and before so many Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust. Zionist settlements have been popping up in Israel for nearly 150 years. Zionism didn’t suddenly appear in 1945, but some people would have us believe that.
And Jewish Voice for Peace explains:
Through study and action, through deep relationship with Palestinians fighting for their own liberation, and through our own understanding of Jewish safety and self determination, we have come to see that Zionism was a false and failed answer to the desperately real question many of our ancestors faced of how to protect Jewish lives from murderous antisemitism in Europe.
While it had many strains historically, the Zionism that took hold and stands today is a settler-colonial movement, establishing an apartheid state where Jews have more rights than others. Our own history teaches us how dangerous this can be.
“It’s a disaster”
The ongoing attacks have had a huge impact on Ashton:
One, it’s distracting from me continuing to make a contribution while this crisis is going on. And the other thing is the personal price and that’s very unpleasant.
But he’s clear about the government’s response to this crisis and what’s needed:
It’s a disaster. They need to start again. And they need to rebuild public health from the bottom up which is what the weakness has been. Because of what they did in 2013 creating PHE, and asset stripping regions and districts, centralising into London… it’s further going to make us vulnerable.
The pandemic is far from over in the UK. And as the government continues to mishandle the crisis, we need informed experts like Ashton now more than ever.
Featured image via Ray Farley with permission
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