This is article three in the four part series as originally published in 2003. For an edited version of all four articles click here
Sean Matgamna continues his article on 'The last time we were heresy-hunted', dealing with the campaign against us in 1983 by the Workers’ Revolutionary Party — then a high-profile group with a daily paper, Newsline — for pointing to circumstantial evidence that they were being funded by the Libyan and Iraqi dictatorships. They were — the truth came out soon after, in 1985, when the WRP imploded — but that did not stop them campaigning, or a section of the “broad left” supporting their campaign.
On 20 March 1983 BBC TV put out an edition of its early Sunday evening magazine, The Money Programme. One of its items was an investigation of the WRP’s financial links with Colonel Gaddafi’s Libyan government.
They concluded that the WRP had got large sums of money from Libya, suggesting a figure of £1.5 million. They noted that Labour Herald (a Labour Party weekly nominally edited by Ken Livingstone) and a paper published by George Galloway, the Dundee Standard, were printed by the WRP. The Money Programme suggested that money from Libya was channelled to the WRP by way of spurious printing contracts and, perhaps, that some of the benefits were being passed on to others in the same way. There were vague allusions to “the ethnic press” receiving Libyan money.
In fact it was common knowledge that Labour Herald was subsidised by the WRP. Though its nominal editors were Ken Livingstone, Ted Knight and Matthew Warburton, it was actually edited by Steven Miller, a member of the WRP Central Committee.
I had been invited to appear on the programme but, thinking it would cause more trouble in our own organisation than it was worth, declined. I wrote a 400-word review of the Money Programme in Socialist Organiser. Over the next two months Newsline would devote a page or two pages a day to denouncing that review and the Money Programme — two pages or more for every sentence in the article!
I wrote: “There is need of a thorough investigation into the links of the ‘Workers’ Revolutionary Party’ (WRP) with various Arab governments. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence which suggests that the WRP receives sizeable sums of money from Libya, and possibly from other Arab governments.
“Not long ago it was putting out Iraqi government public relations handouts with the imprint of Newsline on them. One glossy Newsline pamphlet, for instance, carried an account of the career of the butcherous Ba’thist dictator Saddam Hussein sycophantic enough to be an official handout. At the same time the wretched Newsline hacks wrote articles justifying the shooting of members of the Communist Party of Iraq by Hussein’s regime...
“Last Sunday’s BBC Money Programme carried an investigation of the financial links between Libya and the WRP. It established a circumstantial case based on the fact that the tiny WRP has a vast printing press, and a daily more lavishly printed that any Fleet Street paper with a tiny circulation (they said 10,000, probably it is a great deal less...
“The programme was both shallow and under-researched. It talked of the revolutionary left in general as possibly linked to Gaddafi by chains of gold. It talked about the left and ethnic press, but said nothing about the ethnic press.
“The programme suggested that as much as £1.5 million may have been channelled to the WRP by the Libyan government by way of overpayment for ‘commercial work’. It did not investigate the financial side of WRP films like The Palestinians, which are popular in Arab countries.
“It left a great many avenues unexplored. But it did plainly allege that the WRP gets money from Gaddafi. Will the WRP sue the BBC?...
“There is still a need for a thorough investigation into the links of the WRP with Arab governments — a labour movement investigation”.
The WRP had been invited by the makers of the Money Programme to comment but had declined. It made a pre-emptive strike on its front page of Saturday 19 March, the day before the programme went out. The headline was: “We Expose BBC Witch-hunt”, and the strapline: “Attack Due In Sunday’s Money Programme”.
A “statement of the Political Committee of the WRP” “unmasked... the instigators... in the highest levels of the BBC and Thatcher government”. The programme was said to be an “anti-communist” and (anti-Arab) “racist” build-up to a general election (which came, in fact, in June). It had been “prepared in collaboration with the Zionists”. Proof of that was that the Jewish Chronicle, “mouthpiece of British Zionism”, knew about the programme in advance (as did the WRP and Socialist Organiser!)
The “witch-hunt” was based on “slanders and lying allegations of so-called foreign gold”. As recent defences of George Galloway demonstrate, such statements virtually write themselves. “It follows in the ugly tradition of the Zinoviev letter”. The Newsline had been “singled out because this paper cannot be bought politically and stands shoulder to shoulder with the working class and the oppressed masses of the world”.
On the Monday after the programme went out, the whole front page was devoted to a “WRP Political Committee” statement on it, under the headline: “A Crude Frameup”. The programme was “a lie from start to finish” and an insult to the struggle of WRP members to raise money.
Next day, all of pages two and three were devoted to the programme, and the first of what would be over two months of a page a day given over to testimonials appeared. The first statements were from Liverpool docker and long-time WRPer Larry Kavanagh; from Des Warren, who had served a long jail sentence in the mid-1970s as one of the “Shrewsbury Three” building workers jailed for picketing in their 1972 strike; the Midlands regional secretary of the builders’ union UCATT; and an ASLEF branch chair.
Over the two months, Newsline would carry statements or resolutions of support for the WRP from one union conference, nine Trades Councils, 29 trade union branches or shop stewards’ committees, and 214 individuals. The individuals included many trade union convenors and branch secretaries, some well-known actors, one union general secretary, one MP, seven Labour councillors — and current government minister Patricia Hewitt, then general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties.
On 23 March a middle-page spread headlined the question: “Who was behind the Money Programme attack?” Answer: “The Zionists played a leading part in its preparation”. So did the Labour right wing.
A new theme then appeared. Editor Alex Mitchell: “Revisionists and the witch-hunt”. (“Revisionist” was by then a meaningless term of abuse for anyone outside the WRP calling themselves Marxist, in this case for Socialist Organiser and the Mandelite Socialist League). Mitchell insisted: “Revisionists do the dirty work for Zionist imperialism”. The revisionists, most notably Socialist Organiser, were the “first to put forward the lying slander about the WRP and ‘Libyan gold’.”
This was a theme that would get much stronger. Testimonials appeared from a Dundee branch secretary of the health workers’ union COHSE; the leader of the Labour Group on Lothian District Council; the deputy TGWU chief shop steward at Vauxhall Motors Ellesmere Port and vice-chair of Ellesmere Port Trades Council.
Testimonials the next day, 24 March, included Jack Collins, secretary of the Kent miners; the chair of a London branch of NALGO; an executive member of Aberdeen Trades Council; and the secretary of the Labour Group on Lothian Regional Council.
On the 25th: the deputy leader of Camden council and the treasurer of the GMB branch at Ford Dagenham, testified for the WRP. The latter testified proudly, as a WRP member: “I know that our paper and party need no foreign gold”.
Many, testifying to their faith in the WRP leaders, would repeat this in the weeks ahead. It was one of the saddest things in the whole wretched business.
The central note in the whole WRP campaign, the basis on which they solicited support outside their own ranks, was this: the BBC says it; what is said is against the WRP, which is part of the labour movement; therefore, it can’t be true. The prevalence of this idea, its power to shield the WRP, was one measure of the state of political morale in the sizeable section of the left that was drawn into the WRP’s campaign.
The testimonials now had a regular logo: a photo — of the BBC cameraman and reporter outside the gate, vainly trying to get the WRP to answer the bell! — taken from inside the barbed-wire-on-high-walls fortress that was WRP headquarters. It would appear every day for nine weeks.
On Thursday 24 March Socialist Organiser appeared with my review of the Money Programme. On Saturday 26th the Newsline responded with a middle-page spread under a headline: “Socialist Organiser joins the witch-hunt”. “Joins”? They had already, three days earlier, said that we, “the revisionists”, were “the first to put forward the lying slander about the WRP and ‘Libyan gold’.” Surely we were pioneer “witch-hunters”, if witch-hunt it was?
The line they would take — and get a large number of labour movement bodies to take —was that once the BBC had said it, it was everybody’s duty to say it couldn’t be true, and thus to “defend the WRP” from “the state” and its “witch-hunt”. All thought about the substantive issue was now ruled out. Whether true or untrue, the charge was by definition “a frame-up”.
A WRP Political Committee statement dated 25 March responded to my review: “One revisionist group has publicly stated its full backing for the BBC state frameup”. My “article provides resounding proof that this is a group which responds directly to the needs of the capitalist state... It serves the state’s interests and not the working class... Socialist Organiser has flagrantly betrayed [the] principle of working-class solidarity. It has crossed the floor, joined the class enemy, and is now adopting the role of prosecutor-in-chief on behalf of the Thatcher government and the Zionists”.
Entirely ignoring the articles I had published in Socialist Organiser over two years challenging them to sue me for saying they took Libyan money (they, through Vanessa Redgrave, were already suing us... for writing that they were “like the Moonies”), they went on: “Socialist Organiser has taken courage from the BBC to publish its article. It is not opposed to the witch-hunt. It supports everything that the Money Programme said. Its only disagreement with the BBC is that it did not go far enough”.
The concept here of “witch-hunt” inverted the usual meaning. Any hostile outcry against the WRP was a “witch-hunt”. Facts became unfacts, and anyway irrelevant. For what can one do with a “witch-hunt” but resist it and “defend” its victims?
Quoting me on the ethnic press, it turned the meaning of the words around. “In other words Socialist Organiser wanted the state witch-hunters to persecute Britain’s tiny ethnic press as well”(!)
They had printed a photocopy of my article, so for the first time they had to answer Socialist Organiser’s longstanding call for a labour movement inquiry. In my piece I counterposed to the BBC inquiry the idea of a thorough labour movement inquiry, which Socialist Organiser had been calling for over the two years that Vanessa Redgrave’s libel case had been in train.
That, said the WRP Political Committee, is “implicitly [to] call for the capitalist state to commence an inquiry into the WRP”.
“Socialist Organiser’s call for a ‘labour movement inquiry’ into the finances of the WRP is a bogus cover for the capitalist state... It is designed to encourage further witch-hunts against the party and its daily paper in which the forces of the state will be able to call upon Socialist Organiser for justification of its repressive action”.
“Will they sue the BBC?”, I had asked in the article they reproduced. They couldn’t, they said, because the BBC had been careful to “cover its legal tracks”.
Now they reached the nuttily self-righteous punchline. “Socialist Organiser has come along and stabbed us in the back. Its article has put us under the direct threat of attack by the capitalist press and this must be withdrawn forthwith... We ask readers to take immediate steps to demand that the ‘Socialist Organiser’ article is unconditionally retracted by the paper’s editors. Please send individual letters as well as resolutions from trade union branches to Newsline for publication”.
Blatantly true facts about the WRP became un-facts when the BBC reported them. Important issues raised by the BBC report became reasons for denying, on principle and in the name of working-class solidarity, the existence of any “issue” other than the BBC’s “attack” and Socialist Organiser’s comments. The “implications” of something determined whether it was true or not.
Would this tissue of illogical mind-blowing nonsense influence what attitude people took? Would it? It already had.
28 March: the AGM of ACTT, the film and TV workers’ union, “repudiat[ed] all state-orchestrated campaigns of fabrications, smears and outright lies such BBC TV’s Money Programme... deliberately intended to discredit organisations in the labour movement”. And if there was truth in the allegations, who then was “discrediting” the labour movement?
Central to creating the psychology into which the WRP tapped — if the BBC says it, then it can’t be true — was the decades-old need for the pro-USSR left to deny and discount honest reports of the Stalinist societies. The basic belief could only be sustained by lies. By the 1980s, with the deepening of the “Second Cold War” triggered by Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, this need to resist by denial and automatic discounting of unfriendly reports had again become very important, and second nature to much of the left.
Lesley Hammond, chief whip of the ruling Labour group on the Greater London Council, declared her faith in the WRP’s integrity. The then prominent actors, Ray Marsden, who played a very upper-class detective in a popular TV series, and Polly Hemingway, were on the front page with a picture: “It is evident even from the programme that no truth existed in the allegations that the paper and [the printworks] were supported by Libyan money”. There was much “dialectical” goobledygook after that.
Many statements were obviously indebted to some common “model resolution” which the WRP had put out. Only a minority of labour movement bodies would include Socialist Organiser in their strictures, but many did, as did individual statements. The demand that Socialist Organiser, and this writer personally, should “retract”, would be shouted at us by a sizeable chunk of labour movement bodies and office-holders.
- To be continued in the next issue of Solidarity.