Duelling “Gotchas”: Jess Phillips and Katharine Birbalsingh

From Sky News:

Labour frontbencher Jess Phillips has been accused of “racist and bullying behaviour” after a row on social media with high-profile headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh.

…It came after Ms Birbalsingh, head of high-achieving Michaela Community School in Brent, said she inadvertently tweeted a picture of Tina Turner alongside her abusive former husband Ike Turner amid tributes to the late star.

…Ms Phillips then tweeted “hold the line!”, adding: “Stay with me! Domestic abuse is never ok and we will defeat those who prop up the status quo…”

The Tweeted image was a faux pas, but the allegation that Birbalsingh would have used the death of Tina Turner as a way to launder Ike Turner’s reputation or to make a dig at women who leave their abusive husbands is vicious and implausible; yet Phillips persisted with her opportunistic gotcha, celebrating Birbalsingh’s subsequent deletion of the Tweet as a victory and then sarcastically Tweeting a “sure” gif when Birbalsingh clarified her opposition to wife-beating. Phillips also Tweeted that she might write to the Michaela Community School to ask about domestic abuse policies in “her school or teaching plans”.

Birbalsingh had valid reason to complain about Phillips’ stance, and particularly her continuing unwillingness to accept that the Turner image had been posted inadvertently. However, her claim that Phillips instigated a pile-on motivated by “racism”, as laid out in a long letter to Keir Starmer that she has posted online, is based on flawed evidence and wild extrapolation and undermines her grievance. In particular, Alex Andreou has pointed out that Birbalsingh was already under attack before Phillips got involved, and that Tweets from third parties cited by Birbalsingh as evidence of a pile-on precede her intervention. Birbalsingh also incorrectly claims that she was singled out for criticism by Phillips when she recently gave a speech at the recent National Conservativism Conference, when in fact Phillips had offered scathing comments about a number of speakers.

Birbalsingh is on firmer ground when she complains that Phillips referred to her as “that headteacher woman” – such a description raises the suspicion that Phillips couldn’t be bothered to double-check how to spell an ethnic minority surname and so decided to dodge around it, but Birbalsingh’s extrapolation from that to “she holds me in contempt for being a black woman who does not bend the knee and consider her master” is excessive.

Further, an important plank of Birbalsingh’s argument in her letter is that Phillips allegedly subscribes to a belief that ethnic minority Britons lose their right to be considered as such if they do not supoort progressive politics. Her evidence here was a 2018 Tweet in which Phillips supposedly wrote that an unnamed Conservative Party leadership candidate “ain’t no Asian”. However, Birbalsingh had misread a screenshot, and the phrase used was actually “ain’t no Aslan”, mocking a contemporary media comparsion between the famous fictional lion and Boris Johnson.

The Tweet as reproduced by her appears to derive from a collage of undated salty Phillips Tweets that someone put together a while ago – here’s someone posting it in 2021 and making the same “ain’t no Asian” misreading. How this was brought to Birbalsingh’s attention remains unknown, but the fact that the Phillips Tweet hadn’t provoked any media interest ought to have been a red flag. The error, which Birbalsingh has conceded but downplayed, shows the importance of checking Tweets for oneself where possible (currently more difficult due to Elon Musk’s daily read limits).

Phillips had assumed the worst about Birbalsingh due to the latter’s high-profile position within UK culture wars – Birbalsingh describes herself as a “floating voter” who has sometimes voted Labour, but her appearance at the National Conservatism Conference was obviously as a supporter of a political movement. Last year, of all the people she could have invited to visit her school she chose the crank conservative commentator Jordan Peterson, and she recently made headlines by endorsing sensational yet unsubstantiated media claims that some schools allow children to identify as cats and other non-human things. In particular, she claimed that she had heard of a pupil somewhere who supposedly identified as a hologram – read alongside rumours of a cat-pupil, this obviously brought to mind the television series Red Dwarf, and raised the possibility that she was being pranked.

As regards Birbalsingh’s education policies, they are controversial but as far as I am aware there aren’t any ex-pupils complaining that they found the school environment oppressive. Also, she has at least shown that it possible to run a “strict” shool without resorting to hitting children with bits of wood, which is welcome.

I noted a previous instance of Phillips going on the attack based on false allegations here.

One Response

  1. Is the reference to:

    “crank conservative commentator Jordan Peterson”

    Actually a smear against not quite screaming lefty enough traditional liberal Professor of Psychology and Clinical Psychologist Dr Jordan B Peterson?

    Perhaps he’s not the one who’s the crank commentator!

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