Nathan Robinson is editor of the leftist magazine Current Affairs and, until recently, a columnist for The Guardian. On Tuesday, he learned that his column would be discontinued.
The reason, according to Robinson, is that he tweeted a joke about U.S. military aid to Israel that perturbed The Guardian's U.S. editor-in-chief, John Mulholland, who accused Robinson of spreading "fake news" and suggested the joke was anti-Semitic.
In December, Robinson tweeted a complaint that the COVID-19 relief package was looped in with $500 million worth of military aid to Israel. "Did you know that the US Congress is not actually permitted to authorize any new spending unless a portion of it is directed toward buying weapons for Israel?" lamented Robinson. "It's the law."
If it were not clear enough that this was a joke, Robinson followed up with a remark that this wasn't actually a component of federal law, but it might as well be.
Nevertheless, Robinson received an email from Mulholland, with whom he had never interacted previously. The email contained a link to the tweet and an assertion that Robinson was spreading fake news.
"No such law exists," wrote Mulholland in reference to Robinson's joke about a legal mandate to include more funding for Israel in all spending bills. "In which case this is, as one might say, fake news, irrespective of the later tweet."
"Given the reckless talk over the last year—and beyond—of how mythical 'Jewish group/alliances' yield power over all forms of U.S. public life I am not clear how this is helpful to public discourse," Mulholland continued.
The bottom of the email included a quote—it was not clear from whom—that read: "Saying that the only Jewish state controls the most powerful country in the world is clearly anti-Semitic. The myth of 'Jewish power' informs murderous hatred. Delete this and apologise."
Robinson says that his immediate reaction was to delete the tweet and apologize to Mulholland, not because he agreed with the criticism but because he didn't want to lose his job.
"I need my income, and while it was deeply frustrating to me to have the Guardian policing my tweets, I grudgingly felt I would have to accept the new limits I expected would be imposed on my public speech," wrote Robinson. "I knew that the censorship would be aggravating, but it seemed unavoidable and I hoped it would be limited."
Mulholland thanked Robinson for complying, and Robinson expected that would be that. But over the next few weeks, The Guardian ceased running his columns. Finally, this week, Robinson received confirmation that his column was discontinued. Robinson says a Guardian editor confirmed that his Israel tweet was the reason.
Mulholland's charges are fairly baffling considering that Robinson's tweet 1) was obviously satirical, 2) was not in the least bit anti-Semitic, and 3) made a valid political point. Moreover, The Guardian is generally a progressive newspaper and does in fact publish articles that are critical of the state of Israel.
"The moment I irritated defenders of Israel on social media, I was summarily fired from my job as a newspaper columnist," wrote Robinson in a Current Affairs article about the incident.
It's possible, of course, that Robinson was actually let go for other reasons. Hiring and firing decisions are rarely as simple as they look to the outside world, as my colleague Matt Welch noted in his recent piece about two questionable New York Times employment issues. But the details that Robinson shared—which include the tweet in question and Mulholland's response—paint a troubling picture.
Mulholland did not respond to a request for comment, but a Guardian spokesperson sent me the following statement:
Nathan Robinson has written regularly for Guardian US but was neither a staff employee nor on contract. It is not true therefore that he was "fired".
As we enter a new political era, we believe it's important to publish diverse and original voices in our opinion pages. We continually review the range of regular columnists we publish and we would welcome further contributions from him in the future.
The Guardian supports its columnists to express a variety of perspectives on all topics, which are published on the site every day. Mr Robinson recognised that the tweets in question were ill-considered and it was his decision alone to delete them.
This ignores the fact that it was Mulholland who suggested the tweets were "ill-considered" in the first place. But Robinson's critique of the COVID-19 relief package was not unreasonable or unfair. In my own article about the $2.3 trillion spending bill that included $900 million in COVID-19 stimulus, I criticized foreign aid as well (though I did not specifically single out Israel). Israel is a very large recipient of U.S. public funds, and it is not an indicator of ethnic hatred to question whether U.S. taxpayers are obligated to fund a distant country's national defense program. Consider that no one has accused the Biden administration of Islamophobia for halting military aid to Saudi Arabia for its proxy war in Yemen.
The Guardian is obviously welcome to hire and fire whomever it wants. (It is also free to draw a distinction between an employee and a columnist, and to claim the latter is not "fired" when his recurring column ends, though this seems like a trivial difference to me.) It is not required to run Robinson's columns any more than it is required to run my columns. (Disclaimer: The Guardian ran a wildly positive review of my book, for which I remain very grateful.) The situation is somewhat analogous to the Niskanen Center's firing of Will Wilkinson, which I objected to on the merits while maintaining the think tank's absolute right to work out its own employment decisions.
Fake news, much like the term disinformation, is rapidly becoming a smear that is deployed in bad faith. The "fake news" designation should be reserved for popular information that is factually wrong. For instance, the claim that antifa planned the Capitol riot is fake news; the idea that people should power-wash their groceries to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is fake news; etc., etc. Robinson's tweet does not qualify, and the top editor of an influential newspaper really ought to know that.
Whether Robinson's firing counts as cancel culture depends on how narrowly one defines that term. Regardless, the objection to his tweet was based on two notions—it was "fake news" and it was anti-Semitic—that are both false. If that's truly the reason that Robinson's column was terminated, The Guardian appears to have betrayed its own commitment to "journalistic freedom and liberal values."