Academic dies after Twitter anti-Semitism ‘pile on’

·4-min read
Peter Newbon, pictured with Rachel Hewitt, his partner, was a director of Labour Against Anti-Semitism and an academic at Northumbria University
Peter Newbon, pictured with Rachel Hewitt, his partner, was a director of Labour Against Anti-Semitism and an academic at Northumbria University

A coroner will investigate the sudden death of a Jewish academic “remorselessly bullied” on social media after he was accused of anti-Semitism by one of Britain’s best loved children’s authors.

Peter Newbon, 38, a father of three young girls, died a week ago in the wake of a Twitter “pile on” that had left him feeling under pressure, according to friends. He was found dead last Saturday.

His partner, Rachel Hewitt, said his death had left her “broken into a million unbearably painful pieces”.

Rachel Hewitt said: 'Pete Newbon was a kind husband, a brilliant scholar, and the best daddy in the world'
Rachel Hewitt said: 'Pete Newbon was a kind husband, a brilliant scholar, and the best daddy in the world'

Dr Newbon, who lived in North Yorkshire, was suing Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate, for libel after the author accused him of anti-Semitism in a social media post to his 250,000 followers and to the English academic’s university.

Dr Newbon, who was a director of Labour Against Anti-Semitism, had re-posted a doctored photograph of Jeremy Corbyn reading a book to schoolchildren.

In the original image, the former Labour Party leader was reading We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, one of the biggest selling children’s books of all time, written by Mr Rosen.

But in the doctored photograph, Mr Corbyn is holding Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the noxious hoax document that claims Jews are plotting world domination.

Alongside the photograph, Dr Newbon parodied the original We’re Going on a Bear Hunt text, changing the words to reflect his view that Mr Corbyn was anti-Zionist.

Dr Newbon had intended a satirical sideswipe at Mr Corbyn, who had been accused of failing to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

Mr Rosen, a vocal supporter of Mr Corbyn, who is also Jewish and an anti-racism campaigner, was so incensed and upset by the doctored image of his book that he posted his own message on Twitter the next day on May 19 last year.

He wrote: “If someone called Peter Newbon is on your pay roll, this is to inform you that he’s superimposed the phrase ‘The Protocols of Zion’ over a page from We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by me and Helen Oxenbury.

"This is a loathsome and anti-Semitic thing to do.”

Mr Rosen’s message prompted almost 4,000 complaints to Mr Newbon’s employer, Northumbria University, which began disciplinary proceedings.

Dr Newbon received a final written warning for bringing the university into disrepute, although according to legal documents, the allegation that his post was anti-Semitic “was not proven”.

Dr Newbon also received vitriolic hate mail. Mr Corbyn also tweeted his condemnation, saying he was “saddened that someone has manipulated an image” of the book “to suggest I would share this disgusting antisemitic [sic] falsehood”.

Lawyers for Dr Newbon lodged a libel claim in the High Court against Mr Rosen, in which they said: “The making of an allegation of racism to the defendant’s [Rosen’s] followers and beyond incited what is known on Twitter as a ‘pile on’ against the claimant [Dr Newbon].”

The claim went on to allege that: “The aim of the pile on was to cancel the claimant, that is to cause him to be ostracised by telling people that he was a racist and/or had committed a racist act.”

Mark Lewis, Dr Newbon’s solicitor, declined to comment on Friday.

'Kind husband' and 'brilliant scholar'

But Simon Myerson QC, who was acting for Dr Newbon in a separate case in which he was being sued – and which was also causing him deep upset – posted on Twitter: “Pete Newbon is dead. It’s devastating. Those who remorselessly bullied him on here neither represent, nor I suspect understand, the love and friendship he inspired.”

There is no suggestion that Mr Rosen, 75, who has written more than 140 books and was Children’s Laureate from 2007 to 2009, personally encouraged or supported bullying or inappropriate messages sent to Dr Newbon via social media.

In a statement to The Telegraph, Ms Hewitt said: “Pete Newbon was a kind husband, a brilliant scholar, and the best daddy in the world to our three beautiful daughters. I just don’t know how we’re going to bear his loss.

“Through his work as a senior lecturer in the humanities at Northumbria University, which he joined in 2012, Pete inspired students with his passion for Romantic and Victorian literature.

"In his political campaigning, particularly against anti-Semitism in Labour, he showed bravery, integrity, and a fierce sense of right and wrong. His friends have told me they loved his gentleness, goodness and irrepressible humour.”

The North Yorkshire and York coroner court is due to open an inquest at a later date.

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