University Challenge contestant wins damages from Tory peer over false antisemitism claim

Melika Gorgianeh and fellow students from Christ Church College, Oxford, were falsely accused of antisemitism after the BBC quiz show was aired in November.

Students from Christ Church College, Oxford, were accused fo antisemitism over their mascot.
Students from Christ Church College, Oxford, were accused fo antisemitism over their mascot.

A University Challenge student who received death threats after a Conservative peer falsely accused her of antisemitism has won 'substantial' damages.

Christ Church College, Oxford, student Melika Gorgianeh was accused of antisemitism over the team mascot and the colours she wore during her appearance on the BBC quiz show, which aired in November 2023.

Baroness Jacqueline Foster apologised for tweets calling for Gorgianeh's arrest after the quiz team chose a blue octopus as its mascot, amid false claims they had used a deliberately antisemitic symbol.

Gorgianeh, who was dressed in similar colours to the Palestinian flag, was subjected to specific criticism over dog-whistle antisemitism, which came amid a backdrop of heightened tensions in the Middle East following the 7 October massacre and subsequent Israeli bombing of Gaza.

Gorgianeh said: "The false allegation of antisemitism has had a profound and deeply damaging impact on my life. I was a student appearing on my favourite TV quiz show. All of a sudden, lies told about me, and only me, led to me receiving death threats and to my mental health deteriorating.

Christ Church College student Melika Gorgianeh was falsely accused of antisemitism over the team mascot. (BBC)
Christ Church College student Melika Gorgianeh said she suffered death threats after the false claims. (BBC)

"Baroness Foster’s posts, and the posts of others who are yet to be held to account, affected both myself and my family. I felt unsafe to even leave my house. Nobody should ever have to feel how I felt or go through what I went through. Words have consequences. And now, through her apology, Baroness Fosters’ words begin to have the consequence of healing the very real damage that had been done to me."

Foster tweeted on Wednesday: "Following my public apology on X on 30 November 2023 and my private apology by personal letter on 1 December 2023, I wish to apologise to Ms Gorgianeh for my part in posts made about her on X on the 20 November 2023 following the airing of BBC’s University Challenge programme.

"I wrongly alleged that Ms Gorgianeh chose one of the most disgusting antisemitic symbols, a blue octopus as her team’s mascot which I held her responsible for. I accept that these allegations were completely false and unfounded.

"I made a grave mistake in making those posts and I should not have done so. I again deeply apologise to Ms Gorgianeh for these allegations and any distress caused to her. We have since reached an amicable resolution. I do hope this goes some way in mitigating what has been a most distressing time for her. I have agreed to pay her substantial damages and costs."

Octopuses have long been considered an antisemitic symbol as they were widely used in Nazi propaganda to depict a false narrative that Jewish leaders were involved in a global conspiracy to control the world.

According to Scottish Legal News, Gorgianeh's lawyer, Zillur Rahman, said: “Baroness Foster holds a DBE, and as a lifetime peer, she is quite literally a member of the ruling class of British society. The very many people who read the Baroness’ post would therefore have believed that our client was antisemitic and guilty of criminally deploying Nazi propaganda.

Baroness Foster wrongly alleged that Gorgianeh chose an antisemitic symbol.
Baroness Foster wrongly alleged that Gorgianeh chose an antisemitic symbol.

“It is deeply disturbing that once again, we see a senior figure in UK politics, a peer of the House of Lords no less, attacking and weaponising antisemitism against a young female Muslim student in this way."

The BBC had denied accusation of antisemitism at the time, stressing that the episode that aired in November had been filmed in March, prior to the recent flare-up in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.

“For the avoidance of doubt, this episode was filmed in March. The mascot is one of many chosen by the team during the course of the series and is one of their favourite animals," the BBC said. “The jacket worn by one of the contestants was navy blue, orange, pink and green, bought from a High Street retailer. It has no connection to any flag.”

Yahoo News UK has contacted Baroness Foster for comment.