Stephen Sizer: the unanswered questions

This is a guest post by Rev Nick Howard

The Rev. Dr Stephen Sizer with Sheikh Salah, the anti-Semitic hate preacher in 2011.

According to a statement by Surrey police, the Rev. Dr Stephen Sizer will not be prosecuted for the incitement of racial hatred. While the police and the Crown Prosecution Service found that Dr Sizer did post a link on his Facebook page to ‘The Ugly Truth‘ (http://www.uglytruth.wordpress.com), they did not consider the material on the website likely to stir up racial hatred. Detective Superintendent Mark Preston said, ‘Whilst the webpages will clearly stir emotions … it is difficult to see a scenario in which these pages are likely to create a disruption in public order.’ The statement closes with these words: ‘I will of course reconsider future allegations [sic] in the event that the nature of the material deteriorates further.’ Much could be said about this conclusion. It is hard to imagine how the nature of the material could deteriorate further than the image below, which comes from ‘The Ugly Truth’. Surely it’s not exaggerating to say that the cartoon stands comparison with the worst propaganda of Nazi Germany, which contributed to arguably the most severe disruption in public order in human history?

However the purpose of this post is not to criticise the police, but to set out some as yet unanswered questions concerning Dr Sizer’s link to ‘The Ugly Truth’. Christian leaders are held by the Bible to higher standards than those maintained by the criminal justice system. If Dr Sizer cannot provide satisfactory answers to the following questions, it is hard to see how the members of Christ Church Virginia Water could continue in good conscience to submit to him as their moral and spiritual leader.

Dr Sizer’s link to ‘The Ugly Truth’ was on his Facebook page from October 4th 2011 to January 4th 2012. He took it down under pressure from a Jewish Chronicle reporter who contacted him on January 4th. During those three months Dr Sizer appeared to ignore attempts that were made to alert him to the racist nature of the website. For example Rev. Mark Heather, Chaplain to the Bishop of Guildford, has confirmed to me in a recent email, ‘As promised, Bishop Christopher forwarded your email of 22 November to Dr Sizer, and spoke to him, asking him to be more careful about his Facebook links.’ That email forwarded to Dr Sizer in November was a complaint about his link to ‘The Ugly Truth’.

The delay in removing the link, in spite of the complaints received by Dr Sizer, was central to the unprecedented criticism of Dr Sizer by the Bishop of Manchester and the Council of Christians and Jews. Dr Sizer’s explanations of the delay (see below) are therefore critically important, and yet they seem to contradict one another, and conflict with certain facts. Unless Dr Sizer can clear all of this up it will be impossible for observers to trust his word on the even more serious question of how he found his way to ‘The Ugly Truth’ in the first place – it has fewer than a thousand followers worldwide.

Explanation #1 (from Dr Sizer’s own blog):

‘”Israel’s Window to Bomb Iran” by Ray McGovern … had been reposted within days on hundreds of websites, including a racist website, “The Ugly Truth”. I made the mistake of linking to that copy on my Facebook in October rather than the original. When the unfortunate link was pointed out to me in January, I removed it straight away.’

Why does this explanation give the misleading impression that no complaints were received by Dr Sizer before the link was removed on January 4th? In addition to the November email mentioned above, I posted an article about Dr Sizer on the blog ‘Harry’s Place’ on 27th December, which began by discussing his link to ‘The Ugly Truth’. Dr Sizer issued a response to that article on his own blog on the following day, and yet still failed to remove the link. Imagine if Dr Sizer had used the explanation above in court (if the police and Crown Prosecution Service had given more weight to the racist material on ‘The Ugly Truth’, it seems the case would have gone to trial). Would Dr Sizer’s explanation have stood up to cross-examination? Christians, especially Christian leaders, are supposed to be as honest day by day as they would be in court (Matthew 5:34-37).

Explanation #2 (via the Diocese of Guildford, in a March 14th press release):

‘The allegation, as the Bishop understands it, is that Mr Sizer did not withdraw his reference swiftly enough once the nature of the website had been pointed out to him. The Bishop was informed by Mr Sizer that he had taken earlier steps to withdraw the reference, but that these had not effectively removed it, until January of this year.’ This explanation refers to ineffective attempts to remove the link, which are not mentioned in explanation #1. Why do the two explanations contradict each other? How are the members of Dr Sizer’s church supposed to know when to trust what he says, and when to disregard his word? It’s significant that this explanation was given by Dr Sizer to Bishop Christopher Hill, who – as Dr Sizer knew – had passed on to him my November email complaining about the link. It would have been awkward, to say the least, for Dr Sizer to admit to the Bishop that he had simply ignored my complaint or failed to read it. Did he therefore deliberately mislead an elderly Bishop unfamiliar with Facebook by claiming he had tried and failed to remove the link before January? (Anyone familiar with Facebook would know that removing a link is an extremely straightforward procedure. You simply click on the drop-down list next to the link. One of the options is “Delete Post…” Click on that, and a window appears saying: ‘Are you sure you want to delete this?’ There are two buttons: “Delete Post” and “Cancel”. If you click on Delete Post, the link disappears instantly from your page. It’s very hard indeed to believe that someone could accidentally fail to delete a link that they intended to delete. What’s more, checking that you’ve successfully removed a link on Facebook is an even simpler process than removing it – all you need do is refresh the page, a one click action.)

Explanation #3 (a message from Dr Sizer to his friend Phil Groom, as quoted on Groom’s blog):

‘The reality is I add many Facebook links daily and get criticised weekly. I did not look at the website till January and only then appreciated its anti-Semitic content. I removed the link as soon as I found it.’ According to this explanation Dr Sizer was aware of the complaints about the link before January (which fits #2 but contradicts #1) and yet didn’t actually look at ‘The Ugly Truth’ until January, having made no attempt to remove the link before then (which contradicts #2). Did Dr Sizer give a different explanation to Phil Groom to the one he had given the Bishop because he was aware of Phil Groom’s familiarity with Facebook – and therefore knew that telling him about ineffective attempts to remove the link wouldn’t wash? Again, how are the members of Dr Sizer’s church supposed to know when to trust what he says, and when to disregard his word?

Explanation #4: (via Dr Sizer’s supporter Rabbi Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok, as quoted on Dr Sizer’s blog):

‘This week I have been in contact with Stephen Sizer regarding the issue of the website that has been referred to in the press. I asked him how it happened that this offensive website … on his Facebook was not removed straightaway. He has sent me all the relevant information including the offending website material. What he tells me is as follows: he assumed Nick Howard was based in the United States and did not in fact read Nick Howard’s complaint. This was a mistake and he regrets ignoring it, but due to his active involvement in Middle East affairs, he gets criticism on a daily and weekly basis. However, once he realized the seriousness of the error of linking his Facebook entry with the offending website, he did remove it and wrote to Marcus Dysch at the Jewish Chronicle on 4 January. He states that he had thought he had done so before.’ This complicated explanation conflicts in one way or another with all the rest. In this version of events Dr Sizer had no idea which link was being complained about until 4th January (which conflicts with #2), and so had not ‘realized the seriousness of the error’, yet nonetheless thought he had already removed it (which conflicts with #1 and #3). Why did Dr Sizer tell Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok that he thought he had already removed the link, when according to this very same explanation, he did not yet know which link was being complained about or ‘the seriousness of the error’? Did Dr Sizer add the afterthought recorded in Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok’s final sentence because he knew the Rabbi was planning to write to the Bishop, who had been told by Dr Sizer of ineffective attempts to remove the link?

God has provided the ten commandments to hold society together. When we persistently fail to keep just one of them the ground beneath us – and beneath those affected by us – starts to give way. If Dr Sizer has told a series of falsehoods concerning his link to ‘The Ugly Truth’ – which is what he appears to have done – he is surely not fit to be the moral and spiritual leader of the people of Christ Church Virginia Water. He therefore has a responsibility to account for the serious contradictions between the explanations above; and the departure of at least some of the explanations from the known facts. These explanations do not concern a trivial matter. They relate to the three-month presence of a link to a viciously anti-Jewish website on Dr Sizer’s personal Facebook page, which gave the impression that he endorsed the website and agreed with its position. Dr Sizer was first accused of anti-Semitism inThe Spectator ten years ago.
We acknowledge that he has publicly repudiated anti-Semitism, but that public statement is put in doubt by his apparent willingness to depart from the truth on other occasions, as demonstrated above. We await his response.