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Tory peer apologises to University Challenge student after antisemitism claims

Conservative peer Baroness Jacqueline Foster has apologised to University Challenge contestant Melika Gorgianeh for antisemitism claims that led to the student facing death threats.

The politician from Liverpool had made unfounded allegations following an episode of the BBC quiz show that aired on November 20 2023 which showed Ms Gorgianeh alongside her team members, representing the University of Oxford’s Christ Church College.

On X, the former MEP accused Ms Gorgianeh of wearing the colours of the Palestinian flag and called for the student to be “expelled” by her university and “arrested” by the police.

The 76-year-old also described the octopus soft toy, used as a mascot by the team, as one of the most “disgusting antisemitic symbols”.

Ms Gorgianeh said the politician’s claims “had a profound and deeply damaging impact” on her life, and had led to her receiving death threats which impacted her mental health.

It comes as the University and College Union (UCU) called on the Secretary of State for Innovation and Technology, Michelle Donelan, to resign after she apologised for suggesting Professor Kate Sang, an academic at Heriot-Watt University, supported Hamas.

In a social media post on Wednesday, Baroness Foster said she had sent a letter of apology to Miss Gorgianeh in December 2023 and mentioned that she had agreed to pay her “substantial damages and costs”.

Acknowledging her false claims of antisemitism, Baroness Foster said in a post to X: “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.”

Jewish people were sometimes depicted as octopi in Nazi posters during the Second World War.

In a statement released by her solicitors Rahman Lowe, Ms Gorgianeh said: “Last November, I was falsely accused by a prominent parliamentarian of displaying an antisemitic symbol on University Challenge.

“I did no such thing, and I am glad that Baroness Foster has now publicly acknowledged that the allegations she made about me were completely false.

“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.

“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.”

Zillur Rahman, Ms Gorgianeh’s solicitor, said: “Baroness Foster’s apology, and her payment of substantial damages, goes some way to healing the damage that she has caused to our client.”

The University of Oxford has been approached for comment.

At the time, the BBC said it “utterly condemned” the abuse that was posted and shared about the contestant.

A statement added: “The mascot is one of many chosen by the team during the course of the series and is one of their favourite animals. 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.”