Tory peer pays damages after alleging University Challenge mascot was antisemitic

A Conservative peer has apologised and paid damages to a doctoral student after wrongly saying an octopus soft toy used as her University Challenge team’s mascot was chosen as an antisemitic symbol.

The former MEP Jacqueline Foster had already apologised publicly and privately to Melika Gorgianeh, a doctoral student in astrophysics at Oxford University, following comments made after the episode of the BBC Two quizshow was broadcast in November.

In a new post on X on Tuesday morning, Lady Foster reiterated her apology and said she had paid “substantial damages and costs” to Gorgianeh.

It comes a day after Michelle Donelan, the science minister, apologised and paid damages after accusing two academics of “sharing extremist views” and one of them of supporting Hamas. Donelan’s costs were paid by her department.

Gorgianeh, who wears a headscarf, was the focus of attention after the broadcast of the episode featuring her Christ Church team. She was sitting next to the soft toy, and some observers said her Zara jacket had similar colours to the Palestinian flag.

Jacqueline Foster, who was made a peer in 2021. Photograph: Roger Harris

Foster was among those targeting Gorgianeh, alleging in a since-deleted tweet that the student had chosen an antisemitic symbol for the mascot. The octopus is a longstanding trope of antisemitic conspiracy theories, as a supposed symbol of the power exerted by Jewish people.

Tagging Rishi Sunak, the BBC and Oxford in the post, Foster called for the student to be expelled from university and arrested.

Gorgianeh was the focus of numerous news reports about the claims. The BBC said at the time that the episode was filmed in March last year, before the conflict in Gaza, and that the entire team picked the octopus as it was “one of their favourite animals”.

In the tweet sent on Wednesday morning, Foster wrote: “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.”

In a statement released by her solicitors, Rahman Lowe, Gorgianeh said Foster’s comment had “a profound and deeply damaging impact on my life” and that she had received death threats.

She said: “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 Foster’s words begin to have the consequence of healing the very real damage that had been done to me.”

Foster, a former British Airways worker, twice stood unsuccessfully for the Conservatives for parliament before spending 10 years as an MEP. She was made a peer in 2021.


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