University Challenge student wins damages over anti-Semitic mascot claim

Peer retracts criticism of astrophysics student Melika Gorgianeh over soft toy octopus

Melika Gorgianeh's team had an octopus mascot in an episode of University Challenge broadcast in November
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A contestant on the quiz show University Challenge has won damages after a British politician retracted claims that her team's octopus mascot was an anti-Semitic symbol.

Melika Gorgianeh said she received death threats after Conservative peer Jacqueline Foster called for her to be arrested and expelled from the University of Oxford.

Baroness Foster had suggested the soft toy blue octopus was a “disgusting anti-Semitic symbol”, evoking Nazi-era cartoons of the world in the grip of Jewish tentacles.

Ms Gorgianeh was also singled out on social media for wearing a coat with a passing resemblance to the Palestinian flag, although, in fact, it had different colours.

The row erupted after the episode was broadcast in November, soon after the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war, although it had been filmed in March 2023.

On Wednesday, Baroness Foster revealed that she had agreed to pay “substantial damages and costs” after apologising to Ms Gorgianeh.

“I wrongly alleged that Ms Gorgianeh chose one of the most disgusting anti-Semitic symbols, a blue octopus, as her team’s mascot which I held her responsible for,” she said.

“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.”

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In a statement published by her lawyers, Ms Gorgianeh said the social media storm had left her feeling unsafe to leave her house.

'Damaging impact'

She said the peer's apology could begin to “heal the very real damage that has been done to me”.

“The false allegation of anti-Semitism has had a profound and deeply damaging impact on my life,” the astrophysics student said.

“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.”

Ms Gorgianeh had instructed lawyers at Rahman Lowe to bring a libel and harassment claim before the case was settled.

Her solicitor, Zillur Rahman, said the posts would have made the “very many people” who read them think Ms Gorgianeh had used Nazi propaganda.

“Statements made by a person in a position of power, authority and respect, carry far greater weight and are liable to have a far greater impact than those made by less prominent figures,” she said.

“Baroness Foster holds a DBE, and as a lifetime peer, she is quite literally a member of the ruling class of British society. Members of the public would expect a person in her position to make serious allegations only when there is a sound basis for doing so.”

Updated: March 07, 2024, 5:59 AM