Having been partly involved in the making of tomorrow night’s Panorama documentary on Mayor Lutfur Rahman and Tower Hamlets, it’s more difficult to judge what its impact will be (it’s a 30 minute programme and lots has been left on the cutting room floor).
From what I know, I think it’s a very measured, balanced and fair investigation and I suspect Communities Secretary Eric Pickles will take some action as a result. The programme exposes serious inadequacies in the checks and balances of a directly elected mayoral system, particularly when there’s a context of dysfunctional party politics.
Although pretty much every theme of what will be broadcast tomorrow will not be new to readers of this blog, there will be some disturbing details of what’s been going on behind the scenes. It’s clear a number of senior officers have had major concerns about process and decisions. To the wider national audience that Panorama is aimed it, the entire story will be worrying.
I’m not going to give anything away about the broadcast (except to say Lutfur may regret his decision to be interviewed), but I think the bigger story, in the short term at least, will be the background to the production itself: accusations of racism against the BBC and a so-called journalist betraying highly confidential sources (and then absurdly, in my view, claiming to be a whistleblower).
Lutfur Rahman’s council has spent tens of thousands of pounds (we don’t yet know the final figure) on City lawyers Taylor Wessing and PR outfit Champollion, whose remit was to suppress the programme. Over the past few weeks, they, Lutfur and the council’s interim monitoring officer, Meic Sullivan Gould, have tried to badger the BBC into pulling it at every opportunity.
This culminated last week in a letter to the BBC’s Director-General Lord (Tony) Hall (who, having seen the programme with the corporation’s editorial high command, gave it the thumbs up judging it to be fair and impartial).
Their main argument has been that the BBC should not be engaging in the sort investigative journalism that might affect the outcome of an election so close to an election. Which is a curious argument indeed.
They have also argued the production was biased from the outset and that its primary aim was to unseat the Mayor. And surprise, surprise (given what we know about the tactics of Lutfur’s people in this regard), they’re again playing the race card.
Instead of me doing the talking, here’s the statement Lutfur himself issued last night (after it became clear the programme would be aired):
BBC Panorama whistle-blower reveals racist and Islamophobic programme
Criminal investigation underway as BBC Panorama whistle-blower reveals racist and Islamophobic programme on Tower Hamlets
You may be aware that BBC Panorama is due to air a programme about Tower Hamlets next week.
I believe the programme is being used for political campaigning and electioneering purposes just weeks before local and Mayoral elections in May.
A dossier passed to us by a BBC whistle-blower has revealed it to be in total breach of the BBC’s editorial guidelines as a public broadcaster.
It has clear racist and Islamophobic overtones targeting the Bangladeshi Muslim community in Tower Hamlets.
The BBC and the undercover production company, Films of Record, have also been referred to the Information Commissioner and there is now a criminal investigation underway.
Sadly this programme is already being used for political campaigning by politicians from Tower Hamlets Labour Party and promoted by right wing journalists.
The BBC’s targeting of our borough is nothing short of a direct intervention in the outcome of an election.
I’m proud that with your support I have been able to deliver some of the most progressive policies of any council in the country, whether that’s building the most homes; supporting our young people; providing free school meals to all primary school children; protecting our heritage; looking after our elderly or improving our environment.
I’ll let the people of Tower Hamlets judge my record in office – not by a programme with a clear political bias, broadcasting for Tower Hamlets Labour Party.
You can also watch this short counter documentary for an alternative perspective on the Panorama programme http://vimeo.com/90422433.
So let’s look at this “whistleblower” accusation.
First, here’s the BBC’s response:
“The BBC emphatically rejects any suggestion that its investigation into Lutfur Rahman’s administration was either politically or racially motivated. We can confirm that there has been a breach of data protection at an independent production company working with the BBC on a Panorama investigation as a result of unauthorised disclosure by a former researcher on the production team, in breach of her obligation of confidentiality. This breach includes material relating to the programme’s confidential sources. Our primary concern is to protect our sources and we are urgently investigating the matter. We have also notified the ICO.”
Now the background.
In January, Panorama reporter John Ware and the production company Films of Record (it’s a production company, not an undercover production company) hired a young Bengali broadcast journalist student). At her interview, she was highly critical of Lutfur Rahman and his administration.
They got her to do some research on some of the third sector organisations they were investigating as part of the programme’s focus on taxpayer grants. She was also asked to do some translating and she’d also been keen initially to do some undercover work.
She was only with the team for four days in mid-January and on the last day she was given access to a shared but restricted computer file.
After she started demanding more money, the team let her down gently and said thanks but no thanks. But then some six weeks later, the team were dropped with a bombshell. A dossier containing a significant amount of confidential material had been taken from the shared drive and handed to Mayor Lutfur’s office.
It is thought the council had this dossier for a number of weeks before their lawyers Taylor Wessing disclosed it to the BBC and Films of Record. This is important to note.
How this dossier was accessed is not yet fully clear. I understand the BBC is satisfied as to the involvement in handling the “dossier” of certain paid individuals in the Mayor’s office. Inquiries by the Corporation are progressing.
As to whether there is a criminal investigation into the BBC/Films of Record, my understanding is that is manifestly not the case. The BBC has told the Mayor this but he seems to have ignored it. Both the BBC and Films of Record quite rightly notified the ICO as soon as they were aware of the data breach. Note my point re the council’s actions above.
In my view, the journalist they hired should be ashamed of herself. She apparently claimed she had become concerned about the nature of the programme, that it was somehow trying to bring shame on Britain’s Bangladeshi community. Whether any pressure was exerted on her from external sources, I don’t know. I do know that many, many Bangladeshis are terrified about speaking out in public for fear of vilification in their own community. They’re quite happy to talk to journalists in private but very rarely go on the record. The few that do are brave.
What also galls is that this journalist now claims whistleblower status for betraying whistleblowers. It’s my understanding that she made not one attempt to raise apparent concerns about the programme with any of the Panorama team. As a journalist, she would have known the BBC has in place strict and confidential channels for such concerns.
As for the other allegations in Lutfur’s press release….
Panorama was ‘politically motivated’: Rubbish. Their methods were exemplary; the team knocked down weak hypotheses at every stage. They were rigorous and judicious.
Panorama has been Islamophobic: Rubbish. Lutfur Rahman (by even his own admissions and boasts) is a highly public and controversial figure. He boasts he’s Europe’s first directly elected Mayor, he invokes Islam and Allah in his speeches and he boasts that he’s the first to put such high priority on faith buildings. His support is drawn almost exclusively from one community, the Bangladeshi population in Tower Hamlets. There is undoubtedly a strong public interest in scrutinising him and his policies.
Mayor Rahman is also putting it about that John Ware is a Zionist Islamophobe who targets Muslims. Rubbish. They’re claiming this is ‘proved’ because the BBC paid out libel damages from a previous investigation of his in 2006 into the charity Interpal. Well, actually, that documentary led to a Charity Commission reprimand for Interpal. The libel damages were incidental to the main story: they were paid to a man whose face had not been blanked out on a photograph featuring one of their main subjects.
Whether or not tomorrow’s Panorama proves to be a game-changer in Tower Hamlets on May 22, I don’t know.
But the evidence has been submitted to Eric Pickles who now says this:
“There is a worrying pattern of divisive community politics and mismanagement of council staff and resources by the mayoral administration in Tower Hamlets. I will carefully examining the evidence provided by Panorama’s thorough investigation and will consider the appropriate next steps, including the case for exercising the legal powers available to me.”
In the meantime, Lutfur is publicising this 26 minute attack video on Panorama (quite how it was funded or who made it hasn’t been disclosed, but it features a number of useful idiots)…it’s all the fault of the ‘right wing’, you see.
Enjoy the warm-up (and oh, by the way, I gather that John Ware found the council’s head of communications Takki Sulkaiman to be one of the most manipulative press officers he’s ever dealt with in a long career in journalism…which I can’t disagree with: he should have stuck to politics.)