A controversial BBC current affairs documentary has secured a Bafta nomination and high court backing, whilst its presenter and key contributors have won a lucrative libel settlement from the Labour party.
Meanwhile, exclusive new evidence suggests the Panorama investigation into antisemitism in the Labour party omitted email evidence that fatally undermined the accounts of its whistleblowers, along with key parts of Labour’s pre-broadcast reply.
There is not much shock value these days in British politics, amidst the still-burning embers of Brexit meltdown and Covid catastrophe. Yet quietly and doggedly, the controversy surrounding the former leader of the Labour party, antisemitism and a flagship BBC current affairs programme is refusing to go away.
It’s been just over a year since the BBC broadcast Is Labour Anti-semitic? as part of its long-established and primetime Panorama slot. Based on the evidence and testimony of a group of ‘whistleblowers’ – former staff employed in the Labour party’s compliance unit – the programme painted a picture of Labour as the new “political home” of antisemites. It was a devastating critique of Corbyn’s leadership, which stood accused of both failing to tackle antisemitism and obstructing and interfering in the complaints process.
The programme came directly off the back of an investigation into the party launched by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) “to determine whether the Labour party has unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish” for which its report is expected imminently. And it helped set the tone for what was to become a dominant angle of news coverage, especially during the general election that followed in December last year.
Along the way, the programme has received nominations for prestigious awards, including a Bafta. And it has seen off over 1,500 complaints, several of which were escalated to Ofcom. A judge recently refused permission for an application I made to the high court, asking for a review of Ofcom’s decision not to investigate the programme.
To cap it off, both the presenter John Ware and the whistleblowers have settled libel claims against the party, which is believed to have paid out around £180,000 in damages and close to £400,000 in legal costs, in addition to apologising for having made ‘defamatory and false allegations’.
According to a statement from Jeremy Corbyn and to other Labour party sources, including a former member of the party’s national executive committee, the decision to settle was apparently taken despite the party having received “clear advice” from its own lawyers that Labour would have won in court.
The libel claims appear to have been based on the former leadership’s strong defence of its record in response to the programme. A party spokesman described Ware’s documentary as “a seriously inaccurate, politically one-sided polemic, which breached basic journalistic standards, invented quotes and edited emails to change their meaning”. The spokesman went on to accuse the programme-makers of deceiving the British public:
“An honest investigation into antisemitism in Labour and wider society is in the public interest. The Panorama team instead pre-determined an answer to the question posed by the programme’s title. No proper and serious attempt was made to understand our current procedures for dealing with antisemitism, which is clearly essential to reach a fair and balanced judgement. And Panorama distorted and manipulated the truth and misrepresented evidence to present a biased and selective account.”
Since then, critics of the programme have been further outraged by an apparent accountability failure. A scathing letter to the Bafta chair recently called for the nomination to be rescinded, adding that it “should never have passed the BBC’s compliance regime in the first instance”. Signatories of the letter included Mike Leigh (an award-winning film director and Bafta fellow), Sir Geoffrey Bindman (a leading human rights QC) and Tim Llewelyn (a former BBC Middle East correspondent).
The testimony of Ware’s “whistleblowers” has also been brought into question by a leaked report, documenting a culture of intense factionalism at Labour’s Southside headquarters during the period in question. The report drew heavily upon WhatsApp conversations between former Labour staffers, including several of Panorama’s witnesses. Nobody has questioned the authenticity of those messages, which paint a deeply unflattering picture of the protagonists —not least of their track record when it comes to issues of racism and antisemitism in the Labour party.
Now, exclusive new evidence suggests something altogether more serious and damning: the programme-makers overlooked key parts of leaked emails and the Labour party’s reply which fatally undermined the testimony of its whistleblowers.
This stands against the BBC’s repeated assertion that the Labour party was offered “a full right of reply”. And it raises new questions over why and how Ofcom took an extraordinary 63 days to decide simply not to investigate the programme.
The litmus test.
In a key sequence in the programme involving Sam Matthews – former head of disputes within the party’s governance and legal unit – John Ware states that the Ken Livingstone case was seen as a ‘litmus test’. Livingstone, formerly the Labour mayor of London, had courted fierce controversy in April 2016 with his remarks about the relationship between Hitler and Zionism, prompting calls for his expulsion from the party.
According to Matthews, the result of the disciplinary process was an unequivocal failure:
“What the NCC [Labour’s disciplinary National Constitutional Committee] did in finding the charges proven, but giving a two-year suspension, was essentially saying yes, we acknowledge that what you said is antisemitic: we just don’t care that much — you can be back in within two years. That’s an outrage. That’s not zero tolerance, it’s not even close to zero tolerance.”
What Matthews didn’t mention was that his own team had failed to act on antisemitism complaints about Livingstone during that period of suspension, which could have prevented his readmission to the party. Buzzfeed reported in May 2019 that the GLU (during the period Matthews was head of disputes) took no action on these complaints for an astonishing nine months after they were first lodged, and for two months after repeated appeals by the leader’s office.
These appeals followed concerns raised by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) about the lack of progress in Livingstone’s case; concerns raised directly with the leader’s office in January 2018. In one email to the GLU’s director, a former Corbyn aide asked explicitly whether Livingstone had received a second suspension for his subsequent comments. But the response was a brush off: “We haven’t formally opened a new investigation yet, and that is a conversation we will have over here”.
What these leaked email exchanges point to is an apparent contradiction at the heart of the programme’s narrative, which on the one hand accused the leadership of a failure to act on antisemitism, and on the other hand, maintained that members of the leader’s office inappropriately ‘interfered’ in the complaints process — even when the content of that “interference” had been to press for more robust disciplinary measures.
The Livingstone example suggests that the leadership acted promptly on concerns raised directly by the JLM, encouraging swifter and tougher sanctions against Livingstone, without unduly interfering in the decision-making process itself. Other leaked emails published by Buzzfeed in the same article showed that there were repeated efforts by Corbyn’s office to encourage swifter and tougher action by the disputes team under the direction of Matthews.
Ware himself has recently stated that the programme “interrogated the evidence of whistleblowers that members of [the leader’s office] (despite their denials) had interfered with the disciplinary process” and that “there is compelling evidence to show that some members of [the leader’s office] and [the national executive] did sometimes inhibit and even intervene in a number of antisemitism cases”.
If the programme-makers did indeed “interrogate” such evidence, they could hardly have been unaware of – or indifferent to – the leaked emails, which seemed to fundamentally contradict the accounts given by the “whistleblowers”. In a recent submission to the high court, the BBC claimed that the programme quoted “other emails that indicated that the leader’s office was attempting to hasten the complaint process”. This is simply not true.
Even more striking was the omission of evidence within leaked email correspondence that the programme did refer to, and upon which key sequences were based. One such sequence focused on a leaked private email exchange, in which the Labour general secretary and Corbyn ally Jennie Formby discussed a high-profile case involving controversial activist Jackie Walker.
Panorama quoted Formby’s stated intention to challenge the party’s national constitutional committee (NCC) “on the panel for the Jackie Walker case”. It did not quote the second half of the sentence in which she explained the reason for her intended challenge: “in view of what I was told by Sam Matthews in relation to the deliberate decision to delay [the hearing] by over a year — a delay for which Jeremy has of course had to bear the blame.”
The omitted text suggests that Formby was seeking to challenge the NCC over the Walker panel in order to speed up the process. But in a subsequent interview featured on the programme, Ware paraphrased Formby as saying, “I don’t want those panellists, I want these panellists”. Even if this was considered a fair interpretation of the email, it seems odd that the programme made no mention of Formby’s own stated intention. Moreover, Formby referred explicitly in the omitted text to a “deliberate decision” to delay the hearing by over a year. It appears that decision was not taken by Formby or the leadership, but rather by Matthews himself.
The BBC has insisted that the programme “reported the Jennie Formby chain fairly and accurately,” that it “contextualized her quotations,” and that Labour’s reply on this issue was quoted in full. In reality, it wasn’t. Below is the full quote provided by the party, with the omitted text in brackets:
The emails make clear that the NCC is independent. They are simply about ensuring the NCC is held accountable for the length of time they take to hear cases and about protecting the Party against any successful legal challenge on the basis of perceived bias if the same panel is used in high-profile cases.
[As one of the emails says, former, now disaffected, staff members, had deliberately delayed a particular case, and Jennie Formby was insisting that it be heard by the NCC as quickly as possible.]
“A pre-determined narrative”.
A similar and more egregious case involved an email exchange between Matthews and Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications. The programme selectively quoted and reordered two phrases from an email Milne wrote to Matthews. These were presented as text on screen with ellipses as follows:
“…we need to review…
…muddling up political disputes with racism”
Here is a wider excerpt from the same email, showing the context in which these phrases appeared:
“Of course there are a very small number of Jewish people who can adopt antisemitic attitudes/language just as there are a very small number of black people who use anti-black racist trope[s] – and that should be called out. But if we’re more than very occasionally using disciplinary action against Jewish members for antisemitism, something’s going wrong, and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism. Quite apart from this specific case, I think going forward we need to review where and how we’re drawing the line if we’re going to have clear and defensible processes.”
The “specific case” referred to was that of Glyn Secker, who, as Milne points out earlier in the email chain, is a “Jewish activist and son of a Holocaust survivor”.
The programme did not mention the fact that Milne was specifically raising concerns over the possibility of Jewish party members facing disciplinary action for antisemitism. This essential context was completely omitted in the interview segment with Matthews, and in the quoted extracts from Milne’s email. Most strikingly of all, it was also left out when the programme-makers referred selectively to the Labour party’s reply.
The BBC has repeatedly claimed that Ware and his team offered Labour a “full right of reply” to the accusations made in the documentary. In its response to the Milne email segment, that reply noted that Matthews himself had expressed reservations about the specific case under discussion, quoting from an email he sent to colleagues: “I don’t think it’s a particularly strong case.” The reply highlighted this quote in bold and stressed its importance: “We would consider a failure to include this as being a deliberate attempt to mislead viewers as to the facts in order to support a pre-determined narrative.”
However, the program made no mention of it. Nor did Ware in his response to criticism by Novara Media. Instead, Ware claimed that his sequence on the Secker case had “accurately and fairly” depicted Milne’s intervention, which amounted to “the sabotaging of a decision by Sam Matthews”.
In the Panorama broadcast, Matthews gives his interpretation of Milne’s email as an example of “the leader’s office requesting to be involved directly in the disciplinary process”. In fact, the full email thread shows clearly that Milne did not initiate the discussion: he had been asked to give his opinion concerning the Secker case. While Panorama did include the party’s reply on this point, it did not supply viewers with the email evidence that confirmed its accuracy. As a result, it presented the party’s reply as a disputable claim, rather than as a fact which the programme-makers knew to be true.
The documentary aired at a crucial moment in British politics, six months before a snap general election. It triggered a slew of headlines in the mainstream press based on demonstrably false allegations, including the claim that the Corbyn leadership had been “pushing for lighter punishments” in cases of antisemitism.
Of course, it was right for the BBC to cover this controversial issue, and to give voice to those who believed that antisemitism was rife within the party and that Corbyn was responsible. But it was wrong to exclude the voices of others, including Jewish Labour members, who felt and thought differently. Worse still, the programme-makers chose to ignore abundant evidence that contradicted the accounts given by the “whistleblowers”.
Although Ware appears to have claimed ownership of the programme — he referred repeatedly to “my programme” in a recent rebuttal addressed to critics — he does not bear personal responsibility for Panorama’s reporting failures. The BBC has one of the most stringent and wide-ranging editorial compliance regimes of any major news provider in the world. It is truly astonishing that such a skewed treatment of evidence and one-sided presentation of a major political controversy passed through the gates of its senior editorial management.
There is a wider issue at stake, however. Journalists — and even major news providers like the BBC — must be allowed to get the story wrong, at least occasionally. But the integrity of a free media system depends on such failures, whether intentional or otherwise, being properly accounted for. And democracies depend on the free flow of public debate, especially in matters of political controversy.
The fact that the Labour Party is now settling libel cases brought by both Ware and the Labour “whistleblowers” is remarkable, not least because there is meant to be an ongoing internal inquiry into the leaked internal report, whose findings have now effectively been prejudged. But I’ve been told this will cost the party close to half a million in damages and costs.
It is easier to make sense of this decision on political rather than strictly legal grounds. Starmer may have wanted to avoid further controversy on a topic that dogged his predecessor — or he may have wished to curry favour with Labour’s anti-Corbyn faction, from which the party staffers on whom Panorama relied were drawn. Any robust legal defence would surely have drawn upon the contents of the leaked report, which the post-Corbyn leadership appears anxious to bury, and a defeat in the courts for Ware and fellow complainants would have strengthened the party’s leftwing current, which Starmer appears just as anxious to marginalise.
Whatever the motivation may have been, concerns about this particular edition of Panorama show no signs of abating. They have been only further fuelled by the impending settlements, dismissal of complaints and acclaim heaped on the programme by established institutions like Bafta.
The ongoing attempts to discredit and delegitimise Corbynism bear resemblance to similar attacks in recent years against progressive leaders around the world, from Jean Luc Melenchon to Bernie Sanders. Corbyn may no longer be the leader of the Labour party, but whether such attacks have succeeded in condemning socialism, once again, to the political wilderness, remains to be seen.
John Ware, Sam Matthews, the BBC, Ofcom and the Labour Party were contacted for comment by the author in advance of this article. None of the organisations responded but a solicitor acting for both Ware and Matthews responded thus:
Both John Ware and Sam Matthews have answered your requests before. You are aware of the responses given to Novara Media and you are aware of the answers given to you by the BBC in your failed attempt at a Judicial Review and in the course of those proceedings. No doubt you will recall the terms of the judgment which you have chosen not to appeal. Rather than repeat ourselves we refer you to the previous answers and the Judgment against you.
This is particularly the case when you do not even bother to state the name of the intended publication. We do not intend to dignify your repetitive complaints given that you simply repeat a disproved mantra. The specious nature of your questions are noted.
All rights are reserved against you.
Justin Schlosberg is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Media at Birkbeck College and a former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition. His most recent co-authored book is The Media Manifesto (Polity 2020).