OPINION: Denied a right of reply, I’ve now won my libel case against Corbynite accusers

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OPINION: Denied a right of reply, I’ve now won my libel case against Corbynite accusers

In the first of a two-part essay, investigative reporter John Ware reveals the inside story of his successful litigation in defence of his BBC Panorama exposé on antisemitism.

John Ware interviewing former Labour staffers on Panorama. (Credit: BBC Panorama - Is Labour Anti-Semitic?)
John Ware interviewing former Labour staffers on Panorama. (Credit: BBC Panorama - Is Labour Anti-Semitic?)

John Ware took Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the group Jewish Voice for Labour and a pro-Corbynite journalist to court for defamation over his 2019 BBC Panorama exposé on antisemitism. In the first of two articles, he reveals the background to his marathon litigation to defend the programme against a campaign that belittled the anxieties of Jews and tried to destroy his reputation

Today marks the successful end of my three-year campaign to defend, in the forensic setting of a courtroom, the 2019 BBC Panorama programme Is Labour Antisemitic?, for which I was the reporter.

I sued the publisher of a website called “Press Gang exposing rogue journalism” who launched a defamatory campaign “exposing” my “dirty tricks” to deliberately deceive two million viewers by knowingly exaggerating the scale of antisemitism in Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.

It was the last of my three cases against Labour under Corbyn and two of his high-profile supporters who’ve tried to destroy every vestige of Panorama’s credibility, belittling the anxieties of many Jews in Labour under whose leader antisemitism had secured a foothold. Undermining Panorama has been central to Corbynite attempts to rewrite history because they consider the programme helped deprive Corbyn of the premiership.

Ben Westerman, Investigations Officer 2016-2017 (Credit: BBC Panorama – Is Labour Anti-Semitic?)

Posturing as the high priests of ethical journalism, their attacks have relentlessly vilified the professional integrity of me and my BBC colleagues. Press Gang publisher Paddy French disseminated his “evidence” in glossy pamphlets and to many thousands on social media parroting the language of a quasi-statutory body with portentous assertions like “Our Charge sheet…” and “This damning report finds against the BBC…”

Around 300 of the pamphlets were sent to editors and senior journalists in television and radio networks and newspapers to inflict maximum harm on my reputation and BBC journalism. Flyers were handed to BBC employees outside Broadcasting House.

My motive for knowingly deceiving two million viewers? To help prevent Corbyn becoming prime minister, according to French – despite my having accused Boris Johnson of lying as prime minister in another documentary just three weeks before the 2019 election.

French’s website claimed he could prove all his allegations and that his lawyers were “confident” he had “a strong defence”. He said that a “landmark John Ware v Paddy French libel trial will decide who was right in the Labour antisemitism issue”.

Martha Robinson, Complaints Administrator 2018-2019 (Credit: BBC Panorama – Is Labour Anti-Semitic?)

Among his supporters were the celebrity Corbynites Ken Loach, the film director, and Roger Waters, the co-founder of Pink Floyd. The multimillionaire musician was French’s main financial backer. In one of Waters’ social media tirades against me, he said I was “entirely controlled by the oligarchs… bought and paid for”.

For months, French had told his supporters that only a trial offered the “unique opportunity for the issue of antisemitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to be explored in a forensic setting”. But as the trial date drew close, French said he wouldn’t be coming to court after all. He announced there was no longer any need to contest my claims, because others had made his case for him and, anyway, a ruling earlier in the case had prevented him from defending himself.

Giving judgment, Mr Justice Knowles said this was a ”knowing, deliberate and cynical distortion” of the truth. The ruling had not deprived French of “any ability to defend himself on the grounds of truth, public interest or any other defence he wished to plead and advance”. French’s “whole attitude to these proceedings” had been “one of contempt”. Meanwhile, French stayed in his house in the south of France.

He knew I had no desire to bankrupt him – and that an apology, minimal damages and my costs would suffice. But he chose to leave his fate to the court, which has now awarded me £90,000 in damages for French’s “aggravating conduct” and my costs. He must also apologise.

Louise Withers Green, Disputes Officer 2017-2018 (Credit: BBC Panorama – Is Labour Anti-Semitic?)

This brings to £5.6m the estimated cost to Corbynites thus far from losing 17 out of 23 cases, the vast majority defamation and antisemitism-related. Another six are ongoing. French says that by suing a fellow journalist I’ve breached a sacred convention and made a fundamental assault on free speech. In my view that’s a whiskery bit of nostalgia. To borrow from the Irish poet WB Yeats, since social media licensed mass character assassination, all is “changed, changed utterly”.

As my lawyer Mark Lewis says, social media has made “everybody a publisher unhampered by the shackles of an editor”.

Corbyn supporters make much of how progressive and anti-racist they are. Yet French made the odious suggestion that we’d used “what appears to be a woman of British Muslim heritage to voice” the Labour Party’s 16 written responses in the programme in order to “give the impression that Labour is more sympathetic to Muslims than Jews”.

In the High Court, Mr Justice Knowles said this was a ”knowing, deliberate and cynical distortion” of the truth.

He also suggested the fact that my wife and children are Jewish might have breached BBC impartiality guidelines. “I find this particularly distasteful,” said the judge. “No credible or reputable journalist could possibly have thought that the claimant’s family’s faith had any relevance to the accuracy, or otherwise, of the programme.”

So relentless have been the allegations against me and Panorama that my many rebuttals have been largely ignored. Testing the evidence before a judge was the only way to set the record straight for me, my BBC colleagues and the many Jews demeaned by this uncompromising assault.

Sam Matthews, Head of Disputes 2016-2018 (Credit: BBC Panorama – Is Labour Anti-Semitic?)

Supported by interviews from seven Labour whistleblowers, Panorama’s thrust was that antisemitism within Labour had markedly increased under Corbyn and that he hadn’t done enough to eradicate it. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s statutory investigation similarly found there had been a failure of leadership.

Corbyn’s office pinned the blame squarely on party officials in Labour headquarters for failing to handle antisemitism complaints fast enough, inevitably, given their exponential rise reportedly to some 1,300 by the end of 2016. And the numbers kept on rising. Corbyn and his associates declined our offer of interviews, so we reported comprehensively Labour’s rebuttals.

Of course, I expected criticism – it goes with the territory. But Corbyn and his associates were incensed, and the fact that, like French, several of them were themselves journalists added to their appearance of credibility.

French describes himself as an “investigative journalist” of “more than 40 years’ experience”. Yet he baldly asserted that the BBC had unlawfully breached the Broadcasting Code regulated by Ofcom, despite this warning from the footnote to one of the regulations he claimed we’d breached: “For the avoidance of doubt, it does not apply to any BBC services.”

It also turns out French’s accusation that I had tried to influence the 2019 election was exactly what he’d done! Emails show that, just days before the election, French rushed to launch his campaign against me before completing his research, hoping that by sending hundreds of pamphlets to broadcasters and newspapers they’d be persuaded to take the heat off Corbyn on antisemitism because he’d been grievously traduced by the BBC.

Kat Buckingham, Head of Disputes and Discipline 2015 – 2017 (Credit: BBC Panorama – Is Labour Anti-Semitic?)

French bluntly told his friend, the media professor Brian Cathcart: “…research not finished and rushed but will be something before the election”.

As a founder of Hacked Off! – the campaign for a free and accountable press – the professor is noted for his strictures against improper journalism. But French’s rushed research did not stop Cathcart from tweeting his support with a link to French’s defamatory campaign pamphlet: “If your view of Labour was influenced by the Panorama programme Is Labour Anti-Semitic? you should read this report now. I don’t see how the BBC can defend this kind of journalism.” Personally, I didn’t see how Cathcart could have defended French’s journalism.

Of all journalism’s ethical principles, the most fundamental is offering an accused the right to respond to specific allegations. Yet I wasn’t sent a right to reply letter prior to French’s publication of his defamatory allegations despite his insistence that his work “met the highest standards of ethical journalism”.

Another media academic, Dr Justin Schlosberg, urged his followers to contribute to French’s defence fund, saying: “This is an opportunity to have the truth exposed further in open court. Support Paddy’s defence.”

Like Cathcart, Schlosberg will also have been taken seriously because he is head of media studies at Birkbeck, University of London. He’s also a Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) activist and strong Corbyn supporter. However, the judge criticised what he called the “apparently reputable” Schlosberg and Cathcart. “One might have expected (and hoped)” that both had been “less quick to rush to judgment and to have noted” that French hadn’t given me “a right of reply pre-publication”.

In court, flanked by French’s JVL supporters, Cathcart was chided by the judge for not having “spotted right away that Mr Ware had not been offered a right of reply or an opportunity to comment”.

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn giving his keynote speech at the party’s annual conference, October 2018. (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire via Jewish News)

Another elementary rule in basic libel law for journalists is to avoid at all costs attributing dishonest motives to someone without solid proof of what’s gone on in their head. After French published, Schlosberg tweeted that there seemed to be “compelling evidence” of “intentional misleading reporting” by Panorama, the first of some 100 tweets fired at me and the BBC, some highly defamatory for which he had no proof whatsoever. There were “lies” at the “core” of my journalism; I had “helped to cement a demonstrably false narrative” and “deliberately omitted counter evidence”.

And so on.

Like French, Schlosberg also asserted that the BBC “breached both the letter and spirit of the broadcasting code”. He continued with this fiction by challenging Ofcom in the High Court, even after Ofcom’s senior regulator explained to him why that simply was not the case. His failed legal challenge cost his funders £34,000. The only reason I didn’t sue Schlosberg was because he has a young family.

Like French, the JVL’s Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi also takes pride in her 20 years of journalism as “an editor and correspondent for the highly respected Reuters agency”. In her fury at Panorama, she told 1.4m BBC listeners that my journalism had included “right-wing, racist work” and that I had “engaged in Islamophobia and extreme, far-right politics”, as a consequence of which the BBC had had to “apologise” for my conduct.

Her evidence? “Look him up on Wikipedia” she exclaimed when challenged by the BBC’s Jeremy Vine. “Look him up!” No responsible journalist relies on Wikipedia and my case shows why: the misleading entries she took at face value had been inserted into my Wikipedia two days before transmission, presumably to deliberately undermine my credibility.

Last October, Wimborne-Idrissi and JVL had to apologise in open court, and the JVL was left with legal costs of over £200,000. Yet, like French, JVL also sought to claim its criticisms of Panorama remain valid. JVL’s crowdfunding site says its apology and settlement “did not require us to retract or qualify our criticisms of the programme itself”. Omitted is the fact that the JVL only sought a settlement with me after I rebutted in detail their criticisms.

Then there’s James Schneider, also a journalist before becoming Corbyn’s director of strategic communications. Labour’s public attacks on me and Panorama’s whistleblowers were so obviously defamatory because, like Schlosberg and French, they asserted knowledge of what was in our heads. I had “flouted journalistic ethics” by “knowingly” promoting “falsehoods… by fabricating facts” while the whistleblowers had “deliberately” delayed disciplinary cases “acting in bad faith” because they had “personal and political axes to grind”.

The wording cost Labour some £750,000 in costs and damages. I asked Schneider if, as Corbyn’s head of communications, he’d approved them. He declined to respond.

So affronted was Schlosberg about Labour under [its new leader Sir Keir] Starmer apologising in open court for defaming me and the whistleblowers, that he described it as “an assault on truth” and promptly established an outfit called “Truth Defence” to “confront what he calls “attacks on progressive political voices (presumably like his), whistle-blowers (presumably not Panorama’s) and truth tellers” (presumably like him).

On “Truth Defence’s” website, Schlosberg complains about “lawfare” being waged “against progressive and radical left activists, journalists and scholars” with a “chilling effect” on free speech.

It almost sounds like “progressive” activists like himself and French should be free to defame whomever they like – and that the victims should just shrug their shoulders!

At a “Truth Defence” Q&A, even Schlosberg’s fellow panellist, the lawyer Sir Geoffrey Bindman KC, intervened: “Can I say something? You have to remember that a defamation law is actually necessary because people can be devastatingly damaged by false statements. There has to be some redress against those who publish extremely damaging statements.” Quite.

• Next week: how the Corbynites tried to rewrite history

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