29 July 2019 — Media Reform Coalition
The BBC transmitted an edition of Panorama on 10 July called ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’, presented by John Ware. It contained allegations that senior Labour figures close to Jeremy Corbyn had interfered with the internal investigations process and that the Party was insufficiently committed to tackling anti-semitism within its own ranks. In response, the Labour Party argued that the programme “was not a fair or balanced investigation. It was a seriously inaccurate, politically one-sided polemic, which breached basic journalistic standards, invented quotes and edited emails to change their meaning. It was an overtly biased intervention by the BBC in party political controversy.”
MRC has previously identified a “disinformation paradigm” when it comes to mainstream reporting of allegations of anti-semitism within the Labour Party. We expect, as we put it in our report, “professional journalists to strive for accuracy, to establish essential contextual facts in any given story, and to actively seek out dissenting or contesting opinion including, in this case, within the minority group in question, within other affected minorities, and amongst relevant experts (both legal and academic).” We are anxious for anti-semitism – as well as any other form of racism – to be fully addressed by our major media outlets.
When it comes to broadcasting, however, we are particularly anxious that broadcasters adhere to guidelines that protect impartiality and mitigate against unbalanced reporting. We have therefore assessed the Panorama episode specifically in relation to the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines to which all BBC content is accountable. We have identified a series of failings and would welcome further dialogue with the BBC about how they intend to deal with content that undermines their own editorial guidelines.
4.3.22 In achieving due impartiality, a ‘series of programmes’ may be considered as a whole.
Since 2015, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has been embroiled in political controversy on a range of issues. Though he has attracted vociferous critics (notably from within the Parliamentary Labour Party itself), he has also retained the overwhelming support of the party’s membership and, in 2017, led the party in a general election that saw the biggest increase in Labour’s share of the popular vote since 1945. Over the course of this period, Panorama has broadcast three editions focused on the Labour Party, all of which have taken an overwhelmingly critical view of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Two of these editions were executive-produced by the same individual, Neil Grant – a former Labour activist in Brent East who also produced an edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches in 2016 looking into alleged “infiltration” of Momentum.
Two editions of Panorama were presented by the former Sun, Sunday Times and World in Action journalist John Ware (and winner in 2005 of the Islamic Human Rights Commission’s award for Islamophobia) who has long declared his opposition to Jeremy Corbyn. Writing in the conservative journal Standpoint, he described Corbyn as “a Labour leader whose entire political career has been stimulated by disdain for the West, appeasement of extremism, and who would barely understand what fighting for the revival of British values is really all about”. His Panorama in 2015, ‘Labour’s Earthquake’, was the subject of a complaint by Jeremy Corbyn’s team that the programme was a “hatchet job”. Handing two editions to the same presenter with known (and hostile) political views on Corbyn without seeking to offer a counterposing perspective is hardly a ringing endorsement of the BBC’s commitment to due impartiality.
4.3.6 When dealing with ‘controversial subjects’, we must ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight and prominence, particularly when the controversy is active. Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact.
Within the programme in question, Panorama featured eight key witnesses alleging ubiquitous anti-Jewish racism within the party. The programme-makers were, however, presumably aware that hundreds of active Jewish members of the party are on record offering a very different perspective. The complete exclusion of their voices on such an active controversial subject amounts to a gross breach of the BBC’s impartiality requirements.
The two ‘expert’ witnesses, Alan Johnson and Dave Rich, whose views have been vigorously contested in public debate by other experts, were instead left unchallenged in the programme. For example, Alan Johnson’s account of antisemitism on the Left has been criticised by Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, emeritus professor at LSE, for confusing antisemitism with anti-Zionism. The programme failed to even make reference to any such opposing views or perspectives. As the founder of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, Antony Lerman, tweeted:
3.3.17 We should normally identify on-air and online sources of information and significant contributors and provide their credentials, so that our audiences can judge their status.
The BBC’s editorial guidelines also make very clear that the credentials of sources and significant contributors should be made clear to audiences, especially when dealing when covering matters of political controversy. The unnamed witnesses featured in the programme all have past or present affiliations with the Jewish Labour Movement, a group known to be on the political right of Labour and opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. One of the key witnesses – Ella Rose – was also a former Israeli embassy staffer. An investigation by Al Jazeera in 2017 revealed that Israeli embassy official Shai Masot was actively working within Labour to surreptitiously undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (a complaint by Ms Rose about the Al-Jazeera documentary was rejected by Ofcom in October 2017). Nor was it mentioned that Alan Johnson, one of the programme’s two ‘expert’ witnesses, is an employee of BICOM, an organisation that does public relations on behalf of Israel. None of these affiliations were mentioned by the Panorama programme. “Only 2 men portrayed as ‘experts’ on #antisemitism were interviewed”, tweeted Antony Lerman once again. “I don’t recall that we were ever informed about their institutional affiliations and credentials. Why the lack of transparency?”
3.3.16 We must not knowingly and materially mislead our audiences with our content.
The programme’s central allegation was that the party leadership, and those within the party’s governing body allied to the leadership, have been actively intervening in the complaints process so as to both cause undue delays and protect high profile individuals from sanction. In making these allegations, the programme relied on two sources of evidence: the eye-witness testimony of former staff working within Labour’s compliance unit, and selective emails leaked by those staff.
In fact, a close examination of the material evidence (leaked emails) strongly suggests that the reality of what happened was the exact inverse of what was reported. For instance, one of the key witnesses of the programme was Sam Matthews, former head of disputes in Labour’s compliance unit. It is clear from leaked emails between him and Laura Murray, a former aide of Jeremy Corbyn, that the leader’s office intervened in an effort to both expedite investigations and recommend suspension of key members under investigation. For instance, in respect of council candidate Alan Bull (who posted an article on Facebook that suggested the Holocaust was a hoax), Murray emailed Matthews in March 2018 recommending suspension:
In light of how bad his social media comments are, and in light of other complaints about comments by him received by the region, should he not be suspended pending investigation?
Where the programme did feature leaked emails they were selectively quoted out of context in a manner that was clearly and grossly misleading. For instance, the programme quoted Seamus Milne in a leaked email as stating that:
something’s going wrong, and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism… I think going forward we need to review where and how we’re drawing the line.
But the programme failed to draw attention to the fact that Milne was referring specifically to antisemitic complaints directed against Jews themselves, as a fuller quotation would have made clear:
if we’re more than very occasionally using disciplinary action against Jewish members for anti-Semitism, something’s going wrong, and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism.
This profound misrepresentation was compounded by a wholly unfounded extrapolation from an email sent by Labour’s current general secretary, Jennie Formby, in which she was quoted as stating that the “NCC [National ConstitutionCommittee] cannot be allowed to continue in the way that they are at the moment and I will also be challenging the panel for the Jackie Walker case”.
The reporter, John Ware, then offers his own version of the content of the email in a question put to the former Labour General Secretary, now Lord Iain McNicol (and one of the 64 Labour peers who took out an advertisement in the Guardian accusing Jeremy Corbyn of having “failed the test of leadership” in relation to anti-semitism):
Reporter: So if you when as General Secretary had been asked to talk to the NCC chair and say ‘You know what, we’ve got this antisemitism panel coming up, I don’t want these panelists, I want those panelists.’
But there is nothing in the email as shown to suggest that Jennie Formby was seeking to pick a particular set of members. The words ‘I don’t want these panelists, I want those panelists’, are a construction by the reporter. He persists then with a claim that Jennie Formby knew she was doing something ‘dubious’:
What Ms Formby’s email does suggest is that she knew that what was being contemplated was dubious.
His grounds for asserting this are that she has said she has deleted the email. He notes that the reason she gives is that ‘too many eyes were on her Labour address’. He cannot apparently see this as in anyway reasonable, even though he has just put her email on Panorama.
It is entirely conceivable, as the Labour Party has claimed, that Formby was expressing a concern to ensure that the procedure for dealing with complaints was efficient and effective, which is very much within her remit of responsibility. There was nothing in the email showing that she was seeking to select particular members of a panel, let alone she was attempting to interfere in the actual decision-making of the panel.
Finally, the programme relied exclusively on the eye-witness testimony in relation to a particularly disturbing allegation of antisemitism from former investigations officer Ben Westerman. In reflecting on the conclusion to an interview with party members, Westerman stated on the programme that:
The person got up to leave the room, and then turned back to me and said, ‘where are you from?’ And I said, ‘what do you mean, where am I from?’ And she said, ‘I asked you where are you from?’ And I said ‘I’m not prepared to discuss this’. And they said, ‘are you from Israel?’
In what appears to be a recording of the interview obtained by The Canary, the actual exchange between Westerman and the member in question had actually asked “what branch are you in?” and had made no reference to Israel whatsoever.
The BBC has declined to respond to criticisms beyond stating that it “stands by its journalism” and completely rejects “any accusations of bias or dishonesty”. This is, in many ways, the most serious failure: the failure to account for what appear to be, at best, serious errors of judgement on the part of the journalists and editors who produced the programme.
MRC values independent and investigative journalism as essential for democracy. When leading broadcasters fall short of their own guidelines, we should expect detailed responses and critical scrutiny. A one-sided and misleading attack on Labour reveals an underlying bias against the left that discredits its mission as a public service broadcaster.