The Labour Party Was Wrong to Apologize to Jeremy Corbyn’s Critics

Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership has chosen to settle a libel action it had every chance of winning, as a way of marginalizing the party’s left wing. But that settlement can’t dispel well-founded criticisms of a controversial documentary that targeted Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour leader Keir Starmer at University College London Hospital on July 01, 2020 in London, England. Dan Kitwood / Getty

In recent years, controversy around antisemitism has dogged progressive leaders around the world, from Jean-Luc Melénchon to Bernie Sanders — and none more so, perhaps, than the former leader of the British Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn. After Corbyn achieved Labour’s biggest increase in the popular vote since 1945 in the 2017 general election, Labour’s antisemitism “crisis” became a sustained feature in UK politics and part of the mainstream news agenda, with allegations of antisemitism increasingly leveled at Corbyn himself.

It was against this backdrop that the BBC broadcast a highly controversial current-affairs program in its long-established Panorama slot in July 2019, with the title “Is Labour Antisemitic?” A procession of former Labour officials accused Corbyn and his associates of thwarting their efforts to take disciplinary action against party members guilty of antisemitism. Some even claimed to have been driven to the brink of suicide by an organizational culture that Corbyn had permitted to take root.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of this documentary, presented by veteran BBC journalist John Ware. It inspired an entire cycle of news coverage in its own right, including symposiums in the liberal press. For Corbyn’s opponents, the Panorama broadcast summed up everything that was wrong with his leadership of the Labour Party in an hour of gripping television.

Critics and Defenders

The Labour leadership mounted a strong defense of its record at the time. 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 program-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 program’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.

Within a fortnight, the BBC had received more than 1,500 complaints, none of which it upheld. After exhausting the BBC’s own complaints framework, several complainants turned to Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator, which took an extraordinary length of time before announcing its decision not to investigate the program. A judge has now refused permission for a review of Ofcom’s decision.

In the meantime, the documentary has been nominated for the prestigious BAFTA Awards. 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 Queen’s Counsel) and Tim Llewellyn (a former BBC Middle East correspondent).

For their part, John Ware and the former Labour staffers whose testimony he drew upon took legal action against the Labour Party, accusing it of defaming their character. The party’s new, post-Corbyn leadership has now agreed to settle those claims — despite having received “clear advice,” according to one former member of the party’s national executive, that Labour would have won in court. As well as an unreserved apology, the claimants were collectively awarded a six-figure sum in damages.

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.

Litmus Tests

The most prominently featured contributor to the program was Sam Matthews, who had been the chief investigator for Labour’s internal disciplinary team. In a key sequence involving Matthews, John Ware stated that he saw the Ken Livingstone case as a “litmus test” — presumably of the party’s willingness to deal robustly with antisemitism complaints. 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. In May 2019, Buzzfeed reported that the party’s Governance and Legal Unit (GLU), in which Matthews occupied a senior role, had delayed action on these complaints for an astonishing nine months after they were first lodged.

The leaked emails, published by Buzzfeed in advance of the Panorama broadcast, also suggest that the GLU did nothing about the complaints for two months despite repeated appeals by the leader’s office for action. This followed the raising of concerns by the Jewish Labour Movement about the lack of progress in Livingstone’s case 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.”

“Compelling Evidence”

There was a contradiction at the heart of the program’s narrative: on the one hand, it accused the leadership of a failure to act, and on the other hand, it claimed that members of the leader’s office had inappropriately “interfered” in the complaints process — even when the content of that “interference” had been to press for more robust disciplinary measures.

The Ken Livingstone example suggests that the leadership got the balance about right by acting on concerns raised directly by the Jewish Labour Movement, 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 Sam Matthews.

John Ware himself has recently stated that the program “interrogated the evidence of whistleblowers that members of LOTO [the leader’s office] (despite their denials) had interfered with the disciplinary process.” Ware also claimed to have found “compelling evidence to show that some members of LOTO and the NEC [Labour’s national executive] did sometimes inhibit and even intervene in a number of antisemitism cases.”

If the program-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 program 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 program 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 program, Ware paraphrased Formby as saying: “I don’t want those panelists — I want these panelists.” Even if this was considered a fair interpretation of the email, it seems odd that Panorama 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 made by Formby or the leadership but rather by Sam Matthews himself.

The BBC has insisted that the program “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 program 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 program 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 Sam Matthews, and in the quoted extracts from Milne’s email. Most striking of all, it was also left out when the program-makers referred selectively to the Labour Party’s reply.

The BBC has repeatedly claimed that John 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 Sam 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 John Ware in his response to criticism by Novara. 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 that the program makers knew to be true.

Stifling Debate

John Ware’s 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, many of which were 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 program-makers chose to ignore abundant evidence that contradicted the accounts given by the “whistleblowers.”

Although John Ware appears to have claimed ownership of the program — he referred repeatedly to “my program” 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. It will simply embolden a wide-ranging repressive campaign, being waged both through the courts and through the media, that aims to silence and delegitimize progressive political voices.

It is easier to make sense of this decision on political rather than strictly legal grounds. Current Labour Party leader Keir Starmer may have wanted to avoid further controversy on a topic that dogged his predecessor — or he may have wished to curry favor with Labour’s anti-Corbyn faction, from which the party staffers on whom Panorama relied were drawn. Any robust legal defense 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 left-wing current, which Starmer appears just as anxious to marginalize.

Whatever the motivation may have been, concerns about this particular edition of Panorama show no signs of abating. They have been only further fueled by the party’s decision to settle all cases with John Ware and the former Labour staffers, by the dismissal of complaints, and by the acclaim that institutions like BAFTA have heaped on the program. Jeremy Corbyn himself has issues a statement strongly criticizing the decision to settle, while John Ware in turn has threatened to sue Corbyn for his remarks. Keir Starmer’s desire to draw a line under the controversy may prove a forlorn hope.

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 organizations responded, but a solicitor acting for both Mr Ware and Mr Matthews responded as follows:

Dear Sir

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.

Yours faithfully

Patron Law

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Justin Schlosberg is a senior lecturer in journalism and media at Birkbeck College. He is coauthor of The Media Manifesto

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