“The Mayor and Our Money”, the Panorama documentary on Lutfur Rahman’s administration in Tower Hamlets that was broadcast this evening (being carefully timed to damage Lutfur’s reputation in the run-up to the mayoral election in May) failed to pin any charges of financial or political corruption on Lutfur, despite advance publicity suggesting otherwise. What we got instead was unsubstantiated smears and innuendo. This was much as expected, given that the reporter was John Ware, whose shoddy journalistic methods have previously been exposed by media analysts.
Readers of Islamophobia Watch will probably remember that Ware was responsible for the notorious 2005 Panorama programme attacking the Muslim Council of Britain, entitled “A Question of Leadership”. In a detailed analysis of this documentary in their book Pointing the Finger: Islam and Muslims in the British Media, Julian Petley and Robin Richardson accuse Ware of engaging in “smear journalism, an odious form of journalism that either lacks the proof for the points it wishes to make, or the courage to say what it means and face the legal consequences, or both. This is exactly the kind of journalism one expects from the tabloid press (for which Ware, entirely unsurprisingly, once worked), but to find it in full flower on what is supposed to be the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme is surely quite unacceptable.”
The authors conclude: “‘A Question of Leadership’ can be described as a classic example of thesis-driven journalism. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this kind of reportage, but problems arise when it tips over into tendentiousness, when one has the distinct impression that the journalist is grinding an axe, that they’ve gone out to find the facts to fit – as opposed to test – their thesis, and that nothing they discover will sway them from the view with which they set out in the first place. This is the distinct impression left by this particular edition of Panorama….”
Less well known is an earlier Panorama programme by Ware, “Brent Schools – Hard Left Rules”, which was broadcast in 1987, and sought to portray Labour-controlled Brent Council as a hotbed of left-wing extremists who were supposedly doing serious damage to the borough’s education system. There is a detailed analysis of this documentary too, by Julian Petley in Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left. He points out that the Labour leftists targeted by Ware “were never allowed freely to put their own or the council’s point of view, unlike those critical of the council’s policies – their function in the programme was simply to stand at the receiving end of criticisms levelled by their opponents and reinforced not only by Ware himself but by the very manner in which they were actually interviewed”.
Petley quotes a contemporary review from the BBC’s own magazine The Listener, which complained that in the course of Ware’s Brent documentary “any attempt at a reasoned, detached, analytic or investigative programme had been abandoned in favour of a closed demonstration of one point of view reinforced by emotional and rhetorical flourishes”. Like Pointing the Finger, Culture Wars notes the tabloid-inspired style of Ware’s reporting, observing that he “once, perhaps significantly, worked for the Sun“.
So you can understand why Ware must have leaped at the chance to do a programme on Lutfur Rahman. Here was an opportunity to attack a prominent Muslim politician and discredit a progressive local administration – Ware was in his element. If there’s a criticism of Lutfur, it’s that he ever allowed himself to be interviewed by a man with such a record of biased journalism whose only interest was in carrying out a political hatchet-job on him.
Update: See “BBC Panorama’s ‘unprofessional, shoddy and biased reporting’”, Mayor Lutfur Rahman press release, 31 March 2014
And “BBC Panorama: fact and fiction about Tower Hamlets Council”, Mayor Lutfur Rahman press release, 31 March 2014
Also “Ware’s allegations just don’t add up”, Mayor Lutfur Rahman press release, 31 March 2014
And “Panorama statement – post broadcast”, Tower Hamlets Council press release, 31 March 2014
Update 2: Dave Hill has provided a helpful summary of the sort of journalistic approach adopted by Ware and Panorama in preparing their documentary on Lutfur Rahman’s administration:
“The method is well established and widespread: one, identify your target; two, use every fact and quote you can dredge up to assemble the case you want to make (the word ‘links’ often comes in handy here); three, ignore or downplay any material that complicates or dilutes that case; four, make your language as dramatic as possible (frequent use of ‘secret’, ‘plot’, ‘fears’ and so on); five, get as much of it as past the lawyers as you can. This insulates you against claims that you’ve told lies. But your story is a distortion just the same.”