Many of you would have already seen this piece I wrote for the Express on Thursday, but it needs recording here. You’ll remember last month this blog post about Mayor Lutfur Rahman providing another court character reference for a convicted criminal. As I said then, he has a habit of using his office for such good deeds.
The first to secure Lutfur’s praise in court was a minicab driver who had molested a woman in the back of his car.
Then last month it was Lutfur’s friend and admirer, Mohammed Mahee Ferdhaus, aka Mahee Jalil, aka the most influential man in British Bangladeshi TV.
Mahee is the founder Channel S, a rogue satellite TV company based in Walthamstow. And until he was sentenced to his second stretch in jail last month (he previously did a couple of years for insurance fraud; this time it was for money laundering £500k from a motor insurance fraud), he was the channel’s main anchorman.
Politicians fell at his feet and he in turn gave them favourable coverage…which meant that when Ofcom wasn’t actually asleep on the job, the channel was in breach of broadcasting rules.
In fact, Channel S has been a repeat offender with Ofcom. In 2012, the regulator said this of biased coverage towards Lutfur:
We are concerned that the breach in this case comes after three previous contraventions of the Code rules covering due impartiality and elections recorded against Channel S: in Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 1773; Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 1884; and Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin 2035. We therefore put the Licensee on notice that further breaches of the Code of a similar or related nature will be considered for statutory sanction.
Yet when Ofcom came to sanction the broadcaster for its next breach the following year, it said it was powerless to take a stronger line. As the Evening Standard reported in March 2013, Channel S had recreated itself under a new management structure and with new directors registered at Companies House. How convenient. Here’s what Channel S told the Standard back then:
Channel S Television Ltd in its present form has only been trading since the end of June 2012. Everything that you mention was prior to June 2012 and I cannot comment on it as it was under different management at that time.
The council, too, seems to have hidden behind this line because it has continued to pay the channels tens of thousands of pounds in public money via advertising deals and via grants for “award ceremonies”.
Lutfur also employed the channel’s main reporter, Mohammed Jubair, as a £50k a year part-time mayoral adviser on “community media”.
Now, wouldn’t it be a scandal if the council was fully aware that Channel S, throughout all this time, was being still being controlled by a convicted fraudster and that the new management structure was something of a con?
Which brings me back to my article for the Express on Thursday. After we discovered last month that Lutfur had provided a glowing character reference for Mahee, we wrote to the judge to see a copy of the Mayor’s letter.
The court wrote back to decline our request on the grounds the letter had been provided in confidence as part of Mahee’s mitigation. So we pursued the case and in a hearing before Judge Anthony Pitts at Southwark Crown Court on Thursday (Judge Pitts had presided over Mahee’s case), we argued that what an elected public official was saying in mitigation for a known criminal was a matter of strong public interest.
We argued that I had a long and acknowledged record investigating Tower Hamlets council and we insisted that Lutfur’s letter did not fall within the category of a confidential note to the court, such as a mitigating victim statement.
So impressed was Judge Pitts with our arguments, he not only made his court officials go to extra special efforts to find the original reference (at one stage he feared it was no longer in the court files), but he also revealed that Lutfur’s deputy mayor, Cllr Ohid Ahmed, had provided a reference as well. He asked us if we’d like that one, too.
Intriguingly, he added that some other “well known….extremely well known people” had also given letters of support, but because we had made no application on that score, those names remain anonymous. I wonder who they were.
Judge Pitts agreed that the matter was “important” for the rights of the press to investigate and also for criminal procedure rules in sentencing. Essentially, we have set a precedent for journalists. So let’s have a look at these obsequious references.
Do they sound like they thought Mahee was just some mere presenter? What about Ohid’s comment that Mahee “sent his camera crew” to a news event?
Now remember this: at the time Lutfur and Ohid wrote these letters on official council notepaper, they knew Mahee Ferdhaus was a twice convicted criminal, a massive fraudster. He was a man who through his no doubt inflated motor insurance premiums, fleeced Bengali residents in Tower Hamlets.
Lutfur and Ohid also knew that Mahee’s not-so-squeaky-clean personal life led to his kidnapping, torture and beating by business associates and gangsters.
In short, to pretty much any reasonable individual, he’s a rotten egg.
So don’t these character references say something about the characters of the men who gave them? Ohid Ahmed is the the cabinet member for “community safety” but here he is praising a Class A criminal.
And Lutfur Rahman is among other things in charge of a multimillion pound discretionary grants programme and is responsible for ensuring there is no fraud.
Yet here he is fulsome in his praise for a fraudster. Maybe he’s not that bothered about “white collar crime”. What shining examples they are.
Anyway, here’s the Express article in full. (And I’m going to write a separate post later about some new breaches of the Ofcom code by other Bengali TV stations in favour of Lutfur.)
EXPRESS Newspapers today scored an important victory for the rights of the press to view court documents by persuading a judge to release a glowing character reference from a London mayor for a convicted fraudster.
Judge Anthony Pitts at Southwark Crown Court agreed to release the reference from Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman in support of millionaire Mohammed Mahee Ferdhaus, an influential TV mogul and presenter who was sentenced last month to three years in jail for laundering £500,000 of proceeds from an insurance fraud.
The judge was so impressed with the arguments put forward by Express barrister Joseph Lewis and its journalist Ted Jeory that he revealed Mr Rahman’s deputy, Councillor Ohid Ahmed, had also provided a reference that praised Ferdhaus’s attempts on TV to reduce crime.
“You may as well have that too,” the judge volunteered. The judge said the case had been an important matter for criminal sentencing procedures.
Both letters, which were used by Ferdhaus to try and secure a lower sentence, were written on Tower Hamlets council headed notepaper. While the deputy mayor added a postscript to his reference that he was writing in a “personal capacity”, no such note was on Mr Rahman’s letter.
Judge Pitts in earlier correspondence with the Express had declined an application to disclose the reference, saying it had been handed to him in the sentencing hearing “in confidence as part of the mitigation”.
However, after listening to arguments at a hearing in open court today, he said he had “changed his mind”.
He said: “I think that the press are entitled to know these two particular documents. “They could easily have been read out and they could have been called as witnesses. “For that reason, I am going to disclose both of them.”
He said he had found arguments “extremely interesting” and had ordered his court officials to look “extensively” to see if the references remained in the building. Officials had only found them 10 minutes before today’s hearing, he said.
In his arguments, Mr Lewis said Mr Jeory had a long and acclaimed record of investigating Tower Hamlets and the links between the mayor and Bangladeshi television stations.
Mr Lewis told the judge Channel S had previously been “repeatedly reprimanded” by Ofcom for biased coverage in favour of Mr Rahman. He said Ferdhaus’s influence “held great sway” within the Bangladeshi community of east London.
He said Mr Jeory was investigating the nature of the links between the mayor, who was elected to office in 2010, and Channel S. He added a BBC Panorama programme due to air “in the not too distant future” was also probing the relationships.
Mr Lewis said while he accepted the principle that certain references supplied to the court should remain confidential, for example victim statements in domestic violence cases, a letter from an elected public official on council paper was “a different matter”.
“This was a political ally effectively providing assistance to his friend or ally,” Mr Lewis told the judge.
At the sentencing hearing last month, the court had been told Mr Rahman had provided a reference, but the details of the letter had not been read out in full. Mr Lewis said the public had a right to know what had been said.
He said court guidelines recognised the “special position of the press’s role as a public watchdog” and that Mr Jeory’s application as an accredited journalist should be accepted.
Judge Pitts also revealed a number of “very well known” other personalities had supplied references for Ferdhaus but their names remain anonymous.
Ferdhaus’s case was reported by Express.co.uk last month. He had admitted his part in a £1.9million “crash for cash” insurance scam between 2006 and 2008. Gangs had rammed expensive cars such as BMWs into each other at drinking parties and Ferdhaus, 40, had a “background” role in the crime.
Until the day of his trail he had tried to pin the blame on his innocent brother Abdul. He had been jailed for 18 months in 2008 for conspiracy to defraud in respect of an almost identical earlier insurance scam between 2002 and 2003.
The businessman was on bail awaiting trial at the time he became embroiled in the later fraud. Ferdhaus had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after being kidnapped at gunpoint outside his TV station offices in Walthamstow, east London and issued with a £250,000 ransom demand.
When he refused to pay his assailants they tortured him, hanging him upside down and pouring boiling water on his head, before threatening to rape his daughter.
In his reference for Mr Ferdhaus, Mr Rahman wrote: “Mr Ferdhaus has played an instrumental role in promoting British Bangladeshis across the globe through Channel S.
“His contribution to the British Bangladeshi community especially in the fields of media and culture is widely recognised and commendable. Under Mr Ferdhaus’s leadership Channel S was one of the first satellite BME channels to initiate free viewing, connecting the Bangladeshi diaspora across Britain and the world. He has played a critical role in philanthropy, supporting charity and humanitarian organisations following natural disasters.
“As a prominent media personality, I have always known him to be constructive, critical but impartial as an anchor on community and current affairs.”
In his reference, Deputy Mayor Councillor Ahmed said Ferdhaus influenced his thinking on policies. He said Ferdhaus’s ‘Reality with Mahee’ Tv programme was “particularly useful”.
He wrote: “His programme helped the community enormously as his show always talk about real issues and problems (sic). I often watch his programme and find it very useful particularly his suggestions and recommendations to solve these problems.
“As founder of Channel S (Number one Bangladeshi TV channel in UK) he has always helped us promoting the good initiatives particularly the community safety issues, recent example was that when Tower Hamlets facilitated the biggest police operation in the country, he sent his camera crew in the middle of the night with reporters which was broadcast in the channel extensively (sic).
“As TV presenter and Founder of TV channel he has his own community intelligence which he often share with us in order to resolve problems in our community particularly drugs, prostitution and antisocial behaviour related problems.”