This is a guest post by John Ware, the BBC Panorama reporter who fronted the Mayor and Our Money programme on March 31. This is the first proper response by the Panorama team to some of the accusations and smears directed towards them from senior officers and politicians in the town hall, both before the programme and since.
The former leader of Tower Hamlets Professor Michael Keith observes that the Mayor’s “popularity…speaks more to the strengths of community networks, Sylheti ties and the mobilising forces of his political machine.”
It is striking just how much The Facts have become flattened in this process – and how tenuous has been the relationship to truth in some notable cases.
Having now observed the sectarian politics of Tower Hamlets at close quarters, it seems to me that some of the poison might be drawn if those in positions of responsibility had a more scrupulous regard for facts and truth.
Yesterday, Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s adviser, Kazim Zaidi wrote on this blog:
“And then there was Panorama, aired just two weeks before the purdah period. Panorama claimed dodgy dealings with grants; it cited the Mayor’s car as an example of his profligacy.”
We made no mention of the Mayor’s car.
“.. and highlighted his apparent reluctance to attend scrutiny meetings..”
What we actually highlighted was the Mayor’s failure to answer questions in the council’s key scrutiny forum: Overview and Scrutiny. O&S minutes show this to be a fact.
The Mayor also seems to have been reluctant to attend O&S. Since the Mayor took office, we could find records of only four attendances: two as a non-speaking attendee, and two when he gave a verbal presentation on his work.
“…and answering questions in council, failing to point out that Rahman has attended more scrutiny sessions and answered more questions in council than his Labour counterparts in Newham and Lewisham.”
Mr Zaidi cites only “attendance” in respect of Overview & Scrutiny – presumably because he knows that the pertinent issue here is not attendance but willingness to answer questions.
And, as my commentary said:
“…In the last year Mayor Rahman is the only one out of all England’s 15 directly elected Mayors not to have answered questions at O & S.”
According to Newham Council, its Mayor “attended two overview and scrutiny meetings in the last 12 months and has answered questions at both meetings”; and according to Lewisham Council, its Mayor attended “on 20 June 2013” where there were “informal questions”.
The marked reluctance of the Mayor to answer questions at Overview and Scrutiny was especially relevant to our examination of his record on governance. After all, in firing the opening shots of the election campaign, the Mayor claimed to uphold the “highest standards of probity and transparency”.
“As for the rest, police found ‘no new credible evidence’ of fraud……”
As for the “rest”? Once again, as Mr Zaidi knows, we made no allegation against the Mayor of criminality or fraud in the programme. Like the Mayor and the Council, Mr Zaidi has conflated the Metropolitan Police statement of 16 April that there was “no credible evidence” of fraud or criminality in Panorama files (which the DCLG sent to the Met Police) with the quite separate contents of the broadcast Panorama programme.
The Police statement was not, as the Council’s misleading statement said, “in relation to recent allegations made in the BBC Panorama programme”, thereby quite wrongly implying that the Police had cleared the Mayor of fraud allegations “in the Panorama programme”.
The Mayor, the Council and Mr Zaidi know perfectly well that no allegations of fraud or of criminality were made against the Mayor personally by the BBC, nor in our files.
However, as the council also very well knew, Panorama’s files DID contain evidence that raised allegations of fraud in respect of a youth organisation that had been grant funded. The reason the Police did not attribute this to Panorama was because the council – not Panorama – had referred the case to the CID at Tower Hamlets.
What the council did not say, however, was that they only referred the case to the Police just days after we had submitted 25 very detailed questions to them about the alleged fraud, thus alerting them to the possibility the programme might disclose the fact that the council had known about the case for months – but not referred it to the police.
Our attempts to persuade the Council to correct the misleading impression from their partial statement at the height of the election campaign were ignored by the Council – the same Council which spent tens of thousands of taxpayers’ money trying to stop the BBC from broadcasting the programme in the first place by claiming it would “reduce the chances of a free fair and credible election.”
The BBC’s duty was not only to be fair, factual and impartial to the politicians contesting the election – but also to inform the electorate. Judging by the record turnout – which pushed up both the Mayor’s vote and Labour’s – the evidence suggests that far from undermining democracy the BBC might actually have helped reinvigorate it.