Panorama presenter awarded £90,000 after libel battle with blog editor

A Panorama presenter has been awarded £90,000 in damages following a libel battle with a media blog editor who claimed an investigation into allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party was “rogue journalism”.

John Ware sued Paddy French, a retired TV producer and editor of the Press Gang blog, over claims that a BBC documentary – titled Is Labour Anti-Semitic? – “bent the truth to breaking point”.

A High Court judge ruled on Wednesday that Mr French “intentionally calculated to harm” Mr Ware in making accusations of “the utmost seriousness” to the detriment of the journalist’s reputation.

Mr Justice Julian Knowles said Mr French had “maliciously” tried to create “a myth, a false narrative” over the progress of the libel case, adding the blog editor had shown an attitude of “contempt” to proceedings.

The July 2019 Panorama broadcast featured interviews with a number of whistleblowers who worked in Labour’s governance and legal unit, who were responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct by party members.

In an article titled’ Is The BBC Anti-Labour?’, published in various forms, including the magazine website Coldtype, Mr French said the programme “presented just one side of the argument” and claimed it “ignored basic facts”.

The article was sent directly to more than 100 senior managers and journalists at the BBC, as well as employees of other media organisations, and was also handed out to BBC staff outside Broadcasting House in December 2019.

A different judge previously found the article was defamatory and that it meant Mr Ware “is a rogue journalist who had engaged in dirty tricks aimed at harming the Labour Party’s chances of winning the general election by authoring and presenting an edition of Panorama in which he presented a biased and knowingly false presentation of the extent and nature of antisemitism within the party, deliberately ignoring contrary evidence”.

Anti-semitism in Labour
John Ware, who appeared in ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’, a documentary on antisemitism allegations levelled at the Labour Party (BBC Panorama/PA)

Mr Ware told the court it was falsely alleged that he had “deliberately disseminated false information” and had been “unscrupulous and dishonest” as this was the “antithesis of everything he has stood for in his 50-odd years as a journalist”.

The journalist was “proud” of his and colleagues’ work on a “well-timed” production on “a matter of considerable public interest”, Mr Justice Julian Knowles said in his ruling.

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and others were given a right to reply to the programme, which featured statements from the party, Mr Ware told the judge.

Mr Ware said the allegations were “inherently serious and struck at the heart of my professional reputation as a journalist and caused, or were likely to cause, serious harm to my reputation both in terms of the general public and those on whom I am dependent for my professional livelihood”.

He said the BBC “does not produce programmes with the aim of harming any political party” nor tried to “fix elections”.

Mr French, whose efforts to crowdfund more than £90,000 for his case received support from film director Ken Loach and Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters, did not attend a trial.

He previously claimed his concern was about “the quality of the journalism” and alleged he was not permitted to defend his case in the way he wanted to, with the blog editor later withdrawing from the case.

But Mr Justice Julian Knowles said Mr French had “tried to paint a false narrative in the face of likely defeat”.

The judge said it appeared Mr French “never had the necessary evidence to prove that the allegations were true” and had “seriously exacerbated the damage” to Mr Ware by seeking to ensure any judgment may be seen as “unwarranted or unfair”.

“I have no hesitation in concluding that the article did cause, or was likely to cause, (Mr Ware) serious harm,” the judge concluded.

He said a reference in a pamphlet version of the article to Mr Ware’s former wife and current partner being Jewish, and his children being brought up in the faith, was “particularly distasteful”.

“No credible or reputable journalist could possibly have thought that (Mr Ware’s) family’s faith had any relevance to the accuracy, or otherwise, of the programme,” the judge said.

Mr Justice Julian Knowles said: “To accuse a lifelong professional journalist of being a ‘rogue’ journalist, who had acted dishonestly in order to further a political agenda, was an accusation of the utmost seriousness.

“As I remarked during the hearing, if a journalist loses his or her reputation for truthfulness, honesty and integrity, then their journalistic currency is effectively worthless.”

He awarded Mr Ware total damages of £90,000 and granted a permanent injunction prevent the defamatory article being published again by Mr French.

Last month, Mr Ware received an apology from Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) over defamatory comments made in the wake of the Panorama broadcast.

In July 2020, Labour apologised and agreed to pay “substantial damages” to Mr Ware after it falsely accused him of “deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public”.

In a statement after Wednesday’s ruling, Mr Ware said he was “pleased to be fully vindicated by the court”.

He added that he hoped the case sent a signal that “trenchant criticism is fine; attributing malign motives to arguments with which you passionately disagree isn’t”.

Mr French said in a statement he was “naturally disappointed” and claimed the case “raises serious questions about press freedom in Britain”.