Labour issues apology and pays substantial damages to anti-Semitism whistleblowers

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Labour today issued a formal apology and will pay “substantial damages” to seven whistleblowers over “defamatory and false allegations” it made about them over a BBC Panorama probe into anti-Semitism.

Seven former employees took Labour to the High Court after the party claimed they had “personal and political axes to grind” by appearing on the show.

Today, Labour’s barrister Mark Henderson told the court: “The Labour Party acknowledges that these claims about the claimants are untrue, and we retract and withdraw them and undertake not to repeat them.

“The Labour Party is here today to publicly set the record straight and to apologise to the claimants for the distress and embarrassment that it has caused.”

Labour also apologised and will pay damages to John Ware – the journalist who made the Panorama show – for falsely accusing him of “deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public”.

The legal action came after BBC Panorama broadcast an investigation in summer 2019 titled: “Is Labour Anti-Semitic?”

The whistleblowers were Katherine Buckingham, Michael Creighton, Samuel Matthews, Daniel Hogan, Louise Withers Green, Martha Robinson and Benjamin Westerman.

They had worked in the party’s governance and legal unit, where they were responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct by party members.

The programme included claims that senior figures close to Jeremy Corbyn interfered in anti-Semitism investigations.

At today’s brief High Court hearing in London, their barrister William Bennett QC said: “The whistleblowers were highly critical of the Labour Party’s approach to tackling anti-Semitism within its ranks.”

He told Mr Justice Nicklin: “Before the broadcast of the Panorama programme, the Labour Party issued a press release that contained defamatory and false allegations about the whistleblowers.”

Mr Bennett said Labour “accused the whistleblowers of having acted in bad faith during and after their employment with the intention of harming the Labour Party”, allegations he said were “untrue and defamatory”.

Mr Bennett said Labour had alleged that Mr Ware “invented quotes, flouted journalistic ethics and … knowingly promoted falsehoods” in pursuit of “a pre-determined outcome to the question asked by the Panorama programme”.

He added that the party had agreed to pay “substantial damages” to Mr Ware.

In a statement, the claimants’ solicitor Mark Lewis said: “Today in the High Court, the Labour Party retracted its false allegations made about the Panorama programme asking whether Labour was anti-Semitic.

“The answer was a clear ‘yes’. Labour chose to double down and attack the programme’s presenter, John Ware, and the whistleblowers rather than addressing the truth of the problem.

“It is ironic that the workers’ party chose to act as disgruntled bosses who had been caught out.”

He added: “This is just the start. Actions are being taken against those who repeat the libels, and will be taken against those who choose to do so in future. An honest opinion has to be based upon facts.

“Regrettably, there are too many out there who do not bother to check the facts when the facts do not support their factional view.”

It comes after Keir Starmer vowed to make amends to the Jewish community and speed up the handling of anti-Semitism cases on his watch.

Labour’s new leader sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from his frontbench for sharing a Twitter link to an interview which contained an “anti-Semitic conspiracy theory”.

The statement was issued today after the whistleblowers launched a High Court action over statements made about their conduct by the party.

A string of former staffers broke cover last year to speak to Panorama, which examined Labour’s response to claims of anti-Semitism by party members.

But in its response at the time, Labour claimed the allegations came from “disaffected former officials” opposed to Mr Corbyn’s leadership who had “personal and political axes to grind”.

A BBC spokesman said after today’s announcement: “The BBC will always support fair and impartial reporting, exposing wrongdoing and holding power to account.

“The Panorama programme did precisely that, but was subject to an extraordinary and vitriolic attack by the Labour Party.

“We welcome today’s long overdue apology to John Ware and the seven Panorama whistleblowers, who have been subjected to painful and damaging personal attacks on their integrity and character.

“We applaud their strength to take this case forward and are pleased it has been recognised in court that these extremely serious and damaging allegations against them were false and have been unreservedly withdrawn.

“John Ware is a reporter with an extraordinary record of excellence at Panorama for investigative journalism in the public interest.”

A Labour Party spokesman said: “Before the broadcast of the programme, the Labour Party issued a press release that contained defamatory and false allegations about these Whistleblowers.

“We acknowledge the many years of dedicated and committed service that the Whistleblowers have given to the Labour Party as members and as staff. We appreciate their valuable contribution at all levels of the Party.

“We unreservedly withdraw all allegations of bad faith, malice and lying. We would like to apologise unreservedly for the distress, embarrassment and hurt caused by their publication.  We have agreed to pay them damages.

“Under the leadership of Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, we are committed to tackling antisemitism within the Labour Party. Antisemitism has been a stain on the Labour Party in recent years. It has caused unacceptable and unimaginable levels of grief and distress for many in the Jewish community, as well as members of staff.

“If we are to restore the trust of the Jewish community, we must demonstrate a change of leadership. That means being open, transparent and respecting the right of whistleblowers. We are determined to deliver that change.”

Mr Corbyn hit back by saying: “Labour Party members have a right to accountability and transparency of decisions taken in their name, and an effective commitment from the party to combat antisemitism and racism in all their forms.

“The Party’s decision to apologise today and make substantial payments to former staff who sued the party in relation to last year’s Panorama programme is a political decision, not a legal one.”

He demanded the party address a leaked internal report on “factionalism and obstruction” during the 2017 election campaign.

A Labour spokesman refused to say how much members’ money was spent on legal fees in the case.

Asked if he regretted that members’ money was used he replied: “Of course, because we never wanted to get to this position in the first place.

“But the decision has been taken to settle and the decision has been taken to unreservedly apologise. That was reflected in the statement issued earlier today.”

Asked if it was a “political decision” to settle the case, the spokesman said: “It’s worth remembering that during the leadership contest all three candidates… said they believed the party had not taken the right approach at the time.”

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