The BBC’s flagship investigative news programme Panorama has come under fire after an episode focusing solely on Tower Hamlets Executive Mayor Lutfur Rahman was lambasted in the press and social media as both racist and totally lacking in journalistic integrity. The programme, fronted by reporter John Ware, claimed to lay bare a “favour culture” in Tower Hamlets; made serious but unsubstantiated allegations about the probity of the Council’s grants process and funding for faith groups as well as insinuating there is a “cosy” relationship between Rahman and the local Bengali language media. It also heavily attacked the council’s freesheet East End Life as a political propaganda outfit.
However, a whistleblower on Ware’s production team has gone public to state that the programme started with the thesis that Rahman was corrupt and then went looking for material it could use as evidence. She also said that the approach of the production team was overtly racist and that Ware encouraged unethical journalistic practice.
Mayor Rahman has strongly denied all the claims put in the Panorama team in a statement released following the broadcast saying: “There is nothing untoward in the way we give out grants. Over 430 recommendations were made and I only made 32 changes; benefitting groups as diverse as Vietnamese refugees and the Royal Society for the Blind.”
The statement continues: “The Mainstream Grants Programme 2013-2015 went to four Cabinet meetings; three Corporate Third Sector Grants Programme Boards and two Overview and Scrutiny Meetings before the final executive decision by the Mayor.” That is hardly a secretive process, as Panorama claimed. According to the statement, Bangladeshi and Somali groups received around 6.5% of grants funding under the Mayor, while together constituting 36% of the population.
Rahman also dismissed claims that East End Life was biased, citing an edition in which he appeared attacking the benefit cuts on one page and the Conservative Welfare Minister Iain Duncan Smith appeared on another, defending the Government’s policy. In his interview with Ware, Rahman pointed out that the paper has followed the same format for almost 15 years.
The programme itself was something of a damp squib, with no new allegations or evidence being presented and consisted of little more than Ware asking leading questions of opposition politicians and prowling the multicultural streets of the East End with a sour expression.
The producers were only able to find two local “talking heads” to back up the allegations – one a former Labour councillor and the other sitting Labour Councillor – while other residents spoke in support of the Mayor were either given virtually no airtime or were cut from the final film altogether.
After the broadcast, local residents took to social media to express outrage, with one, a gay Sikh man saying: “30 mins of vile racist & bias attack on Black communities.” Others described the program as “meritless” and a counter documentary produced by Rahman supporters was even shared “in the interest of balance” by the BBC Asia Network.
The scandal is the latest in a long line to hit Panorama, which was recently censured for putting a group of students at risk on a visit to North Korea. BBC bosses will doubtless be looking closely at Ware’s film and the furore surrounding it and wondering if Panorama can continue in its current format.