Panorama journalist John Ware is seeking additional damages from Press Gang editor Paddy French as a result of the latter’s “withdrawal” from defending his libel case.
Ware said he had been left “in a bit of a no man’s land” by French’s departure, accusing the latter of “slithering away” from court.
In addition to the damages, Ware is seeking an injunction against French repeating an allegation that Ware behaved dishonestly when producing the 2019 BBC Panorama programme “Is Labour anti-Semitic?”
And his lawyer asked the judge to have French distribute any eventual ruling to his readers and supporters.
Neither French nor a representative were in court on Monday at the Royal Courts of Justice.
Ware is suing French for £50,000 over a pamphlet titled “Is the BBC anti-Labour?”, which French published via his Press Gang website.
An article within it charged that Ware’s Panorama programme had been “a piece of rogue journalism that presented just one side of the argument, ignored basic facts and bent the truth to breaking point”.
In February 2021, Mr Justice Saini found the meaning of the article to be “clearly defamatory”.
Mr Justice Saini said the article carried the meaning that Ware was 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 anti-Semitism within the party, deliberately ignoring contrary evidence”.
French, a former current affairs television producer, announced at the end of October he would “withdraw” from the case against him, in part because Mr Justice Saini’s finding prevented him from introducing the evidence he had intended. He said he had hoped to use the case as “an opportunity for a forensic examination of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party while Jeremy Corbyn was leader”.
French no longer has legal representation, and would have had to defend himself in court.
In the event the trial took a little over an hour, hearing only from Ware and his lawyer William Bennett KC.
Bennett attacked French’s logic for withdrawing, saying: “What Mr French is now telling his crowdfunder followers, telling his followers on the Press Gang website, is palpably and provably and demonstrably false.”
Bennett said that on the day of Mr Justice Saini’s preliminary ruling, French had said in a statement that “I remain resolutely committed to defending this action”.
The lawyer said there was “nothing there about his hands being tied” and that it was only after that point French said he would defend the case on truth and public interest defences.
“The word bias is in [Saini’s ruling]. The words ‘false presentation of the extent and nature of anti-Semitism’… Mr Justice Saini had given Mr French a chance to prove the one-sidedness of the case.”
By pulling out, Bennett said, the effect was “to cheat Mr Ware of vindication by pretending that he was prevented from mounting the defence he wanted to mount”.
Bennett asked Ware, appearing on the witness stand, what his reaction had been to French’s withdrawal.
Ware said: “I was pretty bewildered, because since the start of these proceedings he had said he would vigorously defend them. So that was a bit of a shock.
“And he said he wasn’t going to contest my claim, which has left me in a bit of a no man’s land because if he isn’t contesting it you would expect him to admit my claim. But he hasn’t, and he hasn’t apologised.”
Ware said in court that French was“essentially saying… [the allegations against Ware have] been made and determined elsewhere. And neither of those things are true. The specific criticisms he’s made against me… as far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been an allegation [elsewhere] that I set out to – ludicrous as it is – fix a general election.”
He added: “The notion that I would plot to disseminate X when I knew Y was true is just ludicrous and it offends everything I believe in and stand for. And apart from anything else, it wouldn’t even have been possible even if I had wanted to do that… My colleagues are deeply honourable people.”
Ware attacked the claim he would have helped the Conservative Party, emphasising that the month before he had produced an interview with Jennifer Arcuri exploring the honesty of then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“I wanted my day in court,” Ware said. “But not just this unsatisfactory one-sided affair… I wanted my day in court but Mr French has slithered away.”
Asked by Bennett about the convention, described by French in his release, that journalists not sue one another for libel, Ware said: “I think this is a bit of, if I may say so, whiskery nostalgia.
“It’s true that when I went into journalism, and for quite a time, that was an unwritten rule. But the world has changed beyond recognition. This was a pre-social media unwritten rule. But it certainly doesn’t apply now.”
Bennett said that “the mischief of this libel is it will… sow doubt among the readers as to whether Mr Ware can be trusted or not”.
Because there would be no full contesting of the original claims in court, Bennett asked Mr Justice Knowles to set damages above those originally sought, to show “how clearly” Ware had been defamed.
“The contemptuous behaviour of him by publishing that press release [in which French pulled out of the case] aggravates the damages, aggravates the upset”.
Asked by Mr Justice Knowles how much the claim should now be worth, Bennett said: “In excess of £50,000.” The ceiling in such cases, he said, “is somewhere in excess of £300,000” but “this doesn’t come close to the ceiling.”
Bennett also asked the judge for an injunction against French “repeating the allegations as synthesised by Mr Justice Saini”.
French said in his press release he is now “producing a full report into the Panorama programme” containing “new material that has yet to see the light of day.”
In light of this, Bennett said “that permanent injunction is required to stop these very serious allegations being made again” – although the injunction should be “properly and reasonably narrow” so that French could continue examining the Panorama programme.
And Bennett asked the judge to ultimately require French to publish the ruling on Press Gang and on the crowdfunding sites French used to finance his defence, as well as to distribute it to Ware’s peers who were directly sent the pamphlet.
Mr Justice Knowles reserved judgement, saying he would issue a ruling as soon as he could.
Asked for comment on the new damages sought, French told Press Gazette: “This case raises serious questions about press freedom in Britain.
“I believe I am the first journalist to be sued by a reporter working for the BBC over criticism of a BBC programme he was involved in making.
“I am pleased that John Ware and his team have acknowledged that I am free to continue examining the Panorama broadcast.
“The full report on this programme – which will be read for libel and take account of any of the judge’s comments in this case – will be published next year.”
Pictures: Ware picture (left) via PA Wire/Tom Pilgrim; French picture (right) via Paddy French
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