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August 18, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:32am

Judge says Labour activist’s Radio 2 attack on John Ware was defamatory

By Charlotte Tobitt

Journalist John Ware’s reputation was harmed by a spokesperson for Jewish Voice for Labour as she appeared on the Jeremy Vine Show, a High Court judge has ruled.

Vine hosted a discussion on his Radio 2 show about the BBC Panorama programme “Is the Labour Party Anti-Semitic?”, presented by Ware, the day after it aired in July 2019.

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, the media officer for the Jewish Voice for Labour, was brought into the debate on the side of Jeremy Corbyn and the then-Labour party leadership.

Wimborne-Idrissi said: “The journalist who did that so-called investigation has a terrible record of Islamophobia, far-right politics, he’s been disciplined at – BBC has had to apologise.”

Vine asked: “Oh, wait a minute, you’re talking about one of my colleagues here, John Ware?” Wimborne-Idrissi then confirmed “I am”. She added: “Look him up on Wikipedia.”

Vine attempted to defend his colleague, telling Wimborne-Idrissi to “hang on a minute” and “now I have to get him on”, adding: “…the idea you just take down the journalist now, that’s kinda desperate isn’t it?”

He then said: “He’s one of the most distinguished journalists in the BBC!” and brought the debate to a close.

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Wimborne-Idrissi’s lawyers argued that Vine’s response lessened the severity of the charge against her: “A reasonable listener would be bound to pay more attention to the words of the impartial, longstanding and very well known presenter, Mr Vine, than to the words of Ms Wimborne-Idrissi,” they said.

But Ware’s lawyers pointed out he was not on the programme and able to defend himself, and Vine was unable to properly refute the allegations on his behalf.

Mrs Justice Steyne said there was “no dispute” that the meaning of Wimborne-Idrissi’s words was defamatory.

The reasonable listener would have understood Wimborne-Idrissi’s words to mean that Ware had been “disciplined by the BBC in connection with allegations he has engaged in Islamophobia and extreme, far-right politics, as a consequence of which the BBC has had to apologise for his conduct,” she said.

They would also have believed there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that [Ware] has an extensive record of Islamophobia and of involvement in extreme, far-right politics,” she added in her judgment.

The judge said both parts of the meaning were statements of fact as she dismissed Wimborne-Idrissi’s claim that she had made a statement of opinion on Ware’s journalistic record.

Regarding the second part, Wimborne-Idrissi relied on her direction to look up Ware on Wikipedia but Mrs Justice Steyne said this was “quite different from reading an online article with, say, a single hyperlink that a reader is encouraged and likely to click on.

“A person listening to a radio programme would probably have to open a different device, such as a smartphone or computer, to undertake an internet search. This involves not only switching devices, but also changing the mode of access from listening to reading which many listeners may not be in a position to do (e.g. because they are engaged in another activity while listening to the radio, such as driving, running or cooking) or may not wish to do so,” she said.

“And the listener is not automatically directed to the right page, as occurs when clicking on a hyperlink, but would have to look it up for themselves.”

Wimborne-Idrissi also defamed Ware with a Facebook post that also appeared on the Jewish Voice for Labour website, Mrs Justice Steyne ruled.

The judge ruled that the post would, to a reasonable reader with an interest in politics and current affairs, mean that Ware’s journalistic record “includes right-wing, racist work” and that he had on the Panorama programme “deliberately misrepresented the true position concerning anti-Semitism in the Labour party and acted unprofessionally by merely collecting together biased assertions and malicious allegations from opponents of Jeremy Corbyn, rather than investigating in the manner and to the standard expected of a professional journalist”.

She said that, taken as a whole, the statements had a defamatory meaning as they “would tend to have a substantially adverse effect on the way that right-thinking members of society generally would treat [Ware], alleging as they do that he has a record of racist journalism, and that in his work on the Panorama programme he deliberately misrepresented the true position and acted unprofessionally”.

The term “right wing” was not defamatory as it denotes a political stance within the mainstream of politics but the judge noted it was used as part of a description of “racist” work which on the whole was defamatory.

The case will now continue to trial unless a settlement is agreed. Possible defences include truth and public interest.

Earlier this year Ware separately won the first round of his libel fight against Press Gang editor Paddy French whose claim of “rogue journalism” about the same Panorama programme was deemed “clearly defamatory”.

French has argued his reporting was “measured, considered and responsible” and is continuing the case to trial, arguing it was both true and in the public interest.

Last year Labour agreed to pay substantial damages to Ware after falsely claiming he had “invented quotes, flouted journalistic ethics and… knowingly promoted falsehoods” in the Panorama programme.

Picture: BBC

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