‘Record’ damages for Panorama journalist John Ware in libel suit

The BBC journalist sued Paddy French for accusing him of engaging in ‘dirty tricks’ against Labour in 2019


Israel: Facing the Future...Programme Name: Israel: Facing the Future - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Embargoed for publication until: n/a - Picture Shows: John Ware visits Israel to explore challenges facing the country in the wake of the Arab Spring John Ware - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jane McMullen

Veteran TV journalist John Ware has won what is believed to be a record £90,000 damages against a website editor over a series of libellous claims he made against him.

Mr Ware, who presented a BBC Panorama episode in July 2019 entitled Is Labour Antisemitic?, sued Paddy French for accusing him of being a “rogue journalist” who had “engaged in dirty tricks aimed at harming the Labour Party’s chances of winning the General Election”.

The statements appeared on a pamphlet published on Mr French’s Press Gang website and was physically delivered to 100 “senior staff” at the BBC, and 200 individuals employed by the Guardian, Channel 4, LBC, Sky, New Statesman, the Daily Mail, and others.

Mr French also accused the Panorama programme of being “biased”, while showing a “knowingly false presentation of the extent and nature of antisemitism within the party, deliberately ignoring contrary evidence”.

Mr Ware believes the damages award announced in the High Court in London on Wednesday by Mr Justice Knowles are the highest in relation to a string of Corbyn-era libel cases.

Mr French did not appear at the High Court and was not represented. He emailed the court on 27 October this year saying: “I have decided to take no further part in these proceedings.”

The £90,000 French raised through an online crowdfunding appeal included a substantial donation from Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.

Mr Justice Knowles also granted a permanent injunction against French to prevent him re-publishing the article and ordered him to pay Mr Ware’s legal costs.

In his judgement, Mr Justice Knowles outlined the content of Mr Ware’s Panorama programme, which he said had been watched by 2m people. “Its subject was the perceived growth in antisemitism in the Labour Party in recent years, and the concerns of Jewish Labour activists and others about it,” the judge wrote in his 41-page adjudication.

He added: “At the time, the Leader of the Labour Party was Jeremy Corbyn MP. The central thrust of the Programme was that antisemitism within Labour had markedly increased under his leadership, and that neither he, nor other senior Labour figures close to him, had done enough to eradicate it.

“The Party was described by one contributor as ‘institutionally racist’ with regards to Jewish people.”

The judge noted that Mr Ware was “proud of the work that he and his colleagues had done on the programme, which had been a ‘well-timed’ production on a matter of considerable public interest”.

He added: “He (Mr Ware) pointed out that the programme had been the product of work by a large number of people, not just himself, and so the Defendant’s accusations were effectively that there had been a conspiracy among this group to produce a biased and dishonest film, albeit he alone had been singled out in the Article as having been responsible.

“He (Mr Ware) said the programme had been carefully and fully researched. The commentary delivered by him was the work of a number of people, including the producer, the executive producer, a legal adviser, an editorial policy adviser, and others, as well as himself. The programme had taken months of preparation.”

The judgement also highlighted three comments Mr French made about Mr Ware on his online crowdfunder appeal. The remarks, which the judge said “give the flavour”, were:

“Ware is a rogue scumbag, who, along with Zionist, anti-socialist interlopers in the Labour Party, need exposing for the frauds they are.”;

“Don't let the bastards grind you down! Let's get Ware.”; and “Ware is evidently a questionable journalist on his validity time and time again recently !”

Mr Justice Knowles also referred to Mr French having written about Mr Ware and his family’s Jewish faith in the pamphlet.

The judge wrote: “The Claimant then went on to mention that the Defendant had referred in his Pamphlet to the fact that the Claimant’s former wife, and his current partner, are Jewish, and that his children had been brought up in the Jewish faith.

“I find this particularly distasteful on the part of the Defendant. No credible or reputable journalist could possibly have thought that the Claimant’s family’s faith had any relevance to the accuracy, or otherwise, of the Programme. The Defendant may have thought the Claimant and the Programme were legitimate targets for criticism; on no view could he reasonably have thought that the Claimant’s family was.”

Summing up his judgement, Mr Justice Knowles wrote:

“I conclude that the Claimant’s case on serious harm is overwhelming. The Defendant’s allegations were of the utmost seriousness; they were published to many, many people, some of whom were targeted because they had the ability to directly impact the Claimant’s ability to earn a living; the Defendant continued to publish them from December 2019 to June 2022; the Defendant continued right up to trial to (at least) imply that he could prove the truth of his allegations but had been unfairly prevented from doing so.

Furthermore, there is evidence that some individuals believed the Defendant’s allegations and therefore thought the worse of the Claimant.

“The allegations made by the Defendant against the Claimant were not as serious as an accusation of being a terrorist, or organising a contract killing, but in their context they were still extremely serious. I think they were more serious than the allegations in Turley.

The Defendant’s conduct was intentionally calculated to harm the Claimant. There was extensive publication running into the many thousands. There are serious aggravating features. Taking matters in the round, I award the Claimant total damages for the publication of the Article in all its forms, and for the Defendant’s aggravating conduct, of £90 000.”

Afterwards, Mr French contacted the JC with the following statement:

“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 that that reporter was involved in making. 

“I am concerned that the Director General and the BBC board appear to have allowed the case to go ahead. 

“This raises the question of whether Ware v French is a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) action by proxy in order to smother debate about this controversial programme. 

“If it is, then it sets a dangerous precedent — Britain’s state broadcaster is permitting its reporters to engage in litigation against the Corporation’s critics. 

“I am disappointed that the case has ended in the way it did.

“I would like to thank my legal team and the large number of people who have supported me in contesting it.

“The judgment does not end the continuing examination of the Panorama programme. 

“I’m pleased that John Ware and his team have acknowledged that I am free to continue investigating the Panorama broadcast.

“The full report on this programme — which will be read for libel and take into account the injunction granted in this case  — will be published next year.”

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