Revealed: Mayor’s letters in bid to stop Panorama on Tower Hamlets
PUBLISHED: 11:20 31 July 2014 | UPDATED: 15:58 31 July 2014
EXCLUSIVE: The Mayor’s efforts to stop a BBC Panorama report scrutinising his record in office have been revealed in a letter written on the eve of the broadcast.
Mayor Lutfur Rahman wrote to the BBC director general to “urge” him to pull the Panorama report about Tower Hamlets from the TV schedule, just two days before it was due to be aired, warning it could cause “disorder” and endanger local residents.
In a letter to Sir Tony Hall on March 28, released after a Freedom of Information request, Mayor Rahman alleged the programme, The Mayor and Our Money, would breach BBC guidelines and implied it was motivated by racial and religious prejudice.
He also warned it could make the borough a target for attacks by far-right groups like the EDL and put “at risk residents’ personal safety”, adding that “the risk of disorder is high” and could “damage the ability of Canary Wharf to attract international investors”.
But the council has confirmed the Mayor had not actually seen the programme he branded “unfair” when he made the allegations.
The letter is part of a batch of correspondence between the BBC and Tower Hamlets Council sent from January to May this year released by the council.
The documents reveal a fraught relationship of mutual suspicion between the programme-makers and council officers, with council head of communications Takki Sulaiman complaining of Panorama’s “racial and religious focus”, and the BBC accusing the council of using “delaying tactics” and withholding information.
They also reveal how the Mayor’s face-to-face interview for the programme was pushed back by the council more than once, and that Mr Sulaiman at one point requested the Mayor be allowed a break during the interview.
The revelations appear to support claims by the programme’s chief reporter, John Ware, that the Mayor tried to stop the programme going ahead.
Mayor’s letter to BBC director general
“I am the directly elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets and the first and only ethnic minority directly-elected mayor in Britain. Since 2010, I have been subject to a campaign of vilification in the right wing press that has focused almost exclusively on my background as a Muslim of Bangladeshi origin. […]
“Tower Hamlets is a diverse borough that has had to fight hard for its community cohesion. From the Blackshirts in the ’30s to the National Front in the ’70s and the EDL as recently as September last year, we have had to stand on the street to defend our diversity. […]
“By stigmatising the role of faith organisations in our borough and singling out the Bangladeshi community and Muslim organisations for criticism, the Panorama programme makes Tower Hamlets a target for further attacks from extremist groups placing at risk our residents’ personal safety and property.
“The risk of disorder is high, damaging all Tower Hamlets residents and businesses including damaging the ability of Canary Wharf to attract international investment.”
■ Source: Letter to Sir Tony Hall, May 28, from Mayor Lutfur Rahman. Full email available at towerhamletsfoi.org.uk/disclosuresearch.asp.
Mayor Rahman closed his three-page letter to Lord Hall by saying: “Trust in the BBC is now at an all-time low and I’m sure that licence fee payers would be shocked to learn that their money is now being used for such an unfair programme.
“In view of the above public interest and public policy considerations, and clear breaches of the corporation’s editorial guidelines, I urge you to reconsider broadcasting this programme.”
In April, the Advertiser revealed the council spent at least £37,000 of taxpayers’ money on city law firm Taylor Wessing for legal work on the Panorama report.
The programme accused the Mayor of using public money for self-promotion by doubling funding grants for Bangladeshi charities and filling the council’s East End Life newspaper with biased coverage.
It spawned the launch of a government-appointed audit into allegations of “poor financial management and fraud” which the council is challenging at the High Court by seeking a judicial review.
A spokesman for BBC Panorama said: “There has been a lot of baseless speculation and misleading comment on the circumstances surrounding this programme.
“Panorama uncovered serious concerns about the use of public money by an elected official, and an external audit is currently under way.
“These are plainly matters of legitimate public interest and we continue to stand by the accuracy and integrity of the programme.”
A council spokesman said due to Panorama’s “significant delay” in giving details of its inquiries and “one dimensional line of questioning to third sector partners in the borough, council officers became concerned that the programme was not going to accurately reflect council systems, processes and decisions.
“As a result it was decided to highlight the BBC’s editorial guidelines and engage with the BBC hierarchy when it became clear that our concerns were not being listened to.”
The Mayor’s office declined to comment.