BBC journalist, UK Labour whistleblowers to sue Corbyn for defamation
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BBC journalist, UK Labour whistleblowers to sue Corbyn for defamation

Move comes after opposition party, now under new leadership, admitted to making false allegations about 7 ex-employees trying to tackle anti-Semitism

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in Islington, north London, December 13, 2019, after defeat by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Britain’s election. (Isabel Infantes/PA via AP)
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in Islington, north London, December 13, 2019, after defeat by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Britain’s election. (Isabel Infantes/PA via AP)

A BBC journalist and several whistleblowers who helped him expose widespread mishandling of anti-Semitism complaints within the UK Labour Party last year are suing Jeremy Corbyn, the former party leader, for defamation, British media reported.

The development comes after Britain’s main opposition party on Wednesday apologized “unreservedly,” withdrew its accusations and agreed to pay substantial damages to seven whistleblowers who sued the party for defamation.

The seven former employees, who were responsible for investigating complaints about misconduct within the party, including anti-Semitism, appeared on a BBC investigative program last year looking into whether Labour was anti-Semitic. They criticized the party’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints, and sued the party when it issued a statement describing them as having “personal and political axes to grind.”

The former employees were also accused of trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader at the time.

Attorney Mark Lewis, who represents journalist John Ware and the whistleblowers, was quoted Wednesday as confirming he had been “instructed to pursue cases.”

In an op-ed for the Jewish Chronicle Wednesday, Ware explained in detail why he was suing Corbyn, and added that he would be also taking legal action against a series of “alternative media outlets and individuals.”

Ware claimed that Labour’s reaction to his report — “imputing a malign, dishonest, conspiratorial motive to BBC program makers” — triggered “a year-long fusillade of falsehoods from a stream of left-wing bloggers, media ‘activists,’ Labour’s ‘people-powered’ Momentum faction and alt-Left outlets.”

“To this day, pro-Corbyn conspiracy theorists persist in repeating their falsehoods,” he said. “They are convinced of the righteousness of their efforts to destroy the BBC’s Panorama for giving a voice to the people who felt they had been victims of antisemitism.”

Meanwhile, an online fundraising campaign was opened Wednesday by Corbyn supporters to fund his legal defense. The GoFundMe campaign has raised more than 130,000 pounds ($165,000) in two days, far surpassing the original goal of 20,000 pounds.

“The relentless attacks on Mr. Corbyn, a man of integrity, honesty and humility cannot be allowed to continue and we have an opportunity here to offer him support in a practical way,” wrote Carole Morgan, who initiated the fundraiser.

Keir Starmer, left, with Jeremy Corbyn at the European Union headquarters in Brussels after a bilateral Brexit meeting, September 27, 2018. (Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

The party’s new leader, Keir Starmer, has said he is committed to tackling anti-Semitism within his ranks. He is trying to steer the party back towards the center ground after the divisive tenure of Corbyn, his left-wing predecessor.

Mark Henderson, representing Labour, told Britain’s High Court on Wednesday that the party acknowledged that “the claims about the claimants are untrue” and apologized to the group for defaming them and disseminating false allegations about them. “The Labour Party is here today to publicly set the record straight, and to apologize to the claimants for the distress and embarrassment that it has caused them,” the party said in a statement read out in court.

Labour also agreed to pay damages to the journalist who made the television program, and apologized for alleging at the time that he “invented quotes” and “flouted journalistic ethics.”

The total amount of the damages wasn’t disclosed. Many UK media outlets have estimated it at £500,000 ($636,000) while the Guardian reported that the settlement cost Labour some £600,000 ($760,000), with about £180,000 in damages for the eight individuals. “The settlement is believed to be an unprecedented case of a political party libeling a journalist and former employees,” it said.

Corbyn complained about the party’s settlement, calling it disappointing. “The decision to settle these claims in this way is disappointing, and risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in recent years,” he said in a statement.

“The party’s decision to apologize today and make substantial payments to former staff who sued the party in relation to last year’s Panorama program is a political decision, not a legal one,” he asserted. “Our legal advice was that the party had a strong defense.”

Newly-elected Labour Party leader Keir Starmer arrives at BBC Broadcasting House in London, April 5, 2020 (Aaron Chown/PA via AP)

One of the whisteblowers, Louise Withers-Green, who worked in the party’s complaints department, told the Guardian that a chapter was being closed with the withdrawal of the libel case against her and the other former employees, but was “only a first step for the party in beginning to tackle anti-Semitism.”

“I had never expected the party to welcome the Panorama program with open arms. But I had been expecting them to take responsibility in the long term for what was happening and truly want to take action. I never expected we would be called bad faith actors.” Politically, “the apology means a significant amount,” she said, and “personally, it’s certainly a turning point.”

“Anti-Semitism has been a stain on the Labour Party in recent years,” Labour said in a statement Wednesday. “If we are to restore the trust of the Jewish community, we must demonstrate a change of leadership.”

AP contributed to this report.

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