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Panorama vs Lutfur Rahman: no smoking gun.

The BBC’s Panorama program has conducted an investigation into Tower Hamlet’s Mayor Lutfur Rahman. In it they’ve discovered that a) the Labour Party don’t like him, b) he funds community projects and c) he created a new logo for the borough when he got elected.

rahmanShocking stuff. Or at least it presents itself as shocking through the use of scary music, judicious frowning and the repeated use of the word Bangaldeshi, well known to be one of the most disconcerting words in the English language.

In between the lingering shots of brown faces and concerned rumbling about lack of accountability there was precious little in the way of examining the Mayor’s actual record. The moment they highlighted Rahman’s new logo (which was entirely in keeping with those produced by Ken or Boris’s offices) it was clear that this was going to be half an hour of nothing, just seven weeks before the Mayoral election.

Those allegations in full;

  1. The Mayor produced a Mayoral logo.
  2. He has one of those “town hall Pravdas” that Eric Pickles goes on about, just like almost every council in the country.
  3. He hired a reporter from a digital TV station to work for his team in a completely different way than Boris Johnson hired Andrew Gilligan to his administration.
  4. His democratically elected cabinet are Bangaldeshi.
  5. He set up a ‘faith fund’ which, like previous administrations, helped renovate religious buildings. Many, but not all, of them were Mosques that a high proportion of the residents use.
  6. He once spoke to a horrid cleric who was later banned from the country.
  7. Like every decent democratically elected Mayor he used his judgement to accept or reject the advice of his officers. He does this a bit more than normal indicating that he is not identical to the host of time serving, identikit Mayors you find in some other boroughs. As Reuben Bard-Rosenburg says “If a mayor is to be branded corrupt for not doing what his officials tell him, why bother having elections at all?”
  8. A random man thought this might be challengable in the courts, but no one is challenging it and the courts have made no rulings on this.
  9. He attends council meetings but not scrutiny meetings. Well, he probably should, but it’s not half an hour of prime time telly is it?

This was incredibly thin stuff.

At one point the interviewer talked about the poverty of the borough while (some) funding goes to projects run for ethnic minority communities (who live there) while the camera panned over an old, white lady eating chips. And they have the gall to say Rahman is divisive?

One local activist, Glyn Robbins, said of the program that “The BBC and the Labour Party suggests that funding has been provided in return for votes.  No real evidence for this proposition is offered, but viewers are led to conclude that only Bangladeshi projects have been supported, while others – presumably non-Bangladeshi – have been overlooked.  This is a misleading and dangerous form of sensationalist journalism that panders to racism.”

He continues “the idea is seeded that somehow there is something wrong with Bangladeshi people taking part in elections.  At a time when there is widespread political apathy, this is perverse. ”

There is not one shred of evidence in this program to indicate the Mayor is involved in either illegal or inappropriate behaviour. Indeed I can think of some other Mayors who would not stand one tenth of this scrutiny.

It might have helped if the interviewer hadn’t consistently interrupted the Mayor  with self-satisfied sneering when questioning him. Napoleon said never interrupt your opponent when he’s making a mistake but so many interviewers today won’t let people speak long enough to make any mistakes, so if there was evidence to find here poor interviewing technique certainly played its part in Panorama’s complete inability to find it.

Mayor Lutfur Rahman responded to the programme saying “This programme was an election broadcast by the Tower Hamlets Labour Party, making hysterical claims at the expense of the licence fee payer. No wonder the BBC’s integrity is at an all-time low.”

It’s difficult not to agree with him when the elections are so close and the program was so clearly designed to unseat Rahman. Directly elected Mayors need more scrutiny, but this wasn’t it.

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