Panorama reporter wins libel claim

John Ware awarded £90,000 in damages

John Ware, the reporter who in June 2019 presented the Panorama documentary Is Labour Anti-Semitic has won his libel claim against Paddy French, the editor of the website Press Gang.

Shortly before the December 2019 General Election, Mr French wrote and published a pamphlet called Is the BBC Anti-Labour? Panorama’s biased anti-semitism reporting – a case to answer. It included an article also written by him: Political storm rages over BBC’s “rogue journalism”. The pamphlet was published on the Press Gang website and by 300 physical copies being sent to senior managers at the BBC and major news organisations and broadcasters. The article was also published in Coldtype magazine.

In February 2021 Mr Justice Saini found that the article meant that Mr Ware was “a rogue journalist who had engaged in dirty tricks aimed at harming the Labour Party’s chances of winning the General Election by authoring and presenting an edition of Panorama in which he presented a biased and knowingly false presentation of the extent and nature of anti-Semitism within the party, deliberately ignoring contrary evidence.” Following this ruling, Mr French served a Defence which denied that Mr Ware had been caused serious harm to his reputation. It also advanced defences of truth and public interest. The truth defence set out to prove the meaning found by Saini J to be substantially true. the time Mr French issued a public statement that he was “resolutely committed to defending the action” and that his “legal team believed that he had a strong defence”.

Following disclosure, Mr French withdrew his truth defence but did not retract his allegations. The judge concluded that “even on his own evidence, it would appear that the Defendant never had the necessary evidence to prove that the allegations were true, but instead hoped that the Claimant’s disclosure might reveal that to be the case.”

Witness statements were exchanged. Mr French maintained his public interest defence.

Less than two weeks before the trial was due to commence, in late October 2022, Mr French declared that he would not attend and issued a press release in which he stated that he had decided not to do so because Saini J’s ruling had prevented him from properly defending himself.

Mr Justice Knowles, the trial judge, ordered the trial to proceed in Mr French’s absence. On the Claimant’s application, he struck out the Defence. However, Mr Ware had to prove that as a matter of fact that publication had caused serious harm to his reputation. This case succeeded because of the seriousness of the allegations, the scale of publication and the quality of the publishees. In regard to the latter, the physical pamphlet had been targeted at those in whose eyes the Claimant’s professional reputation most mattered, those on whom he was dependent for his living as a freelance journalist. Taking into account all modes of publication, the judge found that the article had been published to over 15,000 individuals. The judge also took account of published adverse reactions to Mr Ware on Twitter and on the crowdfunding websites set up by Mr French. These negative reactions arose because their makers had believed Mr French’s allegations.

The judge noted that the Defendant had stated in the pamphlet that Mr Ware’s former wife and his current partner are Jewish and that his children had been brought up in the Jewish faith. This caused the judge to state: “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 obviously 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.” This issue went to Mr Ware’s case on damage, as did the judge’s findings that Mr French’s attitude to the proceedings, at least from his abandonment of the truth defence, had been contemptuous.

The judge found that Mr French’s public claim in the Press Release published shortly before the trial that he decided not to attend court because Saini J’s ruling on meaning meant that he could not properly defend himself was “untrue” and was “a knowing, deliberate and cynical distortion of what (he) must have known to be true.” The publication of the press release had, as the judgment records, “very seriously exacerbated the damage caused to the Claimant’s reputation by seeking to ensure that any judgment in his favour would be seen by his publishees as arising from some sort of unwarranted or unfair judicial intervention, as opposed to the reality, namely, that he did not have a defence.”

5RB‘s William Bennett KC (instructed by Mark Lewis of Patron Law) acted on behalf of John Ware.
• Press Gazette’s account of the judgment: Panorama journalist John Ware wins £90,000 libel damages against Press Gang’s Paddy French
• Press Gazette’s report of the trial: John Ware seeks additional damages from Paddy French over ‘ludicrous’ Panorama pamphlet
Downloadable copy of the judgment