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How one journalist won back his reputation
A smear campaign of "racism" and "right wing" associations prove false
Sometimes good people prevail. In this case, a top reporter won back his reputation against those who tried to destroy him after he broke a national story with big political fallout.
Full disclosure, I know the veteran UK journalist, John Ware, at the center of this story. That relationship, however, is also why I celebrate how a colleague successfully fought those who conspired to ruin him.
I had met John Ware shortly after he had finished a remarkable “The Hunt for Doctor Mengele” documentary in 1978. It did not take me very long to admire Ware’s unrelenting pursuit of truth in chasing stories. He was often in physical peril during his years of covering Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence and human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. I learned a lot about investigative journalism from Ware, and I was very lucky when he agreed to be my co-author on our 1986 biography of Auschwitz’s Angel of Death, Josef Mengele.
Four years ago, on Panorama, the BBC’s premier newsmagazine program, Ware broke a stunning exposé of the extent of antisemitism inside the British Labour Party. “Is Labour Antisemitic?” was an explosive documentary, featuring on-the-record interviews with Labour Party staff tasked with investigating charges of rampant antisemitism, as well as compelling personal accounts from seven whistleblowers. Its revelations proved that antisemitism was not a marginal problem contained to a handful of Jew haters but was instead a systemic bias that ran through the party’s leadership and was something they tried repeatedly to hide.
The disclosures in Ware’s BBC show instantly became the UK’s top news story. Some in the Labour Party blamed Ware’s reporting for leading five months later to the party’s disastrous nationwide political defeat. That landslide loss led to the resignation of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s chief. Ware’s documentary had revealed through the whistleblowers that Corbyn had personally blocked some of the party’s internal inquires into antisemitism. The aftereffects of Ware’s BBC show still reverberate: only last week Corbyn was banned for life for running again for that office.
Ware had always expected Corbyn supporters to come after the program. That goes along with investigative journalism. What he had not expected was that that the attacks would be personal and false. Since radical Labour Party activists — so-called Corbynistas — were unable to counter the documentary’s findings with facts, they attacked the messenger. Their scurrilous strategy was based on the hope that Corbyn might be rehabilitated if Ware’s journalism credentials were demolished. What followed was a vicious and coordinated campaign, fueled by innuendos and aspersions about Ware’s reporting ethics.
The day after the program aired, a Jewish Voice for Labour media officer, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissii, told the 1.4 million listeners on BBC Radio 2, that Ware had “a terrible record of Islamophobia, [and] far right politics, he’s been disciplined at – BBC has had to apologize.” A leftwing blog repeated that charge and more: it charged Ware had a “record of right wing, racist work…” It later claimed he was a “rogue reporter.”
Ware had, in fact, never been disciplined by the BBC or any other journalism organization. Colleagues who knew him thought the charges of racism, right wing associations, and Islamophobia, were baseless. He had built his career over the decades as an award winning journalist whose investigative projects were apolitical. Ware produced stories that infuriated all sides of the political spectrum. At the time his BBC show on Labour Party antisemitism aired, he was working furiously on a program about UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and what Ware describes as Johnson’s “tenuous relationship to the truth.” That show included a scandalous interview with Johnson’s former American mistress and aired only three weeks before the British elections.
While Ware thought the charges leveled against him were “infantile and ludicrous,” he also found them “grossly offensive.” “I’ve made programs about the far right,” he told a reporter. “As it happens, I think I’ve only voted Conservative once in my life. I’ve voted for parties to the left of that. I’ve been nowhere near the far right. They are disgusting individuals, loathsome.”
He worried that in an era of social media, however, some of the mudslinging might stick. What trends on digital platforms is what attracts the most attention. The online world can be an equal opportunity distributor of defamatory information as well as the truth. “I think most of my colleagues understand the world has changed dramatically,” Ware said recently. “It’s open season on social media now. You can either turn a cheek or you do something about it and I thought: I’m not having this.”
It takes courage to fight the slander but that is what Ware did. He filed historic defamation lawsuits against the Labour Party, the publisher of the website, and also against Naomi Wimborne-Idrissii, the media spokeswomen who first leveled the “racist” and “right wing” charges.
During the legal proceedings, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissii and the website publisher claimed that what they said was just an “honest opinion.” It was not meant to be viewed as factually correct. As Ware’s lawyer told the press after an early preliminary hearing, “It’s one thing to hold a different opinion, but you can’t have different facts.”
In April of last year, Ware settled with Naomi Wimborne-Idrissii and the Jewish Voice for Labour. In open court, Wimbrone-Idrissii, admitted her charges “were defamatory. I should not have asserted that the BBC had taken action against Mr. Ware in connection with allegations he has engaged in Islamophobia and extreme far-right and/or racist politics. Nor that this was in any way reflected in his journalistic work. I now accept these allegations to be untrue. JVL and I have apologized unreservedly to Mr. Ware and explained that I spoke in the way that I did because I was so angry at the content of the ‘Is Labour Antisemitic program’ for which Mr Ware was the reporter.”
Seven months later in November, 2022, Ware won damages against the website publisher. The judge concluded that Ware’s case was “overwhelming” and that accusing him of bias because his first wife, and their two children, were Jewish, was “particularly distasteful.”
“We find it terribly difficult to debate and discuss these issues without name-calling, attributing malign motives and just being generally disagreeable, unpleasant, rigid and dogmatic, not open-minded, resistant to evidence,” Ware says. “It’s just a very sad spectacle.”
Subsequent events have made Ware’s 2019 BBC program seem prescient. The Equality and Human Rights Commission issued a 130-page report that concluded that the Labour Party had violated the country’s Equality Act by unlawfully harassing and discriminating against members who raised issues about antisemitism. Keir Starmer, who was elected as head of the Labour Party after Corbyn’s fall, called the EHRC report “a day of shame.” Last December, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissii, was expelled from the party. A senior lawyer who finished an inquiry into Labour’s problem with antisemitism, concluded only last month that the factions in the party were still at war and the party could not adhere to Starmer’s stated policy of “zero tolerance” for antisemitism.
In the final analysis, the most important thing for journalists is their reputation. Once it is tarnished by false accusations, it can end a career. Congratulations to John Ware for standing his ground. His success should serve as an example for other journalists that sometimes fighting back is the only way retain professional integrity.