An investigation is not Islamophobia

The Asian Mayor of Tower Hamlets says he welcomes scrutiny, yet he tried to stop a BBC 'Panorama' report


Because "Islamophobe" is shorthand for "Bad Person", it can sometimes silence legitimate debate – which is what the mayor of the London borough of Tower Hamlets seems to have tried to do to the BBC.

Lutfur Rahman is Britain's first directly elected Asian mayor. On 22 May, he seeks re-election. He says he aspires to the highest standards of transparency and probity and that he welcomes scrutiny.

Two weeks ago, on Panorama, we scrutinised the way he's run this most diverse of boroughs. Instead of welcoming this, the mayor employed a major City law firm and a PR company at huge public expense to try to get the programme stopped.

Tower Hamlets is home to the largest Bangladeshi population in Britain. The mayor says he seeks only to promote harmony; his Gandhi-like watchword is "No Place for Hate". Yet before even a frame had been transmitted, a fusillade of hate-filled tweets screamed from his closest supporters: the licence fee had been "used to preach hate", to "demonise Muslims" and to "peddle racism and Islamophobia".

The mayor launched an inflammatory 26-minute counter-documentary, weeks in the making. Fat was poured on this fire by a young Bengali researcher, who made increasingly fantastical claims that we were "Islamophobic bullies" and handed confidential research material from our production, including source notes, to the mayor's office. Because of concerns about her reliability, we had asked her to leave the team after five days.

Her claims seem to have been accepted as fact by some Bengali papers who gave no right of reply. That is not how the 30 Bengali confidential sources who helped us in our research see us. Her account is a travesty of the truth.

The BBC immediately reported this breach of data security to the Information Commissioner. Yet the Mayor of Tower Hamlets conflated this with the researcher's unsupported claims by tweeting that the BBC was under "criminal investigation after whistleblower reveals racism and Islamophobia in Panorama".

The mayor is a solicitor. He must know that the Information Commissioner is concerned with data security – not allegations of racism or Islamophobia. Yet the mayor was perfectly happy to twist the truth. He was right about one thing, though: disseminating personal data can be a criminal offence and a criminal investigation by the Information Commissioner may yet follow.

Many of the sources whom the researcher betrayed to the mayor's office were fellow Bangladeshis, who spoke frankly and in confidence. Attempts were subsequently made to pressurise one Bangladeshi source into retracting what we had previously been told.

The programme was manifestly neither Islamophobic nor racist. We made no mention of the mayor's links to Islamist fundamentalists. Instead, we focused squarely on governance, challenging the very principles that the mayor says underpin his approach to public office: transparency, accountability and probity.

We noted, for example, how he has given about £50,000 in grants to the Bengali media and a further £50,000 a year for "community media advice" to the chief correspondent of the most popular Bengali TV channel. That same channel has three times breached Ofcom impartiality rules by its blatantly biased coverage of the mayor. He counters that the relationship the two have is "professional".

Had the Prime Minister been paying the BBC's political editor £50,000 a year from public funds, the scandal would – rightly – have resonated around the world.

We also highlighted the mayor's repeated refusal to answer questions about his very large increase in grants to Somali and Bengali voluntary organisations.

In the run-up to the election, there have been widespread and persistent allegations by opposition councillors that Mr Rahman skewed the award of nearly £9m of grants in favour of Bengali- and Somali-run organisations to help him get out the vote on 22 May. The mayor categorically denies this, insisting that he awarded the grants solely on the basis of need.

To win, the Mr Rahman will likely need a big Bengali-Somali turnout because they comprise only one-third of Tower Hamlets, while his support in the rest of the borough appears to be thin.

Our detailed spreadsheet analysis of 488 grant applications showed that 70 per cent of recommendations by council officers were changed in some way as to which organisations should get grants, and how much.

This is an unusually high degree of political involvement in what would normally be a mainly administrative process, especially since council officers had factored in their understanding of how the mayor wanted to use voluntary organisations to promote equality and community cohesion aligned to his vision of "One Tower Hamlets".

The upshot of this 70 per cent cash "churn" was that the mayor increased funding to Bengali and Somali organisations by 139.5 per cent from £1.5m to £3.6m. He cut what was left for other organisations by 25 per cent overall.

We showed our analysis to three eminent ex-council officers. All agreed the audit trail was deficient, providing no reasoned explanation for the scale of changes. Mr Rahman said our "allegations just don't add up" and launched another vituperative attack "about journalistic integrity at the BBC".

He insists that the true figure for grants to Bengali-Somali organisations is £1.6m – not £3.6m. If we are right about the source of this figure, it will be the mayor whose maths will be seen to have been deficient.

In any case, the matter will be decided by auditors dispatched to the Town Hall at 8am four days after transmission by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who says they will also investigate "allegations of governance failure, poor financial management and fraud". Once again, the mayor says he "welcomes" the scrutiny.

I often think how I would feel were I a Muslim in post-9/11 Britain. I suspect that I, too, would feel a sense of victimhood, for Muslims have been under a relentless spotlight. There is a legitimate debate about the tone and scale of this scrutiny.

But that should never stop the BBC from raising valid questions about the way a council is run and public money spent. The idea that any BBC programme would be motivated to do this by racism or Islamophobia is unthinkable, as anyone who has worked for the BBC knows.

John Ware reported and presented 'The Mayor and Our Money' for BBC Panorama on behalf of Films of Record

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