BBC Panorama and Channel Four Dispatches: The eye of a media storm and the epicentre of the battle for the soul of the Labour Party
The first telephone call came mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, 10 days after the infamous and untrue “spitting” allegations that had cast such a dark shadow over the annual meeting of the local Labour Party.
Maybe it was the deep, friendly, slightly-overloud Welsh accent of the man who left the message. Maybe it was because, as a former Fleet Street journalist with a career lasting more than 30 years, I have tremendous admiration for the achievements of the world’s longest-running current affairs television programme.
More likely, it was because the call was one I had been hoping for, ever since Brighton, Hove and District Labour Party — the “City Party” — was suspended by the party’s national executive committee (NEC) because of what it alleged was “abusive behaviour by some attendees”.
This article will not, however, focus on the political machinations of a tiny number of anti-democratic councillors and activists who engineered the suspension of the 6,200-member City Party after it voted on July 9 for a new leadership team that supports Jeremy Corbyn. (A complaint has gone, without response, to Iain McNicol, general secretary of the Labour Party.)
Instead, it will concentrate on how a media storm developed — and was deliberately sustained, not least by me — over the following 11 weeks.
Tonight is the culmination of that storm, with the broadcast of two very different documentaries. Certainly, I hope they will be very different, because Channel Four Dispatches (7.25pm) is a straightforward hatchet job, a faux exposé whose perpetrators have not even attempted to speak to any party officers elected to represent Labour members in Brighton and Hove.
I hope BBC Panorama will be much better, much fairer, and much more honest. That hope is not necessarily fully shared by all the comrades I successfully encouraged to cooperate with the programme-makers. Right or wrong, we will all know within the next few hours. (A favourite quote from the film Clockwise: “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.)
To begin at the beginning.
The voice on my answermachine that July afternoon was that of Owen Phillips, the producer behind tonight’s BBC Panorama (8.30pm) — unsurprisingly entitled “Labour: Is the Party Over?”.
The call had been preceded by a plethora of articles in local and national newspapers — triggered by that appalling tweet by Councillor Warren Morgan, leader of the Labour Group on Brighton and Hove City Council — almost all of which were either superficial or ill-sourced.
Most were both; many were just lazily inaccurate.
Among national newspapers, the worst was The Times; The Guardian — in print, more than online — was, not unusually, disappointing; The Mirror was as good as expected; ultimately, the best was the Morning Star.
Locally, The Argus frequently lived down to expectations — repeatedly ignoring newsworthy developments (until a once-over-lightly treatment of Channel Four Dispatches). Latest TV has shown most interest; Brighton & Hove Independent, my former newspaper, has been accommodating and honest.
To circumvent what I expected to be the dilatoriness of what we must now call mainstream media, I decided from the very start — even before City Party nominations closed — to maintain a Medium blog of all material I gathered and/or published (articles, statements, leaflets, images, leaked emails, leaked confabulations).
The initial goal was to create a one-stop online repository for journalists of all kinds. Eventually, I simply wanted to create a record of “the day democracy died in the Labour Party”.
Often, the real action was inevitably on social media, which I will address in a future article. (Confession: I am comfortable on Twitter, but find Facebook painfully stifling and confusing.)
By the time Owen and I met for the first time — shortly before a meeting of Momentum Brighton and Hove on Thursday, July 21 — I had begun to hone soundbites, repeated over and over again to whet the appetite of former friends in Fleet Street as well as broadcast journalists:
· “Brighton and Hove is the epicentre of the battle for the soul of the Labour Party”;
· “The biggest party unit, with the biggest turnout, and the biggest vote in favour of [supporters of] Jeremy Corbyn”;
· “The five members of the new leadership team have more than 100 years of Labour Party membership between them”;
· “Nobody has taken over the City Party; more than 6,000 members have taken back the City Party from an old-fashioned, inward-looking elite”;
· “The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party — it is not the Social Democratic Party.”
If you got bored with me, just imagine how I — and my family — felt!
Owen struck lucky on his first visit: Councillor Kevin Allen, one of our most able and experienced councillors, took a break from a meeting of full council to bring his best wishes to Momentum members meeting at Friends’ Meeting House. The Panorama team filmed his speech and the meeting (openly!), aware that an article by Cllr Allen was to appear the next day in Brighton & Hove Independent.
Filming of me had already begun, as I spread the word that the BBC was in the city. Mark Sandell (elected chair), Claire Wadey (treasurer), and Phil Clarke — a lay officer whose election victory sparked particular slurs and smears. Or “smurs” as I said to camera, more than once. (Anne Pissaridou and Christine Robinson, for personal reasons, chose not to be filmed. Which was a matter of regret to me; they are too of the finest members we have and we should treasure them both.)
Aware of the risks — and equally aware that our opponents would feed their poison into the programme, regardless of what we did — the four of us agreed to be filmed and interviewed.
And, in my case, followed.
Followed to my house, on the train to my home town of Barnsley (where my 86-year-old mother lives and where I spoke to the inaugural meeting of Barnsley Momentum), and — on the 80th anniversary — to the memorial of the Wharncliffe Woodmoor mining disaster that killed 58 men, including my grandfather, a member of the rescue team, when my mother was six and my uncle was 10 days’ old.
While in Barnsley, Michael Dugher, the local MP, tweeted something about how Barnsley Momentum must be desperate, because they were bringing up someone from Brighton to make up numbers! I explained that the blood of my family was in the soil of Barnsley. We had built our lives in Barnsley, not just our careers. Mr Dugher is an alien, from Doncaster.
I hope some of this makes it into tonight’s broadcast. But I suspect an awful lot will end up on the cutting-room floor (in reality, a trash folder on a computer).
Perhaps the best and most honest sequence was filmed at Old Boat Corner Community Centre in Patcham.
The four of us — Mark, Claire, Phil and me — sat together, almost for the only time so far, and discussed what on earth had happened. And why.
Given the despicable subterfuge of Channel Four Dispatches, this sequence will — I hope — communicate the honest truth: we are not a rabble of entryists and extremists, secretly plotting against the Labour Party and all it stands for. We are democrats, democratically-elected, with up to 66% of the votes cast at an annual meeting that was, in truth, a shining example of party democracy at work. We should have been celebrating it, not condemning and insulting the 600 members who took part.
Another soundbite that has never found its way into the anti-Corbyn “narrative” favoured by big media.
Later, while I was taking a thrice-delayed break in Cornwall, BBC Panorama stocked up on moving imagery at last month’s Pride, especially at the Momentum stall near Preston Park. It is this that I am particularly looking forward to, with Libby Barnes — a real force of nature behind Momentum locally! — among the standout appearances. I hope.
Just before Pride, there was the tremendous Jeremy Corbyn rally — with 1,100 supporters inside and another 500 outside — at the Hilton Brighton Metropole on August 2.
Another event, another chance to feed the media interest. I seem to recall a cackhanded live interview I gave to BBC News; like most others, I have deliberately avoided seeing it. (Another confession: I managed to get myself photographed with Jeremy Corbyn at Brighton Station. You will not be surprised to learn that I tweeted it immediately. And immediately attracted the usual abuse.)
At the rally, Cllr Allen gave one of many stirring speeches. Our enemies say big rallies do not win elections. But they are better than the tiny numbers attracted by Owen Smith.
Electability? Competence? If Owen Smith is the answer, what on earth was the question? Yet another soundbite.
The August 2 rally — which, as I understand it, will open tonight’s Panorama — generated one of the finest examples of journalism of the election campaign: a lengthy cover article by the often-excellent Gary Younge in The Guardian magazine (featuring contributions from Anne Pissaridou and James Ellis, organiser of Momentum Brighton and Hove).
Throughout the period of filming — during which I spoke, texted, or emailed to Owen and his various colleagues almost every day — Jeremy Corbyn’s “people” were concerned. Understandably. Last year’s Panorama — even though it was presented by the admirable, experienced, and maverick John Ware — was seen by many as a “hatchet job”.
In fact, the Panorama broadcast on September 7 2015 — unsurprisingly entitled “Jeremy Corbyn: Labour’s Earthquake — was made by Films of Record, an independent production company, and executive producer Neil Grant.
[Strong message here] Films of Record and Mr Grant are responsible for the disgrace to broadcast journalism that is Channel Four Dispatches tonight. (I have to watch so you don’t have to!)
I shared the concerns of many comrades throughout: use a long spoon when supping with the devil. Even though the BBC — despite all its faults — is hardly the devil, when compared with Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, or the Barclay brothers (all of whom I have worked for, in relatively-lowly capacities).
The presenter of tonight’s Panorama — his first — is John Pienaar, the BBC’s new-ish deputy political editor, whom I first met, in newspapers, in the late 1980s. He is a fine journalist and a true professional broadcaster.
He first came on the scene to witness the regional meet-up organised by the Progress Party — the party within a party bankrolled by billionaire Lord Sainsbury — featuring Peter Kyle, the Hove MP and Progress member, at the Brighthelm Centre on Saturday, September 3.
I counted fewer than 20 people: three or four of us were Corbyn supporters; five were Panorama staff; five were speakers; and others were the usual suspects (including Ivor Caplin and Simon Fanshawe).
And Progress has the brass-necked mendacity to describe itself as “the new mainstream” of the Labour Party: £5 million spent, 2,500 members, and 4,500 subscribers to its magazine. It really is Lord Sainsbury’s attempt to create the Social Democratic Party by other means. Yes, that’s another soundbite.
As I left, I noticed Mr Caplin was being interviewed by John Pienaar in the Brighthelm chapel. I suspected, wrongly as it turned out, that he was banging on about the buckets that were used to collect the votes (supervised, witnessed, validated) and which are his main evidence about allegations that “the ballots results were not properly reached” (sic).
At this point, I should mention that a team led by Jason Farrell, senior political correspondent for Sky News, had arrived — rather late on the scene — to do interviews for a quick-turnaround Sky documentary broadcast before the live hustings between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith on Wednesday, September 14.
Despite the inevitable inclusion of Mr Caplin — and a rare public-speaking appearance by Nicky Easton, the defeated vice-chair, to spread wild and uncorroborated allegations about non-members grabbing handsful of ballot papers — Jason Farrell’s documentary was a good example of straightforward story-telling.
Meanwhile, Panorama became aware, as had I, that Disptaches was sniffing around.
Strangely, the Disptaches team never spoke to me or my closest colleagues — even though a journalist friend in Brighton and Hove had given its executive producer my mobile number. And despite the fact that I had called Mr Grant’s office near Westminster, left my number, got in touch online. Mr Grant had personally visited Brighton (or, probably, Hove actually), but did not try to contact Mark Sandell — who it emerged was the target for the sort of subterfuge and secret filming normally reserved for drug-dealers, terrorists, and corrupt MPs. Soundbite.
The first Mark found out about it — five weeks after the event — was in an email and letter barely a week before broadcast. Giving him until 5pm on Friday (September 16) to respond. Which he did. Will it make the cut?
Please remember tonight that Mark was speaking publicly at a public Momentum meeting in a public library — saying pretty much what he happily said to camera for BBC Panorama.
I entertained myself, when in London for a business appointment, to “doorstep” Mr Grant at his office and “snatch” a (suitably-blurry) photograph. He was angry. And as he chased me into the lift, he snapped: “I would have thought you would have asked my permission first!” Irony. “That’s exactly what I hoped you would say,” I replied, as I removed his foot from the lift door.
By the time the filming deadline had been extended to include the TUC conference in Brighton (September 11–13), Owen and I had become trusted acquaintances and cooperators. We are due to meet on Wednesday.
Finally, last Tuesday (September 13), Owen and his team filmed the huge #KeepCorbyn rally (songs, poetry, and speeches) at Brighton Dome. It was a marvellous night for us all and will, I understand, be the final sequence tonight.
Importantly, for Owen and his team, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell agreed to be interviewed for the documentary on Brighton seafront.
As a result, I expect many of us may be edited out. Many of our scenes will be cut; many of our soundbites will go unheard.
I hope I am wrong. People such as Daniel Harris and Sarah Pickett deserve more time, because they had much to say, with socialist passion and democratic commitment. And they always merit a platform on which to say it — especially when our party remains suspended.
More than 6,000 members still do not have a voice, having been told — quite literally — their votes did not count. That’s the final soundbite. I promise.
To conclude, I remain hopeful of a fair hearing from Owen, John, Saf, Louis, Bali, and the rest — and all the middle-tier BBC executives and committees that have such influence behind the scenes and behind our screens.
Hope or despair?
Tonight we will find out if it was all worth it.
And tomorrow some of us will be lobbying and petitioning the NEC, as it gathers tomorrow at noon in London, to decide — we have been told — whether or not to re-instate our party.
It’s the hope I can’t stand. But it is the hope for a better Labour Party, a hope that we share together, that will win us our victory.