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Labour’s row over anti-Semitism is set to reignite after the party formally apologised to whistleblowers and the BBC’s Panorama for claiming they had “maliciously” misrepresented the issue.
The party read out in the High Court a full apology for its depiction of the seven former members of staff, as part of an out-of-court libel settlement that cost the party an estimated £500,000 in fees and damages.
The party has agreed to pay “substantial damages” to seven whistleblowers - believed to be worth about £200,000 - over “defamatory and false allegations” made about the BBC investigation.
The seven former employees, who worked in the party’s governance and legal unit, who were responsible for the investigation of allegations of misconduct by party members, sued Labour after it issued a press release describing them as having “personal and political axes to grind”.
But HuffPost UK understands that Jeremy Corbyn is set to make clear his own opposition to the settlement, believing that the party had grounds to defend the libel action.
His supporters are also likely to launch legal challenges to the settlement in coming weeks, arguing that a recent leaked internal report on anti-Semitism shed new light on the affair.
Former Corbyn aides Seumas Milne, Karie Murphy and Jennie Formby are all understood to have taken legal advice, in the expectation of it being funded through their union Unite, to ensure that they had access to the party apology before it was issued on Wednesday.
It is unlikely the former aides will pursue a further legal challenge, but other Corbyn supporters may well do so.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey tweeted the settlement was “a misuse of Labour funds to settle a case it was advised we would win in court”
In a statement on Facebook, Corbyn said: “The Party’s decision to apologise today and make substantial payments to former staff who sued the party in relation to last year’s Panorama programme is a political decision, not a legal one.
“Our legal advice was that the party had a strong defence, and the evidence in the leaked Labour report that is now the subject of an NEC inquiry led by Martin Forde QC strengthened concerns about the role played by some of those who took part in the programme.
“The decision to settle these claims in this way is disappointing, and risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour Party in recent years.
“To give our members the answers and justice they deserve, the inquiry led by Martin Forde must now fully address the evidence the internal report uncovered of racism, sexism, factionalism and obstruction of Labour’s 2017 General Election campaign.”
Keir Starmer has vowed a “zero tolerance” approach to anti-Semitism within the party, which is in the process of responding to a formal verdict by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into allegations of its handling of the issue.
The Panorama programme Is Labour Anti-Semitic?, screened in July 2019, saw whistleblowers make a number of serious claims about the party’s internal culture for dealing with complaints of anti-Semitism.
The former staffers and Panorama journalist John Ware launched libel proceedings after Labour’s response to the programme included claims that the broadcast contained “deliberate and malicious representations designed to mislead the public”.
In the High Court, a statement was read out on behalf of new Labour general secretary David Evans apologising for the party’s description of ex-staffers.
The statement said that before the programme was broadcast the party had “issued a press release that contained defamatory and false allegations about these whistleblowers”.
It made an “unreserved apology” to Kat Buckingham, Michael Creighton, Samuel Matthews, Dan Hogan, Louise Withers Green, Benjamin Westerman and Martha Robinson.
“We acknowledge the many years of dedicated and committed service that the whistleblowers have given to the Labour Party as members and as staff. We appreciate their valuable contribution at all levels of the party,” the party said.
“We unreservedly withdraw all allegations of bad faith, malice and lying. We would like to apologise unreservedly for the distress, embarrassment and hurt caused by their publication. We have agreed to pay them damages.”
It added that: “John Ware is a very experienced broadcast and print journalist, producer and author, and we have agreed to pay damages to him”.
The party said that anti-Semitism “has been a stain on the Labour Party in recent years”. “It has caused unacceptable and unimaginable levels of grief and distress for many in the Jewish community, as well as members of staff.”
Speaking outside court after the hearing, Labour’s shadow attorney general Lord Falconer said: “It is a clear line under a dispute between the Labour Party and people who had been whistleblowers about anti-Semitism.
“We can focus now not on litigation, which is a disastrous thing for a party to be focusing on.
“Instead, it should be focusing on championing the things that matter to the public, so it’s a good day.”
However, Corbyn-supporting critics of the settlement believe that it was driven by political not legal considerations.
Starmer had made clear during a Jewish Labour Movement hustings for the party leadership earlier this year that the case should be settled.
The Labour leader has set up an independent inquiry, led by Martin Forde QC, into a separate leaked internal report on anti-Semitism and factionalism within the party stretching back to the 2017 general election.
Its court statements made clear the libel settlement was not intended to have any influence over the Forde inquiry or the EHRC investigation.
In a statement on behalf of herself and other ex-members of staff, whistleblower Martha Robinson praised Starmer for his new approach but said the issue was not over.
“After many years of loyal service, we simply could not stay silent when we saw anti-Semitism permeate all levels of the Labour Party.
“As staff, we tried our best to tackle this issue, but in the end, we had no choice but to blow the whistle in public and make sworn statements to the EHRC.
“Just over a year ago, we blew the whistle on Labour’s anti-Semitism problem on BBC Panorama. We were pleased to work with a journalist of such high repute as John Ware to bring this story into public view.
“In response to the programme, the Labour Party launched a vicious and defamatory attack on our motives and characters. Today, the Labour Party accepted that their comments were untrue and have unreservedly apologised for them.
“We are pleased that our reputations have been restored although it will take time to repair the damage caused by their unfounded attacks.
“We are glad that Keir Starmer is showing the leadership which is so desperately needed to bring this chapter to a close, but it is not the end of the story. We hope he and others can finally eradicate the blight of anti-Jewish racism from the Labour Party. We are willing to help him do so.”
A spokesperson for the Jewish Labour Movement said: “We welcome the decision by the Labour Party to withdraw and apologise for the defamatory statements made against seven brave whistleblowers who brought to the public’s attention the scale of discrimination perpetrated against Jewish Labour members.
“It is a sad reflection of its historic role as the party of working people, that Labour sought to pursue and silence its former employees for speaking out against racism.
“Under new leadership, our hope is that the party will continue to demonstrate this willingness to change and act decisively against anti-Semitism.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC will always support fair and impartial reporting, exposing wrongdoing and holding power to account. The Panorama programme did precisely that, but was subject to an extraordinary and vitriolic attack by the Labour Party.
“We welcome today’s long overdue apology to John Ware and the seven Panorama whistleblowers, who have been subjected to painful and damaging personal attacks on their integrity and character.
“We applaud their strength to take this case forward and are pleased it has been recognised in court that these extremely serious and damaging allegations against them were false and have been unreservedly withdrawn. John Ware is a reporter with an extraordinary record of excellence at Panorama for investigative journalism in the public interest.”