Downfall of vote-rigging mayor Lutfur Rahman a 'victory for journalism' which also exposed local media corruption

Vote-rigging politician Lutfur Rahman could not have been removed as Tower Hamlets mayor without the work of journalists.

This is the view of Ted Jeory, who has chronicled corruption at the East London borough for five years through his Trial By Jeory blog.

But the case has also exposed how local Bangladeshi media took handouts from the council rather than hold it to account. And Jeory has voiced concern that his blog was only launched because local newspaper, the East London Advertiser, no longer had the resources to scrutinise its local authority.

The launch of Jeory’s blog covering politics in Tower Hamlets coincided with the election in 2010 of the borough's first directly-elected mayor, independent Lutfur Rahman.

While Rahman (pictured above on his election manifesto) built a political empire backed by the council PR machine and a supportive local Bangladeshi media, Jeory plugged away, exposing corruption and hypocrisy.

He made no money out of the blog, and was subject to verbal intimidation and legal threats for his pains. But last week he had the satisfaction of seeing Rahman ousted from office, partly as a result of his journalism.

Rahman was found guilty of “corrupt and illegal practices” by a judge who ruled that his 2014 election victory as the candidate for Tower Hamlets First was void.

In a 200-page judgment Judge Richard Mawrey was damning in his criticism of Rahman and paid tribute not just to the four voters who brought the case as independent petitioners, but the journalists who helped expose him.

Mawrey described Jeory as a “significant figure whose presence was sensed throughout the trial”.

And he noted in particular how Jeory “took up the cudgels" on behalf of Labour mayoral candidate John Biggs, who was accused of racism by Rahman.

Mawrey noted in his judgment that Rahman is someone who “perceives racism everywhere” and has used it as a label for any opponent.

Jeory chronicled the allegations of electoral fraud on his blog while also working for Sunday Express, leaving to join the Bureau of Investigative Journalism earlier this year. The blog has the same name as a column he wrote for the East London Advertiser until 2008.

Speaking in the wake of last week’s judgment, Jeory said: “What the petitioners did was fantastically brave and courageous. But a lot of the evidence they presented was from the work of journalists who have been covering this story for many years.

“Andrew Gilligan [of The Daily Telegraph], myself, a couple of reporters on the East London Advertiser and lately John Ware for Panorama.

“Without the work of journalists there is no way this case could have happened.”

Jeory warned that the sort of probing investigative journalism which exposed Rahman is under threat at a local level.

“The reason I set up the blog in 2010 is because the Advertiser weren’t looking at this stuff.

“At the time the elected mayor system came in the local paper didn’t have the resources to follow it properly. That’s a more widespread issue than people realise.”

Research from the Telegraph’s Gilligan was cited in the judgment as evidence Rahman used “ghost voters” to swing the 2014 election. These are voters who either don’t exist, or who don’t  live at the address which has been given for them.

Gilligan had visited a number of properties and discovered that those registered were not known there and in one case that the property appeared to be completely unoccupied

Gilligan told the court: “We also visited another address, 37 Cavell Street, E1, a small block of about twelve flats reserved for elderly Bangladeshi people, where I was told that a number of the  residents had had their blank ballot papers taken from them against their will by  supporters of Lutfur Rahman and  Tower Hamlets First.”

While established local weekly newspaper the East London Advertiser has been subject to job cuts in recent years amid falling circulation (below 7,000 at last count), the council has published its own weekly newspaper – East End Life – which has competed for advertisers and been delivered to 83,000 homes at public expense.

Meanwhile, the court heard how Tower Hamlets’ thriving Bangladeshi press failed to scrutinise Rahman’s activities.

Mawrey said in his judgment: "Tower Hamlets has a very large and very active Bangladeshi press in both English and Bengali as well as no fewer than eight television channels broadcasting in Bengali. These media are all strongly, vehemently and occasionally intemperately supportive of Mr Rahman and hostile to his political opponents."

Mawrey said that payments to press organisations made by Rahman “may (just) colourably come the right side of  the line that separates ingratiating oneself with the press from outright bribery”.

But he said payments to the Bengali TV media “went further”.

The judge cited a report by independent accountants which found that “Mr Rahman caused the council to pay public money by way of ‘fees’ for broadcasts which were ostensibly about the Borough and its administration but which were in fact personal political broadcasts on behalf of Mr Rahman, promoting him to the Bengali speaking electorate of Tower Hamlets”.

Mawrey said Rahman was guilty of bribing local broadcast media and that his dealings with chief political correspondent of Channel S, Mohammed Jubair, were “murky in the extreme”.

Rahman arranged for Jubair to be employed by the council as an adviser. According to Mawrey: “The reality is that Mr Jubair’s function was to publicise Mr Rahman and his achievements and to ensure that favourable coverage continued in the media, particularly Channel S with which he remained closely associated”.

Jeory told Press Gazette: “These stations are on all the time and watched more than the BBC in Bangladeshi households. It’s a serious problem, there needs to be more regulation.

“Rahman had the Bangla media almost exclusive stitched up.”

Jeory lives in Canning Town, adjacent to Tower Hamlets, and has suffered verbal abuse against both himself and his wife (who is of Bangladeshi heritage) as well as legal threats. In 2012, Tower Hamlets council tried to get him sacked from his job at the Sunday Express by writing to the editor and alleging that he was abusing his position at the paper through his work on the blog.

Asked why he he has kept the blog going, he says: “If you don’t do it no one else is really going to keep on top of it. I care about the area massively.”

Describing last week’s court ruling as “a victory for journalism” he added: “I hope it will encourage journalists to do more of this sort of work, especially students, because local authorities across the country need to be better held to account.”

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