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Tower Hamlets: the mayor, the money and Panorama

Written By: TowerHamletVoice
03/04/2014 0:22 03/04/2014 0:19

The Panorama investigation made a measured case that Lutfur Rahman misuses his resources to cultivate his voter base, but does that really mark him out from other politicians?

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Enemies of Lutfur Rahman I contacted last night reported symptoms of mild anticlimax after watching Panorama provide the latest in the long succession of media probes of the Tower Hamlets mayor. Connoisseurs of such coverage - and the source of much of it - they felt that the programme revealed little they didn't already know and somehow didn't beat the bad guy up enough. Perhaps they should be glad.

A disappointment for those many local Labour and Conservative politicians who've been feeding Get Lutfur stuff to grateful journalists for years is that there hasn't been a lot of end result. For all the grave claims made against him, the authorities have yet to be greatly impressed. The more muck that gets thrown at him, the more the mayor seems to resemble a shining martyr in his admirers' eyes - and in Tower Hamlets, they're the ones keenest to vote.

The programme itself picked a painstaking path between "balance" and accusation, taking measures along the way to pre-empt allegations it knew it would face. Rahman was introduced as "Britain's first directly-elected Asian mayor" rather than as it's first Muslim one, a choice of label that - to me, anyway - felt designed to distance Panorama from that dismal market for tales of scarey Islamist plotters so sweatily (and unconvincingly) exploited by a Channel 4 Dispatches episode in 2010.

Presenter John Ware broke it to viewers that a young woman of Bengali background briefly employed by Films of Record, the company that made the programme, had leaked a dossier of internal documents because she felt the broadcasters were bent on damaging the local Bangladeshi community and had a racist agenda - allegations firmly denied by the programme maker and the BBC. Rahman, though, has strongly agreedwith her. Welcome to the politics of the East End.

Ware invited us to be perturbed by Rahman's enthusiasm for having his picture put on things (including dustcarts), made the case that the council's free newspaper East End Life is a propaganda vehicle and drew attention to the favourable - and Ofcom-censured - coverage the mayor receives from Channel S, a Bengali TV channel, one of whose reporters also works for Rahman. He challenged the mayor over dodging proper public scrutiny, a big issue with the council's Labour opposition and its mayoral challenger John Biggs, who has accused Rahman of performing in council meetings "like a monk in meditation".

Then there were the community grants. Ware put it to Rahman that he'd directed too much of the pot to Bangladeshi and Somali organisations against the advice of council officers. These appeared to be potatoes, but how large? Like so much else to do with Rahman, a lot depends on how you look at it and who's doing the looking.

The council argues that the sums involved are but a tiny part of its overall budget, the great bulk of which is spent on services and works that benefit the great majority of the borough's people. Examples of grateful residents, white ones and all, were shown. But Ware's contention, of course, was that the £2.1m that might have gone elsewhere was awarded in order to cultivate favour among ethnic minority voters vital to Rahman's remaining in power come May.

How concerned should Tower Hamlets voters be? Grant allocations can prompt claims of favouritism and favour-seeking in local government everywhere, but are more likely to excite a certain sort of attention if involving Muslims and "race". Politicians are not bound to follow their mandarins' advice and there's a long-established school of political thought that they ought to ignore them more often. It could even be thought a sign of a Town Hall culture's good health if officers don't always serve up what their masters would wish them to. And how outraged should we be if politicians deploy or withhold resources in ways that benefit them electorally? Are they supposed to be doing the opposite?

The programme claimed it was concerned that the mayoral system puts too much power in a single person's hands but no other executive mayor was even mentioned. A firmly-ensconced leader-and-cabinet set up is pretty unstoppable at borough level too. Could it be said that some of these other "strong" regimes too share out the goodies in ways intended make their voter core feel grateful?

Wandsworth motorists who like to drive up into Kensington are no doubt very grateful that they can do it for free again since London's executive mayor Boris Johnson halved the size of the London congestion charging zone. London's bus users, likely to be poor, have paid the price in rising fares. Panorama gave communities secretary Eric Pickles space to utter pieties about "divisive community politics" yet great planks of coalition policy pit one group of people against another - "strivers versus skivers"; "hard-working families" who "do the right thing" against all those welfare loafers who don't. Money is being dished out and cut accordingly. Panorama contrasted Rahman's grant-giving with his claim that he stands for "one Tower Hamlets." How does Pickles' slashing of government grant to Rahman's patch and other hard-up London boroughs square with his colleague George Osborne's famous remark that "We're all in this together"?

Whataboutery? Comparing apples with pears? Maybe. The point is, though, that if Rahman has sinned how many others are doing so all day, every day in ways that, in the end, differ if at all only in the means and detail? He's not the only mayor who rewards a friendly press and nourishes a personality cult. Again, direct your gaze across the Thames to City Hall.

The Panorama show was pretty measured, sketched in relevant context and acknowledged some of the borough's achievements. The questions it asked were reasonable. It didn't recycle that pernicious, glory-seekers' back catalogue of Tower Hamlets Islamist conspiracy theories that so excites the far right, and well done for that. I can't still the suspicion, though, that the very decision to cover Rahman's mayoralty was informed by the herd instinct that drives too much expose journalism; by the lure of a story whose promise of "sexy" ingredients - murky money, lurking fanatics, tensions around race - and the hope of claiming a scalp is, in the end, what makes it the one chosen to pursue.

Pickles says he's pondering sending in an inspector. Rahman has denounced Panorama as racist and Islamophobic. Both have political advantage in mind, the minister seeking capital from looking jolly tough, the mayor seeing a chance to strengthen his standing as the wronged champion of the oppressed and so ensuring that Labour, which so longs to unseat him, ends up losing more from the programme than it gains. Meanwhile, Tower Hamlets continues to suffer high youth unemployment, chronic over-crowding and the worst child poverty in the land. Now there's a story that ought to be told.

Source: Guardian 


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Tower Hamlet Mayor Lutfur Rahman BBC Panorama John Ware UK politics 


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