A Labour councillor, Liza Begum, has won £30,000 in libel damages from the BBC after the broadcaster misidentified her as an MP facing fraud charges.
Cllr Begum sued the BBC after a London News programme showed an image of her while discussing housing benefit fraud allegations against Apsana Begum MP (which she was subsequently cleared of).
Begum is a prominent BAME Labour activist and social housing campaigner, and notably led a campaign to save the Westminster social housing estate where she lives from demolition.
A statement read out today in the Royal Courts of Justice in London said:
“This conveyed the serious, false and defamatory imputation that there were reasonable grounds to suspect Ms Begum had engaged in housing fraud. Ms Begum was concerned about many people believing that she, a known housing campaigner, was the subject of the report. The misidentification caused Ms Begum particular distress because it seemed another example of the BBC, and the media generally, misidentifying BAME people, which fed into racist tropes. She was particularly distressed that the confusion was of two women of colour appearing at a Race and Faith event, and that nobody in the BBC corrected it before the film of her was broadcast.”
You can read the rest of the statement here.
On October 29, 2021 on BBC1’s main 6:30pm London News programme, the presenter introduced a report by the London Political Correspondent with: “I understand housing fraud allegations have been made against a Labour MP.”
The Political Correspondent replied: “Yeah, this is Apsana Begum who is a Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, being the MP for just under a year and it follows an investigation into how she got the tenancy to her housing association flat. She faces 3 charges of dishonesty, failing to disclose information to make a gain for herself.”
Simultaneously, the BBC broadcast a video not of Apsana Begum MP (who has since been cleared of all charges), but of Cllr Begum addressing Labour Party’s 2019 General Election Race and Faith Manifesto launch.
The BBC did apologise for the error the next day but initially opposed events being aired in court. Subsequently it admitted to having defamed Begum by imputing that “there are reasonable grounds to suspect that [she] had engaged in housing fraud.”
Cllr Begum also defeated the BBC’s attempt to prevent the High Court hearing about what happened during the claim. She successfully argued that she was entitled to explain in court how the BBC increased her upset by how they responded.
The BBC had claimed that “the error arose because the video in question was incorrectly labelled as identifying your client because she and Apsana Begum appeared at the same Labour event where the recording in question was captured. That was what caused the original confusion in the archive. That does not make the mistake ‘racist’ as your client has claimed online.”
But Cllr Begum told the court how she was “upset by what she felt was the rejection of her concern about racism with the explanation that her misidentification as a different BAME woman was the result of confusion caused by both women appearing at the same Race and Faith event. She felt the BBC was overly dismissive of her concern in reassuring her that it was not racist because it was just a mistake.”
Cllr’s Begum’s High Court statement explained that “The reason that this mistake is not the same as confusing the identities of two non-BAME individuals is because of the classic racist trope that BAME people look the same and a long history of BAME people being treated as one in the same rather than individuals in their own right.”
BBC and people of colour
Cllr Begum instructed Zillur Rahman of Rahman Lowe and Mark Henderson of Doughty Street Chambers in her successful defamation claim.
Speaking outside the High Court today, Cllr Begum said: “It is right that the BBC has publicly apologised for its mistake, but time and time again we have seen the BBC and other organisations make the same mistake with people of colour. It is unacceptable that the media make such errors and it reflects a deep seated notion that all people of colour look the same.
“The High Court heard how the BBC refused to make a public commitment to put processes in place to guard against this in future. I hope that the BBC will now implement processes to ensure mistakes such as this do not happen again and improve diversity within the organisation. It’s time the diversity of our communities is reflected in our country’s media and workplaces generally. I would like to thank my legal team for fighting to ensure that the High Court heard what happened and that I received very substantial libel damages for the distress caused.”
Zillur Rahman added: “I am delighted for my client. This case highlights the dangers of media outlets confusing BAME persons with one another, as has been the case previously with the BBC confusing black Labour MPs Dawn Butler MP and Marsha de Cordova MP, and the black basketball players, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. These mistaken identity cases can significantly damage a person’s reputation, as was the case here.”