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Councillor wins £30k damages after BBC misidentified her as politician accused of housing fraud

A Westminster councillor has received damages in a libel case against the BBC after the news organisation misidentified her as another BAME politician who had been accused of housing fraud.

Cllr Liza Begum obtained £30,000 in libel damages for the defamatory allegation broadcast on BBC1 that "there are reasonable grounds to suspect that [Cllr Begum] had engaged in housing fraud".

However, the BBC report mistook Cllr Begum – who is Westminster City Council's Cabinet Member for Housing Services – for Apsana Begum, the Labour Member of Parliament for Poplar and Limehouse.

In October 2020, on the main 6:30 pm BBC1 London News programme, a presenter introduced a report 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".

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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.

After a complaint from Cllr Begum, the BBC broadcast a statement the following day apologising. The BBC admitted its mistake and added that it "would like to make it clear that Liza Begum has nothing to do with the story".

Cllr Begum then brought a libel claim contending that she was defamed by the video footage identifying her to viewers as the MP accused of housing fraud despite the MP's correct name being used.

The BBC subsequently made an offer to make amends, admitting to having defamed her by imputing that "there are reasonable grounds to suspect that [she] had engaged in housing fraud".

Cllr Begum accepted an offer from the BBC of £30,000 in damages and successfully argued that the authorities entitled her to explain how the BBC increased her upset by how it responded.

Following a High Court order granting her permission to read a statement in open court, the councillor said that the misidentification caused her further distress because it seemed another example of the BBC - and the media generally - misidentifying BAME people, which fed into racist tropes.

The High Court heard that the BBC had explained, when making its offer of amends, that: "Here, 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."

Despite this explanation, Cllr Begum called upon the BBC to state it would put in place processes to prevent the organisation from mistaking BAME individuals again.

However, the BBC said that it could not agree to the statement proposed by Cllr Begum because to "report to her on processes that it will put in place to guard against such misidentification" would be inconsistent with its independence and accountability to its regulator.

At the High Court hearing, Collins Rice J stated that it was "a most unfortunate case of mistaken identity". She said that the BBC's apology and payment of substantial damages vindicated Cllr Begum and underlined the BBC's responsibility for its mistakes and that Cllr Begum had formally placed on the Court record the wider and deeper effect of the confusion between women of colour.

In a statement, Cllr Liza Begum said: "It is right that the BBC has publicly apologised for the mistake they made in their report. It is already harder to be heard as a woman of colour and we are often underestimated. When you speak up, people's attitudes seem to change, and this must be challenged."

She added: "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 now look forward to focusing on my new brief as Cabinet Member of Housing Services at Westminster Council. I will be committed to improving the conditions of our social homes, providing more homes for our residents, and ensuring we continue to promote social justice and tackle inequality in Westminster."

Cllr Begum instructed Zillur Rahman of Rahman Lowe and Mark Henderson of Doughty Street Chambers.

A BBC spokesperson said: “We are very sorry for the distress this has caused. It was a genuine mistake during a live programme that arose from archive footage being incorrectly labelled in our system. We apologised on air at the first opportunity and took immediate steps to correct our system. We recognise we must do better so have taken steps internally to avoid similar situations occurring.”

Adam Carey

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