Tackling corruption in Tower Hamlets

By Hannah Scarbrough | 27th May 2015

The original aim of Love Wapping was fairly traditional: focus on issues important to the community and local campaigns. Furthermore it followed the well-trodden route of hyperlocals past and present, in providing a stopgap when the original community news site (What’s In Wapping) shuttered so that its creator could return to paid work.

But although Love Wapping still covers your bread-and-butter hyperlocal stories – from canal conservation to local police open surgeries – it has now taken a high profile role in challenging electoral corruption in Tower Hamlets. We speak to Love Wapping founder and data journalist, Mark Baynes, to find out more.

Although there is a history of fishy electoral goings-on in Tower Hamlets (as reported by Andrew Gilligan and Ted Jeory), Mark’s initial experience of this was merely hearsay. He explains, “I had heard lots of rumours of corruption in Tower Hamlets but had no seen evidence.” But then the story, Mark says, “literally knocked on my door”.

This knock on the door turned out to be Tower Hamlets Homes’ staff, who were being deployed to canvass on the behalf of the area’s mayor Lutfur Rahman. Mark had “not seen any substantive reporting in the local papers”, so decided to try and fill the gap; embarking on a thorough investigation which would end up uncovering yet more corruption.

Mark explains: “Once I knew there was a story there and I was being lied to by politicians I started doing the real investigative work. Initially this was pure data driven journalism analysing Tower Hamlets council spending data. A year later I finally had all the data needed to prove that, as many had suspected, council grants were going to those who voted for the Mayor – not those in need.”

And Mark’s work was further corroborated “when the audit of the Council grants was published by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and they had come to the same conclusion.” The story became national news as Lutfur Rahman was forced to step down after being found guilty of “corrupt and illegal practices” including vote-rigging.

IMG_6198However, more was yet to come – again, arriving on Mark’s doorstep. This time, he found a “Rabina Khan [Mayoral candidate] political leaflet inside a THH newsletter through my letterbox.” Changing his schedule, Mark wrote up the story – but next day found yet more of the same, this time in nearby Limehouse.

Mark has contacted the local authorities, the Electoral Commission and the Metropolitan Police asking direct questions about the incident in attempt to find out the facts, publishing the letter on Love Wapping.

In the process of his investigation, Mark dealt with antagonistic responses from the local authority. He says: “The main investigation is into Tower Hamlets Council, so until the High Court judgement the Tower Hamlets First ruling administration were extremely hostile. I have found that the more hostile people in power are the closer you are to the truth – quite handy really.”

In contrast, Mark’s dealings with the Metropolitan Police have been “good, but many other residents have been frustrated by their seeming lack of inaction. Conspiracy theories abound in Tower Hamlets – and many about the Council are true – but I think the problem the Met Police had was a simple lack of resources. Not enough detectives. The Met has been affected by government cuts as much as any other public body.”

But all of this does not just amount to a few isolated incidents of dodgy political dealers and canvassers. Instead, says Mark, it is consistent with a pattern “in which Tower Hamlets First has attempted to subvert the democratic process.” And this “massive backstory” needs further reporting to get to the bottom of it. Mark would like to continue the work of Ted Jeory and Andrew Gilligan regarding Islamic Forum Europe, and hopes he can find the resources to do it.

And what would Mark’s advice be to other hyperlocal journalists seeking to challenge this sort of issue? “The fundamental thing is to realise that just because an important story has not been covered in the mainstream media does not mean it is not worth investigating. In East London the local press is virtually non-existent and has failed the East End by not investigating the rampant political corruption in the borough sooner.”

“Corruption in an East London borough seems too big for local media and too small for the nationals – so it does not get covered. It still amazes me that a hyperlocal like Love Wapping has been getting so much coverage recently when the story has been around for years.”

Other tips from Mark to remember when doing investigative work are:

  • Don’t forget to earn a living somehow at the same time as doing your hyperlocal reporting (I forgot)
  • Work carefully and methodically
  • If you get trolled on Twitter or Facebook report it to the police
  • You work to the same standards as any journalist
  • Know the law and if in doubt check
  • Many stories are hiding in plain sight
  • Be persistent. If you think what you are doing is right then do not give up – ever

Homepage image accompanying this article is produced using CC permission.

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