Tax­Pay­ers’ Al­liance con­cedes it launched smears against Brexit whistle­blower

Shah­mir Sanni lost his job and was falsely vil­i­fied as a liar af­ter rev­e­la­tions about Vote Leave spend­ing

The Observer - - News - Ca­role Cad­wal­ladr

The rightwing pressure group the Tax­Pay­ers’ Al­liance has con­ceded that it il­le­gally sacked the whistle­blower Shah­mir Sanni for re­veal­ing un­law­ful over­spend­ing in the Brexit ref­er­en­dum cam­paign, in a case that could have a ma­jor im­pact on how lob­by­ists are de­scribed in the me­dia.

In a de­vel­op­ment that lawyers have de­scribed as “al­most un­prece­dented”, the group has also con­ceded that it il­le­gally vil­i­fied Sanni on the BBC in co­or­di­na­tion with a net­work of other “linked” or­gan­i­sa­tions.

The Al­liance has ac­cepted all the al­le­ga­tions Sanni made dur­ing his ac­tion claim­ing un­fair dis­missal, wrong­ful dis­missal, ha­rass­ment and “dis­missal by rea­son of a philo­soph­i­cal be­lief in the sanc­tity of Bri­tish democ­racy”.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, it has also con­ceded that it is li­able for what Sanni’s lawyer, Peter Daly of Bind­mans, de­scribes as “ex­treme pub­lic vil­i­fi­ca­tion”. Sanni had claimed that it was re­spon­si­ble for a smear at­tack pub­lished by the web­site Brexit Cen­tral, and that it co­or­di­nated “deroga­tory state­ments” made by the head of Vote Leave, Matthew El­liott, to the BBC, call­ing Sanni a “Wal­ter Mitty fan­ta­sist” and “so-called whistle­blower” and claim­ing that he was guilty of “com­pletely ly­ing” be­fore an official find­ing by the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion into the con­duct of the Brexit ref­er­en­dum.

The dis­clo­sure is likely to have far­reach­ing con­se­quences for the way that broad­cast­ers de­scribe lobby groups. The un­con­tested claim stated that the Tax­Pay­ers’ Al­liance is re­spon­si­ble for El­liott’s Brexit Cen­tral web­site as part of nine “linked” high­pro­file rightwing “think­tanks” that op­er­ate in and around of­fices at 55 Tufton Street in Lon­don and co­or­di­nate me­dia and other strat­egy.

In Sanni’s case, they also co­or­di­nated with 10 Down­ing Street.

The net­work in­cludes the Adam Smith In­sti­tute, the Cen­tre for Pol­icy Stud­ies, the In­sti­tute of Eco­nomic Af­fairs and Leave Means Leave. The shadow chan­cel­lor, John McDon­nell, is call­ing for a full in­quiry into the groups’ fund­ing and said that in the in­ter­ests of “open­ness and ac­count­abil­ity” the BBC must make clear they are “lob­by­ists”, not “think­tanks” as they are some­times re­ferred to.

In March, Sanni re­vealed to the Ob­server mas­sive over­spend­ing by the official Vote Leave cam­paign, that has now been found to be in breach of the law by the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion. The day be­fore this was pub­lished, 10 Down­ing Street re­leased a state­ment that re­vealed Sanni was gay, and the Tax­Pay­ers’ Al­liance sub­se­quently sacked him from his job run­ning its so­cial me­dia. It has now con­ceded in full Sanni’s claims and is li­able to pay sub­stan­tial dam­ages.

De­tails of the Al­liance’s re­la­tion­ship with No 10 and the role of Stephen Parkin­son, Theresa May’s po­lit­i­cal sec­re­tary, will now not be heard in court. A sep­a­rate claim by Sanni against 10 Down­ing Street is still on­go­ing. Sanni, who re­ceived an award from Gay Times last week, said: “It has proved that the Tax­Pay­ers’ Al­liance sacked me for speak­ing the truth. And that there has been a co­or­di­nated ef­fort by the Con­ser­va­tive es­tab­lish­ment, in­clud­ing the govern­ment, to shut me down.

“And if they had fought the case in court as we wanted, they would have had re­veal who their donors are. That they were pre­pared to ad­mit their ille- gal be­hav­iour on all counts shows how far they are will­ing to go to pro­tect this in­for­ma­tion.

“Se­ri­ous ques­tions must be asked about who is fund­ing them, what their ex­act re­la­tion­ship is with the govern­ment and why are they al­lowed a plat­form on na­tional tele­vi­sion.”

Chris Mil­som, a bar­ris­ter who spe­cialises in whistle­blow­ing cases, said: “To wave a white flag to avoid mak­ing dis­clo­sures in court is re­ally un­usual. They con­ceded ev­ery­thing. How does an os­ten­si­bly pri­vate com­pany come to be work­ing with Down­ing Street? Who are their fun­ders?

“If this had been fully ven­ti­lated in a pub­lic hear­ing we could have found th­ese things out. In­stead they ac­knowl­edge they dis­missed a whistle­blower for whistle­blow­ing about elec­toral crimes be­cause of his philo­soph­i­cal be­lief in the sanc­tity of democ­racy. And then pil­lo­ried him for it. Is that an en­tity that is fit to be on the BBC, speak­ing on be­half of ‘tax­pay­ers’?”

McDon­nell said: “Th­ese or­gan­i­sa­tions – even by their names – seek to por­tray them­selves as in­de­pen­dent, au­thor­i­ta­tive re­search bod­ies.”

In re­al­ity, he said, they were “vir­tual lob­by­ists” but never pre­sented as such by the BBC and oth­ers. At the time of pub­li­ca­tion, the Tax­Pay­ers’ Al­liance had not re­sponded to the Ob­server’s re­quest for comment

‘Se­ri­ous ques­tions must be asked about who funds them and why they are al­lowed a plat­form’

Shah­mir Sanni

Por­trait by Kather­ine Anne Rose for the Ob­server

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