Following the vindication of the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary Undercover Mosque covered in the The Times (twice), The Telegraph, The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, and the BBC, it is perhaps worth reviewing some of the background.
Let’s start with one of the subjects of the documentary itself, Abu Usamah At-Thahabi, who was filmed saying “If I were to call homosexuals perverted, dirty, filthy dogs who should be murdered, that’s my freedom of speech, isn’t it?”.
“I totally embrace and encourage a police investigation because I do not believe that the security forces will have any hidden agenda in which they will allow themselves to be swayed by Channel Four’s sensationalist journalism.”
Abu Usamah At-Thahabi said he would provide the police with DVDs of his lectures.
“Let the authorities get involved in the investigation and get to the bottom of this matter in which I was quoted out of context,” he said.
The man was right. The security forces certainly didn’t have a secret agenda to be swayed by Channel Four, they appear to have been more swayed by him.
A West Midlands Police press release was issued and a CPS lawyer, Bethan David, was quoted:
“The splicing together of extracts from longer speeches appears to have completely distorted what the speakers were saying. The CPS has demonstrated that it will not hesitate to prosecute those responsible for criminal incitement. But in this case we have been dealing with a heavily edited programme, apparently taking out of context aspects of speeches which in their totality could never have provided a realistic prospect of any convictions.”
The West Midlands Police apology is now on line:
On 8 August 2007 we published, jointly with the Crown Prosecution Service, a press release relating to the Channel Four Dispatches programme “Undercover Mosque”. This press release alleged that footage of the speakers shown had been so “heavily edited” and taken out of context that it had “completely distorted” their meaning. Reference was made to the CPS having been asked to consider (although against advice) instituting proceedings against those involved in making the programme for inciting racial hatred.
Following an independent investigation by the broadcasting regulator Ofcom, we now accept that we were wrong to make these allegations. We now accept that there was no evidence that the broadcaster or programme makers had misled the audience or that the programme was likely to encourage or incite criminal activity. A review of the evidence (including untransmitted footage and scripts) by Ofcom demonstrated that the programme had accurately represented the material it had gathered and dealt with the subject matter responsibly and in context.
We accept, without reservation, the conclusions of Ofcom and apologise to the programme makers for the damage and distress caused by our original press release.
Kevin Sutcliffe has written about the case in a piece entitled Not guilty – but who’s to know?, pointing out that fellow media outlets were quick to jump on the initial claims of distortion, but slower to report the previous OFCOM decision that cleared them.
There was to be one last – and bitter – surprise. “Undercover Mosque” had been given a ringing endorsement from Ofcom, Channel 4 and the producers at Hardcash no longer stood accused of being fakers and twisters, but we were no longer news. I sat at my workstation and waited for the phone to ring. The Channel 4 press office issued a suitably upbeat statement. The BBC, who’d sent an expensive satellite truck over to London SW1 to demand I answer WMP’s allegations last August, appeared to have lost their A-Z. My boss emailed a senior BBC news executive to say I was in the office, wearing a suit and waiting to be interviewed. He replied, offering his congratulations but saying that “Undercover Mosque” was not a news priority. I mused out loud that only a finding against the programme would have demanded their precious truck’s return to our building. Exoneration may not be big news and the BBC may well have had good reason to target resources at other stories. But in August they set the agenda by “going big” with the story. Others noticed and took their lead. The same was happening again, only in reverse.
It rankled that one of the key ways to set the record straight, to restore reputations and highlight the absurd and worrying behaviour of the police towards journalists – publicising Ofcom’s verdict – just wasn’t happening. This was an important story and not just for Channel 4. It was a victory – albeit a modest one – for free speech; a line had been drawn over which public authorities intent in meddling with journalism would now have to think carefully about before crossing. There was some pick-up but nowhere near the intensity of the interest when it looked as if we were in trouble. I felt the lukewarm press response to our victory had failed to dissipate the stench of fakery. The allegations lingered just off stage.
Thankfully, it appears that this story is getting the exposure its deserves, possibly because it may be the first case of the CPS being sued for libel. However, what is of more importance is what did the West Midlands Police and the CPS think they were doing? Was this a case of community relations gone wrong?
The assistant chief constable of the West Midlands Police, Anil Patani, wrote in a letter to Channel 4 at the time: “It is clear that Undercover Mosque had an impact in the community and the cohesion within it.”. Two weeks after the broadcast of Undercover Mosque Police conducted raids to prevent a beheading plot in Birmingham. Community leaders such as Dr Mohammad Naseem, complained of Britain sliding into a Police State. Such “community leaders” are given an undue amount of respect. Birmingham University awarded the crackpot Dr Mohammad Naseem an honorary degree for his commitment to ‘freedom of expression, rule of law and democracy since his formative years’. West Midlands Police have also felt it necessary to inform Dr Mohammed Naseem before anti-terrorist operations.
One wonders if a desire to remain on the right side of such individuals influenced the decision to attempt to smear Dispatches?
An apology is all well and good, but there should be an inquiry into how the West Midlands Police and the CPS got themselves into this position, and a serious look at their policies with regard to community relations, which appear to pander to the most reactionary voices.