Monday, 19 November 2007

Dispatches 3, Police 0

We should, perhaps, feel grateful to West Midlands Police, whose complaint to Ofcom regarding Channel 4's documentary Undercover Mosque has resulted in a stinging rebuke. Their dunderheaded decision to go after the makers of an important documentary provided further evidence of just how perverse the police have become in their attachment to multiculturalism and "community cohesion". But it also gave Ofcom an opportunity to reiterate the role of independent television journalism in the uncovering of uncomfortable truth. And in a magnificently worded judgement, they have done so.

The police complaint clearly had no validity. Dispatches raised important issues about the radicalisation of British mosques, about how several institutions had been infiltrated and even commandeered by Saudi-financed extremists, and how messages rich in misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitic paranoia were being preached from pulpits. Even though the subsequent police investigation failed to provide sufficient evidence for a prosecution on the grounds of inciting murder or racial hatred, the programmed still launched a much-needed debate both within and outside the Muslim community.

Evidence continues to emerge of the poison being pedalled inside many mosques. The recent survey by Policy Exchange, for example, found extremist literature on sale at venues including the East London mosque, an institution which doubles up as the headquarters of the Muslim Council of Britain and whose chairman, Abdul Bari, is MCB chairman. It was Bari who, the other day, notably failed to condemn the barbaric punishment of stoning ("It depends on what type of stoning and what circumstances") even while denouncing sex outside marriage, homosexuality, bikinis and the presence of alcohol in pubs.

So it's clear that there is a problem, even if, in the words of the Crown Prosecution Service, the Dispatches documentary had mainly featured extracts from "speeches, which, in their totality, could never provide a realistic prospect of any convictions". At which point the police should have let the matter rest. Instead, they went after the journalists.

Explaining the decision by West Midlands police to call for an Ofcom inquiry, Assistant Chief Constable Anil Patani said in August: "The priority for police has been to investigate the documentary and its making with as much rigour as the extremism the programme sought to portray."

So television reporters deserve the same treatment as potential terrorists and terrorist sympathisers, do they?

That it should be Channel 4 that was the target of this sinister attempt to undermine journalistic freedom was particularly notable. Although it has a reputation for left-liberal bias no less institutionalised than that of the BBC, the channel retains a sense of the importance of real reporting. It carries out genuine investigations that set out to seek the truth rather than the mere repetition of PR statements that passes for reportage these days on most of the BBC. In these ever more dumbed-down times, and despite Big Brother, Channel 4 maintains a precious devotion to quality whose loss would impoverish us all. The stakes here were very high. Had Channel 4 lost, independent and fearless television journalism would have been all but dead in this country.

Ofcom's decision that the programme makers had no case to answer came as little surprise. Yet it exceeded all expectations. After all, the complaint came from the police, a serious institution charged with fighting crime and upholding law and order in our society, not from a dodgy businessman or an absurd outfit such as "Christian Voice" (currently to be found trying to revive ancient blasphemy laws). This fact alone sent a chill through broadcasters everywhere. Worse, the police were backed in their complaints by Saudi Arabia, source of most of the trouble, whose London embassy complained first to the Foreign Office before submitting its own dossier to Ofcom.

It would have been easy for Ofcom to produce a mealy-mouthed report which, while dismissing the substance of the claim, acknowledged at least part of the police case and thus gave encouragement for further meddling.

Instead of which, they said this:

Investigative journalism plays an essential role in public service broadcasting and is clearly in the public interest. Ofcom considers it of paramount importance that broadcasters, such as Channel 4, continue to explore controversial subject matter. While such programmes can make for uncomfortable viewing, they are essential to our understanding of the world around us. It is inevitable such programmes which tackle highly sensitive subjects will have a high profile. Such controversial programmes may inevitably lead to a large number of complaints. However, investigative programming is amongst some of the most important content that broadcasters produce.

And this:

The allegations made by the programme regarding the covertly recorded speeches were clearly identified by the programme as concerning a particular form of radical Islamic ideology which was contrasted with the views of the representatives of mainstream Islam also featured. In accordance with generally accepted standards, the extremist views put forward by some speakers were put within the context of a fuller understanding of the Muslim religion and there was no ‘bias’ in the programme against Islam.

And, having considered and rejected in detail three separate complains, they say this:

Undercover Mosque was a legitimate investigation, uncovering matters of important public interest. Ofcom found no evidence that the broadcaster had misled the audience or that the programme was likely to encourage or incite criminal activity. On the evidence (including untransmitted footage and scripts), Ofcom found that the broadcaster had accurately represented the material it had gathered and dealt with the subject matter responsibly and in context.

One hopes the police will think twice before wasting Ofcom's time, and their own, again.

Read the full report here.