Today the West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service have finally been forced to accept the inevitable: that their joint complaint to Ofcom last August over the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary Undercover Mosque was wholly without foundation. They paid £100,000 in damages and costs, and were obliged to read out in court, and publish, a grovelling apology:
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.
This is very different in tone from their earlier press release, which gleefully announced to a news media reeling from the "grumpy Queen" scandal and various phone-in vote scams that they had caught another, and potentially far more serious, example of TV fakery, this time making perfectly innocuous, moderate imams look like ranting extremists by taking their remarks about jihad, homosexuals and women out of context. Though the original text has now been removed from the CPS archives, as widely reported at the time it made much of the fact (unsurprising given the constraints of the schedules) that 56 hours of original footage, assembled over a 9 month period, had been edited down to a mere hour-long documentary. According to CPS lawyer Bethan David, "the splicing together of extracts from longer speeches appears to have completely distorted what the speakers were saying."
And the WMP officer overseeing the investigaion, Anil Patani, was positively gleeful in pointing to the complaint as proof of his force's balanced approach:
The priority for the West Midland Police has been to investigate the documentary and its making with as much rigour as the extremism the programme sought to portray.
A strange priority for the police. It was, I seem to remember, a principle of Roman law that if a person bringing an action was unsuccessful he could be fined the value of the damages he would have won. And a person bringing an accusation of murder risked being branded on the forehead with a K (for Calumniator) if the defendant was acquitted. Perhaps this is now the police see their role, coming down equally hard on extremists and those who seek to bring them to public notice.
Ofcom disagreed with the complaint. In fact they disagreed so comprehensively that it's on the face of it astonishing that the police and the CPS didn't apologise there and then. Ofcom's adjudication could almost have been a press release on behalf of the documentary team. The report, which is worth reading in full, contained the following ringing endorsement of the role of programmes such as Undercover Mosque.
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.
As Channel 4 was able to demonstrate, moreover, the police submission to Ofcom had itself misrepresented the nature of the documentary - through tendentious editing! As Steve Hewlett reported in November:
In studying evidence submitted by the police in support of their complaint to Ofcom, C4 realised that some key passages had been mistranslated and some had been omitted altogether. Police assertions to the effect that speakers had been taken out of context and misrepresented were fatally undermined - in Ofcom's eyes at least - by correct translation and the inclusion of the omitted sentences. In other words the police had done precisely what they had accused the programme makers of.
Even before the Ofcom report, however, it had become obvious that the police complaint 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.
Yet when the blistering Ofcom report was issued, the West Midlands Police refused to withdraw their original press release and merely issued a holding statement:
A spokesman for West Midlands police said a number of people had made complaints to the force. It said the CPS had raised "significant concerns" about the production of the programme.
"West Midlands police considered this and subsequently a referral to Ofcom, as the independent and experienced regulator in this area, was made. It is usual practice for West Midlands police to make referrals to regulatory bodies," said the spokesman in a statement.
Usual practice? It is no part of the police's, or the CPS's, responsibility to make complaints to regulatory bodies about TV programmes. They're not TV critics. They investigate crimes and, if necessary, bring charges. And if they find that no crimes have been committed, or that there is insufficient evidence, then their job is done.
There are various theories about how the police came to investigate the programme-makers rather than the radical preachers. One is that they simply wanted to justify the time and money spent pursuing an investigation that was never likely to yield sufficient evidence of law-breaking for a prosecution, and so decided to go after the film-makers instead. But it would seem that at least part of their eagerness to pursue the complaint sprang from their desire to appease "community leaders" who had objected to their enquiries in the first place. One such, Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadan Foundation, expressed his delight at the referral in a letter to the Guardian:
We totally condemn Channel 4 for its arrogance in defending this programme, when it was clear to us that the makers had taken contributions out of context and edited speeches.
We urge Channel 4 to suspend all the Dispatches programmes immediately so that corrective action can be taken to ensure that this sort of journalism is eliminated.
The Ramadhan Foundation has always been very clear that the mosques have an important role in promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence, but to use these sensitive issues to demonise Muslims shown in the programme is shocking and deeply disturbing. There can be no justification for this kind of journalism. The complaint is total vindication for the Muslim organisations which complained that the Undercover Mosque programme had taken the views of contributors out of context.
To him, clearly, the making of an official complaint was tantamount to proof of guilt. Inayat Bunglawala was another who enthusiastically seized on the police's action.
While the original C4 programme will have reinforced some prejudices people have of Muslims, today's CPS/police statement will, I think more justifiably, reinforce the distrust with which many Muslims regard sections of our media.
Hate speech must be combated. Documentary makers have an important responsibility, however, to do their research properly and carefully identify those who actually incite hatred. They must take great care to avoid unfairly stigmatising whole institutions and groups of people.
Much of the media - notably the BBC, which must have been relieved to find something to distract from the Queen/Annie Liebowitz imbroglio - followed suit. There was considerably less reporting of Ofcom's ruling or, indeed, today's humiliation for the CPS/ police axis of appeasement. And this, of course, was the most dangerous aspect of the original complaint. The police and the CPS are public bodies charged with upholding the law; as such, their action in referring Channel 4 to Ofcom was a serious matter, potentially crippling for investigaive reporting - including, perhaps, investigative reporting into the police itself.
At this point, the usual clichés are trotted out. The West Midlands Police "will have questions to answer". "Heads must roll". But will the questions be answered? Will heads roll. Looking back on recent history - incidents like the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, for example - it hardly seems likely.