Monday, December 17, 2007 

Charles Moore enters the Policy Exchange/Newsnight fray.

Firstly, apologies for not updating on Saturday. My phone line had until around 2 hours ago been borked since 2am on Friday night/Saturday morning. Thanks, Tiscali.

Secondly, this will hopefully be the last piece on the Policy Exchange/Newsnight confrontation unless something new comes up. Charles Moore, ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph, and Chairman of Policy Exchange just had to stick his nose in though and therefore deserves to be thoroughly fisked.

Skipping Moore's trite intro about Newsnight:

On a day when the world's central banks were combining to rescue the global banking system, and when Gordon Brown was trying to think of a way of signing away Britain's independence in Lisbon without cameras, there were big things for the programme to lead on.

Instead, it presented a huge, 17-minute package about Policy Exchange.

Seeing as the signing away didn't occur until Friday, there was little point going on about it until Thursday night, surely? Let's not even bother getting into the giving away of our birthrights that the Eurosceptics and tabloids have blustered over when they've preached bullshit and lies about Europe for so long. The 17-minute package was a thorough, intelligent and lucid piece of investigative journalism. It was something that doesn't grace our screens much anymore, and it was far better than a tedious report on the central banks having to bail out the other banks because of their economic ineptitude, unless the report went into how the free market had failed due to the greed of the City on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although Newsnight's portentousness was unjustified, the allegations did look serious. It should be said at once that they need proper investigation. But when you know the background, you come to see how very different this story is from the way Newsnight told it.

And does Charles Moore anywhere in this actual piece refute any of Newsnight's allegations and accusations? Of course he doesn't. This is the start of the obfuscation. The allegations need proper investigation, but in the mean time we're going to attack Newsnight for daring to investigate our potentially shoddy report.

This is what happened.

Over the summer, Policy Exchange produced the most comprehensive report so far on the extent to which extremist literature is available in British mosques and Islamic institutions. It is called The Hijacking of British Islam.

Muslim undercover researchers visited nearly 100 mosques. In 26 of them, they found extremist material - titles such as Women Who Deserve to Go to Hell (for answering their husbands back), virulent insults of Jews and homosexuals, puritanical attacks on moderate Muslims, calls for the complete rejection of Western society etc.

It was a big story, and as I shall make clear, none of Newsnight's claims this week has diminished its dimensions.

In 6 of those there are now, thanks to Newsnight, doubts about whether they did supply the material, meaning that extremist material was found in a fifth of such institutions, not a quarter. That's still unacceptable, but because of those doubts it also brings the entire report into disrepute. To continue to claim that Newsnight "hasn't diminished its dimensions" is to give in to a desire for personal myopia.

The report made the front page of many newspapers, including this one. It was extensively covered everywhere - everywhere except for the entire national output of the BBC.

This was because of Newsnight. Thinking that such a report was a serious public issue that could advance well under the "flagship's" full mast and sail, Policy Exchange had originally offered it to Newsnight exclusively.

Newsnight's people were enthusiastic, but on the late afternoon of the intended broadcast, they suddenly changed their tune.

Policy Exchange had offered them many of the receipts it had collected from mosques as evidence of purchase; now they said that they had shown the receipts to mosques and that there were doubts about the authenticity of one or two of them.

Given that the report was being published that night, the obvious thing for Newsnight to do was to broadcast Policy Exchange's findings at once, allowing the mosques to have their say about the receipts.

There was no need for Newsnight to claim "ownership" of the report. Instead, the editor, Peter Barron, decided to run nothing. His decision meant the Policy Exchange report was not touched by the BBC at all.

I'm sorry, is Moore meant to be getting at something here? Newsnight decides to actually check up on the veracity of PE's report, and when it discovers there are doubts, it decides to investigate more thoroughly, and this is something Newsnight is worthy of criticism over? One of the things modern day journalism suffers from in the 24-hour news climate is the desire to get the story out and for the facts, such as they are, to be established later. We've seen that happen this year with Madeleine McCann and in numerous other cases. They could have broadcast the report and said that the mosques disputed the findings and even the authenticity of the receipts, but would have been left with eggs on their faces and facing criticism if someone else had then done the investigation they decided to do themselves. Newsnight finds itself being damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. Moore is also wrong to say that the BBC didn't touch the report at all; as Osama Saeed has already explained, the Islamic Centre of Edinburgh had its "naming and shaming" in the report heavily covered on the BBC north of the border, and where again the findings have been disputed.

Mr Barron had already been in trouble for his editorial judgment.

In the summer, the BBC apologised for a Newsnight programme in which a reporter's encounters with Gordon Brown's press officer had been presented in reverse sequence, in order to make Mr Brown's team look intolerant.

Moore, like with Godson, has decide to turn on Peter Barron rather than reporting itself. It's true that Newsnight did apologise for that fortuitous editing, but it was the independent filmmaker's own work. Barron should have checked. Anyway, if we're to adopt the PE defense, the filmmaker can more than claim that despite his editing his report was still accurate, just not altogether the truth.

Mr Barron's judgment of the Policy Exchange report came under attack from colleagues: his flawed methodology - the original decision not to broadcast - had lost the entire corporation an important story.

Ah, failed methodology. Is this the new "flawed prospectus"?

Mr Barron decided to try to prove himself right. In the private sector, there is something called "vanity publishing", where people pay for their own works to be published.

Mr Barron's vanity broadcasting was, of course, at the expense of the licence-fee payer. He put the crew of the flagship on to investigating Policy Exchange's receipts. For six weeks, they turned on the staff of Policy Exchange, who had come to them in good faith in the first place, and treated them like criminals.

And, err, he rather has, hasn't he? Even if Moore's allegations are true, the licence-fee payer and the public interest have been served by Barron's decision to investigate. Apparently being asked some searching questions is now the equivalent of being banged up in police cells and raided at 6am in the morning.

The receipts that Policy Exchange had lent to them were impounded, and copies were distributed to others without permission.

They were subjected to complicated forensic tests. One of these, allegedly the most damning, was completed over a week before Wednesday's broadcast, but withheld from Policy Exchange.

Although there was no screaming news urgency about the item, a courier carrying the test results sat outside the offices of Policy Exchange's lawyers on Wednesday evening with the message that the think-tank could see the results only if it agreed, before seeing them, that it would go on air that night to answer Newsnight's charges.

Outside the lawyers' offices rather than Policy Exchange's? Could this possibly be because PE had already threatened legal action in the most alarming terms? Surely PE were going to appear on Newsnight anyway? Or were they going to, like the government, be unable to find anyone to appear despite a request? Newsnight presumably didn't hand back the originals because they rightly feared that PE wouldn't be gladly giving them back.

On the programme, Jeremy Paxman, who admitted off-air that he had not seen the film before it was broadcast, attacked Policy Exchange's research director, Dean Godson, for refusing to let Newsnight speak to the researchers who had collected the receipts. This was not so: Mr Barron himself had spoken to two of them.

This was dealt with in the previous posts: Barron only says he spoke to one and that was on the day when the original broadcast was meant to be in "an inconclusive conference call".

Poor Paxo, who these days has the air of a once-marvellous old Grand National horse who should no longer be entered for the race, had not been properly briefed.

He accused Policy Exchange itself, which the Newsnight report had not done, of fabricating receipts. Strange the mixture of fierce accusation and casual sloppiness.

Now we're down to the personal insults and more obfuscation. Pray tell, if PE or the researchers employed by PE didn't fabricate the receipts, who did?

Newsnight was very excited about the results of a study of receipts by a forensic document analyst that seemed to suggest forgery.

It did not tell viewers that its expert wrote: "The relatively limited amount of writing available for comparison has prevented me from expressing any definite opinion." She did not study any of the writing in Arabic, though it appeared on two of the three receipts she investigated.

Strange then that she was apparently convinced in Newsnight's actual report. Newsnight was hardly able to ask the researchers to provide some longhand to compare with the receipts, was it?

Of course, any allegations about receipts are, in principle, a serious matter for a think-tank.

Policy Exchange bases its work on evidence, and so its evidence must be sound. The BBC did not give the think-tank the chance to investigate its complicated allegations properly. Policy Exchange will now do so.

Oh, for Christ's sake. Only now are the allegations to be investigated properly. Had PE been suitably rigourous in the first place it would have found the mistakes and discrepancies that Newsnight did before the report had got anywhere near publication. It had six weeks during the BBC's own investigation to do its own digging. Froth and chaff.

But the real oddity of all this is that the actual contents of the report have been validated.

Extremist literature was available in the mosques, and in some cases still is. The mosques could not dissociate themselves from the literature and, in most cases, did not even try to: they jumped on the receipts instead.

Well, a few of them did, and justifiably so one would imagine when in one case it seems to have been fabricated with the office round the corner being wrongly identified as a mosque. The Newsnight investigation found two of the books mentioned in the report in two of the mosques; hardly validating it when its complete findings have been put into doubt due to the apparent making up of the receipts.

One mosque insisted that the next-door bookshop selling extreme stuff had nothing to do with it, yet the extremist books in question which the shop sells are by a former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia (author of a famous essay in which he literally asserted that the Earth is flat) who was a founding sponsor of the mosque!

And one would expect, with the writer being a former Grand Mufti of Saudi that his books would be reasonably widespread.

I don't blame Newsnight for reporting questions about receipts, though I deplore their methods. I do blame them for trying to kill the much, much bigger story about the hate that is being preached in our country.

Moore than seems to deplore the methods of investigative journalism. Not surprising seeing that the stitching up of Galloway from the "documents" in Iraq took place under his watch. If the BBC was trying to kill the "bigger story", it's done a poor job of it, considering how it's contributed to that story itself considerably over the last year.

Policy Exchange researches all sorts of public policy - police reform, school choice, housing, as well as on Islamist extremism. Next week comes its big report on improving philanthropy. I find it repellent that the might of the BBC is deployed to threaten and bully a charity in this way.

Most of which is complete bollocks. The latest publication on prison reform recommends selling off some of the prison estate that is dilapidated, pocketing the money and then spending it on building new prisons. Nowhere is it explained just where the prisoners currently occupying the prisons to be sold off would be housed in the meantime. To claim that the BBC is "threatening and bullying" Policy Exchange is absurd: PE, with its legal threats before the BBC investigation had even been shown, was the one which was bullying while the BBC was daring to look behind the facade. Policy Exchange seems to have two obsessions: the police and Islam. Since July 2006, when it published Martin Bright's series of articles on the relationship between the government and "Islamist reactionaries" abroad in a pamphlet, it's published three other studies on Islam, including the one now under suspicion. Seeing as it was co-founded by the ghastly Michael Gove, a noted devotee to neo-conservatism who had his tome "Celsius 7/7" described by William a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension, riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any other text I have come across in two decades of reviewing books on this subject", it's not much of a surprise.

More important, however, is the fate of Muslims in this country.

It is not often realised that the British citizens most persecuted by Islamist extremism are Muslims themselves.

The researchers that Policy Exchange used to find the extreme literature were all Muslims - no one else could pass unnoticed in a potentially hostile environment.

Because their safety was and is threatened, the think-tank protects their anonymity. On air, Newsnight revealed where some of them were.

Yesterday an Islamist website repeated this and called for supporters to help hunt them down. The BBC has unintentionally exposed them to the risk of harm.

Oh yes, they're currently in Mauritania, a country the size of Egypt. Seeing as no one knows who or where they are, those Islamists might just have a considerable task on their hands in tracking them down. Moore would of course know about the pitfalls of offending some Muslims: he wrote a reasonably infamous article prior to the religious hatred law going through which opened with "Was the prophet Mohammed a paedophile?" He continued:

To me, it seems anachronistic to describe Mohammed as a child-molester. The marriage rules of his age and society were much more tribal and dynastic than our own, and women were treated more as property and less as autonomous beings. Aisha was the daughter of Mohammed's right-hand man, and eventual successor (caliph), Abu Bakr. No doubt he and his family were very proud of the match. I raise the question, though, because it seems to me that people are perfectly entitled - rude and mistaken though they may be - to say that Mohammed was a paedophile, but if David Blunkett gets his way, they may not be able to.

Some pointed out that not every source agrees that one of Mohammad's wives was 9 when he married her; others pointed out that she was also described as 19. Calling Mohammad a paedophile is a common insult when mocking Islam, but Moore, a notable believer, would be outraged if Jesus was described in similar terms, as he goes on to relate when describing Paul Abbott's attitudes towards Christmas. After all, there is no account of what he spent his time doing between his teenage years and when he was baptised, aged 30: he could have conceivably spent it banging every goat in sight, although it's unlikely. Thing is, I agree with Moore over his wider point; I just wouldn't have decided to be needlessly inflammatory to make it. To digress, Policy Exchange could have refused to tell Newsnight where they were at all; provided with the information, what did they expect Newsnight to do with it?

What these brave Muslims undeniably found was evidence of widespread, obnoxious material that is a risk to decent Muslims and to British social order.

Really? The written word in the form of impenetrable, archaic religious texts and books by reactionary gobshites is now so dangerous as to threaten the mores of "decent Muslims" and risk British social order itself? If so, then reports which are based upon fabricated evidence must also conceivably threaten, in that horrible new phrase, "community cohesion".

The BBC chose, in effect, to side with their extreme opponents and to cover up the report, because of an obsession about a few pieces of paper.

The few pieces of paper which just happened to underlie the entire report. Congratulations Charles Moore, your attempt at "moving the debate on" has succeeded admirably.

Update: Brilliant wider look at the entire report by Abdurahman Jafar on CiF.

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