An extreme reaction to legitimate journalism?

In terms of trust, this year will go down as a particularly bad one for the broadcasting business, with fakery in television frequently dominating the headlines.

Even if broadcast journalism was itself cleared of serious viewer deception, it was tarnished by the general malaise. As BBC director of news, Helen Boaden, admitted, the entire enterprise has ‘suffered a blow”.

The jargon of television fakery even reached the West Midlands Police, which announced in August that the Dispatches documentary Undercover Mosque had been investigated for inciting racial hatred. The film, which was first broadcast on 16 January this year, had revealed extremist elements within top British mosques. But police accused the production team at independent company Hardcash of ‘splicing’speeches to misrepresent a series of Muslim speakers.

Long battle

Thesrow has rumbled on all year – and concluded last week with media watchdog Ofcom’s complete vindication of the programme. Undercover Mosque revealed extreme Islamic teachings originating from within Saudi Arabia being aired in major British mosques. An undercover reporter filmed a number of speakers, some of whom advocated discrimination and violence against women, children, homosexuals and kafir, or non-believers.

As a result of the broadcast, a number of MPs in the West Midlands voiced concerns that something should be done about the alleged extremism. This appears to have prompted the West Midlands Police to take action.

Immediately after the programme aired, police launched an investigation into whether those teaching or preaching at the Mosques had committed criminal offences. This, despite the fact that no one appeared to have acted illegally in the programme.

‘We said to them we didn’t feel that any law had been broken,’said executive producer David Henshaw, speaking at a screening of the film at the Frontline Club on 25 November. ‘[We said] that what we broadcast was unpleasant and anti-social, but didn’t appear to break any laws and certainly not the terror laws. Nonetheless, they pressed ahead and sought a production order in the Magistrates Court, obtained all our rushes and went through them.”

In August came the West Midlands Police press release, which turned the tables on Hardcash and Channel 4. The force said it found insufficient evidence to bring charges against anyone in the programme, but said that both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service had considered potential offences that may have been committed by those involved in the production and broadcast of the programme – specifically in relation to stirring up racial hatred.

Ofcom

The CPS reviewed the available evidence and advised that ‘a realistic prospect of a conviction was unlikely”. On the back of this, West Midlands Police referred the programme to broadcast regulator Ofcom.

In this unusual move, the police argued that editing of the programme misrepresented those featured and made the end product ‘sufficient to undermine community cohesion”. It was also ‘likely to undermine feelings of public reassurance and safety of those communities in the West Midlands for which the chief constable has a responsibility’the police concluded.

Henshaw said no formal complaints had been made to the police. So why had the programme been investigated? ‘They talked in their submission to Ofcom about a concern about a danger to community cohesion,’he said. ‘My suspicion is that what they were on about was their relationship with so-called and self-appointed community leaders. I think that to try to stand in the way of legitimate investigative journalism on those grounds is a dangerous precedent.”

In response to Ofcom, Channel 4 argued that West Midlands Police had not translated certain Arabic words and sentences – some of which carry a specialist meaning – and which were the crux of the matter.

Channel 4 also criticised the force for its ‘a staggering naïvety’about a TV production process which took place over a nine-month period, and argued that selecting certain sentences from a longer speech was not improper. The programme showed a variety of speakers, picking out key sentences in which their extremist views were aired. Ofcom concluded, after reviewing all the production material, that these edits did not reinterpret entire speeches. It added that, where appropriate, the response of the individual concerned was fairly edited in the programme.

‘Extraordinary pressure’

Ofcom also rejected a separate complaint from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that it had been unfairly treated in the broadcast.

At the Frontline Club screening, Henshaw and producer Andrew Smith discussed the implications of the case. Their forecast for investigative journalism was gloomy. Smith said the ‘extraordinary legal pressure’could be offputting to production teams investigating controversial topics.

‘We had the King of Saudi Arabia himself and we had the largest mosque and the largest Islamic centre in Europe hiring the two biggest libel firms in Europe. And then West Midlands Police itself.

‘There’s a tendency to think these [controversial topics] are immensely difficult areas to get into. And because there is the potential to get it wrong perhaps – television doesn’t explore it as much as it should,’he said.

Henshaw, however, struck a defiant note, saying: ‘If it’s a subject as important and significant as the spread of Wahhabism, you know the job of doing that involves dealing with Saudi Arabia, you know you are going to come up against some of the most powerful and expensive legal firms in the country. I still think it’s worth it.”

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