BBC news chief defends Anjem Choudary interview in face of calls to ban 'hate preachers'

The BBC’s acting head of news has defended the decision to air an interview with radical cleric Anjem Choudary on Newsnight the day after last week’s attack on a soldier in Woolwich.

Reacting to Home Secretary Theresa May’s call to ban extremists from appearing on TV and radio, Fran Unsworth said it was a subject for debate but defended the BBC’s decision to interview Choudary.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Media Show: “It’s important for people to understand what we’re up against.”

She added that Choudary “was very strongly challenged” on his views during the interview and pointed out that there are existing laws against incitement that can be used without the need to tighten broadcasting regulations.

Unsworth also said that Choudary was “an important part of the news story” as he had claimed he knew one of the two attackers.

Responding to the accusation that the BBC had provided a platform for extremist views, Unsworth said: “As far as the ‘oxygen of publicity’ is concerned… the argument doesn’t really stack up because, let’s face it, the internet exists and for anybody who wants to go and find this stuff it’s there for them to watch.

“I suspect that there aren’t a lot of jihadists watching Newsnight. If you’re arguing that Newsnight would influence people to become jihadists, it’s an argument that fails to stack up.”

BBC journalist Peter Taylor, who reported extensively on the conflict in Northern Ireland, told the programme that the Home Secretary’s demands echoed the broadcasting ban on IRA spokespeople in the 1980s and 1990s.

“In the end it became a laughing stock and gave them the oxygen of publicity rather than denied it,” he said.

Over the weekend, May criticised the BBC and other broadcasters for airing interviews with Choudary in which he failed to condemn the murder of Lee Rigby. She said she planned to contact broadcasting watchdog Ofcom in an effort to enforce a ban on so-called “hate preachers”.

But last night, the Government’s independent reviewer of terrorist legislation said that broadcasters should not shield the audience from extremist views.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, David Anderson QC said:  “I'm a great believer in the marketplace of ideas, the good ideas drive out the bad.

"It's important to give these people a hard time and to expose to the audience the sort of things they have been saying when they have not been wearing a tie in the television studio.

"But subject to that, let them be heard, and the risk of not letting these people be heard in all their glory is that you sanitise them, and that people don't actually realise how extreme they are." 

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