Express ran the story despite police guidance that it had no credibility
A front-page Daily Express story headlined “Plot to Kill Blair” has been condemned as “rubbish” by police and is the subject of a Press Complaints Commission challenge brought by an asylum-seekers group.
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The Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Media Project (RAM) said the story is inaccurate and has objected to the interchangeable use of the terms “asylumseeker” and “illegal immigrant”.
The story, which appeared on Monday 16 August, claimed that police had arrested two asylum seekers taking part in a suspected Al Qaeda plot to target Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency home.
It alleged that two Lithuanian men picked up by Durham Police had a map of the local area, and had used a camcorder to carry out reconnaissance – possibly for Al Qaeda.
Durham Police said they told the Express beforehand that the story did not check out and condemned it afterwards as “rubbish” in an unusually strongly worded statement.
Press officer Martin Wallwork said: “Mark Blacklock, the paper’s northeastbased reporter, had contacted us on Friday afternoon with the story, which I gather came from the paper’s home affairs correspondent.
“Once the facts had been checked out we rang him back with the fullest explanation possible, along with some general guidance to the story’s lack of credibility.”
After the story appeared, Durham Police said in a statement: “Let me say in the clearest possible language that this story is rubbish and the Daily Express was told this in unequivocal language when it first asked us about in on Friday.
“It is true two Lithuanians were arrested at Wingate Nature Reserve in September 2003. The car they were travelling in, a Vauxhall Tigra, was initially spotted by one of our traffic officers who identified it as stolen from the London area.
“The two men had no known connection with the Prime Minister’s home in Trimdon Colliery, some two miles from the scene of their discovery.
It is believed their presence was drugs related. No security issues were raised by their arrest.”
In its leader column on Monday, the Express referred to the two men as illegal immigrants. A PCC guidance note of October 2003 urged editors not to describe asylum-seekers as illegal.
Forward Maisokwadzo, from the Bristol-based RAM project, said: “The paper should have tried to find out whether the people involved in this story were asylum-seekers, which they were not. Stories like this give a bad name to genuine asylum-seekers.”
The Express Newspapers NUJ chapel expressed concerns in January this year and August 2001 over the tone of articles about gypsies and asylumseekers.
The Daily Express declined to comment.