Careful dispatch saves programme from error

If you log on to the West Midlands Police website, you will find a grovelling apology to Channel 4’s Dispatches and its programme Undercover Mosque. The Crown Prosecution Service received a similar one. Why?

Dispatches is a regular current affairs documentary programme which takes care to ensure the facts are right, that legally the libel risks are covered – which is never easy – and that it complies with the Ofcom Code and best practice.

Undercover Mosque was broadcast in January 2007 and included secret filming in a number of mosques across Britain. It revealed that extremism was being preached in a manner which went beyond free speech: ‘An ideology of bigotry and intolerance spreading through Britain with its roots in Saudi Arabia.” 

The West Midlands Police Major Investigations Unit spent many hours investigating the allegations but were advised by the CPS that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

The police then, perversely and inexplicably, turned on the programme-makers issuing press statements, condemning them for distortion and misleading the public.

It also complained to Ofcom, repeating the allegation that the editing was misleading and biased. But, as Channel 4 politely observed in the ensuing Ofcom inquiry, the police didn’t understand the editing process. Ofcom duly threw out the complaint and said in its decision: ‘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 concluded that Undercover Mosque was a legitimate investigation, had not misled its audience and was unlikely to incite the audience.

Channel 4 then sued for libel and last week both the West Midlands Police and the CPS capitulated, paying a six-figure sum in damages and costs.

The vindication for Dispatches’ producers was richly deserved – and their success is a reminder of the importance of proper research, complying with the guidelines laid down in Reynolds (and, in broadcasting, the Ofcom Code) and of careful editing. There are so many examples in the graveyard of libel actions where sloppy work has resulted in defamatory innuendos

and a libel being published when none was intended. What was a devastating piece of journalism can be ruined by silly mistakes and prove to be an expensive disaster.

Roderick Dadak is head of defamation and partner at Lewis Silkin LLP

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