BBC Documentary on Libel Case Against Policy Exchange

Policy Exchange wanted £453,577 plus VAT for costs; settled for £20,000

The most recent episode of the BBC documentary series See You in Court has an interesting segment on the North London Central Mosque’s libel case against Policy Exchange. This is a subject I’ve blogged on a number of times: in 2007 Policy Exchange produced a report alleging that a number of mosques,  including the NLCM, were selling extremist literature. Policy Exchange provided BBC Newsnight with receipts to back up its claim, but Newsnight was able to show that some of these receipts were forgeries. A follow-up in Private Eye pointed out that in some cases the presence of extremist literature could be verified independently, although it didn’t mention the NLCM in its report (it should be noted that no-one is accusing Policy Exchange of creating the forgeries: rather, it seems that Policy Exchange was ripped off by unnamed research assistants who then left the country).

The NLCM sued for libel in 2009, but the case was thrown out. Policy Exchange crowed:

The Trustees of Policy Exchange are delighted to report that Mr Justice Eady yesterday struck out the claim brought against us by the North London Central Mosque.

…The High Court made a further Order that £75,000 of those costs be paid by North London Central Mosque within 28 days.

I must confess that I assumed the case had been thrown out because Policy Exchange had produced some new valid evidence. However, See You in Court explains that this was not the case, and that Policy Exchange had simply relied on a technicality: because the mosque was an unincorporated association, it did not have sufficient legal personality to be defamed. Further, there is no bookshop at the mosque: there is only a private library, and according to mosque’s lawyers the extremist materials mentioned by Policy Exchange “were not the sort of books our client would want on their premises at all.”

Appeals rumbled on until late last year, and Policy Exchange eventually published a short clarification on its website (somewhat gracelessly in the form of a gif file). Andrew Gilligan reported in November:

Policy Exchange emphasises that it has not apologised to the North London Central Mosque and that the mosque has been forced to pay them substantial costs, believed to be in the region of £100,000. It says:

“Policy Exchange is pleased to report that the libel action brought by the North London Central Mosque (NLCM) against it over its report The Hijacking of British Islam has now ended, following the dismissal of NLCM’s appeal against the order of Mr Justice Eady. NLCM has paid a substantial contribution towards Policy Exchange’s costs… Policy Exchange has not apologised to NLCM for the publication of its report.”

However, according to a discussion shown in See You in Court (including a shot of the agreement document), the amount the mosque agreed to pay was just £20,000 – far short of the £75,000 costs from the 2009 case, let alone what may have been ratcheted up from the appeals that followed. Policy Exchange’s lawyers had presented a cost schedule of £453,577 plus VAT. Where did Gilligan get his “£100,000” figure from?

As I noted in previous blog entries, the Policy Exchange report was temperately written, with a valid point to make: it gave a number of other mosques a clean bill of health, and it identified the problem as being a Saudi imposition rather than as some sort of exposure of the “real” Islam. It’s a shame that the receipts fiasco (which also resulted in an apology to the Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre) undermined its credibility.

One libel action that won’t be featuring on See You in Court is Policy Exchange’s case against Newsnight. Dean Godson, a research director at Policy Exchange, had defended the receipts’ genuineness, and he had promised to pursue the matter “relentlessly, to trial or capitulation”. Alas, there was no trial, and no capitulation.