Saudi Arabia Used Libel Lawyers in Ofcom Complaint

Schillings Used by Kingdom and Embassy

The UK television regulator Ofcom has rejected a complaint brought by the police about the Channel 4 documentary Undercover Mosque. As was widely blogged a few weeks ago (and by me here, here, and here), the documentary found extremist speakers and videos at a prominent mainstream mosque. The programme was investigated by the West Midlands police, who unexpectedly decided that the programme-makers had presented “distorted” material, and took the unprecedented step of contacting Ofcom. This rather unfortunate decision brought the police force widespread derision, and of course inevitably gave ammunition to the anti-Muslim right.

Much less attention, however, has been given to a second complainant: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. According to Ofcom:

In summary the complaint stated that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia had been treated unfairly in the programme as broadcast in that:

a) The programme falsely alleged that the complainant was aware of, supportive of and ultimately responsible for the alleged spread of a “radical ideology” of “intolerance and bigotry” to British Mosques and Islamic organisations in Britain. The complainant said the programme suggested that it promotes and condones extremism, when it clearly does not.

The rest of the complaint deals with “right of reply” issues. Channel 4 responded by stating that

Channel 4 stated that it was firmly of the view that the complainant was not entitled to be given any opportunity to respond to the contents of the programme, because no criticisms or allegations were made against either the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” or the “Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia”. Channel 4 said the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should not be defined more widely than the Saudi government and/or the Saudi monarchy, and being so defined it could not be authorised to complain on behalf of “mainstream Islam”.

Channel 4 denied that the programme alleged that the complainant was aware of, supportive of, or ultimately responsible for the spread of extremism throughout the British Islamic community. Nor did the programme suggest the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia promoted or condoned extremism. Channel 4 said the programme had been carefully scripted and whilst the programme did allege that the fundamentalist ideology being described “had its roots” in Saudi Arabia and was spreading “from the Saudi religious establishment” the complainant was not implicated.

Ofcom concurred, and rejected the complaint in full.

One worrying aspect of this was that the Saudi Arabians decided to make their complaint through Schillings, a law firm well-known for its aggressive “reputation management” services. Infamously, the firm acts for Russian-Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov, and it recently forced a webhosting service to pull a couple of blogs which had reported allegations about his past (another new Schillings client is the MP Nadine Dorries).

Public debate about Saudi Arabia in the UK is already considerably curtailed; Nick Cohen noted in September that

Britain’s repressive libel laws are becoming a threat to security and racial harmony. ‘Saudi money is now a major source of income for London libel firms,’ one lawyer told me. ‘School fees and second homes depend on it.’

At least six books that make allegations about Saudi Arabia and terrorism have been suppressed in the UK, and articles have been pre-emptively spiked by the Economist, the Observer, and the Spectator.

A recent report on extremist literature available in a minority of UK mosques judged that

…it is clear that the influence of Saudi Arabia is both powerful and malign. Much of the material featured here is connected in some way with the Saudi Kingdom – whether by virtue of being written by members of the Wahhabite religious establishment; being published and distributed by official, or semi-official Saudi institutions; or being found in Saudi-funded, or linked, mosques and schools in this country. For this reason, the report argues, there needs now to be a proper audit of the costs and benefits of the Saudi-UK relationship.

How long before report author Denis MacEoin – not to mention a host of other critics of the Saudi regime from across the political spectrum – receives a letter from Schillings?

(Hat tip: MediaWatchWatch)