• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Policy Exchange vs Free Speech

Think-tank threatens to sue BBC Newsnight over faked evidence claim

There is not much argument over the fact that extremist Islamist literature from Saudi Arabia has made its way into some British mosques, and that this has not been conducive to the public good. A few months ago a centre-right think-tank called the Policy Exchange published a report on the subject which was temperate in tone and made the uncontroversial point 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.

The report relied on researchers who went around various mosques buying books and collecting the receipts – most mosques came up clean, but a number were “named and shamed”. However, in an unexpected twist the BBC’s Newsnight has discovered that at least some of the receipts were apparently forged: in a few cases they don’t match official receipts, and forensic analysis shows beyond reasonable doubt that at least one receipt was written on top of the other, despite being supposedly from shops many miles apart. Some receipts were produced on bubble jet printers, which is rather uneconomical, and some appear to have been written by the same hand. The researchers involved with gathering the information are currently in Mauritania, and cannot be contacted.

Newsnight put these claims to the Policy Exchange, which responded in the time-honoured fashion of conservatives of a certain kind by threatening to sue for libel if the public was allowed to see the evidence. The think-tank added that it would pursue the matter “relentlessly, to trial or capitulation”. This kind of threatening sometimes works with the BBC – not long ago the corporation bizarrely shelled out £75,000 to Harold Wilson’s former secretary after a receiving a legal threat over a dramatisation by Francis Wheen of an ancient story that has appeared unchallenged elsewhere. Also, back in August Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman used a speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival to warn of the dangers to journalism from libel threats in an age of budget cuts:

…It is unsustainable, and I cannot see how the programme can survive in anything like its current form if the cuts are implemented. To get a single – important – film transmitted last week involved surviving a sustained barrage of astonishingly threatening lawyers’ letters from Carter Ruck and ear-bending from one of the country’s most expensive PR firms. You can’t do that if you’re replacing grizzled output editors with people on work experience, no matter how enthusiastic they may be.

(The latest Private Eye magazine (1199 p. 13) notes that Carter-Ruck alluded to this speech in its promotional materials, while leaving out the context)

The charge against the BBC is being led by Dean Godson, a former Daily Telegraph writer and now Policy Exchange’s “terrorism and security” Research Director. Godson appeared on the programme to defend the report against Paxman’s questioning – he remarkably refused to concede that any mistakes had been made and reiterated that he was 100% confident in all of the evidence.

Newsnight has run a couple of other reports on radical Islam in recent months. In October the programme scrutinised the evidence that was used in the Channel 4 documentary Undercover Mosque, and concluded that claims that the programme had distorted the facts were untrue – a judgement that was echoed by Ofcom soon after, and which will head off complaints that the programme’s exposé of the Policy Exchange’s dodgy receipts was based on an unwillingness to confront Islamism. Less happily, a year ago Newsnight ran an exposé of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir which relied on a very strange and questionable organisation known as the “VIGIL Network”, as I blogged here and here. Perhaps it was that experience which has led Newsnight to being rather more cautious and critical about where it gets information from.