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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Explanation Needed About West Midlands Police' Witch Hunt Of Channel 4

The National Secular Society is demanding an explanation from West Midlands Police about why it conducted a witch hunt against the makers of Channel 4’s Dispatches programme Undercover Mosque. After it had failed to bring a prosecution against the programme makers, the West Midlands police made complaints to the media regulator Ofcom, but these have all been rejected.

The NSS has tried to discover what was behind this pursuit of the programme makers by initiating a formal complaint against West Midlands Police through the Police Authority and the Independent Police Complaints Authority, but these have been dismissed as inadmissible – third party complaints will not be entertained, even when there is a public interest at stake.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS said: “We welcome Ofcom’s adjudication. But it raises the uncomfortable question as to why the top echelons of West Midlands Police and the Police Authority were prepared to go to such extraordinary lengths to try to punish Channel 4 executives for exposing the truth about the situation in mosques.”.

Mr Wood said: “The supervisory bodies – The Independent Police Complaints Commission and HM Inspector of Constabularies - although acknowledging the seriousness of the complaints, were powerless to investigate our complaint. The Police Reform Act should be amended to permit consideration of third party public interest complaints in serious cases.”

Mr Porteous Wood continued: “One of the reasons extremism in this country has flourished since Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses is that freedom of speech has been progressively compromised, partly through intimidation and partly through the Government behind-the-scenes support of Islamists in the naïve hope that this would somehow protect us from terrorism. That was why it tried so hard to retain elements of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act that would have seriously compromised free speech. Fortunately, these were overruled by Parliament.

“Had the Government prevailed, and the RRH Act had been in force when the programme was screened, we have no doubt that the police would be pressing for Channel 4 executives to be charged, and they would be facing the prospect of a jail sentence.

“Even more important than the fate of these executives, who have actually performed a public service, is freedom of speech itself. Society has to decide between either giving everyone (including extremists) the right not to be offended, or protect freedom of speech—this essential weapon in the fight against extremism. But who is upholding our freedom of speech? Do the police take this into account? Does the CPS? We do not think so. And the role of the CPS and its cosy co-operation with the West Midlands Police, with their joint press release, bears examination in this case.

“The law must be changed to make reasonable public interest complaints by representative bodies admissible in serious cases. And we call for an enquiry into the role of West Midlands Police and their Authority in this matter, and one into the CPS’s role in relation to protecting freedom of speech.”

Section 12 of the Police Reform Act 2002 is reproduced below.

This is the OFCOM adjudication Pages 9-20

Section 12 of the Police Reform Act 2002:

12 Complaints, matters and persons to which Part 2 applies
(1) In this Part references to a complaint are references (subject to the following provisions of this section) to any complaint about the conduct of a person serving with the police which is made (whether in writing or otherwise) by—
(a) a member of the public who claims to be the person in relation to whom the conduct took place;
(b) a member of the public not falling within paragraph (a) who claims to have been adversely affected by the conduct;
(c) a member of the public who claims to have witnessed the conduct;
(d) a person acting on behalf of a person falling within any of paragraphs (a) to (c).
(2) In this Part “conduct matter” means (subject to the following provisions of this section, paragraph 2(4) of Schedule 3 and any regulations made by virtue of section 23(2)(d)) any matter which is not and has not been the subject of a complaint but in the case of which there is an indication (whether from the circumstances or otherwise) that a person serving with the police may have—
(a) committed a criminal offence; or
(b) behaved in a manner which would justify the bringing of disciplinary proceedings.
(3) The complaints that are complaints for the purposes of this Part by virtue of subsection (1)(b) do not, except in a case falling within subsection (4), include any made by or on behalf of a person who claims to have been adversely affected as a consequence only of having seen or heard the conduct, or any of the alleged effects of the conduct.
(4) A case falls within this subsection if—
(a) it was only because the person in question was physically present, or sufficiently nearby, when the conduct took place or the effects occurred that he was able to see or hear the conduct or its effects; or
(b) the adverse effect is attributable to, or was aggravated by, the fact that the person in relation to whom the conduct took place was already known to the person claiming to have suffered the adverse effect.
(5) For the purposes of this section a person shall be taken to have witnessed conduct if, and only if—
(a) he acquired his knowledge of that conduct in a manner which would make him a competent witness capable of giving admissible evidence of that conduct in criminal proceedings; or
(b) he has in his possession or under his control anything which would in any such proceedings constitute admissible evidence of that conduct.
(6) For the purposes of this Part a person falling within subsection 1(a) to (c) to shall not be taken to have authorised another person to act on his behalf unless—
(a) that other person is for the time being designated for the purposes of this Part by the Commission as a person through whom complaints may be made, or he is of a description of persons so designated; or
(b) the other person has been given, and is able to produce, the written consent to his so acting of the person on whose behalf he acts.
(7) For the purposes of this Part, a person is serving with the police if—
(a) he is a member of a police force;
(b) he is an employee of a police authority who is under the direction and control of a chief officer; or
(c) he is a special constable who is under the direction and control of a chief officer.

November 19 2007

Published Mon, 19 Nov 2007