NSS calls for public enquiry after mosque programme fiasco

The National Secular Society has called for a full public inquiry into the role of the West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service relative to a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary broadcast on 15 January 2007 which exposed the views of extremist Islamic clerics.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “While the Police and CPS have now apologised, they have yet to explain why this apology was not issued in response to the widespread public outcry during 2007 about their targeting of Channel 4 or even to the total rejection by OFCOM of Police/CPS complaints on 19 November 2007. It had to be forced on them by the courts. The intransigence of the Police and CPS has seriously undermined public confidence in both institutions.

“We have written to both the Attorney General and the Shadow Attorney General urging a full public inquiry into how what appear to be systematic policy and procedural failures at the Police and Crown Prosecution Service led to the justice system being brought into disrepute in this way. It is essential that lessons are learned from this failure by both the police and the CPS. The debacle raises worrying questions about the motivation behind the activities apologised for, independence of the CPS, whether all parts of the community are being treated equally and whether sufficient value is being attached to freedom of the press.

The CPS’s function is to provide an essential check and balance, but it has spectacularly failed to do so in this high profile case. Hopefully, this is not part of a pattern, but the question needs to be asked.

“The damage caused by these failures went far beyond damage to the reputation of Channel 4’s courageous ‘Undercover Mosque’ documentary makers. Their investigation should have been the foundation for a very important public discourse, essential to the public interest about the role of religion in society. This public debate was largely derailed by the excessive zeal of the WMP and the CPS whose action appeared to signal no-go areas of inquiry. This ‘shooting of the messenger’ is likely to have further intensified the attacks on freedom of expression as editors and journalists self-censor themselves in matters relating to religion to avoid the risk of prosecution. Evading discussions in this area simply allows the problems to fester and grow, giving succour to both religious and right wing extremists.”

Having failed to find any laws under which Channel 4 could be arraigned, the CPS and Police referred the matter to Ofcom, which completely rejected every complaint and concluded: “There appeared to be evidence that the complaints were part of a campaign.” There were numerous articles in the press in 2007 critical of the Police and CPS’s role in this matter. The only press coverage in favour of their role we could find was one letter, from the Police Authority to the Birmingham Mail. The Police and CPS now “accept, without reservation, the conclusions of Ofcom and apologise to the programme makers for the damage and distress caused by our original press release.” The Police and CPS are making a substantial settlement.

The National Secular Society made complaints in 2007 to the West Midlands Police, West Midlands Police Authority, and Independent Police Complaints Authority. All were deemed inadmissible as the NSS was not a direct victim. Mr Porteous Wood added: “We are calling for the Police Reform Act to be amended to permit complaints by representative groups on public interest grounds.”
Read the CPS’s grovelling apology
And West Midlands Police
NSS questions role of police and CPS: Letter to Jack Straw

16 May 2008