Sheikh Raed Salah is greeted by wellwishers. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Mehdi Hasan: Raed Salah takes on the Home Secretary and the press... and wins

"So what next?"

He was dubbed a "vile miltant extremist" and an "anti-Semitic preacher of hate" by the Daily Mail, a "hate preacher" by the Sun and an "'anti-Semitic' speaker" by the Jewish Chronicle. He was arrested and detained on the orders of the Home Secretary Theresa May while MPs and peers from across the political spectrum queued up to denounce him. The Community Security Trust (CST) "welcomed" his detention and provided a dossier of his alleged "hate speech" to the Home Office. 

But over the long weekend, Sheikh Raed Salah, the Palestinian leader of the largest civil society body in Israel, who had been visiting the UK at the invitation of the London-based, pro-Palestinian group, Middle East Monitor (Memo), received a letter from the Upper Immigration Tribunal stating that the decision to detain him appeared to have been "entirely unnecessary" and that his appeal against it had succeeded "on all grounds".

From yesterday's Guardian:

The home secretary was "misled" when she moved to throw a leading Palestinian activist out of the UK, according to an immigration tribunal ruling that strongly criticised her decision and found in favour of his appeal against the government's attempts to deport him.

. . . [Salah] sought damages for unlawful detention, and the high court ruled that since he was not given "proper and sufficient reasons" for his arrest until the third day of his detention, he should receive damages for that period.

The ruling of the immigration tribunal, made known on Saturday, states that May "acted under a misapprehension as to the facts" and was "misled" in relation to a poem written by Salah. It also decided she took "irrelevant factors" into account in relation to indictments against Salah, and a conviction in Israel in 2003 over charges that his organisation funnelled funds to a banned charity in Gaza.

Asa Winstanley has a detailed write-up of the Salah story here and, in today's Telegraph, Mary Riddell observes:

In the latest reversal for Mrs May, a judge strongly criticised her attempt to deport a Palestinian activist, ruling that she was wrong about the danger posed by Sheikh Raed Salah. In a decision labelled "entirely unnecessary", she had been misled about his supposedly anti–Semitic poetry and planned to ban him on the basis of a fragment from an old sermon.

Few may be delighted by the sheikh's victory, but his case illustrates the right of every individual to protection against an overweening state. The balance between Parliament, the executive and the judiciary is vital and endlessly fragile. At times, judges veer towards the political arena; at others, politicians attempt, with the public urging them on, to usurp the role of judges. We are now at such a moment.

On the whole, however, the press - especially the right-wing newspapers! - have been rather quiet about the Salah decision which is strange given how much (negative) coverage they heaped upon him last summer. There hasn't been a peep from the Jewish Chronicle, nor from the Times or the Sun. An annoyed Express went with the headline:

Fury as preacher wins fight to stay in UK

The CST, meanwhile, having been criticised by the Guardian's David Hearst for its role in the affair ("the CST should. . . examine its conscience"), has issued a defensive statement on its website saying:

CST is disappointed that Salah’s exclusion has been overturned. . . Some of the media coverage (for example in the Guardian) has noted that CST provided several pieces of evidence to the Home Office regarding Salah’s previous statements and activities, and carries the implication that CST is reponsible for misleading the Home Secretary by providing her with inaccurate information.

This implication is something that CST utterly rejects, and which is not supported by the facts.

So what next? I'm told Salah is preparing to sue members of Her Majesty's press over their alleged smear tactics; Hearst writes of how "[l]ibel writs will now be pursued against those who fabricated and peddled" the "dodgy quotes" attributed to the preacher. This could all get very interesting - especially given the fact that Lord Leveson has heard evidence about media Islamophobia and any serious inquiry into "media ethics" surely has to take a position on the media's lazy and simplistic coverage (demonisation?) of Muslims and the use of "gotcha" quotes.

Doesn't it?

 

UPDATE:

Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, has informed me via Twitter that the JC website was closed for Passover, which is why there wasn't a "peep" out of the JC, online, in the immediate aftermath the ruling. However, the current print edition of the JC, out today, has extensive and in-depth coverage of the Salah case - including this bizarre, over-the-top leader in which the Guardian newspaper is accused of producing a "classic, shocking and immensely significant example of pure antisemitism". Hmm....

UPDATE 2:

I've been rung up by a guy (coward?) using a fake name, pretending to be a member of the public, who accused me of supporting Raed Salah's alleged "blood libel" and who has since written up his version of our phone conversation on a right-wing, Islamophobic blog. He seems to be as dumb and close-minded as some of the commenters below, so let me say this slowly, very slowly: just because I don't agree with the Home Secretary and the media's treatment of Salah, a man I've never met or spoken to, doesn't mean I automatically support everything Salah has said or done in the past. Does that make sense? Take your time.

To those below the line who claim I expressed "solidarity" with Salah, show me where I did so? Do you have a single quote to back up your claim? I say again, disagreeing with the state's treatment of an individual doesn't make you a supporter or apologist for that individual; it makes you a supporter and defender of due process, fair trials and human rights.

As for the "blood libel" row, let me say that it is one of the most disgusting, heinous and unforgivable of anti-Semitic smears in existence - which is probably why Salah has been so keen to deny having used it, though it does, I have to say, seem as if he did use it. The judge in the case, of course, didn't accept his denial. Interestingly, the respected if controversial Israeli historian Ilan Pappe supports Salah on this particular, contentious issue and it is worth pointing out that the Israeli government curiously decided not to prosecute him for those seemingly inflammatory comments at the time. Forgive me, therefore, if, for now, I sit on the fence on this one...

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories