If broadcasters want to give extremists a platform, they need to tell us why

The cases of Anjem Choudary and the English Defence League show the need for broadcasters to explain the dilemmas clearly and how they seek to resolve them.

An Islamic Centre in north London was destroyed in a fire in the early hours of yesterday morning. Police are treating the fire as suspicious, and seeking to establish whether this was an arson attack. Firefighters reported that there was "EDL" graffiti daubed on the building. Police will need to investigate whether or not this was linked to an attack.

As the news broke, the Mayor of London and the constituency MP were joined by local synagogues, in expressing shock and solidarity with the Muslim community. And ITV's Daybreak decided to invite EDL leader Tommy Robinson on to their breakfast sofa to talk about the incident.

Both a programme producer and the EDL leader tweeted late yesterday afternoon that the interview had been arranged for 7.10am this morning. Just before midnight, a disappointed Robinson tweeted to say that he had been cancelled, having been told there were "legal problems". This was still a quite remarkable invitation, even if was later kibboshed.

We do not know who was responsible for the fire. What does not appear to be in dispute is that, had the Muslim centre not burnt down, Tommy Robinson would not have been asked onto the TV sofa to set out his views. That could seem a rather troubling precedent to set in the event of any future violent attacks on churches, mosques or synagogues.

There was an obvious parallel with the controversial Daybreak appearance in which Islamist extremist Anjem Choudary was invited to talk about the Woolwich murder. (A sometime associate of Choudary's has since been charged as one of the suspects).

What would the EDL think if somebody had burnt down a mosque? That sounds an easy question: the movement professes a commitment to non-violence. Yet it is evident that the EDL found it rather complicated to work out its "line to take" yesterday.

The first instinct was 'conspiracy', with leader Tommy Robinson alleging that the graffiti story was made-up, and blaming Muslims for carrying out the blaze to discredit the EDL.

But a second approach was empathy and understanding of the frustrations of anybody who might have committed arson as an anti-Muslim hate crime:

"I don't condemn it", an unnamed high-profile EDL figure told the Evening Standard newspaper. "Just because EDL is written on the wall, you can't point the finger at us. It could have been anyone. The government are not doing anything so people are taking things into their own hands".

After the Standard gave prominence to this, naturally drawing heavy criticism, the next edition of the newspaper reported the evolution of a different EDL line. The third thought was neutrality and non-involvement. In a terse, single sentence official EDL statement, Kevin Carroll, now on the record, said: "The EDL do not approve of any religious buildings being attacked”.

Statements refusing to condemn or to condone the attack are quite compatible. The failure of that one-sentence statement to condemn the action gives it an air of agnostic neutrality about attacks on religious buildings. Tommy Robinson went further, declaring the attack "shocking" in comments to other media.

By 9.25pm, the EDL had issued a further much longer statement on their website, with a new rambling theory, suggesting the EDL is increasingly warmly received by British Muslims: “Perhaps the best way of alienating us further is to come out with aspersions and links of arson to stop us from gaining any momentum within the Islamic community”

"We don't hate ALL Muslims", it said (their capitals), this qualification of hatred perhaps striking a mildly less reassuring note than was intened. The statement did finally getting around to disagreeing with the attack. “An attack on a place of worship is an attack on all of the community. … to be condemned in the strongest possible way”.

So they got there in the end!

Nobody yet knows who carried out the attack and for what purpose. The graffiti may not be linked at all. Given that the EDL is a loose and chaotic network with no membership structure, it is quite probable that its leaders have little idea whether the action was carried by their supporters or not, having limited control over what followers may be inspired to do in their name. Whatever the facts turn out to be in the specific case, the tortured EDL statements reflect an ambivalence even within the movement's leadership about violence. 

The EDL's willingness to condemn the act may not have been a TV deal-breaker anyway. After all, Daybreak did give Anjem Choudary airtime to justify the Woolwich murder on their show. 

"Just interviewed Anjem Choudary on @Daybreak who claimed the murder of Lee Rigby was justified. What a Disgusting and offensive view", presenter Jonathan Swain editorialised on Twitter, after conducting the interview. "The offensive comments made by Anjem Choudar on Daybreak have angered many viewers", he continued. (Choudary will consider that a job well done.)

Swain's tone struck me as rather reminiscient of Claude Rains' Captain Renault being "shocked, shocked, to discover that gambling is going on" in Rick's cafe in Casablanca. It could hardly have come as any surprise whatsoever to Swain and his colleagues that that was what they were getting when they booked Choudary.

"You can't kill ideas and ideology by stifling debate", tweeted Daybreak's Rav Vadgama, who had announced the interview on twitter, before it was cancelled.

This misses the point in two ways

Firstly, the peg here was an apparent arson: a criminal act, not a political one. Would a similar approach be taken to exploring "ideas and ideology" if somebody as yet unidentified had attempted another homophobic nail bomb attack in Soho? An expert on hate crime, or an advocate preventing it, would seem more relevant.

Secondly, there is little evidence of any EDL movement to justify the hype. The EDL's weekend protests had been a damp squib - including the debacle of an Exeter protest which nobody at all attended, while they attracted five people in Bristol and twenty in Leeds.

The comparison when debating TV platforms is often made with Nick Griffin on Question Time in 2009. Griffin leads an extreme party, but he had won national office. 5% of the regional vote had got him elected as an MEP.

Post-Woolwich polls showed that public attitudes had hardened against the EDL, seen by most people as part of the problem, with no advance in the 1% of people who consider themselves supporters or members of it, and a 7% rise to 84% of those who are certain they never would. An increase in far right online activity, like the worrying surge in hate incidents, suggested that those with the most extreme views are becoming more active, even as they fail to increase their appeal.

If the EDL's political activities had not seemed worthy of a prime-time platform, it is poor judgement to allow a possible arson attack to be a game-changer. If the story is not a growing ideology, but an increase in hate crime, an anti-hate group might have more to offer.

While broadcasters are instinctively resistant to civic or public pressure, recent weeks have seen several different outlets get into a messy tangle of booking, announcing and publicly cancelling interviews, for a range of reasons, with both Anjem Choudary and the EDL.

Well-worn entrenched slogans about the futility of censorship bans or the oxygen of publicity can often fail to engage with the real questions, which are about how and why editorial choices get made. These are undoubtedly best resolved by media organisations, not by government or political pressure.

Perhaps it is time for broadcasters themselves have an interest in getting on the front foot, explaining the genuine dilemmas clearly, and how they seek to resolve them.

Should we think about interviews in reported and investigative packages differently - perhaps doing this more often - and does that mean a higher threshold for studio interviews? Are these "blink" type decisions made by editors trusting their instincts in response to fast-moving news events?

Or will any senior broadcast voices step up and find an appropriate forum to publicly articulate the principles which underpin choices about when to platform the most extreme voices, and when not to do so, and why?

English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson speaks to supporters during a rally outside Downing Street on May 27, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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