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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.